Duchess Peak (West of the head of Findlay Creek in the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy)
The first Duchess was sixty feet long with cabin accommodation for eight and an ability to carry forty tons of freight. She was flat bottomed, and could “get along… where there was a heavy dew, or if the ground was a little damp.”
The First Steamboat
There were two versions of the nobly named steamboat the Duchess. The first was launched in 1886 by Francis Patrick Armstrong with financial backing and support from Thomas B Cochrane.1 Armstrong had grown potatoes on his ranch on Columbia Lake, and after struggling to get said potatoes north to Golden on a couple of bateaux (boats), he decided that a steamboat might be more efficient.2
With Cochrane’s help, Armstrong purchased a boiler and other machinery in Montreal and brought it to Golden in March 1886. The boat itself was built along the banks of the Columbia River using timber collected from the area around Golden. Just “fifty days from the laying of the keel,” the Duchess started her trial run.3 She ran on the Columbia for the remainder of the 1886 season.4
Given the ramshackle and amateur nature of the construction of the Duchess, it is little surprise that she wasn’t the most beautiful of vessels. Although she was described in reports of the time as a “trim little craft”, even Captain Armstrong later admitted that she was a crude vessel, made of boards all of the same thickness, and with the “appearance of an exaggerated parlour match-box.”5 As I can’t be the only one struggling to picture a parlour match-box, luckily there is a photo of the original Duchess, as well as a couple of helpful descriptions.
The Duchess I
The first Duchess was sixty feet (18.3 metres) long with cabin accommodation for eight and the ability to carry forty tons of freight.6 She was flat bottomed, and could “get along… where there was a heavy dew, or if the ground was a little damp.”7 Or, for those less inclined to the metaphorical: she could float in any water over two foot six inches (75 centimetres) deep.
Among the other features of the Duchess, she had a spacious saloon, a promenade deck supported by light columns, and a hurricane deck above with a wheelhouse. She was run on a steam boiler that, as coal was unavailable locally, was powered with wood which she went through at, “an alarming rate of consumption.”8 Piles of wood were stacked on the bank at regular intervals, and the Duchess would stop for half an hour as her decks were replenished with the necessary fuel to continue upriver. The trip to Windermere Lake and back on the Duchess I took about four days.9
The Sinking of the Duchess
Once launched, the Duchess I was also known to sink. In the summer of 1887, while carrying supplies south for the North West Mounted Police, she ran into a snag, sprung a leak, and went down at the head of the Canyon Creek rapids (just south of Golden). All of the officers’ baggage was lost as well as most of the hospital drugs, flour, and oats being brought upriver to supply what would become known as Fort Steele.10
The sinking was a demoralizing blow for the NWMP troops. They continued to march upriver with another vessel (the Cline) loaded with supplies and rations that was meant to run alongside them as they marched. Unfortunately the Cline ran so far behind that the men spent two days on foot in difficult country without food or tents before they finally stopped, exhausted, to wait for the supplies to catch up.11
It was shortly after this unfortunate incident that the only known photograph of the Duchess was taken (the photo above). The travellers who took the photo described her as having, “a somewhat decrepit appearance, as about a fortnight before our arrival she had been wrecked in the Columbia with a full cargo and some passengers. They had managed to fish her up again out of about fourteen feet of water, and she was now in steaming order, but all her fittings and former smartness had gone where other good things go. Her general aspect, in fact, was that of an old canal boat into which a travelling gipsy’s van had been hastily crammed without regard to its position or safety.”12
A Busy Season
The Duchess may not have been pretty, but the she was certainly kept busy during her first (and only) full season of operation (1887). The Canadian Pacific Railway through Golden was then the country’s only transportation corridor that was in Canadian territory. People and supplies might also travel along the American railways then up over the border, but for the new North West Mounted Police post at Fort Steele, it was symbolically impotant that Canadian supplies be shipped along the Canadian route to supply the Canadian outfit. This was good news for the Duchess, as the quickest way to get supplies south from Golden was down through the Windermere Valley.
