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The remarkable steam launches of Captain Troup

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

By Michael A. Cone


When Captain James W. Troup arrived in Nelson in March 1892, his reputation preceded him. He was well-known on the Columbia River as a young, daring, white-water pilot who had taken several sternwheelers over some of the most dangerous falls and turbulent rapids on the river at speeds faster than those of locomotives.

He was also widely regarded as a talented and practical steamboat designer, having designed the famous T.J. Potter, long hailed the finest and fastest sidewheeler to ever grace the Lower Columbia and Puget Sound.

Now, at the age of 37, he was the new manager of the Columbia & Kootenay Steam Navigation Co. (C&KSN), a company operating sternwheelers on the Columbia River between Revelstoke and Little Dalles, Washington, and on Kootenay Lake between Nelson, Kaslo, and Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho.

James W. Troup, date unknown

The task ahead of Troup would be daunting; tent and clapboard mining camps were springing up overnight as news of rich discoveries circulated widely and spurred by this boom, rival railways were pushing their way through mountain valleys, leaving the C&KSN struggling to keep pace with the demands for more tonnage and passenger accommodations.

Talented, creative and practical, Troup would design sternwheelers for the fleet that were not only pleasing to the eye with their nice proportions and decorative fretwork but also well-suited for their intended routes. He was also responsible for introducing a high standard of dining service on his boats that was second to none.

Some of the sternwheelers built under his supervision included the Nakusp, Kootenay, and Rossland on the Arrow Lakes, the Slocan on Slocan Lake, and the Kokanee and Moyie on Kootenay Lake. His talents did not go unnoticed by the CPR, and in 1897, when the company purchased the C&KSN, it prudently retained Troup as manager.

In these busy times, Troup occasionally chartered boats or accompanied friends for summer picnic outings on Kootenay Lake. However, in 1899, he decided to purchase his own launch. Ordered from the Wallace shipyard in Vancouver, the 32-foot Idler was an attractive fantail launch with graceful lines, smooth carvel-planking, and equipped with a powerful compound engine supplied by the Polson Iron Works of Toronto. Larger than most launches on the lake, her open cockpit provided seating for 24 guests and was covered by a hard canopy with striped fabric fringing, scalloped on the edges.

The Idler arrived on a flatcar in April and made her trial runs a month later. Not surprisingly, as commodore of the CPR fleet, whatever boat Troup owned was sure to be subject to scrutiny and waterfront gossip. Even before the Idler was launched, there were rumours of a race between her and the British-built Flirt. According to the Nelson Daily Miner, “considerable interest is felt among boating men over the result.” But, despite the hype, there was never a race.

Captain Troup standing on the foredeck of the Idler, 1898. (Courtesy of the Nelson Museum, Archives & Gallery)

One of the highlights of Nelson’s Dominion Day celebrations in 1899 was an evening Water Carnival, which saw boats of all shapes and sizes, meticulously decorated with strings and garlands of dazzling lights and Chinese lanterns, gliding to the melodic strains of the Smelter Band. The Idler won first prize as the most “beautifully illuminated and decorated” launch in the cavalcade of watercraft that paraded past the judges. On board, crowded with friends, “Capt. and Mrs. Troup (Julia) were the life and soul of the fete.”

But Troup didn’t keep the Idler long, deciding to sell her in the spring of 1900. Her new owner had her shipped to the Arrow Lakes; however, before long, she would return. A few years later, in 1905, when the Idler was for sale, the brokers selling her capitalized on her provenance by noting that she was “formerly owned by Captain Troup.”

After selling the Idler, Troup purchased a larger and more elaborate launch, the Kootenay. The CPR had close business ties with the eastern-based Polson Iron Works. In fact, one of the three steel and wood composite-hulled riverboats ordered by the CPR in 1898 for the Klondike gold rush came from the Polson shipyard and was assembled in Vancouver under Troup’s supervision. The other two hulls, which came from a different yard in Toronto, were eventually assembled in Nelson and Nakusp as the Moyie and Minto, respectively.

Like the riverboats, the Kootenay also had a composite hull, constructed of steel frames and braces, with wood planking on the sides, planed smooth in a carvel fashion. Prefabricated at the Polson yard, she was 43.6 feet long with a beam of eight feet. One unique feature in her design was that every third or fourth steel frame extended above the deck to support the canopy, adding rigidity while minimizing weight. When the new launch’s steel components arrived in October 1900 on three flatcars, The Tribune boldly predicted that in “size and strength, the craft will excel anything ever attempted in the launch line in the interior of the province.”

In charge of assembling the Kootenay was well-known Nelson shipbuilder George Hale, who had earlier built the Idler’s boathouse. The new launch’s powerful engine was a triple expansion type, more commonly found in merchant ships than small launches. Construction of the Kootenay proceeded slowly because she wasn’t to be launched until the spring of 1901.

One facet of the Kootenay’s story is shrouded in mystery. While Troup was unquestionably her owner, his name never appeared on her registry. The Polson Iron Works’ records show the original owner as George G. Busby. The Nauticapedia website gives a different spelling of the owner’s name, saying it was George C. Bushby.

