Updated: Feb 11
Here’s something that seems completely lost from local memory: from at least 1922 to 1943, a ferry crossed the Slocan River at Slocan Park. Looking into it took me in several surprising directions — including a meteorite landing, a message in a bottle, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The first mention I can find of the ferry is in the BC government public accounts covering April 1921 to March 1922. An expenditure of $606.94 is recorded as being paid to N. Wolverton to run the Slocan River ferry. Following a gap of a few years, the ferry reappears with the government paying the following amounts, although it’s not stated who the sum was paid to, nor for what, nor why the amounts varied so wildly.
(From 1931 to 1934, a Kuskonook ferry and Kuskonook River toll ferry also appear on the books, which piqued my interest, as I have never heard of it. And in 1905, there was a listing for “Ferry – Watson’s, Slocan River,” which would be around Lebahdo. But those will have to await later investigations.)
I have no verified information on what hours or how often it ran. I don’t think a toll was charged, but can’t swear to it. I do have five newspaper references to it, of which this is the first:
Arrow Lakes News, March 29, 1934: A meteor of immense size was seen to fall with a loud splash into the Slocan River here, about 50 yards north of the Slocan Park ferry and footbridge at about 8 p.m. last Monday night. Mr. A.T. Nichols, who was crossing the bridge at the moment saw it fall.
Several interesting things about this: the ferry was close to a footbridge. The Nelson Daily News of Dec. 12, 1938 reported that “The government is putting a foot bridge across the Slocan River for the convenience of those on the west side, near the Slocan Park ferry.”
Another source says Eli Podovinikoff and sons Philip and Peter built a 280-foot footbridge at Slocan Park south of the present co-op — but not until the 1940s. What then are we to make of this earlier bridge? Who built it and when? Was it in the same place as the later one? What happened to it? No idea, but more on the second bridge later.
Second: That meteor may or may not have landed in the river. Here’s a story from the Edmonton Journal of March 24, 1934 that puts the event in a broader context.
As of April 5, the last story I could find, Dr. Campbell had not found the landing spot but was still searching.
Here are the other three newspaper mentions of the ferry, which all reveal something about its reliability:
Nelson Daily News, Aug. 18, 1936: The Slocan Park ferry is once more in the bottom of the river. This time it sank when Messrs. Polonicoff and Donchen were taking over a load of hay. Some excitement reigned till horses and hay were got on shore.
Nelson Daily News, Aug. 27, 1936: The government ferry has been raised from the river bottom and is now in use again.
Nelson Daily News, Oct. 18, 1938: The Slocan Park ferry is being repaired and will soon be ready for operation.
When I started looking it the ferry in 2018, no photos of it were known to exist. Incredibly, four (!) have since turned up. The first two, seen below, were among a batch of photos taken in West Kootenay in the 1930s that belonged to Slocan Valley resident Ron Groom’s grandfather. The second one almost looks like a painting.
Courtesy Ron and Monique Groom
But I was not positive this really was the Slocan Park ferry. The general date and location seemed to fit, but I had nothing else to compare them to. That is, until two more photos showed up that clearly identified the ferry. They were taken by Henry Stevenson of Nelson, ca. 1936, and what is more, the second one shows the neighbouring suspension bridge and a utility line as well, although I am not exactly sure what its purpose was.
Courtesy Gerry Stevenson
The man who operated the ferry back in 1922 was a heck of a character. No one remembers Rev. Dr. Newton Wolverton (1846-1932) today but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call him the father of Slocan Park. He probably named the place; the first mention of it is in an ad for his real estate firm, Wolverton & Co., in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 2, 1907. He also sold property at Columbia Park, just north of Trail, now known as Rivervale.
If a posthumous biography his son wrote about him can be believed, he was the Forrest Gump of his day, given the famous people he encountered.
Wolverton hailed from Ontario, where the town of Wolverton was named after his father Enos. Although of Canadian birth, he and his three brothers were attending school in Cleveland when the US Civil War began and they enlisted with the Union Army. Newton was only 15.
Newton led a delegation to Washington that met Abraham Lincoln to discourage the US from declaring war on England over a dispute about the running of contraband to the Charlston and Savannah harbours.
