For a town of its size, Princeton has a rich, fascinating, and surprisingly turbulent--history. The region's mineral wealth, from ochre to copper. coal, and even gold, has played an important role in making Princeton's history so interesting. The ebb and flow of mining has led to frantic gold rushes and shocking economic collapses, overnight rags-to-riches stories and bitterly fought labour struggles.
Princeton's history has also been marked by its geographical isolation, since the town is flanked on both sides by mountain ranges. The sagas of the Dewdney Trail, Kettle Valley Railway, and Hope-Princeton Highways, furnish even tales to fill volumes. This geographic isolation has left a lasting legacy on Princeton, like the intense importance of horses in the local culture.
The scope of Princeton's history is too vast to comprehensively cover in a single tour, and in this tour we will look at some of the most exciting episodes in that history. Stories like the ancient Vermilion Cave, the groundbreaking pioneer John Fall Allison and his wives, the 'Gentleman Bandit' Bill Miner, the gold rush at Granite Creek, and many more.
The tour route is fairly short. It begins on Vermilion Avenue and turns up onto Bridge Street, showing where many of the town's most prominent buildings once stood.
This project is a partnership with the Town of Princeton and the Princeton & District Museum and Archives.
We start our tour of Princeton's history at the former site of the Princeton Brewing Company, which was renowned for its Old Gold Lager. The brewery was opened at the beginning of the last century, and operated under various names until 1961, when the company went under and the brewery was subsequently demolished. As you can see, the concrete foundations built into the sandstone wall remain.
We're starting here not because of the brewery itself--which isn't to say it is not an important piece of local history--but rather because the tour couldn't start at the most appropriate spot, in the wall behind and to the left of the brewery: In the Vermilion Cave. The cave had been a haven for Indigenous people for centuries, and the first Europeans to arrive in the area frequently sheltered in it, giving it the reputation of Princeton's first hotel. Later it was used by the brewery as storage while aging beer, apparently being massive enough to hold 24 freight carloads of lager. Sadly, in 1948 the cave was demolished to make way for the Hope-Princeton Highway, a geological and historical treasure lost in the name of progress.
As we go through the tour we will see much that has been lost, and also much that has been preserved, and we will consider what parts of our shared heritage we should preserve for our children.
Here we see a group of young men posing with the old sign welcoming visitors to Princeton, which was once located a bit further up the road. They look like they are celebrating an occasion, perhaps graduation, and they are clearly proud of the town they call home.
People have been drawn to Princeton for millennia, lured by the bountiful waters of the two rivers, and the incredibly rich and diverse mineral wealth of the region. Indigenous peoples were drawn to this place from far and wide for the red ochre, which has been used by humans all over the world as a paint and dye. The local Upper Similkameen people traded the ochre with other bands far and wide, and left stunning pictographs all over the region.
In a tragedy repeated everywhere across the Americas, European-introduced diseases brought them to the brink of extinction, and they were a shadow of their former selves when the first Europeans arrived, they admired the red ochre found in the river here, and so called this spot Vermilion Forks, the settlement's first name. It wasn't long though before they discovered a different set of minerals abundant here: copper, coal, and gold.
A horse-drawn sleigh is parked outside the Similkameen Hotel, which was located on roughly this spot in the early 20th Century. In those early years hotels like this were a welcome sight for exhausted travellers who made the gruelling trek to Princeton along the Dewdney Trail, which had been painstakingly cut from the mountain slopes by a company of Royal Engineers.
The first European to stake out that route was John Fall Allison, who can rightly be called the founding father of Princeton (and the sire of many of its residents). Allison was dispatched in 1858 by the colonial governor James Douglas to find an all-Canadian route to the interior, and he ended up claiming much of the land around what would become Princeton. He farmed, set up a cattle ranch, panned for gold, and eventually married two remarkable women.
The first was a 15-year-old member of the Upper Similkameen Band, Nora Yakumtikum, whose knowledge of the land and connections with the Indigenous peoples of the Okanagan played no small role in John's early survival and prospering. She has been largely left out of local histories until recently.