In all likelihood, Troup got wind of the launch being for sale while she was under construction, purchased her, and the paperwork was simply never changed. While this seems plausible, it still doesn’t explain why his name wasn’t added later. Another explanation might be that Troup was an American and not a British subject, so ownership by a foreigner could have been an issue.

While the Kootenay was taking shape in Hale’s boatyard, located at the foot of Poplar Street in Nelson, Captain Troup’s career took an abrupt change in course. In February 1901, the CPR acquired controlling interest in the Canadian Pacific Navigation Co. (CPN), a major west coast shipping firm. Troup was appointed manager, and he left immediately for Vancouver. The Kootenay would never turn her propeller in Kootenay Lake. When completed, she was placed on a flatcar bound for Vancouver.

A few months prior to his departure for the coast, the CPR finished building its rail line between Procter and Five-Mile Point. Five-Mile Point, located east of Nelson and outside the CPR reserve, was the terminus and steamer landing for the rival Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway, which descended the steep grade from Mountain Station above Nelson. The CPR renamed the point where the two tracks merged Troup Junction, in honour of the former commodore of the fleet.

When the Kootenay arrived in May 1901, the Vancouver Daily Province pronounced her a real “foam tosser” and the “trimmest of the many small pleasure craft in these waters.” The following year, in 1902, Troup sailed her to Victoria, where the head office of the CPN was being relocated and where he and Julia intended to reside.

Then, in the spring of 1903, Troup was approached by the city’s Tourist Association to operate his yacht as a tour boat on “The Gorge” waterway, a picturesque narrow tidal inlet that connected Victoria harbour to Portage Inlet. The Kootenay started on the run in June, and the service was an immediate success. She continued making excursions until the end of the season; however, before the following season began, Troup had sold her. She would change hands a few times over the next five years, with the owners including a Seattle lumber operator in Bella Coola, and Edgar Dewdney, the former lieutenant-governor.

The Kootenay backing away from a landing on “The Gorge” waterway, 1903. (Michael Cone collection)

In April 1909, while she was en route to False Creek and anchored in Vancouver’s English Bay for the night, a violent storm blew her toward shore, dragging her anchor. She was hurtled against some rocks and sank, a total loss.

For 27 years, Captain Troup managed the CPR’s Coastal Service. His foresight, shrewdness, determination, and loyalty would make him one of the most prominent marine figures on the Pacific Coast. Starting with an aging group of vessels inherited from the CPN, he oversaw building a modern fleet of fast and luxurious liners serving the major ports along the BC coastline. The Princess fleet he was instrumental in creating had no peer in the world when the elderly captain stepped aside to enjoy his well-earned retirement in 1928.

That fall, he purchased a trim, wooden-hulled, propeller yacht that he and Julia appropriately renamed Cruiser, signalling her intended purpose. Formerly the Thomas Crosby, the 83.4 -foot steamer was built in 1912 and had been a Methodist Church mission boat before being acquired by the Federal Ministry of Marine & Fisheries for patrol duty and renamed Marfish.

Troup was content to leave her steam-powered rather than installing a modern gasoline engine, but in the captain’s true fashion, he extensively modified the Cruiser’s main cabin to include a sitting area, a dining room, and a master stateroom. Dubbed the Troup Princess, she was a familiar sight at her berth alongside the CPR wharf in Victoria’s inner harbour or steaming outbound with the captain, Julia and family members, or a party of friends, destined for trips around the Gulf Islands or Saanich Arm.

Crews for the Cruiser were mustered from the ranks of retired captains and engineers from the Coastal Service, all of whom were more than happy to spend a few days at sea with their former boss. Years later, Troup’s grandson, Roy Troup Jr., fondly remembered his outings as a youngster, recalling how his grandfather was always impeccably dressed in formal attire — white cap, navy blue blazer and waistcoat, and bow tie — even on the hottest summer days.

Captain Troup’s Cruiser alongside the CPR’s inner harbour wharf, 1931. (Courtesy of the City of Victoria Archives)

The Cruiser found employment at formal functions as well. For instance, in 1930, she served as the official boat carrying judges and newspaper correspondents to the Pacific International Yacht Regatta on behalf of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, of which the elderly captain was a stalwart member and, on this occasion, a judge.

Another time, he treated a group of youngsters from the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children to a day’s outing on the Cruiser to Tod Inlet. While summer jaunts aboard the Cruiser were memorable distractions, they didn’t last long. Sadly, Captain J.W. Troup died in the fall of 1931. He was 76.

On Kootenay Lake, the sandy beaches and sandspit at Troup Junction have long been and remain a favourite destination for boaters and, more recently, hikers and cyclists using the Salmo-Troup Rail Trail (the Great Northern Rail Trail). This tribute to Captain Troup has become part of his lasting legacy.

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Great history! As a boy the walk along the tracks to Troup to fish 5 Mile Creek and use the beaches was very special. It means a lot to know the spot was named after such a well deserving legend.


Bob Herring
Bob Herring
Mar 30, 2023

An amazing piece of history. What a series of accomplishments. Thanks for the read.

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