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When Slocan Lake freezes over

Updated: Feb 3

Slocan Lake never freezes, it is said. And while it’s true that it rarely happens, there have been several notable exceptions. I came across a map on the door of the Valhalla Pure Beach Shop in New Denver (pictured below), produced in 2016 and bearing the following statement: “Slocan Lake … only froze over 3 times in history! In 1970, 1950 and 1928.”

That struck me as unlikely. Well, perhaps it froze in those three years, but others as well. Or maybe ice formed in some years but it didn’t freeze from end to end. So I couldn’t help looking into it.


Below I’ve enumerated each year ice reportedly appeared and the level of certainly with which I can say it actually did. Curiously, this is easier to do for earlier years than the more recent ones — a function of the fact that many 1890s and early 1900s newspapers have now been digitized, but not many from the mid-to-late 20th century. Ice was a big headache for sternwheelers, and the CPR’s response to it made the news.


The sources don’t always reveal how much of the lake froze, but for my purposes, it didn’t matter. It was an infrequent enough occurrence that any mention of ice appearing was enough to merit inclusion.


1894

Did the lake freeze? Unlikely.


The evidence: In 1907, the Revelstoke Mail Herald reported Slocan Lake “has frozen over, for the first time in 13 years.” Yet I could find no account from 1894 to corroborate this and later references cited below cast doubt upon it. Probably just a mistake.


1898

Did the lake freeze? No.


The evidence: The Vancouver Daily World claimed “the ice on Slocan Lake [is] in a dangerous condition, as it is full of air holes. A miner had a narrow escape from drowning.” But the Nelson Tribune of Feb. 19 pooh-poohed this: “Ice on Slocan lake has been an unknown quantity since history began.” To the Tribune, history probably began in the winter of 1891-92, following the start of the Silvery Slocan mining rush.


1899

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: The Ledge of Jan. 12, 1899 reported on the the most severe cold snap in six years, although it concluded “There is no ice on Slocan lake.” But by Feb. 9: “Ice on Slocan lake is unusual, but there is tons of it floating about this winter.” And on March 28, the Tribune reported:

Ice on Upper End of Slocan Lake
William Hill, who is interested in a sawmill at the upper end of Slocan lake, is in Nelson. He reports the ice so thick on the upper end of the lake that his firm will have to saw a channel through it, in order to get out their tug and barge. This firm has been on the lake since 1892, and this is the first time ice has in any way interfered with their operations.

1901-02

Did the lake freeze? Undetermined.


The evidence: We have several cryptic references. The Sandon Paystreak of Dec. 21, 1901 wrote: “There is only one crop garnered in this region which depends on climatic conditions — the ice crop. Slocan never had a crop failure.” Which means what exactly? On Jan. 2, 1902, The Ledge noted:

Saturday evening the first skating party of the season went to Silverton and enjoyed an hour on the ice … While skating on the ice below Slocan City some days ago, Mrs. H.P. Christie had her right leg broken … Jack Lind was thrown from a horse on the ice several days ago and sustained two fractures of the knee-cap. He is now in the hospital in Calgary.

The first two items don’t indicate whether the skating took place on the lake. The third item seems more likely than not to have occurred on the lake, but it is not explicitly stated.


1907

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: The Revelstoke Mail Herald of Feb. 6 noted the CPR was calling in ice breakers on the Arrow Lakes, and “To add further to the company’s trials and tribulations, a portion of Slocan lake has frozen over …” The next day the Slocan Mining Review added: “It is conceded by all old-timers that the present winter is the severest yet experienced in the history of the Slocan … From Slocan City there is eight miles of ice, an hitherto unknown thing by the oldest longshoremen.”


