Yawning up from the murky depths of Shuswap Lake near Sicamous are the decaying timbers of the SS Whitesmith.
The last known steam-powered vessel to transport people and cargo up and down the lake, the Whitesmith met its end in 1933 after a storm blew it against the pilings of the old CPR hotel once located on the west shore of the Sicamous Channel. A broken piling punctured the ice-breaker ferry’s hull and it slipped beneath the lake’s surface.
Decades after it went down, the Whitesmith has become a popular attraction for scuba divers.
“We dive it on a regular basis,” said Paul Downie of Copper Island Diving.
The Whitesmith is far from the only ruined vessel submerged beneath Shuswap Lake. Downie said near the Cinnemousun Narrows, a tug boat called the Alvira can be found by divers about 100 feet below the surface. The Alvira caught fire and sunk, leaving only its hull and engine behind.
Also in the vicinity of the narrows, Downie said a macabre sight awaits divers who are able to locate an old horse-drawn sleigh with the remains of its team of horses still attached. He said the sleigh and team broke through the ice and sank.
Another piece of awe-inspiring debris on the lake bed is a Ford Model T which was once used by John Joseph Smith to deliver mail and supplies to remote communities and logging camps when the lake froze in the winter. Smith built and operated the Whitesmith along with his business partner F.C. Whitehead before it sank. According to a plaque placed on the submerged car, it broke through the ice on March 22, 1930 and sank, taking two sleigh loads of supplies with it. Smith and Whitehead jumped to safety as the car sank.
Although he survived his brush with the icy waters of Shuswap Lake when the car broke through, newspaper clipping preserved by the Salmon Arm Museum and Archives state Smith drowned in the lake on a May 21, 1940 supply run near the Cinnemousun Narrows.
The plaques that adorn both the Whitesmith and the Model T were put in place by the Underwater Archaeological Association of British Columbia. They implore those visiting the submerged landmarks not to touch them so that they may be preserved.
“The slang with the local divers is shoot only pictures, leave only bubbles,” Downie said.
Shuswap Lake was once used as a major transportation route both when it was frozen and unfrozen. Wooden barges which once ferried cargo between Blind Bay and Scotch Creek can be found just outside the swimming area at the Scotch Creek Wharf Road Community Park in just over 30 feet of water.
“There’s definitely a lot of history that a lot of people don’t realize is in their backyard,” Downie said.
Downie said winter and early spring are the best times of year for diving where visibility is concerned. He said visibility this time of year is approximately 60 feet, but in the summer that often shrinks to obscure everything beyond arm’s reach.
“A lot of the local divers with experience would have been diving all winter long. As long as they can get in the water and don’t have the ice as a hindrance, they would definitely get in the water.”
Downie estimates there are 200 or more divers in the area, 50 of which are regulars. Copper Island Diving is a full training facility capable of teaching those hoping to catch their own glimpse of the Shuswap’s sunken historic treasures.