Welcome back to Our Coloured Past, a journey through British Columbia’s Arrow Lakes region using little-seen colour photos taken between 1940 and 1977. These photos were collected over a number of years by the late archivist Milton Parent and sat in slideshows on an old laptop computer left in a corner behind a bureau in his archives that was rediscovered last week (you can read the full story in Part I here). This week, we’re reprinting these gems here on the website. Even if you have no idea where this remote rural corner of the world is, hopefully the images will be able to transport you to a time and place now passed, beginning with a quiet valley of farmers and loggers eventually provoked out of its sleepy nature by the construction of one of the continent’s largest hydroelectric projects.
Our Coloured Past: Part II – Farewell to the Minto
As introduced in Part I, the SS Minto plied the 230 km-long (120 mi) Arrow Lakes between 1898 and 1954. With no thru-highways along the Arrow Lakes until well into the 1930s (many Arrow Lakes settlements were only accessible by boat, a unique circumstance when you consider that the lakes are located hundreds of kilometres from the nearest ocean), the Minto was the main source of supplies (and of new residents) for the numerous little ports-of-call along the lakes, taking two days to make the journey from Arrowhead in the north to Robson in the south, stopping at numerous tiny communities along its way. Owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, it delivered the mail and the food, played car ferry, and connected freight lines on either side of the lake. A stately symbol of elegance in a rather roughhewn part of the world, the ship even playing host to royalty on their tours through Canada.
As the grand old ship aged, and as the rail lines it connected saw their services cut back in response to the growth of automobile transport in the region, the run began losing money hand over fist. CPR pulled the Minto from service in 1954 after 4 million km (2.5 million mi) of service. On 24 April 1954, the boat made its final run.
Captain Manning mans the wheel of the Minto one last time as its paddlewheel churns the waters of the Arrow Lakes.
All up and down the lake, every wharf and every docked ship bore some sort of farewell message or lament for the great ship on its last journey.
Here, the Minto stops at Arrowhead at the north end of Upper Arrow Lake. The village was the southern terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway spur that ran north to Revelstoke; the Minto serving as the de facto continuation of the rail line. A bustling port at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1954 Arrowhead was already in decline, and with the end of the Minto’s run Arrowhead only continued to fade away. By the time the Hugh Keenleyside Dam was built in 1968 below the Arrow Lakes, the population of the town was barely 100.
Here, a smaller steamer, the Beaton, stops at Arrowhead.
As with the other low-lying towns of the lakes (i.e., every town except Nakusp), Arrowhead was largely dismantled to make way for the 1968 flooding of the Arrow Lakes, which were to become a reservoir for the Hugh Keenleyside Dam (the dam was built in order to provide water level control for the United States portion of the Columbia River further downstream as part of the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and the province of British Columbia). The school, however, was on high-enough ground to survive and was used as a children’s church camp before being destroyed in the mid-1980s. Being built on the slope of a mountain, much of Arrowhead could have survived if the population of the village had sufficed. Despite the forest taking back much of old Arrowhead, plants from people’s gardens 50 years ago still grow in the old townsite, and streets can still be made out in places. The only road connections out of Arrowhead were flooded by the rising lake; reaching the townsite today can only be done by boat.
The most hazardous portion of the 230 km (120 mi) trip between Arrowhead, Nakusp, and Robson was The Narrows, the wide, flat, and sand bar-riddled portion of the Columbia River that joined Upper Arrow and Lower Arrow lakes. The village of Burton, in the middle of The Narrows, was the site of the shallowest portion and required constant dredging. After 1968, that would no longer be an issue. Especially at high water in summer, The Narrows is now more of a symbolic separation of the two lakes rather than a physical one.
Along the southern portion of Lower Arrow Lake was the town of Renata. Cut off from the rest of the communities of the Arrow Lakes to the north due to the steep walls of the lower lake that made it impossible to build roads or trails, Renata was the most isolated of all Arrow Lakes communities. It developed as a Mennonite farming village renowned for its productive orchards, all of which were lost with the 1968 flood. The largest community on the lakes that was not rebuilt, today the portion of Renata that remained above water is occupied by recreational acreages along. Expansive sand flats are exposed at low water marking the site of the old orchards.