The second wife was Susan Louisa Moir, who braved the tough pioneer life with John, bore him 14 children, and developed close relations with all the nearby Indigenous bands, later writing widely praised and published ethnographic studies of the Lower and Upper Similkameen--a remarkable achievement for a woman in that era.
On left is the Similkameen Hotel, which we saw in the last photo, and on the right is the old courthouse, which was responsible for dispensing justice in the Similkameen District. There was one local "loveable rogue" that many of the people of Princeton would have preferred not face justice. If you've ever said "Hands up!" then you'll owe him a debt, for he was the one who coined the term.
He was Bill Miner, Canada's last (or pretty much only, really) great train robber. After a checkered career of stagecoach holdups in America, Bill came to Canada and robbed a CPR train just outside of Mission, BC, before disappearing. It was just then, that a man calling himself George Edwards settled on a Princeton ranch and ingratiated himself with the people of Princeton. Edwards became so beloved that in no time he found himself appointed "master of ceremonies at the Village concerts and dances." Never missing Sunday church, he "mixed with the best society and kids loved him for the candies he frequently seemed to be dispensing, whilst the ladies were always entranced by his chivalry and charm."1
During one of Edwards' frequent mysterious absences in 1907, a botched train robbery led to the largest manhunt in BC history. When Bill Miner was caught six days later, the people of Princeton were shocked to discover that their beloved George Edwards was actually the Gentleman Bandit, the Grey Fox, Bill Miner himself!
This photo was taken at the unveiling of Princeton's cenotaph by Lieutenant Governor Robert Bruce. It was a solemn occasion, for Princeton had paid a steep price in the First World War, and her citizens would soon be called upon again to sacrifice in the second.
Consider that in the census taken just before the war, the town's population stood around 500, about 1,500 total in the surrounding region. Of that number some 110 men joined the armed forces, about 8% of the total population--and this is almost certainly an undercount owing to the way enlistment records were gathered at the time. 16 of them never returned. In the Second World War the story was much the same, with over 350 veterans listed in the roll of honour, 14 of whom perished.
When looking at this humble cenotaph, it is easy to forget that behind each engraved name there's a story of bravery and tragedy that is interwoven with--and helped shape--some of the most important events in modern history.
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Princeton's history as a boom-and-bust mining town certainly impacted the way the war is remembered. Many young men would come and work in a Princeton mine for a spell, and after a season or two, move on to greener pastures without putting down roots. This meant when wars broke out both in 1914 and 1939, many men rushed to enlist, and were simply never seen again in town.
Dolly Waterman remembers the story of a Mr. Boultbee, who lived on a farm outside of town and lived self sufficiently and more or less cut off from civilization. Remarkably, he'd managed to avoid hearing about the ongoing First World War until he made a trip to town to buy supplies with two oxen in 1916. When he was told, Waterman says "He caught the first train out of town, leaving his oxen tied to a post on main street, and was never heard from again."
There were some painful losses amongst some of the core pioneer families, who farmed and ranched and ran businesses in town, that brought the war home to the townspeople.
Private Henry Allison, grandson of John Fall Allison, and William Herbert Lyall, brother of prominent businessman Ged Lyall, both fell at the Battle of the Canal du Nord, only weeks before the Armistice. The battle is often described as "amongst the most impressive tactical victories of the War," and cemented the Canadian Corps reputation as the finest formation in the Allied Armies. Yet one wonders what consolation that would have been to Henry and Herbert's loved ones.
In the Second World War we can see the casualties reflect the changed nature of Canada's war effort. Instead of fielding a large army of elite assault troops, Canada focused more on its air force and navy. Six of Princeton's 13 dead from that struggle died serving in the air. One was Alexander Fernie Dickson, a gunner in one of the disastrously defective Avro Manchester bombers, who was shot down over Belgium in 1941.
