During a six-day expedition in September, 1997, Bart Bjorkman of Creston, British Columbia and John Chluski of Florida, both members of the Cambrian Foundation, successfully conducted two dives to a maximum depth of 360 feet fresh water (120 meters) on the 84-foot (26-meter) long sternwheeler S.S. City of Ainsworth. SueLynn Bjorkman, Al Cawte, Tim Gallagher, Ken Furman, Julie Kaye and Terrence Tysall provided the vital surface and in-water support that made this accomplishment possible.
Due to the depth, cold water temperature, limited visibility and normally hazardous surface conditions, no prior open circuit SCUBA dives had been conducted on the wreck. The Cambrian Foundation divers used trimix 10/60 and 10/50 for bottom mix with air, EANx 40 and 100% O2 used for decompression mixes. For a bottom time of 10 minutes, approximately 75 minutes of decompression time was required. The dive team made two dives on the wreck and shot video footage of the S.S. City of Ainsworth from bow to stern. Bart Bjorkman noted several observations, “The vessel is sitting upright on the bottom; her hull and paddlewheel intact. The pilothouse and upper deck are damaged, but are still present. We identified several artifacts including the ship’s wheel and the port side navigation light.”
Sternwheelers played a vital role from the mid 1800’s until well past the turn of the century in delivering people, equipment, and supplies to the booming mining towns of the region. Due to its historic significance, the S.S. City of Ainsworth was designated an Underwater Heritage Site in 1990.
“A disaster, unparalleled in the annals of the navigation of the inland lakes of Kootenay, occurred about 7:30 on Tuesday evening,” stated an article from the Nelson Daily News on December 1, 1898. The S.S. City of Ainsworth foundered and sank in a vicious storm on November 29, 1898, with the loss of nine lives on the 75-mile long Kootenay Lake, located in the southern interior of British Columbia. She had set out from Nelson on the afternoon of the 29th up the west Arm of the Lake to Pilot Bay and ultimately on to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. The cargo was 3,600 kg of furnishings for a new hotel in Creston, British Columbia and an equal weight in wood for fuel. She foundered in a storm opposite Rhinoceros Point about 3 km from shore. Two attempts to launch the two lifeboats drowned seven crew and two passengers. Twenty-two passengers and crew survived by recovering one of the lifeboats. Once ashore, the moon came up, and the survivors could see the wreck had beached itself nearby. They were unable to secure the damaged ship and it subsequently got blown off shore and sank. No cargo was ever salvaged.
A Board of Trade investigation following the incident suggested that the boat may have been overloaded or not seaworthy and questioned the captain’s decision to leave harbor that night in light of the approaching storm. No charges, however, were filed and no wrongdoing was cited.Extensive searches for the wreck by local divers started in the early 1970’s. These early attempts using free-swimming divers systematically examining the steep walls and the later use of a proton magnetometer proved unsuccessful in locating wreckage or the vessel. It was not until 1990, through a joint venture between the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (USABC), the Dambusters local SCUBA club and CAN-DIVE Services, that the wreck was discovered. A side scan sonar search and subsequent ROV inspection confirmed the location. Although the primary grounding site was never located, several artifacts were found in 21-54 feet (7-18 meters) of water on the slope above the wreck. Among these were a hand dolly, pickle jars, a whiskey bottle and a porcelain doorknob.
Continued exploration of the S.S. City of Ainsworth by the Cambrian Foundation is planned in 1998 with objectives of gathering more video footage along with sediment measurements on various sections of the wreck to ascertain possible series of collapses and to establish a baseline for the rate of deterioration.