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The Peerless: the paddlewheeler that could

"The Peerless" after her hair-raising voyage through the Thompson River's Black Canyon. Photos courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

The Peerless, a paddle wheeler built and launched in Kamloops in November 1880, was to capitalize on the CPR construction activity.

She was an impressive 131-feet long by 25-feet wide, drew only 18 inches of water, had 16 watertight compartments, and could move at 18 knots (about 35 km/h). If you’ve rafted with Kumsheen Rafting Resort, visualize three J-rig power rafts tied side by side. Now add fifteen more rafts in rows of three lashed end to end, and you can get some idea of her massive size.

In June 1881, the Peerless headed down the Thompson to Harpers Grist Mill on the Bonaparte River above Ashcroft. Captain Irving, a highly skilled river man, had little difficulty getting back up the Thompson to her berth in Savona.

Feeling good about the first downriver run to Ashcroft, her skilled Captain made a second run, this time all the way down to Spences Bridge. She carried flour and other supplies for the CPR construction crews working near Spences Bridge. This was a test trip to evaluate the feasibility of regular supply runs; he hoped to bring fruit and other produce upriver from Spences Bridge to the construction camps and towns near Kamloops, while running railway supplies downriver.

The plan was good, but the excursion did not go according to design. Downriver was smooth sailing. She made good time and arrived in Spences Bridge unaffected by the journey.

She loaded fuel and supplies and headed upriver again. Although she struggled against the fast current and rapids in places, she made it to Black Canyon without major difficulty. In Black Canyon, however, the battle started.

It was June and the river in full run-off mode. During high water in Black Canyon, the hydraulics increase exponentially as the water rises.

The Peerless groaned and hissed against the fast currents. The huge boils, whirlpools, powerful eddies and back-eddies common during spring runoff nearly smashed her against the steep canyon walls and rocks, over and over again. She gained a few meters, only to lose them in the next big surge of water.

For days, she fought her way through the canyon’s rapids and hydraulics. Captain Irving, her skipper, was the only reason that she was not smashed against the rocks and canyon walls and destroyed in Black Canyon. His river and boating skills kept the Peerless alive.

Finally, five days later, the Peerless glided back into dock at Savona, her mind made up. She belonged on Kamloops Lake, not on the Thompson River. 

Find more entertaining anecdotes in author and Kumsheen Rafting Resort founder Bernie Fandrich's excellent new book, British Columbia's Majestic Thompson River, with Rick Mercer's stamp of approval.

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