SS City of Ainsworth tied up at Lardeau wharf, circa 1894. Image courtesy of Kootenay Lake Archives
The SS City of Ainsworth was built in 1892 to provide the growing settlement at Ainsworth with a means of consistent transportation of goods and passengers from Nelson and Bonners Ferry, Idaho. On May 4th, 1892 the City of Ainsworth attempted to graciously slip down the ways and splash into Kootenay Lake for the first time. The ship however hung up partway down and landed off balance in the water needing the assistance of the nearby ship Galena to right itself. The troubled launch foreshadowed the brief working history of the SS City of Ainsworth.
At 25.6 metres (84 feet) in length the SS City of Ainsworth was a relatively small sternwheeler for Kootenay Lake. Built strong it lacked some of the finishing details that were common on the larger boats on the lake, having been built with the labour that was on hand in Ainsworth at the time, mainly out of work miners and loggers. The SS City of Ainsworth was licensed to carry 50 to 80 passengers, with a small dining room, six small staterooms, a Men's Saloon at the bow and Ladies' Saloon at the stern. The main deck contained the freight area, the firebox and boilers and mechanics for the paddlewheel. The most outstanding and unique design aspect of the SS City of Ainsworth was the surprisingly graceful cover that housed the paddlewheel. Curiously, the ship lacked a kingpost to stabilize the hull when it was built. One was later added to provide some stabilization.
In 1893, the SS City of Ainsworth was sold to Nelson & Lardo Steam Navigation, a company contracted to deliver mail between Nelson and Lardeau. It continued to carry freight and passengers to the North end of Kootenay Lake until larger ships replaced it and it took on hauling freight and barges.
The SS City of Ainsworth sank on April 17, 1897 at Kaslo, loaded too heavily with quarried rock and cordwood and caught in a storm. It was raised, repaired and returned to service. That year it was sold twice, first to George Kane of Kaslo, then to the Braden Brothers of Helena Montana who had hopes of reopening the smelter at Pilot Bay. The summer of 1898, the SS City of Ainsworth was leased to the International Navigation and Trading Company and worked steadily all summer until the completion of the BC Southern Railway to Kootenay Landing. That fall the SS City of Ainsworth was tied up at Pilot Bay until it was put back to work when the SS International broke its drive shaft.
On November 29 1898, the SS City of Ainsworth was caught in a storm in the middle of Kootenay Lake, with boilers drawing inefficiently the ship bobbed on top of the waves, making little headway. In an effort to reduce weight, some of the cordwood piled on the bow for fuel was thrown overboard. The ship turned against the prevailing wind and listed from port side to starboard before it settled on its port side. With the ship in distress, and against the orders of the Captain to not panic, crew members launched the first lifeboat with five people aboard. It was immediately swamped, with only one of the five surviving. The crew launched a second overcrowded lifeboat that was swamped as well. Only a few could be rescued and the crew began to bail out the lifeboat. The lifeboat was relaunched and took ten men to shore, it returned for seven more and a third trip bringing the remaining eight to shore. The SS City of Ainsworth continued to flounder and was eventually pushed towards the shoreline by the storm. Before the storm had subsided, nine men had lost their lives, six crew members and 3 passengers. Later, as the tug Kaslo was bringing her into Crawford Bay, the line snapped and the SS City of Ainsworth, already in a compromised position, sank to the bottom of the lake.
The search for the wreck began in the 1970s, taking a new direction in 1990 when the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia and the Dambusters SCUBA Club found it using research and sidescan sonar. The UASBC, Dambusters, Simon Fraser University and CAN-DIVE members used remotely operated vehicles equipped with video equipment to capture images of the sunken vessel. In 1997, Bart Bjorkman and John Chluski of the Cambrian Foundation accomplished the deepest dive in Canada when they visited the wreck for ten minutes using mixed gas technology.
The SS City of Ainsworth remains upright at the bottom of the lake with the majority of the ship intact. The site is protected under the Heritage Conservation Act and is formally designated a 'Provincial Heritage Site'.
Media Clip Description: Dive to the SS City of Ainsworth by remotely operated vehicle, August 14, 1990 by the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, the Dambusters SCUBA Club and the Archaeology Branch, Province of British Columbia