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Oliver, B.C. : History Printer Friendly Version

by DMWilson
With thanks to Laura Klassen, Mario Lanthier and Lloyd L. Wong, Dorothy Amor, Barbara Robinson, Julie Cancela, Rosemary Neering, N.L. Barlee.
revised 2008/01/30

Oliver, continued
Towards Osoyoos on the 3A/97

        Some 22 kilometres from the Falls, the 3A/97 rolls into the Town of Oliver (304m). Named for John Oliver, the Liberal premier of B.C. from 1918 to 1927, the Town was the child of a union between irrigation and the Railway and, like Okanagan Falls, used to be an agricultural settlement of seasonal fruit-pickers and chilled track-side warehouses. Oliver today still makes much money from fruit growing, but the fruit doesn’t come into Town except on its way to local tables. Progress has moved the storage facilities out into the orchards. From there refrigerated trucks whisk the produce to market, leaving Oliver’s remaining few old warehouses to make water filtration systems, travel trailers and specialized orchardry equipment.
        In the centre of Town, on 356th Avenue, the Oliver Museum occupies the house raised in 1924 to quarter the Provincial Police detachment. There one can see the old Fairview jail house and learn that 30 years before there was anything at all at Oliver besides desert scrub and dusty cattle, Fairview was a going concern, the biggest settlement by far in the southern Okanagan.

