The Slocan Valley - Our History
by Katherine Gordon
Today’s communities of the Slocan valley are
barely one hundred years old, and yet the Slocan has seen some of
Canada’s most dramatic and interesting history.
Several thousand years ago aboriginal people occupied
the valley, using its resources for food and shelter. Archaeological
sites are scattered along the length of Slocan River and there are
some beautiful and well preserved rock art pictures on the western
cliffs of Slocan Lake. There are members of the Sinixt Nation
living in the valley today, and the Ktunaxa
Nation are discussing areas in the Slocan Valley as
part of their contemporary treaty talks. But until as late as 1890,
almost no-one else had even seen the Slocan Valley, let alone knew
A discovery in the early 1890s would change all that forever. Rich
silver-lead ore was found near Sandon, and thousands
of prospectors and fortune hunters poured into the area, lending
it its well worn name “The Silvery Slocan.” Mining created
towns like Sandon – styling itself the “Paris of the
West” – New Denver, and Slocan
City. Several smaller settlements sprang up along what
is now Highway 31A between New Denver and Kaslo. Competing railway
companies rapidly built lines into the mining camps. For a time
it seemed the prosperity would last forever. The population of Slocan
City and Sandon were in the thousands and the champagne flowed liberally.
But it was a short-lived phase: by 1910 the fortunes of the mining
towns had declined to almost nothing. Many of them vanished altogether.
One or two, like New Denver and Silverton, pegged their future on
agriculture and recreation instead; and Sandon became a veritable
“ghost town,” with its population sinking to as low
as one person in the 1980s.
The south end of the valley was largely settled by farmers, the
most famous of which were the Russian Doukhobors
who came west to British Columbia in 1908. The Doukhobors were escaping
religious persecution in their homeland and the Slocan seemed the
ideal place to settle and practise their communal lifestyle. Unfortunately,
clashes with the government regarding compliance with administrative
regulations and taxation requirements would see the Doukhobors lose
almost all of their communal lands. A series of protests by some
Doukhobors sparked severe government retaliation, and even resulted
in the enforced separation of parents from children for a number
of years; a matter that the government is now making attempts to
There are many Doukhobors living in the Slocan today. The rich
culture of agriculture, spirituality, and communal cooperation had
become part of the way of life in the valley for all of its residents
and the Doukhobor
Museum at Castlegar is carefully preserving and recording
the history and traditions of the Doukhobors.
Following in the footsteps of the Doukhobors was a brief rush of
British immigrants, lured to the West Kootenays on the promise of
“Grow apples and grow rich in Appledale!”
Buying lots sight unseen, they were middle class “genteel”
men and women who came to the valley with visions of tidy apple
orchards and white picket fences – only to find steeply sloping
sections covered in salal and huge trees. Many of them fled further
west to Vancouver but a few stayed to persevere. Today only the
last lingering blossoming fruit trees in the spring reminds the
passerby of the valiant efforts of those farmers – the weather
and the isolation of the valley would ultimately defeat them.
1940s saw yet another cultural addition to the valley – the
result of a deplorable decision on the part of government, but one
which would once again enrich the Slocan permanently. During World
War Two, Canada’s citizens of Japanese descent living on the
west coast were forced to leave their homes and possessions and
were interned in camps until the war was over. Most of those camps
were in the north end of the Slocan Valley. David Suzuki was interned
as a little boy in the Slocan camp. The remnants of the New Denver
camp remain visible today, as private family homes in the southern
section of New Denver known as “The Orchard.”
Many of the Japanese stayed in the Slocan after the war was over
– partly because they had no homes to return to on the coast,
and partly because they had fallen in love with it. Their memories
are preserved at the Nikkei Memorial Internment Centre in New Denver.
The 1970s saw another influx of immigrants. This time many of them
were Americans fleeing the Vietnam War or the American system, but
there were also many Canadians heading west from the big eastern
cities and the prairies. Communal living and agricultural “back
to the land” self-sustenance became popular all over again.
This period also saw the rise of the burgeoning arts community
for which the Slocan has now become so well known – ranging
from theatre to textiles to canvas, and much more.
The Slocan’s more recent history has seen it continue to
blend its diverse cultures into a way of life that continues to
be challenging, adventurous, and incredibly rich. The people of
the Slocan are no longer watching history happen to them: they are
making their history for themselves.
Come live with us, for a day, a week, forever….
Katherine Gordon is the author of The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley
(Sono Nis Press, 2004).