Search This Blog

Monday, December 28, 2015

8 Fascinating Facts About the History of Vernon, BC (During Its 125th Birthday)!

See also A Historic Timeline of Greater Vernon, BC here

#1 The Okanagan First Nations 
(“Syeelhwh Nation”)

What is now Vernon, British Columbia was first inhabited by the Okanagan  ("Sqilxw") Indians  of the Interior Salish People. The current area of the city was called Nintle-Noos-Chin by Okanagan Indians meaning roughly  “jumping over place”. This was because at this point the banks of the present day BX Creek nearly met and it was possible to leap across it. 

Of note among the Okanagan Indians was a chief named Hwistesmetxe'qen meaning Walking Grizzly Bear (1780/1785 – 1865). He would later be called Nicolas or Nicola by the fur traders and thus lent his name to many geographical features including the Nicola Valley. He at times lived at the Head of the Lake (The northwest tip of Okanagan Lake) and was known as a very great chief amongst the Interior Indians and a wise and peacemaking partner of the white fur traders. As Stan Saurwein states in his book Fintry: Lives, Loves and Dreams the father of the famous Indian Chief Nicola walked these lands with his people. “Pelkamulox’s people spent their summers roaming the plateau down to the Fintry delta and their winters at the village of Nkama’peleks, near the head of Lake Okanagan.”

Goastamana, son of Chief Kalamalka, with Ellen Ellison. Photo Credit

Kalamalka was also a well-known Indian chief in the area that is now Vernon. He was so popular that one of the first hotels in the city was named after him. Later, the beautifully coloured lake just south of Vernon would be renamed Kalamalka as well. 

#2 The Fur Traders & the Gold Rush 

In 1811, David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company became the first white man (as far as we know) to see the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan Brigade Trail was a main Hudson’s Bay trail linking Ft Vancouver (Washington State) to what is now Kamloops. It made use of early Indian trading routes and followed the Okanagan River and then blazed through the woods of the West side of Okanagan Lake. It was a significant boon to the growth of what would be Vernon. 

The Okanagan Trail, which was more or less the same route as the Brigade Trail brought miners up from the U.S.A. through the Okanagan and back to the areas of the Fraser River gold rush. In 1863 gold was discovered in Cherry Creek (about 40 Kilometres East of Vernon) and this led to some miners and traders settling in the Vernon area.

Luc Girourad is known as the first permanent white settler in the Vernon area (c.1861) – his cabin can still be seen beside the roundabout near the Schubert Centre ( 30th Ave. and 35th St.)  In 1859 the Oblate Missionaries of the Catholic Church entered the Valley having traveled all the way from France via the Oregon Territory. Anglican and Protestant churches would soon arrive in the ensuing years. 

#3 The Ranching Years 

In 1864 Forbes and Charles Vernon obtained a large ranch from fellow Irishman Charles Houghton. Houghton had named it the Coldstream Ranch likely after the Coldstream Guards, a regiment of the British Army. The District of Coldstream retains this name to this day and the nearby city was named in honour of Forbes Vernon.   In the same year Francis Barnard, of the BX Express fame, started a ranch north of the town site to breed his horses for use in his stagecoach business which was a formative influence in the early days of British Columbia. Today the area north of Vernon is still known as “The BX”

Cornelius O'Keefe
Forbes George Vernon

It was 1867 when perhaps the most famous of the ranchers, Cornelius O’Keefe, arrived with two others – Thomas Greenhow and Thomas Wood -  to establish a ranch at the Head of Okanagan Lake. This is the same year that the first town site was settled due in large part to satisfy the needs of the surrounding ranches. Price Ellison was also a very influential rancher, businessman and politician in the area and had his ranch near the bottom of East Hill. Vernon was at one 

time (c.1877) known as Forge Valley because of Ellison’s blacksmith shop.  Later it would become known as Priest’s Valley due to the presence of the Oblate Missionaries. 

#4 The Beginnings of a City 

As has been mentioned the area now known as Vernon had gone by three previous names ( Nintle-Noos-Chin, Forge Valley and Priest’s Valley). Then in 1885, E.J. Tronson and Charles Brewer laid out a town site and gave Vernon its fourth name – Centreville.  It wasn’t until 1887 that the town was officially named Vernon after Forbes G. Vernon. Back then local streets were named for local pioneers (you can still see the original names of some streets on small signs on the street posts) and today’s main business street (30th Avenue) was then known as Barnard Avenue after Francis Barnard. 

In 1892, Vernon was finally incorporated as a city of British Columbia. It became home to banks, hotels, schools, a fire hall, a hospital, a city newspaper, a courthouse and many varieties of stores. Japanese and Chinese settler were also an important part of the culture and history of Vernon and there was for many years a “Chinatown” in Vernon’s midst.  Vernon was not only the first city incorporated in the Okanagan Valley but was for many years the largest and most influential one as well. 