        Up on the valley slopes maybe two miles west of Oliver, Fairview today is nothing but memories and a little cemetery in an abandoned churchyard.
        Though tradition credits a gentleman by the name of One Arm Reid and his sidekick, Ryan, for the discovery of gold here-abouts in 1869, it was another couple of foot-loose prospectors, Fred. Gwatkins and Geo. Sheenan, who, poking at the veins of chalcopyrite and iron pyrite-carrying compact quartz shooting through the schistose, granitic and quartzitic rocks along the old Brigade Trail in 1887, found enough colour to send them high-tailing the nearest Gold Commissioner to register the first claim, the Stemwinder. This claim attracted more miners and soon a community collected to work the Stemwinder, Smuggler, Joe Dandy, Strathyne, Susie, Tinhorn, Wide West and several others. Shafts were sunk into the lode and the ore wrested to the surface, sorted, and the richest packed up to the CP Mainline. Because it presented a nice vista over the Valley, the community became “Fairview” and had population enough that a post office opened on December 1st, 1892. The following May when CP launched the sternwheeler Aberdeen, Fairview exploded into activity, filling waggons with ore for delivery to what eventually became Penticton. Particularly profitable was the Stemwinder of the Winchester Gold Mining Company, Limited, but a lack of working capital hindered its development after the easy ore ran out.
        Big money from down East arrived at Fairview in 1897 when the Fairview Amalgamated Gold Mining Company bought the Stemwinder and the Morning Star. The London-based Fairview Gold Mining Company bought the Joe Dandy group from the British Columbia Development Company and announced plans for a mill nearby on the Okanagan River and a generating station at the Okanagan Falls. Other companies followed: the Tinhorn Quartz Mining Company, Limited, the Cascade Mining Syndicate, the Smuggler Gold Mining and Milling Company of Toronto-based H.H. Dewart, the Oro Fino Gold Mining Company. With the influx of cash things began to happen up on the heights. On March 18th and on June 9th of 1897 townsite plans on adjacent properties were filed by Mr. Latimer and Messrs. Russell and Davidson. Through that year and the next Fairview’s lots sold like hotcakes, especially after the Provincial government’s regional office relocated from Osoyoos. A school opened, the Anglican mission of St. Edward the Confessor was established, and Fairview Amalgamated built what was reputed to be the finest hostelry in the Interior, the three story Hotel Fairview which, for the high, pyramidal roof that capped its square corner tower, was called the “Big Teepee.” In 1900 Dominion Consolidated Mines announced that it would build a generating station at Okanagan Falls to power its proposed mill and sell excess electricity to the town.
        Fairview Amalgamated had been succeeded by the Fairview Corporation, Limited, in 1899, but it was unable to raise sufficient capital as the Boer War dried up the English money market. In 1900 it was forced to suspend operations at the Stemwinder until rescued by the Gooderham-Blackstock Syndicate of Toronto. The New Fairview Corporation had a 10-stamp mill in operation on the claim by December 1st of 1901 and completed new mine headworks early the following year. By 1903 it was evident, however, that the Stemwinder was nearing exhaustion. Though New Fairview continued to hold the property, little work was done over the next 25 years.
        The Big Teepee had burned to the ground in October, 1902, and already faced with declining returns from their Stemwinder mine, its owners didn’t rebuild. Fairview began to disappear. By 1906 the Stemwinder, now in the hands of the Stemwinder Gold and Coal Mining Company, Limited, was the only mine in operation. From a high of 500 at the Turn of the twentieth century, Fairview’s population had dropped to a handful of die-hards by the time that the Great War began. The buildings that survived were abandoned to the cattle which wandered the townsite as part of their grange. When Oliver started building in 1920, the serviceable buildings from Fairview were slipped five miles down the hill to the new settlement. The Annual Report of the Minister of Mines for the Year Ending 31st December, 1922 (Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, Victoria, B.C., 1923) mentions that Federal Mining Company was exploring the claims in the Susie group with diamond drills. In 1923 the Fairview Mining Company took over the work while other dreamers poked at the Morning Star, the Black Diamond and the Silver Crown for a couple of years. F.G. Watkin of Oliver and his partner, J. Davis, owned the Juniper and Huntsman groups and 1924 saw them invest their spare time in development. In 1930, however, as the United States government began to toy with the notion of raising the value of gold, the Fairview properties again attracted interest, particularly the Morning Star—Silver Crown—Black Diamond group. West Kootenay Power and Light had strung its high-tension Oliver–Princeton powerline across the site in 1920, an advantage considered by the entrepreneurs who organized the Morning Star (Fairview) Gold Mines, Limited, in Vancouver in 1933 to buy up the Morning Star, a claim staked and opened by Steve Margott in 1897. Though idle since the turn of the twentieth century, the Mine’s old head-frame was found to be sound and was soon reconditioned. Shops and a camp for 25 men was built on the property and ore was being trucked down to the Railway at Oliver by January 31st, 1934, when president F.D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. treasury to revise its trading price for gold from $20 plus change to $35. Among those joining Morning Star (Fairview)’s rush upon the old camp was the Fairview Amalgamated Gold Mines, Limited, of Vancouver which quickly acquired some 71 claims in the neighbourhood, and the Federal Mining and Smelting Company which got to work on the old Susie.
        Though Fairview’s mines were again hot properties, not so the townsite; but for a few residents in the little camps at the mines, most workers commuted from Oliver. Gradually the townsite was cleared of buildings, the wrecks burned or salvaged, the serviceable ones removed, most to Oliver, but the United Church building made it all the way to Okanagan Falls where it was re-assembled and rededicated in January of 1930. According to N.L Barlee, the old Fairview townsite remained unmolested until N.L. and his friend and his metal detector mapped it and scanned it for artefacts in the 1950s.
        Even at $35 an ounce for gold, however, Fairview’s ore quickly became uneconomic to extract. In 1939 Fairview Amalgamated paid a dividend, its first and only and come 1944 it optioned its properties to the Kelowna Exploration Company, Limited, and its three-man crew. A new outfit, Fairview Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada, Limited, was at work on the properties with 13 men in 1946. It was the last organized assault on Fairview’s rock, and ended up in 1950 with CP’s Consolidated Mining and Smelting gouging the quartz out of Fairview Amalgamated’s old properties for flux for its smelter at Trail.

