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Births, marriages, and deaths aboard sternwheelers

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

I’ve previously written about the birth of Florence Columbia Holliday aboard the SS Columbia in 1892. She wasn’t the only person born on a steamship in the Kootenay.


George E. Shaw was mine accountant and personnel manager at the Bluebell mine in the 1920s. He was responsible for the payroll and the company store. In 1914, he married Margaret Alice Webb. According to Terry Turner’s Bluebell Memories, p. 72, “Shaw lived in Riondel north of the Beeley house between 1921 and 1929 … His daughter Ann was born on the Kuskanook on Jan. 6, 1927 …”


The Kaslo Kootenaian of Jan. 6 reported: “Born – On Tuesday night, on the CPR steamer, between Riondel and Kaslo, to Capt. and Mrs. Shaw of Riondel, a daughter.” This would make the birthdate Jan. 4, not Jan. 6. The former date also squares with other genealogical information found online.

A birth occurred aboard the SS Kuskanook in 1927. (Greg Nesteroff collection)


Purser William Triggs, who was on board the ship, wrote about it in a letter quoted in Ted Affleck’s Sternwheelers, Sandbars, and Switchbacks, p. 141:

Expectant mothers and calls for first aid helped to make life on board the steamer hectic … [T]here was the expectant mother who left it really late to set out for the hospital. Running late on the Kaslo run, we called at Riondel about 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and there she was on a stretcher all set for the maternity ward in the Kaslo hospital. Fortunately there was a young intern, Dr. Cockle, on board who delivered the baby before we arrived at Kaslo, but if I hadn’t been able to locate him, this task might well have become another of the many non-routine tasks which fell to the purser’s lot.

It wasn’t Christmas Eve — not quite a nativity story — but the other details check out. Affleck also summarized Triggs’ letter in Kootenay Pathfinders, p. 195, while Tony Shaw noted in his memoir The Upside of Trouble:

The skill of the sternwheeler crews was legendary. They coped with the routine transport needs of the area and with every emergency which arose, whatever the weather. Riondel had no doctor, and my sister Ann was born aboard the SS Kuskanook whilst my mother was on her way to hospital in Kaslo. The Captain expressed the, perhaps forlorn, hope that she would be named after the vessel.

It didn’t work; her full name was Ann Margaret Shaw. In 1930, the family moved to the UK, hoping to escape the Depression. Ann went to the Royal Naval School at Twickenham and later at Haslemere. She married Paul Folkes (1915-95) at Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1951 and they had four children. She became a registered nurse, graduating from Addenbrooke’s Hospital at Cambridge in 1964.


In 1984, Ann donated some pictures of Riondel and of the Prince of Wales’ 1919 visit to Balfour to the Nelson museum. She gave her address as the time as Abbotts Ann, a village southwest of Andover, Hampshire, England. She died in October 1997 at Salisbury, Wiltshire, age 70.

A summary of an interview with Ethel Lake (nee Rowe) held by the BC Archives says “Her sister’s baby was born on the sternwheeler between Johnsons Landing and the hospital in Kaslo.” However, I listened to the tape and could find nothing to support this statement. (Ethel had eight sisters, and was jointly interviewed with one of them, Gladys.)

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The BC Archives index does not list any births on Slocan Lake or on the Arrow Lakes through 1903 (the most recent year publicly available). It does list two births on Kootenay Lake: Annie May Harman on July 14, 1890 and Dorothy (or Dorothea) Elizabeth Riddell on Dec. 23, 1902. Annie was actually born at Ainsworth and Dorothy at Pilot Bay — neither, it seems, aboard sternwheelers.

In the same letter quoted above, William Triggs recalled another close call: “The Nelson-bound Nasookin picked up a frantic couple at Kokanee Landing, but this time a hurried taxi ride from the Nelson city wharf to the Kootenay Lake General Hospital enabled the baby to be delivered in more orthodox hospital surroundings.”

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While I suspect there were more, I am only aware of one death directly on a local sternwheeler — although others resulted from people falling overboard, ships capsizing (nine dead off the SS City of Ainsworth, November 1898), or being scalded to death when a steam pipe burst (three young crew members’ lives lost, SS Kuskanook, July 1925).


Quong Lee, or Chong Lee, a laundryman from Midway, died suddenly aboard the SS Minto on Upper Arrow Lake at Rock Island on Jan. 15, 1914. He was 52.


Lee appeared ill when he got on the northbound steamer at West Robson. He occupied one of the cabins. At 7 a.m. he asked for a cup of coffee and, according to the Nelson Daily News, “it was seen he was in a precarious condition. Everything possible was done, but at 8:30 he expired.”


When the boat docked at Nakusp, authorities were contacted and Lee’s body was taken to an undertaking parlor. Identification papers were found on him, but I’m not sure what happened to his remains.

Sternwheelers also provided the venue for at least four weddings.


The BC Archives vital events index lists no marriages on Kootenay Lake, but the Nelson Golden Jubilee Souvenir Programme of 1947, p. 21 stated: “One couple was married on the steamer to Kaslo.”