Another four of Princeton's fallen were fighting with the Canadian army in Italy. One was Sidney Leonard Buchanan, who was killed during horrific close-quarters street fighting at the Battle of Ortona--or 'Little Stalingrad' as it became known. He died on Christmas Day. Another son of Princeton, Marcel Edward Landry, fell there on Boxing Day.
The people of Princeton banded together in both wars to support their men at the front, with many volunteering for the Red Cross, or contributing to the Smoke Fund set up by the Elks Club that mailed cigarettes to men from the District.
A group of striking miners marching down Bridge Street. They were men from the Tulameen mine, joined by other miners and sympathizers, fighting against a cut in wages at the height of the Great Depression. This labour dispute quickly escalated into a vicious struggle for the town's future. It was a pivotal moment in Princeton's history that was chronicled for the first time in the fascinating 2015 book, Soviet Princeton, by local historians (and singers) Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat.
As they say, "It's a dramatic story that features mounted police charging a picket line; searches of workers' houses for subversive literature; physical assaults' the creation of a Citizens' League to oppose the miners' union; a kidnapping; crosses burning in the hills above town; the editor of the local paper, Dave Taylor, rallying opposition to the miners; and the conviction of the strike leader, Arthur "Slim" Evans, for advocating the overthrow of the government by force."1
The substantial brick building you see on the corner here was the Princeton Hotel. It was the last and most glamorous of the succession of hotels that played a key role in Princeton's history.
When it opened in 1912 it was the only brick building in town, boasted 40 rooms, electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and the town's longest continuously operating licensed bar (with the exception of the Prohibition years). Sadly, it burned down in 2006, leaving a gaping hole in Bridge Street, and in Princeton's built heritage. It was a fate shared by almost all of these hotels.
A dentist's stagecoach has drawn up in front of the Hotel Jackson in the course of doing his rounds from community to community in BC's interior. Before the highway and before the railway, horses were all-important in connecting Princeton with the outside world.
"No community in BC relied so heavily on the horse as did Princeton," writes Laura Currie in Princeton: 100 years. "Cut off from the Coast by the impenetrable Hope mountain range, the slowness of the construction of the highway to Hope, and the ruggedness of the area, the horse had a tremendous advantage over any other means of travel."
It's no surprise then that the ranchers around Princeton took to breeding horses for every conceivable purpose. If you can imagine all the different types of things we use cars and trucks for, then you can imagine all the different purposes for which horses were bred. In the Princeton District horses were raised for pulling stagecoaches, logging, herding cattle, farming, commuting, racing, and for the police. While horses have been retired from most of these roles in favour of cars, they continue to maintain a central place in Princeton's culture.
A huge crowd has gathered for one of Princeton's famous rock-drilling contests. In these contests miners displayed their skills with a hand drill by seeing who could put the deepest hole in a big rock. These contests were "the major events of the day," writes one historian. It's hardly surprising that such an activity would become popular in Princeton, surrounded as it is by a constellation of mines and a number of little satellite towns to serve them.
As Gladys Thomas writes in Princeton: Our Valley, "Half a dozen communities in the valley owed their existence to mining: Hedley and Nickel Plate to gold mining, Allenby and Copper mountain to copper, Blakeburn and Coalmont to coal, and Princeton to all of them."
The economic foundation of mining has had huge implications for Princeton's history. Unpredictable swings in global commodity prices can bring the town to prosperity or send it in a tailspin. In good times people flood in looking for work, and jobs are plentiful. In bad times people leave. Take those six nearby communities Gladys mentioned: three of them--Nickel Plate, Allenby and Blakeburn--are now ghost towns, and sometimes people have feared Princeton might suffer the same fate. Thankfully however, Princeton is no longer just a mining town, and it isn't going anywhere.
A group of men saddle up their horses in front of the Tulameen Hotel, preparing to depart across the bridge in the background. Once they crossed the bridge they could turn to the right, along the Old Hedley Road or the Princeton Summerland Road, which was used by the Allisons as a track for herding cattle to the Okanagan in the 1860s.
