Paddlewheelers: Talk shines light on 'freshwater highway'

They were highways before there were highways.

Once an Interior centre for paddlewheelers and their construction, Kamloops has little to recall the glory days of the river steamboats.

Kamloops Museum displays the ship's wheel, lights and bells of the C.R. Lamb - the last of B.C.'s steamboats - and there's a roadside sign along Kamloops Lake. Yet time, water and mud have largely concealed the underwater archeological record in the B.C. Interior.

Bill Meekel, director of the Southern Interior chapter of the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C., agrees the archeological record is scant. That record is one of the subjects he will discuss at a museum presentation Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

"From 1866 to 1916, there were 21 steamers built in the Thompson area, and 11 of those were built in Kamloops," Meekel said. "This was probably one of the largest centres for paddlewheeler construction in the Interior."

B.C.'s steamboat era began in 1866, before the railroad, when The Marten, a Hudson's Bay Co. steamer, was launched on Kamloops Lake. The era lasted more than 70 years.

Penticton has the SS Sicamous, Dawson City has the SS Keno and Whitehorse has the SS Klondike, all preserved paddlewheelers. The C.R. Lamb? It may lie under the mud off Pioneer Park, Meekel speculates.

"Our best bet to find a vessel is the C.R. Lamb," he said. "We don't know exactly what happened."

That mystery is typical of the work that UASBC does. The search is helped along by sidescan sonar and a small, remotely operated vehicle provided by a Vernon firm, but the stories usually begin on dry land. Histories written by those such as local historian Mary Balf give the first clues, Meekel noted.

"There are a number of stories that are incomplete."

The Marten, for example, is believed to have been beached after striking a rock on Kamloops Lake. Beyond that, there is nothing to pinpoint a possible wreck.

The society has been focused recently on two Shuswap Lake wrecks, those of two reaction-type ferries. One has been positively identified as the remnants of the Crosby I or II, operated by Adams Lake Lumber Co. until the 1920s.

As for retrieval, that's another matter.

"We don't do a lot of excavation or retrieval of artifacts," he said, noting that nowadays sites are left respectfully intact.

Meekel's talk begins at 6:30 p.m. A $7 registration fee includes museum admission. To register, call 250-828-3576 and cite course No. 178285.

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