The first person to provide ferry service on the Columbia River was Castlegar’s pioneering homesteader, Albert McCleary. In 1888 he purchased a scow from Robert Lemon and put it into service as a ferry. It provided a link between the Colville and Toad Mountain pack trails, giving down-river prospectors easy access to the Kootenay and Slocan valleys. Up-river traffic from Revelstoke was serviced by steamers, which landed at Sproat’s Landing (just below the train bridge).
Albert launched his rectangular scow from the small bay at the foot of Cedar (1st) St. It took a strong back to propel the unwieldy vessel across the river with a couple of long sweeps. Albert had to struggle against the fast current, which was accelerating towards the Tin Cup Rapids, to make a landing just below Waldie Island. He used the backwater channel behind the island to move the scow upstream, staying in the shelter of Breakwater Island as long as possible, before making a dash back across the main river current.
Albert’s business dropped off by the time he sold his pre-emption to Edward Mahon in 1891. The Columbia and Kootenay Railway replaced the old pack trail and the action shifted to a new steamer terminal at Robson.
When the CPR acquired the Columbia and Western Railway from F.A. Heinze in 1898 they immediately proceeded to extend it westward, and commenced with plans to link it with the Nelson line by constructing a bridge across the Columbia. When completed in 1902, it provided a crossing option for pedestrians. After several close calls, a footbridge was built on the downstream side of the train bridge.
Doukhobors started arriving in the valley in 1908, and they quickly constructed a current reaction ferry at Waterloo. A second capstan-driven ferry crossed the Kootenay River until it was replaced by the Doukhobor suspension bridge in 1913. These became parts of the Southern Trans-provincial Highway to Nelson, which prior to the mid-1920s ran through the Pass Creek Valley.
A more direct link was established in 1919 with the launching of the Castlegar-Robson ferry on a crossing directly below Lion’s Head. As the images in my Retrospectives sequence illustrate, this ferry was rebuilt several times, to meet growing demand. Initially the government-operated vessel could be managed by a single operator.
With increasing traffic and changes in ferry design, a larger crew was required: an operator and two deck hands to manipulate the ramps and assist in loading the vehicles. Initially the fore and aft ramps were linked and counterbalanced; these were replaced by independent ramps operated first by a chain hoist, and later by hydraulic cylinders.
During the construction of the High Arrow Dam (renamed Hugh Keenleyside) two ferries were operating to meet the demand. The completion of the Kinnaird Bridge shifted the Southern Trans-provincial Highway out of the downtown core, leading to greatly reduced business opportunities and progressive stagnation. The new bridge also helped with traffic to the dam project, as the Doukhobor suspension bridge was upgraded and kept in service until the opening of the Brilliant Bridge on Highway 3A.
The new crossing of the Columbia River attracted international recognition for its challenging design based on the application of pre-stressed reinforced concrete technology pioneered by Riccardo Morandi. The elegant structure, which is not totally visible to bridge traffic, won a Design Canada Award of Excellence for its Italian engineer.
With the completion of the highway bridge and the dam (which provided a crossing) the ferry service was considered redundant and eventually terminated. Fierce opposition developed and persisted until the ferry was whisked away during night time and put into service at Arrow Park. Public resentment to this shady move still lingers.
The Robson-Castlegar Bridge opened in 1994, providing a bypass for industrial truck traffic as well as a fourth entry to the city. The railway footbridge was now targeted for demolition, but an effort to preserve the public crossing extended its service period until it was deemed to be unsafe.
So much of our history is interwoven with our rivers. They were fundamental to early transportation, supported Castlegar’s major industry as represented by the Waldie sawmill, and allowed pioneering hydroelectric development in the region. Changes were inevitable, with the human imprint being much heavier after the completion of the Columbia River Treaty mega-projects.
All the same, we are fortunate to live along stretches of rivers that still bear resemblance to their free-flowing precursors, and allow us to conjure up visions of simpler times when they were totally un-harnessed and pristine.
Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org