        Mining was not the first industry which engaged Whites in the southern Okanagan Valley. As more and more men rushed to the Fraser River’s golden sandbars in 1858, entrepreneurs saw opportunity to profit. Though fish were plentiful in the Fraser, they were not “real” meat, and miners, hard at work sluicing sand, wanted to spend little time angling or haggling with Indians. They wanted beef, and “General” Joel Palmer, the erstwhile superintendent of Indian affairs for the Territory of Washington, knew where to get it. Cattle had been driven into Oregon territory in the early 1840’s and thrived. With their numbers far exceeding local demands, beeves were cheap, and Palmer collected a herd and in the spring of 1858 drove it and thirteen waggons full of supplies up the old Brigade Trail to Fort Kamloops. Profits were immense and Palmer immediately collected another herd, wintered it in the Walla Walla district and delivered it to the Cariboo in June of 1860. Success attracts emulators, and, among others, J.J. Jeffries, the Harper brothers Thaddeus and Jerome, Ben Snipes, soon drove herds north. These men noticed the lush bunchgrass prairies which extended into the Cache Creek area from the Okanagan and, to get the $500 per head price—the equivalent of some 10,000 1999 dollars—that miners were willing to pay for beeves in the spring of the year, began to over-winter part of their herds in the area. The advantage of maintaining herds on British territory became apparent in late 1862 when the U.S. government, needing to secure supplies for its troops during the American Civil War, declared an embargo on the export of cattle.
        The embargo was modified in 1863 to allow beeves raised on American territory bounded by the Pacific to leave America, but the folly of relying on Americans to supply cattle had been made clear to the Colony of B.C. Though the Land Ordinance act of 1860 allowed British subjects to acquire 160 acres of land as long as they “proved up” by cultivating part of it, it wasn’t until New Westminster began granting seven year long pastoral leases under the Land Ordinance of 1865 that Tom Ellis, J.C Haynes, and W.H. Lowe got into the ranching business in the Okanagan. Soon tough little bovines were at work chewing the bunch-grass to eventual extinction, fattening up for their journey to market along the Dewdney Trail to Hope, later up to the S&O railhead at Vernon.

