What is now Vernon, British Columbia was first inhabited by the Okanagan Indians of the Interior Salish People. The current area of the city was called Nintle-Moos-Chin by Okanagan Indians meaning “jumping over creek”. This was because at this point the banks of present day BX Creek nearly met and it was possible to leap across it. A man of note among the Okanagan Indians was Kalamalka, 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.
In 1811, David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company (later part of the Hudson’s Bay Company) became the first white man to see the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan Brigade Trail was a main Hudson’s Bay trail linking Ft. Vancouver in Washington State to what is now Kamloops. It followed the Okanagan River and made use of early Indian trading routes blazing through the woods of the west side of Okanagan Lake. Many miners also came 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.
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.
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 Vernon 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”.
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.
Up to this point the area now known as Vernon had gone by three previous names ( Nintle-Moos-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 George Vernon. 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.
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” (Greater Vernon Museum). They also subdivided several parcels of land for others who wanted a future in the fruit growing business. 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.
Perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of Vernon and of the Okanagan Valley in general was in 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.
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 Director and Curator, Ron Candy, says “You can compare it to the Kelowna International Airport of the time” (Vernon Morningstar).
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 again, “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.”
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 surrounding areas, is part of the Regional District of the North Okanagan which was formed in 1965.
It is indeed a place of great beauty and historic significance. So now that you have an idea of Vernon’s wonderful heritage go and dive further into it - read a book from the library, take a tour of our amazing murals downtown or visit our great museum.