Princeton's Pioneer Past
Episodes in Princeton History
By Andrew Farris
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, 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 enough tales to fill volumes. This geographic isolation has left a lasting legacy on Princeton and led to the intense importance of horses to the local culture. The scope of Princeton's history is too vast to comprehensively cover in a single tour. In this tour, we will look at some of the most exciting episodes from 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, exploring the area 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.
1. Starting at the Beginning
Though the brewery is an important piece of local history, we're starting our tour here not because of it but because of what was located in the wall behind and to the left of the brewery: the Vermillion Cave. The cave was 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, the cave was used by the brewery as a storage space for aging beer, and was apparently massive enough to hold 24 freight carloads of lager. Some even believed that aging the Princeton beer in the "Old Cave" was what gave it such a fine flavour.1 The creation of the cave was thanks to the geological foundations underlying the town of Princeton. The town sits on sedimentary rock from the Eocene epoch, which lasted from 56 to 33.9 million years ago. The caves themselves were made of sandstone, a sedimentary rock consisting of minerals the size of sand granules. Sandstone beds often form cliffs and bluffs that stand out from the surrounding landscape. Sandstone caves such as the Vermillion Cave are formed by long-term erosion from wind or water that carves out cavities in the stone. Sandstone caves are often shallow; according to historical accounts, the Vermillion Cave was exceptionally large. Sadly, in 1948, the cave was demolished to make way for the Hope-Princeton Highway. A geological and historical treasure was lost in the name of progress. As we go through the tour, we will learn about much that has been lost, and also much that has been preserved. We will consider what parts of our shared heritage we should preserve for our children.
2. Vermilion Forks
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 its red ochre, which has been used by humans all over the world as a paint and dye. It has long held spiritual significance for many cultures. The local Upper Similkameen people, or Upper Smelqmix, traded the ochre with other bands from across North America and left stunning pictographs all over the region. First Nations peoples from regions as far away as the prairies, modern-day Washington, and modern-day Oregon brought goods to the Similkameen to trade for the sacred ochre. First Nations' oral history says the Similkameen area has been home to the Upper Similkameen people since the beginning of time. This aligns with archaeological finds in the region that date as far back as 7,500 years ago.1 The name Similkameen is thought to derive from Similkameigh, which comes from the now-extinct language of Nicola-Similkameen, an Athabascan language. It is believed to translate to "Salmon river."2 In a tragedy repeated everywhere across the Americas, European-introduced diseases swept across the continent ahead of the colonists, killing millions and depopulating whole regions. In this region, it was no different. By the time the first Europeans arrived here, the diseases that preceded them had already decimated the Upper Similkameen. Those first European fur traders and pioneers admired the red ochre found in the river here, and so gave the settlement its first English name: Vermilion Forks. It wasn't long before they discovered that a different set of valuable minerals were abundant here as well: copper, coal, and gold.
3. John Fall Allison
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 first residents). Allison was dispatched in 1858 by the colonial governor James Douglas to find an all-Canadian route to the interior. He ended up claiming much of the land around what would become Princeton for himself. He farmed, set up a cattle ranch, panned for gold, and eventually married two remarkable women. The first of these women 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 ability to prosper. She has been largely left out of local histories until recently.1 John's second wife was Susan Louisa Moir, who braved the tough pioneer life with John, bore him 14 children, and developed close relations with all of the nearby Indigenous bands. She later wrote and published widely praised ethnographic studies of the Lower and Upper Similkameen—a remarkable achievement for a woman in that era.
