A Glorious Day for the North Star

From Fort Steele to Wasa; A picnic on the river, 1902

The sternwheeler North Star on the Columbia River  ca. 1902. – Wikimedia Commons

The sternwheeler North Star on the Columbia River ca. 1902. – Wikimedia Commons

Jim Cameron

With your permission, an extract from the Cranbrook Herald newspaper of May 29, 1902, with some words of explanation to follow:

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“Last Sunday about 75 people of Cranbrook left by vehicles for Fort Steele to take the steamer North Star for Wasa. It was a bright, beautiful day and the ride of 12 miles was a glorious outing alone, but the trip up the river to those who seldom have an opportunity of a ride on the water was a glorious diversion.

“Captain Armstrong came over to Cranbrook Saturday … to personally supervise all arrangements so that each one would be comfortably fixed for the journey to Fort Steele. Geary and Doyle had charge of the land transportation and Al Doyle of Fort Steele and Harry Fairfield of the Cranbrook stables saw that every arrangement was perfect. In consequence there was a total lack of confusion or trouble in transporting so large a number of people.

“The steamer left the Fort Steele landing at ten o’clock with 120 passengers, quite a contingent from Fort Steele joining the crowd, and for two hours those on board were treated to a grand panorama of beautiful scenes. The river winds in and out through woodlands and prairie, while on either side are high mountain peaks capped with snow that enhance the beauty of the scenes presented. It was a grand and glorious trip and those on board enjoyed to the fullest extent nature’s handiwork as illustrated by the rugged scenery of the Valley of Southeast Kootenay.

“A few minutes after noontime Governor Hanson’s place was sighted and the whistle sounded for the draw to be opened in the new bridge built by the governor last year. It is a raised draw and looks like the draw bridge at the castle of some old country nobleman. Passing through the bridge the boat was tied up at the Hanson landing and then came the grand rush for the hotel, located about half a mile distant.

“And it was hungry crowd, ready and willing to do ample justice to a table loaded with substantial food. Although the number was far in excess of that expected by Mr. Hanson, no one left the table hungry. Then followed several hours of unalloyed enjoyment. Nature and man have combined to make the Hanson homestead one of the prettiest places in all South East Kootenay. Thousands of dollars have been expended in the way of improvements and the location is an ideal one in every respect: beautiful lawns, magnificent orchards with apple trees in bloom, the grounds flanked on either side by a beautiful lake, an avenue with rows of shade trees and running water wherever water can be used. An electric light plant is being installed and power is secured from a mountain stream that dashes over the rocks in a ravine near the house … Fourteen years ago, N. Hanson walked down the valley and concluded to locate there. He had no money, but he had energy and shrewdness; he built a sawmill, brought in goods, opened a trading store, and five years ago his was the only place in the district where a man could buy on a wholesale basis. Today he is well fixed, entertains like a prince and makes everyone feel at home.

“During the afternoon a game of ball was played between two picked nines, headed by Messrs. Fink and Smith. At 5:30, the excursionists left for the boat and at six o’clock the boat started downstream, arriving at Fort Steele about 7:30, where the Cranbrook people took their vehicles for home. Captain Armstrong, during the entire trip, was untiring in his efforts to please his passengers, and before leaving the boat they all joined in giving three rousing cheers for the captain and his boat.”

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And there it is, an enticing commentary of an excursion 114 years ago that would no doubt attract a large crowd today. By way of explanation: the “vehicles” were wagons supplied by Geary and Doyle. In the days of the rise of Cranbrook and the decline of Fort Steele, George Geary and Al Doyle, pioneer proprietors of a Fort Steele livery stable and coach line, hedged their bets by also opening a livery in Cranbrook, managed by Harry Fairfield. It stood on Hanson Avenue across from the present day Sam Steele Inn.

Nils Hanson, often affectionately referred to as the “Governor” of Wasa, plied his entrepreneurial skills at both Cranbrook and Wasa. The Cosmopolitan Hotel (Shenanigan’s on Baker Street) is the remaining half of what was once the first Hanson Block. The second, standing prominently on the corner of Baker and Norbury and eventually known as the Norbury Hotel, fell to flames in 1959. The Hanson Garage across from Rotary Park was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Associate Medical Clinic. Hanson Avenue is named for him. Little remains of his endeavours at Wasa. His is among the largest tombstones in the Cranbrook Old General Cemetery.

And so it was a glorious day for the North Star and those aboard her; a day in 1902 when the citizens of Fort Steele and Cranbrook set aside their differences (and there were certainly differences) to ride a sternwheeler along the Kootenay River, enjoy “the fullest extent of nature’s handiwork,” feast heartily and play a little baseball to boot. If the description of Nils Hanson’s Wasa seems somewhat overstated, consider the effect that a hotel (the replica of which stands today as the Fort Steele Museum), a store, a lumber mill and an orchard might have had upon the traveller during a trip through what was then the wilds of British Columbia.

As for the steamer “North Star,” she was a much celebrated boat in her day, one of a number of steam-powered riverboats built by Captain Frank Armstrong for use on the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. This particular excursion occurred during the final days of the Kootenay River steam travel.

We are therefore at the end without having truly investigated the beginning. We shall do so next week.