Here in this late 1950s photo, the SS Minto sits idle. Sold by the Canadian Pacific Railway to the people of Nakusp for one dollar in 1954, no one in town was able to procure the funding to restore the ship or turn it into a museum (the Minto’s sister ship, the Moyie, sailed nearby Kootenay Lake and has been successfully maintained by the people of Kaslo; today, the Moyie is a waterfront museum and National Historic Site of Canada). Post-1968, the high water line comes up to the top of the red-roofed Beau Vista Motel seen tucked behind the Minto. The house at top above the motel, built in 1897, is still there in its fourth generation of family ownership overlooking the lake. The modern photo at bottom looks back out over the lake from the retaining wall directly beside the house.
Doing nothing in Nakusp, the Minto was to be sold for scrap to a trading company that removed the paddlewheel, the boilers, and all of the brass work. However, a pioneer farmer from Galena Bay (opposite Arrowhead at the north end of the lake) named John Nelson purchased the boat from the scrap company in 1956 for CAN$800 and towed the ship to his property.
Nelson spent the next decade trying to raise awareness about the declining state of the ship in hopes he could restore it properly. Sadly, the boat continued to deteriorate on shore while waiting for a saviour. Nelson died in 1967 and his son couldn’t afford to maintain the boat alone. After 70 years of existence, 56 years of service, and tens upon tens of thousands of passengers, the Minto would be towed to the centre of Upper Arrow Lake and given a Viking funeral in 1968.
The Minto being towed to the middle of the lake for burning.
The burning of the Minto remains one of the saddest days in the history of the Arrow Lakes, and the townspeople of Nakusp still lament its loss. Coming the same year as the loss of the valley floor to the dam was further insult to injury.
Today, the spirit of the Minto lives on in the form of Nakusp’s visitor centre (which Milt Parent designed), built in 1986. While the paddlewheel in front actually comes from the SS Revelstoke, the steam ship whistle on top was one of the few major items salvaged from the Minto, and it still functions today, sounding off every day at noon.
After the end of the sternwheelers, the major source of lake traffic became the tugboats used to pile and tow logs up and down the lake, especially after 1956 when the Celgar pulp mill was built at Castlegar just past the southern end of Lower Arrow Lake. To this day, most logging activity in the region supplies logs for the pulp mill, now owned by Interfor.
In the meantime, there were still celebrations to be had, as seen in these July 1st parade photos taken in downtown Nakusp between 1956 and 1959:
Something tells me the modern Rotary Club wouldn’t try and pull off a float like that one in 2013.
When British Columbia celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1958, the townsfolk decided to honour the province’s heritage with a western theme. The old Broadway Café could almost pass for an Old West saloon were it not for that neon Orange Crush sign (the site of that building is now a community college).
UP NEXT: With the 1960s comes the implementation of the Columbia River Treaty and the construction of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam, and two dozen communities along the Arrow Lakes are either irreparably altered or wiped out by the resulting flooding.
Preface and Part I – The 1940s (30 July)
Part II – Farewell to the Minto (1 August)
Part III – The Columbia River Treaty (2 August)
Part IV – A Scenic Detour Through the Slocan (5 August)
Part V – The 1970s (6 August)
Arrow Lakes Historical Society (2008). From the Bow of the Minto. Gatineau: Virtual Museum of Canada. Available at http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=exhibit_home&fl=0&lg=English&ex=00000686. Accessed 29 July 2013.
Parent, M. (2002). Bugles on Broadway: A History of Nakusp, Part Two. Nakusp, BC: Arrow Lakes Historical Society.
Parent, R. (2008). The Story of the S.S. Minto. Arrow Lakes Historical Society. Available at http://alhs-archives.com/articles/ssminto.html. Accessed 1 August 2013.
Parr, J., et al. (2009). Megaprojects New Media. University of Western Ontario. Available at http://megaprojects.uwo.ca/about.html. Accessed 29 July 2013.
Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History (2007). Balance of Power: Stories of Hydroelectric Development in Southeastern British Columbia. Gatineau: Virtual Museum of Canada. Available at http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/hydro/en/stories/. Accessed 1 August 2013.