1916

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: According to The Ledge of Feb. 10: “The oldest inhabitant has never seen as much ice on Slocan lake, as there is this winter.” And on March 2: “This winter there was eight inches of ice on Slocan Lake.” The Vancouver Daily World on March 7 added:

With their waterways fast bound in the the thrall of such an ice blockade as has never before been experienced in the interior of British Columbia, the Slocan and Nelson districts have encountered a winter which finds no precedent in the annals of old timers.
Steamer and barge crews [on the Arrow Lakes] have toiled for five and six days on end without taking their coats off. It is only by these heroic efforts that it has been possible for the company to keep open a narrow strip 20 miles long, crossing Slocan Lake like a dark blue ribbon, with the broad white expanses of the ice field extending to the snow-covered shore on either side … This narrow channel is only the width of a barge, which is fitted with an ice-breaker and is pushed by a steamer from one end of the lake to the other.

1928

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: The Valhalla Pure map claimed this year was one of three instances where the lake froze. I also found a photo here giving that year, and it’s on a timeline that appears on the Village of Slocan’s website. At first I thought they were all simply off by a year and should have said 1929 (see below) but then I found this item in the Slocan Enterprise of Feb. 22, 1928:

Owing to the cold nights and the calm weather ice has formed in large bodies on Slocan Lake and in some places is an inch thick. Monday morning the ice field extended from Ten Mile to the head of the lake with clear water showing near the creek mouths only.

I don’t know what year this photo, showing the New Denver wharf, was taken, but it was probably the late 1920s, so I’m placing it here.

Silvery Slocan Historical Society 2001.065.004


1929

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: This is the best-documented freezeover. It received extensive newspaper coverage.


According to a this-day-in-history item in the Arrow Lakes News of Feb. 15, 1989: “Men from the logging camps on the west side of the lake ran short of supplies and food for their horses. As soon as the ice was thick enough, they came across to New Denver pulling their row boat on the ice and each carrying a long pole in case the ice broke through.”


Postcards were produced of this trek, dated February 1929, including the one seen below. (An alternative but probably incorrect caption, printed in Old Silverton, p. 237 suggested they were “hauling feed for Sandy McKay’s horses over at Wee Sandy Creek (Mill Creek).”

“Crossing Slocan Lake on the ice, Feb. 1929.” This photo is hanging in Slocan Community Hospital, credited to Hope George, with the caption: “Slocan Lake frozen over the winter of 1928-29. This picture was taken just out from the CPR wharf at New Denver. This is a group of loggers taking supplies to their camp near Glacier Creek. They were getting short of supplies for their camp and feed for the horses, so they waited until the ice was thick enough, then put runners under their rowboat and each man carried a long pole in case one of them fell through the ice. Note that on the way back they are spaced out so there isn’t too much weight in one spot.” Postcard from Greg Nesteroff collection

Silvery Slocan Historical Society 2001.069.082

This photo appeared in the Arrow Lakes News of Feb. 22, 1989, credited to Hope George, with the caption: “When winters were cold. The above picture was taken in the winter of 1928-29 near the CPR wharf at New Denver. The files above indicate the winter was extremely cold and the Slocan Lake froze over for the first time in many, many years. Left to right, Harold McPherson, Bill Gomm, Oscar Thompson, Norman Thomlinson and Rev. Herdman standing on the water.”

Silvery Slocan Historical Society 2001.069.009


The Slocan Enterprise of Feb. 13, 1929 reported:

For the first time since 1916 skaters made a trip to Evans Creek and return on the lake. E. Palmquist, D. Hird, John Greenwood, Pete Strand and F.M. Hufty made the return trip in less than an hour last Wednesday.

Henning von Krogh quoted several accounts from the Arrow Lakes News in his recent book, The Boats of Slocan Lake.

