Steamboats served many purposes over the years, but when they originally came into play in the 19th century, they were primarily used to connect waterside communities with the rest of the world. The Swan did just that for the Alberni Valley, carrying passengers, supplies, and mail, up and down the Inlet, connecting places like Bamfield to central Alberni.
History from the bottom of Sproat Lake
While we’re not sure exactly where The Swan was built, it is believed she came from a BC shipyard, McAlpine Boatyard in False Creek sometime near 1889. This company specialized in steamboats like the Swan. These original steamboats were built to be used in rivers, canals, and lake systems; they were not built for the Ocean due to how the exterior was built, the waves would have destroyed the Swan.
The Swan is an 11 meter Victorian-era passenger steamboat, named primarily for how it looked as it glided across the water like a swan. The steamboat was one of the first modern technologies in the 19th century, which became known as the age of steam technology. When the Swan came to Port Alberni, she underwent some important upgrades that allowed her to work both in salt and freshwater in the form of a new engine, originally used in a lumber carrier. This allowed the steamboat to work with the sawmills at Sproat Lake, transporting lumber and passengers around the lake.
Unfortunately, over time the Swan began to deteriorate with age, and after her last journey transporting hikers across the lake on their journey to Kennedy Lake, her owners decided to sink her into the lake, giving her a proper burial. In the 1950’s, The Swan was sunk to the bottom of Klehkoot Arm on Sproat Lake, and forgotten about for the next 40 years.
Bringing The Swan Back to Life
On Labour Day weekend in 1994, Art Skipsey, a former mayor of Qualicum, decided that he wanted to resurface the Swan after his wife passed away. The Swan was found 40 feet from the shore and 60 feet deep in water. A team of divers used barrels as floats to bring the steamboat closer to the surface, taking a total of three days to finally get it out of the water.
The Swan had plenty of damage after spending 60 years in service, followed by 40 years under water. Art took it upon himself to completely refurbish the Swan and her rebuild became a community effort. The wooden deck and beams had the most decay, while the cabin and deck were removed and the hull had no ribs. Most of the equipment was also destroyed and had to be disposed of.
The Swan was rebuilt with fir, oak, and cedar, which is common in this area. All together there were 50 new ribs, 120 feet of planking, and at least a 1000 screws used to rebuild. Art and his helpers tried to use as many original pieces as possible. The Swan was fitted with a new engine, which came from a boat called The Effie, which was used on the Hudson River in New York. The new engine was believed to be bigger than the original, because of what The Effie was primarily used for; the Swan’s original engine was most likely a two cylinder, where the new one was three cylinders. The boiler was also replaced, originally it was a Roberts type boiler, which produces a lot of steam, and its performance was considered unmatched. The boiler that was put in the Swan during the rebuild is a 10 gallon mid steeler; with this the Swan can reach 5-7 knots at 60lbs of pressure at top speeds.
After many years of restoration, the Swan was finally water bound, on July 20th 2005, she was launched in Sproat Lake. The community effort that was involved became a full circle moment, as the Swan originally connected the community via travelling up and down the Inlet, now the community had come together again to bring the steamboat back to life. The Swan did an amazing job of keeping our community connected over the years. And now rests at the Maritime Heritage Society Museum by the Harbour Quay.
Written by Megan Warrender, at the Valley Vibe. Port Alberni’s fast growing community and online magazine. The passion here at the Valley Vibe is to showcase the beautiful of our valley for all who live here, and travel through. Working together with many talented writers, we at the Valley Vibe love to explore, discover and uncover secret jewels about Port Alberni and Sproat Lake.