If they turned left, they would follow the path of the Tulameen River, up towards the mining towns of Coalmont and Tulameen. That route also led to a town that was once the third largest in British Columbia, but was all but forgotten for decades: Granite Creek.
In 1885, John Chance discovered gold in the creek and sparked a stampede of prospectors to the Tulameen Valley, most coming north from the United States. Within weeks the new settlement had exploded in size to over 2,000 people, and money flowed freely in the hastily erected hotels, brothels, stores, and saloons. Yet, like many mining towns in early BC, the boom slowly turned to bust, and the town faded away. A devastating fire in 1907 gutted the town, and though there were some efforts to rebuild, by 1919 the site had been abandoned.
The town was all but forgotten for decades, and most of the surviving buildings rotted away. It was only in recent decades, with the tireless work of the Granite Creek Preservation Society, that this exciting chapter of BC's history has been brought back to life.
A look down a bustling Bridge Street, showing a pool hall, bakery, hotels, general stores, and livery stables. The people who lived in Princeton at this time and frequented these businesses were a colourful cast of characters. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to have an affectionate nickname with a colourful backstory.
There was 'Singing Jimmy, a renowned voice thrower, and 'Salvation Jim' the last prospector in Princeton who trekked to the Klondike in search of gold. 'Pegleg White' was the popular barber who knew everyone in town, and 'Tink' French, the odd undertaker and taxidermist. Beloved 'Podunk Davis' "was so distinguished-looking with his white beard that, every time he rode down the street of Princeton street of Princeton, people stopped and looked." He came to national fame when he discovered the local nurse Ada Warburton, who had gone missing off the Hope-Princeton Highway for six weeks in 1926. These stories of these early Princeton inhabitants weave a rich tapestry of a bygone era.
At first this was the site of a livery stable, but by the time this photo was taken it had become Burr Motors, a central feature of Bridge Street for decades. The switch from a stable to a garage was a sign of the changing times, as the people of Princeton retired their horses in favour of the new-fangled automobiles that appeared in ever increasing numbers.
Members of the PSC, the Princeton Ski Club, posing in front of the Thomas Bros. General Merchants. They've got their cross-country skis on, and are probably heading for an outing at the "A" Hill overlooking Princeton. The club was formed by a core of Norwegians and Swedes who lived around Princeton in 1924, led by the legendary Norwegian Andy Stenvold. They brought their love of ski jumping from Scandinavia and erected great jumps at the local hills which attracted some of the world's foremost ski jumpers.
Skiing wasn't the only recreational activity popular with the people of Princeton. In the summer they'd race horses, swim, golf, play lacrosse, football, basketball, soccer, tennis, baseball, basketball, volleyball and badminton--to name a few. In the winter there was play hockey, curling, skiing and skating. And all year round they'd hunt and fish.
As Laura Currie writes in Princeton: 100 Years, "No other community in the province can boast of a more diversified sporting area than Princeton."
A view of the east side of Bridge Street in the 1940s, showing how many of the empty lots from earlier decades have been filled in, and the community has grown substantially.
By this time Princeton was outgrowing its pioneer roots, leading to fierce debate about the community's future. Princeton's history as a mining town had created a peculiar situation: For decades it had never incorporated as a town or even a village. This meant there was no municipal government, and negligible municipal services.
As a mining town, Princeton saw huge booms and busts in population as well as in the local economy. Those who lived here full time--especially the local business owners--were massively opposed to paying taxes for services that benefited people who had no intention of putting down roots. Incorporating, they feared, would lead to higher taxes.
Over time pressure built, and after World War II the decades long fight over incorporation reached a crescendo. Finally in 1951 a vote was held and Princeton incorporated as a village. The first chairman was incorporation's fiercest advocate, the redoubtable miner's son: Isaac Plecash.
A man with his hands thrust in his pockets mugs for the camera. Behind him Bridge Street is largely empty, save the headquarters of the Similkameen Star we saw earlier on in the tour. Photos like these remind us of the dramatic change Princeton has undergone, and the people who have made it what it is today.