In 1867, placer gold was discovered at the mouth of Forty-Nine Mile Creek, just west of what would one day become the booming frontier mining town of Nelson, British Columbia. The modest discovery encouraged prospectors to venture into the region’s isolated and rugged mountains in search of precious minerals, although 20 years would pass until the explorers stuck it rich. The Hall brothers of Colville, Washington, lead a large party of family and friends into the Salmon River watershed and discovered a major copper-silver deposit near the peak of Toad Mountain. They staked the famous Silver King mine the following Spring, and within six months a booming mining camp had spilled over the mountain slopes and a townsite was surveyed in the valley below for the future community of Nelson.
The new community grew very rapidly, and by 1897 Nelson was the largest city between Vancouver and Winnipeg. The prosperity generated by the area’s mines and those of the nearby Silvery Slocan inspired investors to build a hydroelectric dam on Cottonwood Creek and to install electric lights, an electric streetcar system, and other public amenities found only in the largest of cities. Merchants and builders construct fashionable brick and stone buildings which eventually became the core of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. The city expanded with industrial gas works, a shipyard, and camps of railway men building lines from the South, East and West.
In 1891, the first railway to arrive was the Spokane and Fort Sheppard, connecting the smelters an factories of the Inland Empire of Washington State to the new riches being discovered in the Kootenay district. Wagons and pack mules carried freight and passengers from the depot at Mountain Station, high above the fledgling town, down the steep mountain slopes to the tent hotels and raw-log shacks which defined Baker Street. The railway line then continued down the mountains to reach the shore of Kootenay Lake 5 miles north-east of Nelson, though it was prevented from completing a direct route back to town by the Canadian Pacific Railway which owned the rights to build along the lakeshore.
The CPR itself was expanding westward from Calgary through the Crowsnest Pass, and reached the southern end of Kootenay Lake by 1898. In the meantime, it reached into the Kootenay treasure trove by employing a fleet of sternwheeler ships to draw ores and freight eastward along its own track system, competing fiercely agains the American-owned Nelson & Fort Sheppard railway. It also purchased the small Columbia & Kootenay railway which connected Nelson westward to modern-day Castlegar. There, at Robson Landing on the Lower Columbia River, ores, freight, and passengers could be transferred to another fleet of sternwheelers that plied Arrow Lakes, making a connection to the main CPR line at Revelstoke. As the mining boom continued, and to overcome national concerns about losing the mineral-rich Kootenay region to American expansionism, the CPR pushed it’s rail line along the rugged shores of Kootenay Lake to reach Nelson in 1905.
To the heartbreak of many eager promotors and new arrivals, the mining boom did not last. In the early 1900’s, the price of precious metals fell significantly and did not recover, and the frontier city fell into a quieter role as a regional administrative and supply centre. The mines played out and the lumber industry took on greater importance as a major employer in the area. The railways began hauling greater amounts of logs, building materials, and match blocks, out of the region, feeding the still-growing cities of Vancouver, Calgary, and Spokane. The population growth of Nelson and other towns in the West Kootenay slowed to a standstill, and many smaller communities and mining camps were abandoned to become ghost towns. Property development slowed dramatically, which had the curious consequence of preserving many of the city’s beautiful heritage buildings for future generations to use and enjoy.
Through the years, there have been brief resurgences of mining activity as the price of metals rose due to speculation or war, though mostly at a smaller scale which never sparked the economy as it did in the pioneer years. The CPR supported a number of efforts to invigorate the region, by supporting the development of a fruit farming to draw immigrants and investment into the region. Orchards soon spread across the slopes and bench-lands surrounding Kootenay Lake, with bountiful and rich harvests of plums, cherries and apples which the CPR shipped all over North America. By the 1920’s, over 60% of the province’s cherry crop was grown in in the West Kootenay region, and the fruit was prized for its quality and taste as far away as Europe. But heartbreak again descended upon the region when a cherry-virus devastated the area’s orchards over 5 year period during the height of the depression in the 1930’s. Competition from the newly established Okanagan apple industry finished the remaining orchards, which were slowly abandoned into the advancing forest.
The CPR also attempted to establish a tourism industry along Kootenay Lake, and established a lodge in Balfour with plans to build a chateau-style resort similar to their grand hotel in Banff National Park. Their plans were interrupted by the start of World War One, and then quietly dropped as the nature of railway tourism changed with the growing post-war popularity of motorcars. Due to the remote location, paved highways did not reach into the Kootenay Lake area until the 1950’s, winding along steep mountain edges and across many one-lane bridges and cable-ferries. The roads did bring tourists, who came to experience nature and backcountry opportunities. Camping and fishing grew as important industries, and the seeds were laid for the region’s first ski hills.
Natural beauty and isolation also brought a new kind of settler into the Nelson area, when American draft-dodgerers, counter-culture hippies, and new-age artists began to arrive in the 1960’s. Communes and organic farms soon appeared in the remote valleys and on mountain slopes, which laid the foundation for change in a solidly blue-collar town. As industries, workshops, and mills closed or left town during the inflationary years of the 1980’s, Nelson began to develop a curious and eccentric arts-culture defined by organic foods, artisan crafts, sidewalk cafes, community markets, and a liasse-faire approach to society and politics. This culture strongly identifies with Nelson’s natural beauty and backcountry access, yet lives in balance with the region’s logging industry and it’s historic architectural fabric developed by 19th-century mining promoters and community developers.
Tourism is a major part of Nelson’s modern identity. A stroll through Nelson’s downtown is now a stroll through the history of the city’s former abundance and ambitions, its economic ups and downs, and the stalwart spirit of community innovation that has endured to the present day.