Feb. 15: The extreme cold spell the last two months finally conquered Slocan Lake and it is now frozen over solidly from Slocan City to Bannock Point a few miles of Silverton. The Str. Rosebery has experienced considerable difficulty in maintaining its passenger and freight schedule during the past week and has been several hours late each trip. This is the first time in 13 years the lake has frozen over and local skaters are taking full advantage of the sport it offers and large numbers are daily out skating, Sunday especially being a popular date, no less than 75 people being on the frozen expense between here and Evans Creek.
Feb. 27: Ice conditions on the Slocan Lake necessitate the routing of main line traffic via Kaslo and all regular traffic on the lake has been suspended for the present. The pickle-boat, Rosebery, is trying hard to keep the channel open but has hardly enough power to push herself through open water without bucking ice with a light barge. The last regular trip was run last Monday morning when over 80 passengers were packed into the boat and kept there for over seven hours, the good ship taking that much time to get to Rosebery on account of the heavy ice. Loaded barges have been too heavy for the tug to move through the ice and as a result the people up the lake have been unable to get in their regular goods and are also suffering from a lack of fuel. A freight train came in [to Slocan City] from Nelson Saturday and unloaded the barges taking the freight back to Nelson from where it was to be shipped into the Slocan via Kaslo.
March 8: The ice punched a hole in CPR barge No. 30 on Slocan Lake last week and only quick work on the part of the crew of the Str. Rosebery saved the barge from sinking. The hole was repaired but the barge, which was being used as an ice breaker is unfit to again buck ice and the new barge No. 14 is now being used for that purpose. The heavy ice still continues to give trouble and the tug and ice-breaker was 24 hours in making the trip to Silverton last week, leaving here Friday at noon and arriving at Silverton Saturday noon. It is expected the main line service via Slocan Lake will resume Wednesday morning.
March 13: Service has been fully restored on the Slocan Lake and the boat is running within an hour or so of its regular schedule despite the fact that it handles an icebreaker on each trip. The warm weather the past week has softened the place up the lake and it is not likely that it will hard enough to hinder the boat to any extent.

In a 1976 interview held by the BC Archives, Lindsay Carter remembered:

[T]here is a picture of a barge they had in front of the boat [which] they used to break ice … as an icebreaker. Well, we climbed on that thing [in Silverton at 3 o’clock] … We were on ... the SS Rosebery ... Well, it was a such a tough job breaking ice all the way down that lake I think it was pretty near 6 o’clock when we landed in Slocan, so we transferred to the train. I can remember hearing the ice crunching against both sides of that old barge as we were going down, seeing the ice swirling along behind.

John Norris adds in Old Silverton, p. 233 that “All the mines had water trouble as pipes froze up and snow buried buildings. In April, Walter Sheeler was able to report … that ice had left the lake, although snow still made work difficult at the mines.”


1930

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: This was the third consecutive year the lake froze.

SS Rosebery and barge breaking ice on Slocan Lake, February 1930.

(Arrow Lakes Archives 1997.002.80)


Again, I quote The Boats of Slocan Lake, quoting the Arrow Lakes News:

Jan. 29: The Rosebery broke her rudder stock in heavy ice on Jan. 8 only four days after the cold wave descended on the Kootenay. She was hauled up on the way at Rosebery, teams of horses being employed for this purpose, and a special crew rushed up from Nelson shipyard made repairs in the shortest possible time. On January 15 she was relaunched and again in service battling the ice and direct freight and passenger service between Nelson and the Slocan was resumed.
Under Captains Kirby and Reid, the latter from the Okanagan, who [are] relieving each other, the Rosebery is now going night and day and Sundays in an unremitting campaign against a great ice-field that covers the lake for the lower 10 miles of its length. Saturday, she was practically frozen in the ice at Slocan City, but broke her way out.
Yesterday the Rosebery made her regular trip from Slocan City to Rosebery and last night started down with one ice-breaking barge with which to double the width of the channel so she can maneuver today with a loaded car barge on a northbound trip.
Since writing the above, news has come that the Rosebery got stuck in the ice a few miles north of Slocan, the ice proving too thick to combat …

Canadian Pacific Railway train, wharf, and CPR barge No. 10 at frozen Slocan Lake waterfront, Slocan City, February 1930. The Arlington Hotel is seen at right.

(Arrow Lakes Archives 1997-002-109)

Feb. 5: The people of the Slocan now have one of the largest and best skating rinks in the province. It extends from Slocan City to the head of the lake, about 30 miles, and is from one to two miles in width. It is perfect ice with occasional air holes. If the skater drops into one of the air holes, there will be no funeral expenses, as the lake never gives up its dead.
The tug Rosebery and a car barge are ice anchored near Cape Horn, a few miles from Slocan City. Coal is being hauled by a team to the Rosebery and a gang of men have been put to work sawing a channel to Slocan City, some job with 10 to 12 inches of ice.

