Alec Garner: Echoes of the Paddlewheel
A celebrated collection returns to the West Kootenay
With historical models by Bert Learmonth
A collection of thirty-two oil paintings of the historical Kootenay sternwheelers, “Echoes of the Paddlewheel,” by Alex Garner (1897-1995) will be repatriated from the Glenbow Museum (Calgary) where they were donated approximately fifty years ago. Garner had a long and distinguished career as a painter primarily of landscapes, portraits and historical West Kootenay subjects. The exhibition will feature also feature paintings from local private collectors and paddle wheeler historical models by North Shore resident and model-maker, Bert Learmonth.
List of ships illustrated in the Alec Garner series “Echoes of the Paddlewheel”
The Significance of the Paddlewheelers to Trade and Commerce in the Kootenays
The Significance of the Paddlewheelers to Trade and Commerce in the Kootenays
The role of the paddlewheeler and steam ships in the development of the Southern Interior of British Columbia cannot be underestimated. The rich ore deposits and lush forests of this mountainous region remained largely untouched and unavailable to the outside world until a reliable and cost effective mode of shipping was established. The geography of the area with its steep mountains and water-filled valley bottoms restricted rail development in many areas and water travel was the most effective means to transport goods and people.
Economic and population growth in the Kootenay Region blossomed with the development of shipping routes on the lakes and rivers. The local mines and lumber mills were able to establish themselves and prosper because of the availability of a reliable transportation system. Many of the areas serviced by the ships were never accessed by railroads and it was only the establishment of the highway systems in the early to mid 20th Century that relegated the boats obsolete.
Paddlewheelers were the lifeline to the outside world, bringing news from beyond the narrow valleys as well as mail, visitors and supplies needed by the local people. The boats were also used to transport materials for building railroads, smelters, lumber mills, and towns. Passenger transportation provided an opportunity for people to travel to work by boat and enabled safe passage through the region for travelers and investors who were seeking to finance the development of new industries.
The industrial growth of the area was, and continues to be, reliant on access to its natural resources. When the waterways of the region were made passable, access to its natural resources was made possible. The development of a reliable and effective transportation system connected sites throughout the interior lakes and rivers and tied in with the outlying railways. This enabled construction of infrastructure and supported economic growth.
‘Paddlewheelers’ vs ‘Steamwheelers’
Paddlewheelers are ships that use a wheel of planks fixed to the circumference of the wheel and push the water as the wheel rotates. They can be either sternwheelers or sidewheelers depending on the location of the paddlewheel. Sidewheelers have the paddlewheel located on the sides of the boat, which allows for improved navigation. Sternwheelers were used on the inland lakes and rivers because they are more suited for the area.
A Sternwheeler is a ship that is propelled by a paddlewheel on the stern, or rear of the ship. Sternwheelers were preferred to sidewheelers in this region as the shallow hull allowed the ship to land on a beach or shore with the stern in the deeper water, enabling it to pull away from the shore and back into deeper water.
Bert Learmonth began recreating the steamships of Kootenay Lake and other transportation artifacts of the West Kootenay in 1984. He constructed his first sternwheeler model, the SS Nelson, then continued on to build models of the major Kootenay Lake sternwheelers and tugboats.
Bert Learmonth has constructed models of Nelson’s first streetcars and buses and dioramas for Touchstones Nelson, which include a Ktunaxa encampment, the CPR Railway Transfer Warf, and the Cottonwood Falls Power Plant.
Mr. Learmonth’s ship models can be viewed at the SS Moyie Sternwheeler Historic Site in Kaslo, BC during the summer. His work is included in the Touchstones Nelson Museum display. A model of the SS Moyie, commissioned by the City of Nelson, can be viewed at the Nelson Theme Park in Nelson’s sister city, Shuzenji, Japan.
Alec Garner pursued a lifelong interest in art, experimenting with different mediums (oil, watercolour, pastel, lino block), different techniques (brush and pallet knife), as well as various subject matter. He was known locally and internationally for his depictions of paddlewheelers and steam tugs, his portraits and especially his landscapes. Although Garner trained in Edmonton through a correspondence course and under the well-known Canadian artist A.C. Leighton, he was largely self-taught. In his early years he regularly attended the Calgary Stampede as a sketch artist, thrilling tourists with his accurate portraits and giving brief lessons in art.
In 1939, two of his watercolour landscapes were chosen for exhibition at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts 70th annual exhibition in Montreal. At this time he was active in the Edmonton Art Club and Alberta Society of Artists, serving on the executive committees of both.
The beauty of the Kootenay region drew Garner and his wife Ethel and two sons to relocate in 1944. The move from Edmonton to Procter provided Garner the landscape and time to focus on art and become a self-supporting artist. A variety of jobs including setting up a commercial garden, carpentry and custodial work provided income but reduced the time he was able to dedicate to painting. This issue was resolved when he took the position of the local school bus driver, which allowed uninterrupted time between the morning and afternoon runs to paint.
Alec Garner’s reputation as a painter was known in Alberta, primarily in Edmonton and Calgary, where he regularly sold his work. Little was known of his talents in the Kootenay region until he received a commission in 1949 from Mr. & Mrs. Erb to paint portraits of their children. Mrs. Mildred Erb, who was one of the founders of the Nelson Art Club that eventually became part of what is now Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History, became a strong supporter of his work. The Erb commission generated others, two of the better known were Selwyn G. Blaylock, President of the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company in Trail and Frederick Clark, Anglican Bishop of the Kootenays.
When he had established his name locally, Garner joined the Nelson Art Club and began teaching classes. His work became a perennial favourite and was the benchmark that many were measured against.
In the early 1950s, with the SS Moyie coming into her last days of service and having watched her sail regularly past his studio window, Garner and his wife began to research and document the paddlewheelers that once plied the Kootenay, Slocan, Arrow and Okanagan Lakes and the Columbia River. After more than two years of research, Garner began to paint the ships in meticulous detail. The research paid off – the paintings passed the close scrutiny of locals and old-timers. “Echoes of the Paddlewheel” documented the end of an era, illustrating the ships in various locations, seasons and operations, capturing the essence of the working vessels, and has became an historical record of the paddlewheelers.
The first exhibition of the “Echoes of the Paddlewheel” series in May of 1954 for the Nelson Art Club at the Women’s Institute was the best-attended show on record. The series toured to Spokane, Washington in May 1955 as part of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society Annual Conference. The exhibition was scheduled to remain for one month, but due to public interest and demand, it stayed on for another six. The paintings were then shown in Calgary at the Hudson’s Bay Company store, where they were well publicized and warmly received. By the end of the year, the paintings were sold to the Glenbow Foundation in Calgary to become part of their Western Canadiana collection.
Alec Garner was a life long artist, recognized for his landscapes of the Kootenays and Rockies. His paintings are widely collected, from local private collections to provincial and national galleries. Treasured by those who have them they are a testament to a life dedicated to recording the natural world.