It was a cold, misty winter morning when the Swan steamboat was pulled off of the calm Sproat Lake waters for the last time by the Port Alberni Maritime Heritage Society.
It’s been a hard life for the Swan—the steamboat spent decades working both on the ocean and at Sproat Lake before being sunk to the bottom of Klehkoot Arm in 1951.
“It came to the lake in 1927,” said Art Skipsey, who rescued the Swan from the bottom of Klehkoot Arm.
“It was used by Sproat Lake sawmill until they shut the sawmill down.”
According to PAMHS president Kenn Whiteman, the Swan did some time in Alberni Valley salt water too.
“The Swan took meat to Bamfield on a weekly basis, stopping at each of the docks along the way,” said Whiteman.
“It carried mail and passengers up and down the Inlet, including young Alberni Valley ladies who attended dances at the Bamfield Cable Station which was entirely staffed by men and First World War soldiers.”
But in the mid-1950s, its then-owners sunk the 60-year-old boat.
“[They] filled the boat with rocks at the dock, pulled it out about 30 metres and then sunk it in about 15 metres of water,” said Whiteman. The boat was offered to Skipsey for his Scout group but with a couple of boats already, the troop didn’t need anymore, so it went to Al Greenleigh.
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Katya Slepian/AlberniValley News
(Art Skipsey and friend and former Port Alberni mayor Ken McRae reminisce over the Swan.)
“It needed a new deck on it and his son got tired of bailing it so they gave it an honourable burial in about 1955.”
The Swan’s last journey before its initial demise was one to transport hikers in 1954.
“The last time the boat was used it was used to take hikers up the lake who were going through to Kennedy Lake and that was May 24, 1954.”
It sat at the bottom of the lake for about 40 years before Skipsey got the idea to pull it up.
It was around Labour Day in 1994 when Skipsey recruited divers Curt Smecher, George Monrufet, current Port Alberni city manager Ken Watson and son Joe Skipsey to pull it back up to the surface.
“It took us three days of work to bring it up and we used about 10, 45-gallon drums on it,” Art Skipsey said.
“It needed a major rebuild—we ended up putting in 51 new ribs and about 150 feet of planking.”
And that’s what it got as Skipsey and his friend John Super spent months working away on the boat.
“He came and helped me—that was our entertainment for the time,” said Skipsey.
“We had it back in the water in eight months because we didn’t want the timbers to dry out.”
They even built a cabin on the boat.
“I hoped someone else was going to do it but they didn’t volunteer so I ended up doing it myself.”
But while it was floating, it wasn’t quite seaworthy just yet.
“It took another year to get the boiler in,” Skipsey said.
“We had the steam engine in place but we needed to get a boiler big enough for it.”
The engine came from rather far away.
“The last time the engine was used was on the Hudson River in New York and it did a 500-mile trip up the Hudson River,” Skipsey said.
It’s a powerful engine and it was a little more than what the Swan needed.
“It’s a bigger engine than what the boat needs,” he said, adding that getting the boat in working order was a learning curve.
“If I knew as much when I was looking for the engine as I do now, I would’ve got just a two-cylinder instead of a three-cylinder.”
But it was a labour of love for Skipsey, who poured countless hours and $40,000 into the job along with help from volunteers.
“It was a lot of work. You had to really like doing it and we had our fun with it.”
The spruced up Swan is quite the boat—32 feet long and with a whistle heard around the lake.
“It’s got two whistles that you can hear three miles away!”
The Swan will be on display by the Ken Hutcheson Maritime Museum in the New Year.
Correction: Klehkoot Arm was mistakenly called Faber Arm.