Second of two parts
In July 1950, Earle Cutler of Taber, Alta. was in Nelson visiting his brother, who took him to see the old SS Nasookin. The queen of the Kootenay Lake sternwheelers — launched 100 years ago this week — was lying fallow with a broken back and its owner, the Navy League of Canada, was accepting bids.
Cutler sailed on the Nasookin once, as a newlywed, in 1944. “We travelled by bus and of course it was carried across from Gray Creek to Balfour,” he recalls. “I have a picture of my wife and I sitting on the deck just below the Nasookin sign.”
His $1,100 offer was accepted and he moved to Nelson the following year. “Originally my plan was to refloat and refurbish it,” he says. “But by that time the wood had all been stretched out and twisted. We just decided to scrap it.”
Stripped to the main deck, the machinery was all sold, the lifeboats were sent to Vancouver on a railcar, and the whistle went to Glacier Lumber, later Kootenay Forest Products. However, Cutler thought certain portions could still be salvaged for a summer place.
He sold the hull, pilothouse, ladies’ forward observation deck, and what was left of the freight deck to two North Shore couples, Lloyd and Pat Galbraith and Jim and Dora Carney.
In 1954, the pilothouse was trucked to Three Mile while the tug Glacier towed the rest to the same point, and backed everything onto the beach. The hull was eventually cut up for scrap, but the observation deck was further rolled and winched across the road to its present location.
Future cabinet minister and senator Pat Carney wrote in her autobiography Trade Secrets: “The day I knew my mother had power was the day I watched hydro crews remove the electric lines along the highway so that the salvaged superstructure … could be swung ashore.”
The Galbraiths’ son Ian, who later wrote a history of Kootenay Lake sternwheelers while attending Nelson’s Notre Dame University, recalls traffic was at a standstill for several hours.
“There was a lot of prep work to get it across the road in one piece,” he says. The ship’s curved and coloured glass windows were removed to prevent them from breaking.
At that time there were just a few homes in the area; the Carneys settled on an old orchard with a pre-First World War home called the Blue J.
The Nasookin became part of a Kootenay transportation history tableaux, alongside Streetcar 23 which the Carneys previously acquired from the City of Nelson for $10 and converted into a dog kennel.
With the Galbraiths, they ran a rock and handicraft shop in the Nasookin called Quill ‘n’ Craft that sold local artwork, Doukhobor spoons, and Inuit soapstone carvings, among other things.
But according to Pat Carney, the two families were too busy to staff it, so they had help from another friend and neighbour, Edith Brown. The Carneys eventually sold their share in the ship and property to Brown for what Pat called “a ridiculously low price. ‘But she is such a nice lady,’ explained Mother when I returned, irate, from economics classes at UBC … to learn about the steamboat sale.”
The Galbraiths retained their half stake. Much later they decided to sell too, but Lloyd died before it could happen. In 1980 the Nelson heritage committee asked Pat Galbraith to donate the Nasookin’s remains to the city, but she declined.
“No way,” she told the Daily News. “It cost us a lot of money to get her over here — not to mention blood, sweat, and tears. At that time, no one was interested in her.”
The ship was still on the block when Merv and Mae Coles passed by the following year.
“We were on a Sunday drive and saw it sitting there,” Merv remembers. “My wife said ‘Oh! Let’s go look.’ I wouldn’t have looked twice at it, but she just loved it. So I turned around. We climbed up here because there was a for sale sign on it. But the writing was so faded you couldn’t read it from the road.”
The Coles, who then owned the Silverton Hotel, agreed to buy the Nasookin for $40,000, but before the deal closed, Edith Brown died. Her heirs were given first right of refusal, but none were interested. A few months later, the Coles acquired the ship, which they considered turning into a cottage.
“We’re lucky,” Merv says. “Had we not [bought it], I’ve got an idea it wouldn’t be here anymore.”
AN OLD SHIP’S SALVATION
Coles says soon afterward, he surprised a group of beachgoers using the vacant boat as a changeroom. They were annoyed at the intrusion until he told them he owned the Nasookin, but they could continue to use it so long as they remained respectful.
In 1982, the Coles hired a contractor to raise the boat so they could build a replica deck underneath, closely approximating the original. They did most of the work themselves: the walls and floors were repannelled in cedar and fir, while bedrooms, bathrooms, and a galley kitchen were created.
“It was a massive project for just the two us,” Merv says. “We’d been farmers so we’d done quite a bit of building and had quite a few of the skills, but we weren’t carpenters by any means.”
The following year they moved to Victoria where Merv worked for an agricultural co-op, but they continued to spend their holidays refurbishing the Nasookin until returning permanently in 1992. Even then, there was lots left to do: “The first year we did nothing but work.”
Original items on board include a chamberpot from one of the staterooms, the call bell system, several lifejackets, and inspection and ownership papers. The pilothouse, reached by an outside staircase, has the Nasookin’s massive wheel and signboards from both its CPR and ferry days. The second-floor living space is filled with all sorts of nautical memorabilia and artifacts. A spiral staircase found in a Nanaimo building supply store connects the interiors of the two decks.
In its final resting spot, the Nasookin is a constant curiousity and the subject of countless pictures. The adjacent subdivision, road, and bay all bear its name.
“For 100 years she’s either been on Kootenay Lake or overlooking it,” Merv notes.
“The lake boats were reflective of a very important part of local history,” says Ian Galbraith, now of Calgary although his brother Eric still lives near the Nasookin. “It’s too bad we can’t have something like that back on the lake. It would be such an amazing experience for everyone.”
“Alberta man buys Nasookin,” Nelson Daily News, July 25, 1950
“Nasookin’s hull to be removed,” Nelson Daily News, April 3, 1956
“North Shore landmark on the block,” Nelson Daily News, Kathleen Rodgers, September 9, 1980
Trade Secrets: A Memoir, Pat Carney, 2002, p. 79-80