There was also an increased demand for goods that summer in the Windermere Valley itself. William Baillie Grohman was surveying and setting up a sawmill in preparation for building the canal at Canal Flats, and a couple of mining ventures were taking tentative steps to develop.13 The Duchess was running full steam, taking only enough time in Golden to reload before turning around to start another run.14
The sinking of the Duchess, even though she was refloated a short time later, could not have come at a worse time as it shortened an already short shipping season. The delay, combined with the continued demand for supplies from the Mounted Police, left general transportation through the Valley in the year 1887, “diswumpled… to a degree exceedingly vexacious[sic] to… settlers.”15
The Duchess II
If the first season of the Duchess tested whether a steamboat on the Columbia River was a profitable venture then it was certainly successful, and the Duchess I became a victim of that success. After only one full season, she was dismantled and her engines placed in a second vessel, also named the Duchess.
The new Duchess was launched in 1888, again by Armstrong and Cochrane. She had a length of 81.6 feet (25 metres), and could carry significantly heavier loads. This time she was constructed using proper lumber from the new sawmill of the Golden Lumber Company and built by a professional boat builder: Alexander Watson of Victoria, who built many of the steamboats in the province.16
The second Duchess was larger and fancier than her predecessor. She had sleeping berths for twenty (another twenty could also sleep elsewhere), private cabins and a dining saloon.17 Her more stylish appearance is evidence of Captain Armstrong’s early and ongoing attempts to attract tourists to the area. She hauled freight, but she was more than a strictly utilitarian vessel.
The new Duchess was faster by far than the Duchess I. In June 1897 she did the entire round trip (from Golden to Windermere and back again) in a blistering 34 hours.18 That time improved after she was given a complete overhaul, including an engine renovation, the following year.19
The Duchess II was also larger than her predecessor. On a downward journey in July 1898, she “conveyed a large quantity of farm produce, including butter and cheese and a clip of wool containing 1650 lbs”, while on the upward journey she carried 137 sheep and fifty-five passengers, all while she, “again made a champion record for speed and despatch.”20
The Duchess II remained in use for some fourteen years, but eventually she too was replaced. She was dismantled in the winter of 1902 and her engines and boilers placed in the Ptarmigan. The Ptarmigan, launched in March 1903, had even more cargo space and a shallower draught.21
A Footnote: Further Impressions of the Duchess
There are some fascinating details that I came across regarding the Duchess that don’t really fit the story, but that I still want to share.
Before roads were developed, the Duchess was a primary connection from the Valley to the outside world. For example, ranchers living along the river would stick their mail out on a long pole over the river to be grabbed as the Duchess swept by.22 In 1897 the Upper Columbia Navigation and Tramway Company printed 1000 “stamps” with a 5 cent value and some number of U C “labels” with no value. The stamp, which was relatively expensive for the time, was meant to discourage this use of steamer mail in preference of mail via the road.
The practice had been fine when the Steamboat Company had the contract for mail service through the Valley, but after the contract was given to another party, the tradition of slowing the steamers to collect mail en route was costly. With the 5 cent stamp, “steamer mail” suddenly became more expensive than the regular mail along the road.23 These unofficial stamps have been known to send philatelists into a tizzy: if you find one, it would be worth a mint.
The presence of a steamboat on the Columbia River also gave relatively easy access to the area around Lake Windermere, permitting travel into the region that would otherwise have been impossible (there were pack trails, but even these were rough and unpleasant). The trip between Golden and Windermere became something of a tourist attraction in its own right, and was known for its outstanding scenery. Ellen Elizabeth Spragge, on her 1887 trip, observed:
In addition to tourist trips, however, the Duchess also encouraged the movement of settlers into the area. This description is from the same trip by Elizabeth Spragge in 1887: I only wish I knew which settler she was describing (the location was somewhere between Brisco and Edgewater):
And finally (for anyone wondering if Lake Windermere ever had a lighthouse for navigation), here’s a description of the end of another trip to Windermere, again written in 1887. For context, it was dark when the Duchess I entered Lake Windermere, and she now chugged up the lake towards Windermere:
William Adolf Baillie Grohman
Captain Francis Armstrong