Restoring a Legendary Passenger Ship

The Village of Kaslo’s Historic (Water)mark

4 minute read

The Village of Kaslo’s Historic (Water)mark

If you close your eyes in the Village of Kaslo, you can imagine a time when transport by water was the only means available. From the Sinixt and yaqan nuʔkiy plying the waters in the unique sturgeon-nosed canoe to settlers later bustling to and fro in small boats, Kootenay Lake has long been well-travelled. In the late 1890s, a steam-powered sternwheeler dominated the waterway: the impressive passenger ship, the SS Moyie.

Over 120 years later, its influence lives on as an historic landmark, tourist attraction and teaching opportunity; but with the vessel showing some significant wear and tear, something needed to be done to preserve it.

“It’s an important symbol in Kaslo,” says Elizabeth Scarlett, secretary of the Kootenay Lake Historical Society. “It’s on the village’s coat of arms, it’s on the village flag, and it’s definitely an icon in this community.”

Historical Society Captains Nautical Restoration

With a global pandemic affecting tourism, it seemed an ideal time to restore the SS Moyie, and the Historical Society began planning and fundraising to support the multi-stage project. Scarlett, who has worked with the Columbia Basin Trust many times over the years, is enthusiastic about the financial support available to local communities like Kaslo.

“The Trust has been a big help to us over the years, providing us with various grants for historical rehabilitation projects,” she says. “We always really appreciate that support. The SS Moyie is a National Historic Site, so it’s not only special to the community, but also an important part of Canadian history.”

When the restoration began last year, a local Red Seal carpenter and helpers were hired to manage the first phase of the rehabilitation work. Stabilizing the sagging roof of the men’s saloon required carefully milling and installing new, historically accurate support beams. Kit Ashenhurst, a Kootenay Lake Historical Society board member with engineering experience, analyzed and directed the work.

“The next stage is to remove and replace the weatherproof envelope,” says Ashenhurst. “That involves recanvassing of the decking and roofing of the entire ship.”

Moyie Restoration includes Mentoring Youth in Trades

This year, youth and students from ages 16 to 30 interested in trades will be hired and mentored under the supervision of two Red Seal carpenters. To encourage Kaslo high school students from JV Humphries School to participate, Ashenhurst will attend a job fair to educate them on the historical aspects and promote the summer work opportunities. The Moyie restoration offers a perfect introduction to restoration techniques, carpentry construction, and commercial painting.

Work will include removing the existing canvas, cutting and preshrinking the new canvas, repairing rotten wood, laying a membrane, authentically placing the canvas, and waterproofing. Finally, new toe-kicks and handrails will be installed.

The ship’s canvas structure is reminiscent of what was typical for the Canadian Pacific Railway at the time, which used treated canvas to waterproof train passenger cars and allow flexibility when in motion. However, the Moyie’s cotton canvas is susceptible to rotting, so it will receive three coats of paint. The weather envelope was last completely replaced almost 33 years ago.

“There are limitations when it comes to historical restoration,” explains Ashenhurst. “For instance, canvas used to be treated with white lead diluted with linseed oil. That’s what waterproofed the roof, but white lead is toxic, so it can no longer be used.”

A Tourist Draw for Generations 

Built in the town of Nelson, the SS Moyie was launched by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1898, in part to supplement a rail line connecting Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass to a terminus at the south end of Kootenay Lake. Known colloquially as ‘the crow boat,’ the Moyie transported passengers from the rail terminus to Nelson, stopping at multiple communities along the way. The sturdy steam-powered ship was also key in business, transporting workers and freight of all kinds. Boasting 59 years of service, the Moyie is the oldest fully intact passenger and freight vessel in the world. It’s easy to see why the ship has become a well-loved symbol and historic treasure in Kaslo.

As a central feature of Kaslo’s tourist centre, the SS Moyie attracts visitors that also stop by the restaurants, cafes and stores in town. Many local businesses are looking forward to a bustling season in the year ahead.

“It’s a nice, small village of about a thousand people in the community itself,” says Scarlett. “But it draws people from all over BC, across Canada and internationally. We get people visiting from all over the place.”

She adds that preserving history is important to the community, and the Historical Society is grateful for the means to restore the Moyie to its original glory for future generations to enjoy.

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