This is how it was recounted in the biography his son wrote, entitled Dr. Newton Wolverton: An Intimate Anectodal Biography of One of the Most Colorful Characters in Canadian History:
Following his discharge from the army, Wolverton and his father ran into Lincoln again on June 27, 1863 as they sought back pay for two of his brothers killed in the war. They explained the difficulty they were having, and Lincoln marched over with them to the comptroller’s office, where he ordered the money paid.
Lincoln also joked that he might come to Canada if he was driven out by the South. Newton replied: “Certainly, sir, come to Canada by all means, and we will welcome you there.”
Newton maintained that Lincoln spoke in earnest when he replied: “Mr. Wolverton, if that comes to pass, I will come to Canada, and I’ll help you build up a great country there.”
Soon after he left the army, Wolverton worked in the quartermaster’s department and boarded in the same house as John Wilkes Booth. They knew each other, but not well. Wolverton saw him perform and said he was a good actor. He helped in the search for Booth after Lincoln was shot two years later, as it was feared Booth would flee for Canada.
Wolverton, by then a lieutenant in the Canadian Volunteer Forces, was stationed south of Montreal and was telegraphed orders to examine every person crossing the line from Vermont, “with particular attention to women, as Booth was an accomplished female impersonator, and possibly might attempt to pass as a woman.”
Wolverton (seen again at right, much later on in life) carried out his orders, but found no Booth. (Other accounts claimed, inaccurately, that Wolverton was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot. Not so, although many of their mutual friends were present.)
Wolverton also knew Thomas Edison when he worked as a night operator on the Grand Trunk Railway at Stratford, Ont. and was well acquainted with Alexander Graham Bell when he was busy inventing the telephone at Brantford, Ont.
There is much, much more in the book about him, including teaching math at Woodstock College, establishing a meteorological observatory, serving as principal of a college in Texas, and helping to found Brandon College in Manitoba.
But I’ll skip ahead to 1907, when he moved to Nelson, where his son lived, and became heavily involved in land development schemes. Here’s what the book says about that part:
The Kootenay-Slocan Fruit Co. Ltd. was incorporated on Feb. 7, 1908 with Wolverton as president. I have an unused billhead from the company, seen below, which reveals the company’s address as 508 Ward Street and its directors as Wolverton’s son, plus William Waldie (of Waldie Lumber Co. fame), and secretary H.E. Dill. They were “Proprietors of the famous Slocan Park near Nelson.”
Who’s Who in Canada also listed Wolverton as president of four other companies: Wolverton & Co. Ltd., financial brokers, Nelson and Vancouver; Sunset Mills Ltd., Pacific Investment Corp. Ltd., and the Kootenay Limiberal Publishing Co. Ltd.
Dr. Wolverton (the honourary doctorate was in law from McMaster University, received in 1907) presumably ran the Slocan Park ferry to help sell lots on the west side of the Slocan River. Wolverton Creek, officially named in 1955, enters the Slocan River near the west end of the present bridge.
I have no idea who took over the ferry after his death in 1932, if he was in fact still running it. I checked the civic directories, but no one was listed as a ferry operator. (A ferry across the Slocan River at Shoreacres that operated in the late 1880s and early 1890s is actually much better documented.)
For a few years after the ferry disappeared, the only way to cross the river at Slocan Park was via the previously mentioned swinging bridge, built in the 1940s to replace an earlier bridge, probably close to the same site. A wooden highway bridge was built in 1956 but partially washed out in 1968. It was replaced with a bailey bridge, which in turn was replaced in 1984 with the present steel bridge, one of the sections of the former Taghum bridge. (Another section replaced a bailey bridge at Passmore. A third bridge, at Appledale, was removed at the same time but not replaced. It spanned Nixon Road and Appledale West Road.)
Above and below: The Nesteroff family visits the swinging bridge, ca. 1984. We were too scared to cross it.
Sue Watson Adair, who has lived just north of the current Slocan Park bridge for over 40 years, said when she moved there, “you could still see cables and wooden posts probably for the ferry. There were also some materials closer to the current bridge that were probably for the footbridge.”
I asked the late Ray Kosiancic about the ferry. He didn’t remember it, but had fond memories of the swinging bridge. “I really liked it because I’d ride my bike up there and cross it, which was an experience because it dipped way down,” he said. “And then I’d pedal like crazy up the other side.”
