Over the Waves: SS City of Ainsworth

This week, we're going straight to the other coast, to the province of British Columbia. In 1898, sternwheeler paddle boats were the most common form of transportation on Kootenay Lake. Three different boats made their way to various ports, moving people and cargo across the bay. Then, one cold day in November of that year, one of the ships was caught in a gale and sank. She wouldn't be seen again for almost a century. Today, we're looking at the story of the SS City of Ainsworth.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: Canadian
  • Length: 25.6 metres
  • Year: 1898

City of Ainsworth, from The Nelson Star.

Launched in 1892, City of Ainsworth was the third paddle steamer to be put into service on Kootenay Lake. Her route had her sailing from Kasto to Nelson, with stops in Ainsworth. Moving cargo and passengers around the area, her departure from Nelson on November 29, 1898 should have been nothing out of the ordinary. When a storm started to brew on the horizon, the fireman and a crew member argued with the captain, Capt. Lean. The position of the two crew members was that the weather was going to turn and with their load of cargo (furnishings for a new hotel in Creston, BC, and a large cargo of firewood lashed to the bow) they would be better off waiting until the weather passed. Capt. Lean, however, felt confident in City and had a schedule to keep. As a result, the fireman and crew member left the ship at Pilot Bay, and a local musician was hired by the Captain to act as a stand-in fireman.

The skies continued to darken, and before long the ship was battling a gale-force storm. The foreword on the bow became an obvious problem, as the bow began to take on water. Passengers and crew rushed to offload the wood, but the stern began to get swamped and the ship turned broadside into the trough of the waves. She began to roll back and forth, at some times leaning so far to one side that water began to pour into the smokestack. The Captain gave the order to abandon ship, and the crew rushed to try and launch the lifeboats. The first two attempts resulted in the boats being swamped and seven crew members and two passengers were lost. The third lifeboat launch was a success, and it then acted as a tender going between the foundering ship and the shore. Twenty-two passengers and crew were saved, but the loss of the nine lives made the wreck the deadliest sternwheeler wreck on the waters of Kootenay Lake.

After the storm, the wreck was found washed up on a nearby shore. Depending on the source you read, she was either blown back out into open water and sank, or she sank while being towed in for repairs. Either way, she disappeared into over 100m of water, where she would rest for the next 92 years.

City of Ainsworth , from The Nelson Star

City of Ainsworth, from The Nelson Star

She was discovered in 1990, and designated a heritage site. However, she wouldn't be successfully dove until 1997, where a group from the Cambrian Foundation were able to successfully dive the wreck and saw that not only was City of Ainsworth sitting upright on the bottom, but with the exception of her missing pilot house and shattered upper deck, she was still mostly in tact.

Another assessment was done of the wreck in 2011, using side scanning sonar and an ROV. The result was that the ship was still three dimensional. Resting in such deep and cold water had slowed decomposition, to the point where some paint was still on the hull, and a maple leaf that had been cut into the cover of the paddle was still visible. Some jars of pickles that were in wooden crates have disappeared, having rolled away over the years. The group that conducted the assessment was planning on looking into some conservation efforts to keep more of the items from disappearing.

City of Ainsworth , from The Nelson Star

City of Ainsworth, from The Nelson Star

Until then, the wreck rests in the quiet, dark waters of Kootenay Lake, a time capsule of what life was like at the turn of the century in British Columbia.