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Steam from the Lake Floor: The Restoration of the Swan

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

During the 19th century, many communities would not have survived without the use of boats utilizing the systems of rivers and lakes. Port Alberni and the surrounding towns along the inlet is one of these sets of communities; the town has been home to many important sea vessels which has helped our survival until the arrival of modern transportation. One of these important vessels was the Swan, a steamboat that was used for almost sixty years. The Swan was brought up from the bottom of Sproat Lake in 1994 after spending over 40 years submerged. This boat was given a historical value of $15,000 and was still in a condition where it could be restored, a project that came to reality.

When the Swan first came to Port Alberni, she was used on our saltwater inlet as a meat carrier to Bamfield twice a week, stopping at all the docks along the way; during the remainder of the week, she was used as a passenger boat and for transporting mail. After twenty years of being an important part of the inlet, The Swan was brought to Sproat Lake in 1927 and was used by the Sproat Lake Sawmill until it was shut down. At this time, she spent her days transporting the mill workers and some lumber back and forth across the lake. The Swan’s last journey was in 1954 to take a few hikers up to the lake, and a year later, her owners made the decision to sink her; with hull filled with rocks, she sat on the Sproat Lake floor – at the bottom of Klehkoot arm in forty feet of water – for fifty years. The Swan was an 11meter Victorian-era passenger steam launch with the engine located in its stern and was given her name because from her profile, as she looked like a swan gliding across the water. While her provenance is still generally unknown, it is assumed that The Swan may have come from the BC shipyard, McAlpine Boatyard in False Creek – a boatyard that specialized in steamboats like the Swan during 1889, the time The Swan has been dated to – according to industrial records. The Swan had many enhancements and work done to her while working in Port Alberni; when moved from being used on the ocean to Sproat Lake, she was given a new engine that was previously used by a lumber carrier – an engine more fitting for her new job.

But why was this type of ship so important, especially to communities like Port Alberni? The steamboat was one of the first modern technologies of the western world and the 19th century was considered the age of steam technology. Within a few years of its creation, it became an important feature for transportation in North America after being a commercial success. The steamboat has been attributed to being the creation of Robert Fulton – though this has been challenged in recent years to be contributed to James Watt. James Watt improved the design from the original model used in the industrial revolution. The steamboat was considered a well-timed technology that had fully exploited both Canada’s canal, lake and river systems. Steamboats like The Swan were built to be used on these water systems rather than oceans; if used on an ocean it wouldn’t last very long against again sort of wave. These sorts of hits would probably cause the boat to break up as they have a very simple outer structure that wasn’t refined; it was designed to be light and airy compared to the steel steamships. The lighter design was chosen because this type of steamboat was traditionally used in more shallow waters compared to the ocean and must still be able to move when the water is at its lowest levels. They were much easier to direct as they didn’t have to worry about the wind or waves like the previous sailing vessels. The steam engine was actually quite simple in theory: light a fire below a water-filled boiler which would drive the engine. The types of fuel improved over time, changing from wood to coal then using oil and even uranium. The engines themselves were first made from heavy cast iron with a large single piston that used a low steam pressure. At the time, the steamboat was the essential transportation for both people and supplies around to different areas which became essential for many parts of Canada’s survival and provided transport for the everyday traveller. Originally if a town couldn’t be reached by a steamboat at all water levels, it didn’t last very long but when the railway came into play, this no longer mattered. This is why The Swan was so essential for the area of Port Alberni because it connected all the communities along the inlet that would have been inaccessible for many without it. Eventually, the steamboat was pushed to the side by the railway.

The Swan, while forgotten for forty years, was raised from her resting place on Labour Day in 1994 and was then restored. This large project was initiated by Art Skipsey, a former mayor of Qualicum who needed a project after his wife passed away. They had found her forty feet from shore in water at a depth of sixty feet. Divers used barrels as floats to bring the boat closer to shore and it took a total of three days to fully get the boat out of the water. A major rebuild was needed in order to make it seaworthy once again. The Swan was completely refurbished by Art and her rebuild shortly became a community effort. Most of the wood decay that the Swan suffered was found on the decking and beams. However, the cabin and the deck had been removed while the hull no longer had any of the ribs. Most of the equipment also had to be disposed of. Like many locally built boats, the Swan was re-built with fir wood for the keel and keelson, oak for the ribbing and cedar for the planking. Altogether there were 50 new ribs needed to support the boat, 120 feet of new planking and at least 1000 screws. Part of the rebuilding effort was stripping the boat down and mucking the silt out of it, which had to be done multiple times. The bottom boards, backboards, and the forwards cabin posts in this rebuild came from the original boat. Art and his helpers tried to use as many original pieces as possible. The hardest part of the rebuild was getting the pieces for the engine. The new engine after the restoration came from a boat called The Effie; a boat used on the Hudson River in New York. Because of this, it is believed that the new engine is probably a bigger model than what would have originally been used – initially being a two cylinder engine rather than a three cylinder one. Another big part of this project was rebuilding the boiler. This boiler was built to be a wood fueled one like the Roberts type boiler – which produces a lot of steam. The Roberts style water-tube boiler was very popular and a common choice for this type of service. Since the Roberts type was a wood burner, its performance was considered to be unmatched by any of its competitors. The boiler has a large capacity steam drum and ease of firing makes steaming with solid fuels a real pleasure. The boiler put in The Swan is a 10 gallon mild steel from shoreline blower and sheet metal. In using the boiler, dry materials, as well as hardwood, were the best as they increased the boat’s speed; with this The Swan can reach 5-7 knots at 60lbs of pressure at its top speed. This project took many months of work to restore The Swan to be completely water worthy – a year alone to put the boiler in. A large part of the restoration besides the building and the mucking was doing research in preparation. The team of builders wanted to make sure that the restoration of The Swan was as authentic as possible and stayed as close to historical fact as possible. Through this research, they discovered a project like this was done on a similar boat to The Swan called the Phoebe – another boat brought up and restored – which helped guide their process.

After many hours of work and research, The Swan had her official launch of being rebuilt at Sproat Lake on July 20th ,2005. This was a huge project that involved many people of the community coming to make the magnificent vessel come alive again. This boat brought the community together when she was sailing down the inlet, connecting her passengers to the different areas, and once again when this community was restoring her back her life. The Swan is a type of boat that is viewed as a connector of communities and that is exactly what she does.

By J. Preedy


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