The Nelson Daily News of March 3, 1930 reported that ice was causing more trouble.

Ice conditions have again tied up boat service on the Slocan lakes [sic] between Slocan City and Silverton. Canadian pacific railway officials announced last night that the service between Silverton and Slocan City had been cut off. A service from Silverton and New Denver to Rosebery for connection with the train to Kaslo and Nakusp will be continued Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week. Thus, person wishing to reach New Denver and Silverton on the lake must travel via Kaslo.

The Daily News of Jan. 21, 1930 also wrote, erroneously, that “last year for the first time in recorded history Slocan Lake froze.” Memories were short, I guess, for it had frozen one year prior to that and in least three other years since 1891.


1937

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: From the Arrow Lakes News, Jan. 28, 1937, as quoted in the same paper of Jan. 18, 2007:

Yielding to the longest continuous stretch of zero and near zero weather for a number of years, the Slocan and Arrow Lakes have frozen over. A week ago the CPR steamer Rosebery was able to make its round of Slocan Lake points but Wednesday saw a sheet of ice cover the lower end of the lake from Slocan City for 10 miles, while the upper end was also reported iced over with the whole lake looking very still. By the end of the week a thick sheet of ice surrounded the Rosebery and her barge up at their berth at Slocan City. Sailing of the Rosebery was cancelled Monday and some other way is sought to give Slocan lake towns freight service.

This story in the Calgary Herald of Feb. 1, 1937 identified five of the seven confirmed years to that point that the lake froze, missing only 1907 and 1928.

One other reference from The Vancouver Sun of April 12, 1937: “After several unsuccessful attempts in past weeks to break the ice on Slocan Lake between Slocan City and Silverton, the tug Rosebery made through to the lake-head town Wednesday and brought back a bargeload.”


1938

Did the lake freeze? Undetermined.


The evidence: The Arrow Lakes Archives has the following photo with this caption: “A view of the ice on Slocan Lake taken March 1, 1938 from CP wharf at New Denver. Ice 17 inches thick.”

(Arrow Lakes Archives 2018-004-22)


However, I checked the Nakusp Silver Standard for that period and found no mention of ice on the lake. Perhaps this is actually 1937.


1942

Did the lake freeze? Undetermined.


The evidence: It’s well documented that the winter of 1942 was harsh, especially for Japanese Canadians interned in the Slocan Valley who lived in tents or hastily-constructed shacks. Ron Hotchkiss describes it in Diamond Gods of the Morning Sun: The Vancouver Asahi Baseball Story:

That winter Slocan Lake froze. Between the end of October and the beginning of February, 82 inches of snow fell. The only paths were trenches that went to the nearest neighbor or to the outhouse. Roads were blocked, mail was held up and water pipes froze. Young people bundled up, and with ice skates dangling over their shoulders trudged to the skating rink.

No mention of skating on the lake. This is the only reference I can find to the lake freezing in 1942. A search of the New Canadian newspaper turned up nothing.


1948

Did the lake freeze? Undetermined.


The evidence: Sumi Kinoshita writes in Shikataganai: It Can’t Be Helped:

The winter of 1948 was the first time in 20 years Slocan Lake froze over. The boys tested the lake by throwing large boulders on the ice. When the ice didn’t crack, it was safe — a signal for all the kids to go skating. My brothers even rode their bikes on the ice when the lake froze over. After moving to Surrey the following year, we heard news of a teenager named Snooky Gordon falling through the ice to his death.

I haven’t been able to find any contemporary mentions of the lake freezing that year.


1950

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: This series of photos appeared in the Nelson Daily News on Feb. 1, 1950.

The Arrow Lakes News of Feb. 9 reported that due to the build-up of ice, the CPR “has placed an embargo on operations of steamers on the Arrow and Slocan Lakes until weather conditions permit more easy operations.”