        In 1839, again in 1840 and yet again in 1842 the Jesuit father Modeste Demers left his quarters at the HBC’s Fort Vancouver and made his way up the Columbia and the old Brigade Trail to come proselytizing into the Okanagan. For four years beginning in 1841, father Pierre-Jean de Smet carried on Demers’ work, and was in turn followed in 1845 and 1846 by father John Nobili. Doubtless their work had an impact upon Native life in the Okanagan, but the man who truly changed the face of the Valley was father C.J-B.F. Pandosy of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. At L’Anse au Sable near what is now Kelowna he established his Okanagan Mission in 1859. Experimenting, four years later he planted fruit trees. They flourished, and when local ranches had been established, the families thereon began expanding their kitchen gardens with little orchards as well. By 1890, the Okanagan’s potential for orchardry was gaining wide-spread notice.
        In 1891, two years before beginning his five-year term as Canada’s Governor-general in September of 1893, J.C. Gordon—Lord Aberdeen—was advised by his financial councillors to get in on the ground floor of the budding Okanagan fruit industry. He did, buying the Vernon brothers’ Coldstream Ranche at the north end of Lake Okanagan and Guisachan Farm near the Mission, instructing that 200 acres on each property be set to fruit. The eventual successes of this venture attracted real estate agents who bought up Valley ranch lands, diverted mountain-born streams into irrigation flumes and, with the publicity department of the CPR trumpeting the glories of the Valley, began selling lands piecemeal to mainly British settlers. The industry blossomed, the Shuswap & Okanagan rewarding CP with a steady income rolling car loads of fruit out onto the Prairies and points east.
        By the time Aberdeen subdivided his properties into “fruit ranches” and began selling them off in the early 19-aughts, Tom Ellis owned or leased the entire Valley south of Lake Okanagan. Though losing much of his herd during the bitter winter of 1892-’93, he held onto his operation until May 10th, 1905, when he accepted a $405,000 offer from the Southern Okanagan Land Company which Member of the Provincial Parliament Lytton Wilmot Shatford and his brother, Walter Tyrrel Shatford, had organized the previous January. Splitting their holdings into northern and southern sections of about 13,000 and 22,000 acres, respectively, the brothers subdivided the northern section and sold it lot by lot to fruit farmers. Recognizing that it was beyond their means to irrigate, they kept the southern section as rangeland. Peter McIntyre, who had bought a few fertile, easily irrigated acres at the base of the Bluff from the Haynes estate in 1892, remained the Valley’s souther-most orchardist.
        On May 7th, 1915, a German U-boat sank the Cunard ocean-liner Lusitania off Ireland. Among the 1,200 drowned were 128 United States citizens. Germany’s ultimate refusal to accept responsibility or offer reparations was the last straw for U.S. president T.W. Wilson and his congress. Having already severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3rd of 1917, on April 6th America declared war. Within the year it was evident that the Germans were crumbling under the weight of men and machines that the U.S. flung against them.
        The Liberal B.C. government of “Honest John” Oliver saw that the War would soon end and that battalions of restless servicemen would be returning to poor prospects. As many of these men had been farmers before they were soldiers, the Liberals searched the Interior for potentially productive lands upon which to settle the veterans. In 1918 the province passed the Soldiers’ Land Act and under it set up the South Okanagan Lands Project (SOLP) which began paying the Southern Okanagan Land Company what would eventually total $350,000 for its southern section.
        On January 30th, 1919, SOLP began work on the Intake Dam at the base of McIntyre Bluff. Over the next eight years the 23 concrete lined miles of the Main Canal was dug southward to the Boundary. Eighteen and a half feet across the top, five feet deep and delivering 230 cubic feet per second, SOLP designed it to enable farmers to put nearly a foot of water per month on every acre of bottom land in the southern Valley. To get the Canal from the east side of the Valley to the benches on the west, the “big siphon”—now concrete, but originally a 1,940 foot-long wood-stave pipe of six and a half-foot-diameter—was constructed. It runs directly beneath the centre of Oliver. The arrival of electricity from the West Kootenay Power and Light Company’s Lower Kootenay River generating stations in 1922 meant that canal and river waters could be pumped up onto higher elevations to bring portions of the Valley’s benches into production. With water added to the region’s bounty of sunshine, the arid soils found themselves quickly shaded by vine crops and fruit trees as veterans took advantage of the easy payment terms to buy up the five and ten acre plots.
        Taming the wild spring run-offs with a series of reservoirs on highland creeks connected to the irrigation system by a network of flumes and pipes, by 1950, writes Rosemary Neering in A Traveller’s Guide to Historic British Columbia (Whitecap Books, Vancouver, 1993), the SOLP had all but eliminated the annual inundation caused by brush and trash plugging the siphon and canal. When the canalization of the River itself was completed in 1958, lowland landowners were free of flooding.
        SOLP was managed and financed by the Provincial government since its inception, and for forty years delivered water to farmers in the Valley at a price greatly below cost. The “Free Enterprise” Social Credit party of W.A.C. Bennett got itself re-elected by a comfortable margin in the fall of 1963 and the following January informed the Oliver and Osoyoos Fruit Growers’ Association that the province was getting out of the irrigation business. On June 25th the Association volunteered itself to be the cornerstone of the locally constituted South Okanagan Lands Irrigation District (SOLID) which operated the system until 1989. When SOLID was dissolved that December, the Towns of Oliver and Osoyoos assumed control of the system which now delivers nineteen billion imperial gallons—nearly one hundred billion litres—to the Valley’s parched soils annually.
Oliver, continued