Kosiancic also recalled when a cow wandered away from him, and he found it near the swinging bridge. “I thought, if I can talk the cow into going on the walking bridge, it will save me several miles. I got it started and away we went. You can imagine the bridge swaying back and forth. It was scary, but it saved me a lot of time.”
Between May and September 1975, a crew of five restored the swinging bridge thanks to an Opportunities for Youth grant. (The money went to the Podovinikoff Road Improvement Society — but today there is no Podovinikoff Road.) Mary-Lynn Burke was project co-ordinator and Edward Opal, a civil engineer, was foreman. While some doubted the wisdom of the project, as proof of the bridge’s strength, a small herd of cattle crossed it before it was completed.
A story in the Castlegar News at the time revealed some interesting details about the bridge’s origins. It said work began in 1947 and continued in 1949 and 1950.
The land on the west side of the Slocan River was settled by the Doukhobors in about 1937 and was set up for logging. They started by hauling out cords of hand-cut wood over the river by barge and down to the Trail smelter, receiving approximately $2.50 per cord.
Aha! Is the barge our ferry? The story continued: the barge was at the far north end of the road, so the Podovinikoffs built the walking bridge, which was originally wide enough for a car to pass over. (Kosiancic recalled the Podovinikoffs managed to get a Model T Ford across it.)
The Podovinikoffs built the bridge during good weather using only a row boat, stump puller, and some horses. It originally had five cables on the bottom, with cedar cross beams and planking that came from their sawmill on the east side of the river. The cables were wrapped in gunny sacks and well tarred where they were buried. A team of horses buried 150-year-old cedar logs at either end. During a couple of windstorms, the bridge flipped over. Afterward, two more cables were added to the top sides and secured over 20-foot towers on both ends.
The same story quoted above makes a tantalizing reference to our mystery ferry, without explaining whether it was the barge previously alluded to:
The original bridge was very well designed and built, as is borne out by the fact that a variety of accesses have come and gone during its lifetime; for example: A ferry, a highways department cable bridge, and a car bridge (wooden type) that was partially washed away in the 1968 high water.
During that 1968 flood, two emergencies necessitated evacuation over the swinging bridge: a boy with a broken leg and a woman having a baby (I don’t know who she was).
Clipping from the Castlegar News, Sept. 5, 1975
Touchstones Nelson has digitized two great photos of the bridge, date unknown. The first one shows the bridge and the utility line next to it. The other shows the approach to the bridge, but I am not sure from which side.
Although the government initially donated the cables for the bridge and the community built it, nobody legally owned it. According to a story in the Valley Voice of June 17, 1994, both sides were on private property. In 1950, Phillip Podovinikoff paid $200 for the land on the east end of the bridge, but never had the parcel surveyed prior to registering the transfer. However, successive owners on both sides allowed public access.
The bridge in its declining years. (Courtesy Alex Berland)
While ownership was apparently not an issue during restoration work in the 1970s, it flummoxed the Ministry of Transportation in the 1990s, when the bridge again needed repairs. Without anyone able or willing to accept liability for the structure, grant money was unobtainable. In 1997, the bridge was damaged during freshet, and the ministry declared it a threat to pedestrians crossing it and boaters and tubers going under it. The bridge was removed.
I came across another curious thing: Google Maps calls the present Slocan Park bridge the Wishlow Bridge. The Wishlow family have certainly been longtime residents of Slocan Park, but I’ve never heard it referred to that way before.
Lastly, this doesn’t have anything to do with the ferry or the bridge, but it is a charming Slocan Park-related story I came across while looking for information on the ferry. It appeared in the Nanaimo Daily News on Feb. 9, 1955:
I presume Nancy Samanoff should read Samsonoff.
Updated on Nov. 13, 2018 with additional details about the Slocan Park swinging bridge, Ray Kosiancic’s comments, and the 1975 Castlegar News clipping. Updated on Nov. 20, 2018 with family photos of the bridge. Updated on Dec. 2, 2018 with note about the sunken ferry being raised. Updated on March 17, 2019 with the images provided by Monique and Ron Groom. Updated on June 8, 2021 with the Henry Stevenson images. Updated on July 3, 2022 to add a few more newspaper references to the ferry. Updated on Feb. 8, 2023 to add the last bridge photo.