As alluded to by Sumi Kinoshita, the icing over of the lake also led to tragedy: on Feb. 19, Maurice Gordon, 14, and Tommy Steele, 12, fell through the ice at Silverton and drowned. This story appeared the next day on the front page of the Nelson Daily News:

What is not apparent from the story above is that Andy Avison apparently saved Sandy Harris and T. Nelson, who came to help, but got into trouble themselves. Avison was recognized later that year with the Gilt Cross. This is from The Vancouver Sun, Nov. 15, 1950.


1957

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: In the second volume of his unpublished autobiography, Daylight in the Swamp, Irv Anderson recounts working aboard the tugboat Iris G:

The weather turned very cold towards the end of that January … Now the lake was freezing enough so that we could use but the steel barge, which necessitated extra trips. One day we were stuck for five hours off Cape Horn while we ran around with the light boat breaking new channels. I recall one particularly cold night we ran all night long in the channel to keep it open. We were relieved when the weather finally broke in mid-February and the ice would dissolve under a warm south wind.

Anderson, who was my wife’s maternal grandfather, wrote his book based on diary entries, so I’ll take his date as correct.


1970

Did the lake freeze? Undetermined.


The evidence: All I have to go on is the Valhalla Pure map mentioned at the beginning. However, the Slocan Swami of Feb. 27, 1979 indicated the lake froze at some point in the previous ten years, so this may well have been the year.


1979

Did the lake freeze? Yes.


The evidence: An ad placed by the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society in the Valley Voice on Feb. 6, 2013 stated: “Local folks say the last time the lake froze over in 1979 was because it was so calm — no wind causing ripples to break up the developing ice. The other two documented freeze overs were in 1950 and 1928.” Although we now know there were many more freeze overs, 1979 does appear to be the last such event.


My mother-in-law sent me two remarkable pictures seen below, both taken that year.

Above and below courtesy Aline Winje

Henning von Krogh also found the following in the Slocan Swami newsletter:

Jan. 16, 1979: [T]he lake is frozen over fairly solidly from Slocan up to the Silverton viewpoint, Silverton bay is lightly frozen and there are pads of ice floating between Silverton and New Denver. In the ten years we have been in New Denver this is only the second time that the lake has frozen so much …
Feb. 27, 1979: After the recent downpours, the lake is beginning to look decidedly smushy and slushy all over the place – once more raises the fascinating question of when will the ice go?

Summary

Ice has formed in appreciable quantities on Slocan Lake at least ten times since 1891: in 1899, 1907, 1916, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1937, 1950, 1957, and 1979. It may have also happened in 1901-02, 1938, 1942, 1948, and 1970. It probably didn’t happen in 1894. It did not happen in 1898. The most memorable years, for various reasons, appear to have been 1929, 1930, and 1950.


Updated on Oct. 17, 2018 to correct the fact that the lake did indeed freeze in 1928, and on Nov. 16, 2018 with notes about 1901-02, the newspaper clipping from 1937, and the 1950 item about Andy Avison receiving the Gilt Cross. Updated on Dec. 5, 2018 with additional pictures from 1929. Updated on Sept. 13, 2019 with the item from the Nelson Daily News of March 3, 1930. Updated on Oct. 1, 2023 with the item from the Nelson Daily News of Feb. 1, 1950. Updated on Feb. 3, 2024 with the Lindsay Carter quote.

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There was also significant ice in 1968-69

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Gerry Warner
Gerry Warner
Feb 10, 2022

I visited New Denver in late March or early April 1979 and the lake was solidly frozen. Even went for a walk on the ice near Bigalow Bay (sic). The Upper Arrow Lake was also frozen that year and the feery had to cut a channel through the ice to get across from Needles to Fauquier. Got some pictures of this somewhere. My dad, who was raised on a farm just south of Slocan City, also told me about seeing a paddle-wheeler stuck in the ice off Cape Horn in the 1930's.

Gerry Warner

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Good piece of history, enjoyed the read. I skated on the Kootenay Lake just off the Lakeside Park many years ago. Had to be the very late fifties or early sixties. I think the bridge was there. Any record of it freezing over in Nelson around that time? I was with someone at the time (might have been Skip Willson) and no one else was out there. Could hear the ice cracking almost like thunder, but it was fairly thick.

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