The SS Nelson was the venue for a wedding in 1894. (Greg Nesteroff collection)


It took me a long time to figure out who this was, although it was reported in the newspapers at the time and also mentioned in Mollie Cottingham’s 1947 thesis on West Kootenay history.


Dr. Pleasant Oakley Hackleman of Kaslo wed Margaret Elizabeth Fitzgerald aboard the SS Nelson on Nov. 3, 1894. Vital events records the wedding as having occurred at Kaslo. The groom was about 43 and his bride 29 and appear to have met in Rushville, Indiana, where Dr. Hackleman was born.


A week after the ceremony the Nelson Tribune reported the bride arrived in Nelson from Chicago on the train that evening and the groom secured a marriage license and met her there. However, the ceremony may have been impromptu, for according to the Tribune, the Rev. H.S. Akehurst “happened to be on board, and it was an easy matter to join two loving hearts together.”


Three local mining noteworthies made up the wedding party: John A. Finch assisted the minister while Randall H. Kemp was best man and Sam Wharton “bestowed on the young couple a paternal blessing.”


The boat’s crew and a few other passengers rounded out the witnesses. The ceremony took place in the ladies cabin just as the ship reached Kaslo.


The Hacklemans had five children, including daughter Harriet, who was born in Rossland in 1898, although her siblings all appear to have been born in Spokane between 1896 and 1902.


The couple was married for 35 years, until Dr. Hackleman’s death at San Francisco in 1929, age 78. Margaret died in 1944, age 78 or 79. Their youngest daughter lived until 1980.


There was at least one wedding aboard the now-beached SS Moyie in Kaslo, in 1987, and I suspect several others as well.

The vital events index lists seven weddings on the Arrow Lakes, but none appear to have been aboard ships. We do know, however, that on March 21, 1900, Ethel Labrina Short and John Carlton Lucas were wed aboard the SS Kootenay as it lay in port at Arrowhead on Upper Arrow Lake. The Revelstoke Kootenay Mail of March 23 carried the wedding notice:

They had five children and were married for 36 years, until John’s death in 1936 in Oregon, age 60. Ethel died in Los Angeles in 1959, age 83.

Ethel Short’s family moved to Trail in 1896. This photo appeared in the January 1948 edition of Cominco Magazine with the caption: “Capt. and Mrs. Short pose on the porch of their new log home built on the hill beside the first schoolhouse. Miss Ethel Short sits on the left below her treasured canary.”

While the vital events index lists no marriages on Slocan Lake, there were at least two. The first was reported in the Nelson Daily News of Sept. 16, 1916:

Miss Margaret A.M. Mackenzie of Glen Andrew, Ont. and Roderick E. Macmillan of Slocan City were married on the steamer Slocan between Rosebery and New Denver Tuesday afternoon by Rev. Hugh A. Bain of New Denver.

Here is a longer account from an unidentified newspaper in the O’Neail family scrapbook held by the Slocan Valley Historical Society.

The wedding was registered at New Denver. The couple doesn’t appear to have had any children. They were married for 47 years until Maggie’s death in 1963. Roderick died in Trail in 1972, age 90.

Two marriages occurred on the SS Slocan, in 1916 and 1923. (Greg Nesteroff collection)


On Feb. 21, 1923, William Henry Graham Jr. married Janet McIntosh Grant, also aboard the SS Slocan. The wedding was registered at New Denver. Two days later, the Nelson Daily News reported:

A very unusual event took place on the steamer Slocan as it left the Denver wharf this morning for Rosebery. Rev. H.W. Stevenson of New Denver united in wedlock William Henry Graham and Miss Janet McIntosh Grant, both residents of Slocan City. The bride was gowned in pale pink satin, while her attendant, Mrs. Baggs, a sister, wore navy silk. The groom was attended by Capt. Kirby, while the bride was given away by her father, Stephen Grant, who is fireman on the boat. The groom is also an employee of the boat, and the ceremony on the moving steamer was celebrated in a royal manner. The waiters served all the guests with wedding cake and grape juice, and the young couple took the train at Rosebery for a wedding trip to Vancouver and other coast points, pursued to the last by rice and confetti. A feature of the occasion was that the wedding day was the bride’s 18th birthday.

(However, things were not so happy for William’s parents, for according to the Daily News of April 28, 1923, his mother sought a divorce and alimony from his father on the grounds of desertion and misconduct. Since 1919, he had been living with another woman in South Vancouver.)


William Jr. and Janet Graham moved to Parksville, where their son Richard Gordon Graham was born. They also had one other child and were married for 25 years until William’s death of leukemia in Nanaimo in 1948, four days short of his 50th birthday. At the time he was a CPR station agent.


Janet long outlived him: she died in Nanaimo on March 15, 2007, age 102. (That was 16 months after the death of her son, age 82.) Imagine that: until 11 years ago, there was someone alive who was married on the SS Slocan!


Updated on May 31, 2019 with details about the death of Chong Lee. Updated on April 22, 2022 with details about the 1894 wedding on the SS Nelson.

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