#5 The Fruit Growing Industry 

Lord and Lady Aberdeen visited the Vernon area in 1890 and a year later purchased the Coldstream Ranch from Forbes Vernon. In 1892 the Aberdeen’s had 100 fruit trees planted at the ranch “in an effort to kick start a fruit growing industry in the region.” They also subdivided several parcels of land for others who wanted a future in the fruit growing business. 

Lord and Lady Aberdeen and family. PC: Greater Vernon Museum

Before long the Aberdeen’s were selling their produce to the CPR dining cars and hotels. However, they soon realized the need for irrigation channels and eventually the Grey Canal would be built in 1908. It would soon help irrigate the entire Vernon area.  The fruit industry in Coldstream and Vernon had begun and would eventually become famous all over the country and the world for its fine produce. The famous Vernon Fruit Union was eventually established in 1913.

#6 The Railway & Steamboats 

Perhaps one of the most significant years in the history of Vernon and of the Okanagan Valley in general was 1892 when a spur line called the Shuswap and Okanagan Railway was completed. Beginning as on off shoot of the famed Transcontinental Railway in Sicamous, the S & O  was the brainchild of Forbes Vernon and F.S. Barnard, among others, and it connected Vernon, Okanagan Landing just west of Vernon, and eventually all  of the Valley to the rest of the world. 

The launch of the SS Sicamous. PC

At Okanagan Landing where the tracks ended, the steam boats began. They travelled the entire distance of Okanagan Lake paddling past such places as Fintry, Okanagan Centre, Kelowna, Summerland and finally Penticton. Small scale commercial boating had been running since 1882 through the efforts of Captain Thomas Dolman Shorts but when the railway came and the first steam boat, the SS Aberdeen was built, commercial goods and passenger transport really took off. In reference to Okanagan Landing, Greater Vernon Museum’s Curator, Ron Candy, says “You can compare (Okanagan Landing) to the Kelowna International Airport of the time”. 

#7 The Military Heritage 

Although there had been a number of attempts to form a militia unit in Vernon it wasn’t until 1908 that the first such unit was officially formed – it was called the Canadian Mounted Rifles and later the 30th Regiment B.C. Horse but was known more commonly as the Okanagan Mounted Rifles. A military heritage had begun to take root in the Okanagan. To quote Ron Candy,  “In 1912, the same year the 30th B.C. Horse came into being, a permanent annual district summer training camp for cavalry and infantry militia units was established in Vernon.  The camp was located on Mission Hill; the same area used today for cadet training.” This camp would be home to up to 2000 men in 1914 – two thirds the population of Vernon at the time. 

Mural in downtown Vernon depicting the military. PC: Tourism Vernon

During WW1 the 30th B.C. Horse went overseas…"During its service in France, the Regiment took part in a number of battles including Ypres, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, and Passchendaele.  A total of 686 members of the regiment were killed in action or died from wounds." The regiment eventually morphed into the British Columbia Dragoons and fought in WW2 where they landed in Marseilles and ended up capturing the town of Delfzijl, one of Germany’s last defenses. 

On a sad note we must record the dark history of our WW1 Internment camp. The camp was on the grounds of what is now MacDonald Park near Seaton High School and "...thousands of Ukrainians and others of European descent and their families were interred and forced to do heavy labour. Of the 8,579 people interred, more than 5,000 were of Ukrainian background and many were women and children. Many were not released until 1920.” (Vernon Morningstar) 

#8 The Evolution of the City 

There are many more stories of Vernon from the beginnings of Sovereign Lake and Silverstar Mountain right up to the world class resorts above Okanagan Lake and of course the world famous wine industry at our doorstep. Today Vernon, along with the District of Coldstream and other historic surroundings, is part of the Regional District of the North Okanagan which was formed in 1965.

Kalamalka Lake

From Okanagan Lake to Swan Lake to Kalamalka Lake and the valleys in between Vernon has always been a place of unrivaled beauty. From the First Nations, fur traders and miners to the ranchers, businessmen and politicians, Vernon, British Columbia has also had an illustrious history in the Okanagan Valley, the province and the country. To live in a place of such beauty and history is indeed a privilege. 

So now that you have an idea of our city’s wonderful heritage go and dive further into it…. read more articles on this blog (linked throughout this article), read a book from the library, take a tour of our amazing murals or best of all visit our great museum. 

"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters..." Psalm 23:1-2

Sources & Further Reading: 

The Greater Vernon Museum and Archives:



Valley of dreams : A Pictorial History of Vernon and district

The British Garden of Eden; Paul M. Koroscil

Fintry: Lives, Loves and Dreams; Stan Saurwein 

The Vernon Morningstar

Correspondence with Dr. Duane Thomson, President of Lake Country Museum


1 comment: