For 90 years, the historic M.V. International has plied the liquid border of Upper Waterton Lake at the 45th parallel, ferrying passengers from the heart of one national park to the northern gateway of another on a nautical voyage symbolizing diplomacy and transboundary collaboration.
In 1932, the vision of peace and accord became official when the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was established, making it the world’s first international peace park and paving the way for future transboundary collaborations worldwide, of which there are now 170.
But even before its official designation, the International was making her daily crossings of the seven-mile long lake, and today is the oldest wooden boat operating in Canada, as well as the oldest wooden boat inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard this side of the Mississippi.
“She is just a wonderful old girl,” said Rod Kretz, whose family has owned Waterton Internation Shoreline Cruise Co. for more than 60 years, and in 1992 committed to maintaining the boat in historic fashion, right down to the brass cowlings and fittings from its birth era.
“It was a huge commitment, but it was important to our family to maintain its historic integrity, and today she is in better and safer shape than ever,” said Kretz, whose family purchased the boat in 1986. “It really is a throwback into history when you travel down the lake and you see the same features in the park that visitors saw in its infancy, and on the same boat.”
The wooden materials for Waterton’s flagship vessel were milled in Kalispell in 1927, transported by railcar to the town of Cardston, Alberta, and hauled by horseback to Goat Haunt in Glacier National Park.
There, on the south shore of Upper Waterton Lake, the International was built by the late Captain J.W. “Billy” Swanson, the shipwright who constructed much of the fleet that plies park lakes, including the 58-foot long, 100-passenger DeSmet, which was constructed in Kalispell and hauled to Lake McDonald.
Hunkered down at the south end of the lake in the wilderness backcountry of Glacier Park and inside the Goat Haunt Chalet, Swanson and his crew built a large steam box to bend the cedar planks and oak frames, creating a malleability that allowed the wood to do a full compound twist along the length of the boat.
The 165-passenger boat was finished in 1927 after two months of labor and launched in 1928, captained by P.W. Primrose with the intent of carrying visitors on saddle horse tours from Glacier to Waterton to stay at the newly opened Prince of Wales Hotel, the celebrated architectural event of the 1920s, and then return to Glacier to continue their tour of the park’s historic chalets.
The Prince of Wales Hotel held a strong allure for American citizens eager to skirt Prohibition in the United States and visit Alberta, where liquor regulations were less strict, though drinking was prohibited on Sunday. Between 1933 and 1935, after Prohibition had ended in the U.S., the International hosted Midnight Frolics, carrying dancers from Waterton to Goat Haunt, where they could legally drink and dance. The big band of Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen provided the entertainment, both on the boat and at Goat Haunt Chalet.
In 1935, during a period when the Great Northern Railway closed the Prince of Wales due to an economic downturn caused by the Great Depression, a forest fire ignited on the shoreline of Upper Waterton Lake, blowing north toward the town. The International was used to shuttle firefighters to snuff out the blaze.
“They saved the hotel and the town,” Kretz said.
The International has since shuttled an estimated 1.5 million visitors across the shimmering border between its port of birth in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park townsite.
During the busy summer season, when the population of Waterton spikes from about 50 residents to more than 2,000 daily visitors, the scenic cruise from Canada into the U.S. is popular, carrying more than 160 people up to four times a day.
Visitors aboard the International enjoy a one-hour ride that passes jagged cliffs, epochal geologic formations and the U.S.-Canadian border, which is distinguished by a column of razed forest cut to ground level and marked every few hundred yards by 5-foot-tall steel monuments identifying each country’s side.
Mount Cleveland, the tallest in Glacier Park, bristles from the rim of the mountain-scape, while the International continues to track along its natal lake.
On June 24, Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. will host an invitation-only commemorative anniversary cruise to celebrate the milestone.
“It is going to be a real thrill for us in 10 years when she hits 100 years old,” Kretz said. “And it is going to be our job to get her there.”