        As did its orchards, Oliver, evolving from the Project’s main construction camp, blossomed. Notes Julie Cancela in The Ditch (copyright 1986 by the Oliver Heritage Society Museum and Archives), five years after the opening of its post office on May 1st, 1921, the settlement’s population numbered 500, eleven years later, 1,800.1 With the arrival of the KVR in 1923, trackside warehouses, packinghouses and storage sheds sprang up to distribute machinery and handle the tons of cantaloupes, cucumbers, tomatoes and tree fruits that poured forth annually. The government had built a sawmill on the eastern bench in 1919 to supply lumber for the SOLP and in 1925 the Fairweather brothers bought it. Rebuilt downtown on the riverside, it went to work as Oliver Sawmills Limited and cut most of the materials used in the flanking rows of false-fronted commercial buildings on Main Street and the houses that popped up during the 1920s. Passing to Noranda Mining’s Northwood Mills Limited and then to Weyerhaeuser Canada, the mill was closed on June 30th, 1967 and was dismantled when Weyerhaeuser concentrated its Valley operations at Okanagan Falls.
        South of town on September 6th, 1937, after eight years of on-again, off-again labour, a Depression era “make work” project funded by the federal Department of Transport saw the completion of Oliver’s airfield, part of the Trans-Canada Airway system. At 49º 10' 24"N and 119º 33'W, in 2007 the field is run by the Town of Oliver public works department, and the South Okanagan Flying Club. Set your altimeter at 1015m.
        Oliver grew as the fruit industry boomed during the War, and on the last day of 1945, incorporated itself as a Village. It became a Town on January 1st, 1991.
        On a July day in 1977 Oliver watched its last train depart. The CPR had absorbed the KVR on January 1st, 1931, and by the late ‘60s found itself robbed of its freight by the refrigerated trucks which whisked fruit fresh from the farm straight to the grocery store. With not enough business to pay its way in the southern Valley, in 1978 the Railway obtained permission to abandon its Osoyoos Subdivision south of Weyerhaeuser mill at Okanagan Falls, stripping the steel the next spring. As consolation to the Village, the Company donated the station that the KVR had raised in 1923. Refurbished, it serves as the local tourist information centre where one can get a self-guided walking tour which will stroll the visitor past the 1922 United Church—the oldest in Town—and the most interesting building, the well-travelled Oliver Hotel which opened as the Queensboro in New Westminster in 1912 and was brought by train, barge and truck to its present site in 1921 by Harry Fairweather.
        If the morning misty Centennial RV Campground in downtown Oliver by the River and the bike path does not appeal, motels there are scattered along the Highway south. The old Oliver Hotel is, in the last year of the Twentieth Century, as yet unrestored and a truly divey-looking establishment. The management of the nearby Reopel Hotel—now the “Desert Arms”—is not interested in accommodating over-night guests.
Towards Osoyoos on the 3A/97

        The biking/hiking trail on the right-of-way of the old KVR continues south from Oliver, keeping fairly close to the River. Four or five kilometres along it passes Haynes, never much and now no more than a name on long out-of-date railway maps. Its main claim to fame is that from 1923 to 1944 it was the southern terminus of the KVR’s Okanagan Branch.
        Via the 3A/97 it is but twenty kilometres from Oliver to Osoyoos. Cutting through miles of sweet-smelling orchards of pears and cherries and apples, the Highway is wide and new-smooth and even as it squeezes by Deadman’s Lake on the left, it carries shoulders wide enough to inspire confidence in even the most nervous cyclist.
        Like all valleys in B.C.’s Interior, the Okanagan is a major migratory flyway, and Deadman’s Lake is part of the 460 hectare Osoyoos Oxbow Fish and Wildlife Reserve which was established in 1980 to preserve some wildlands as an avian stop-over. The signs in the Highway-side rest area say that Deadman’s has been stocked with bass, a rare fish in Western Canada, and in the surrounding rushes some 200 bird species, 40 mammals, ten reptiles and eight amphibians have been spotted.
        South from Deadman’s the Highway climbs up onto the Valley’s upper western bench to hump its way along over the hillocks and gaze down on hay fields and jungles of marsh cat-tails on the River flats Thundering air-cannons discourage birds from feasting in the orchards and vineyards which spill down the slopes. Across the Valley, the Okanagan People have leased large tracts of their Osoyoos Indian Reserve #2 to vineyards and, on the other side of Lake Osoyoos, have built the Inkameep Campground and a golf course to attract a share of the tourist dollars that annually flow into this vale.
        Past the access road to the old Osoyoos Cemetery at the north end of Lake Osoyoos, keeping well above the Railway’s right-of-way skirting the Lake’s western shores, the Highway rolls down to its controlled intersection with the Crowsnest Highway coming down out of the Richter Pass.


  1. Few of these good folks were of the Oriental persuasion, for around the time that a group of land owners at Osoyoos passed a resolution demanding Asians be barred from owning land in their neighbourhood, so did the people at Oliver. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click browser’s “Back” arrow

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