4. The Gentleman Bandit
After a checkered career of stagecoach holdups in America, Bill came to Canada and robbed a CPR train just outside of Mission, BC. He then disappeared. Around the same time, 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 In 1904, Bill Miner enlisted the aid of Thomas “Shorty” Dunn, an American gunman, and held up the CPR’s Transcontinental Express No. 1 a few kilometres west of Mission. The operation went smoothly, and Bill Miner and his gang escaped with $6,000 worth of gold dust, more than $900 in currency, and $50,000 in US bonds. All the while, he maintained his cover as George Edwards. Bill Miner robbed trains using the tried-and-true methods of the famous train robbers who came before him. First, the robbers would find a train at a location where it had stopped, or where a steep uphill climb forced it to slow significantly. The robbers would leap aboard the locomotive and take the engineer hostage. The so-called express car, which was conveniently located directly behind the locomotive, contained shipments of valuables such as gold, currency, and mail. The robbers would unhook all the train cars behind the express car, leaving the hapless passengers stranded, and then force the engineer to drive them some ways ahead. This would give them free reign to plunder the express car. Sometimes, if a crewman refused to cooperate, they'd blast the express car's heavily secured doors open with dynamite. During one of Edwards's frequent mysterious absences in May of 1906, a botched robbery of the CPR’s Transcontinental Express No. 97 led to the largest manhunt in BC history. The authorities were convinced that the culprits were the very same people who had committed the lucrative robbery back in 1904. They offered a staggering $15,000 reward for their capture. 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. The outlaw had earned the name the Gentleman Bandit for his polite demeanor during the height of a robbery. Miner's story didn't end with his capture, however. He escaped from the British Columbia Penitentiary on August 8, 1907. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was furious about Miner's escape stating, “a dangerous criminal… thinking to play with impunity in this country the pranks he had been playing on the other side of the line… had been allowed to escape from the penitentiary.” But many in British Columbia sympathised with Miner, as a Robin-Hood-style legend had grown up around him. A popular anecdote circulated at the time about a man who allegedly said, “Oh, Bill Miner’s not so bad. He only robs the CPR once every two years. The CPR robs us all every day.”1
5. Princeton at War
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 the Princeton mines, and after a season or two would move on to greener pastures, without putting down roots. This meant that when the wars broke out 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 self-sufficient farm outside of town, more or less cut off from civilization. Remarkably, he managed to avoid hearing about the ongoing First World War until 1916, when he made a trip to town to buy supplies with two oxen. 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 also some painful losses among some of the core pioneer families, who farmed, ranched, and ran businesses in town. These losses brought the war home to the townspeople. Private Henry Allison, grandson of John Fall Allison, and William Herbert Lyall, brother of the 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. The casualties of the Second World War 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 in World War II died serving in the air. One was Alexander Fernie Dickson, a gunner in one of the disastrously defective Avro Manchester bombers. He was shot down over Belgium in 1941. Another four of Princeton's fallen fought with the Canadian army in Italy. One was Sidney Leonard Buchanan, who was killed during horrific close-quarter 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 during 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, which mailed cigarettes to men from the District.
6. Soviet Princeton
As the book says, "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
7. Fate of the Hotels
Shortly after the hotel's opening, billionaire John D. Rockefeller stayed here for a short period. He likely travelled by stagecoach from Kamloops, and returned to the United States on the Great Northern Railway.1 Following the opening of the Hope-Princeton highway, passenger service on the train declined, and with it the hotel's business. In the early 1950s, it was renovated into suites that were rented out on a monthly basis. Sadly, the Princeton Hotel 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.
8. Horse Capital of BC
It's no surprise then that the ranchers around Princeton took to breeding horses for every conceivable purpose. If you can imagine all of 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 logging, herding cattle, farming, commuting, racing, pulling stagecoaches, and carrying 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. In the 1920s, Princeton local Luke Gibson became one of the most successful racehorse owners in BC, running his horses at tracks across North America. Princeton even had its own racetrack, Sunflower Downs, one of four in the interior during the height of horse racing in BC. In the mid 20th Century, horse racing was so popular in the interior that in 1965, a group of local residents and businesses fronted $100 each to fund the startup of racing at Sunflower Downs and Princeton Racing Days. In the years that followed, racing in Princeton ebbed and flowed. The track closed for a number of years before being resurrected in 2005 by members of the community who believed it was economically and culturally significant to the community. They donated volunteer hours and their own funds to rejuvenate the sport.1 Today, Sunflower Downs is a significant community facility and hosts rodeos, horse racing and training, and the fall fair. The facility also boasts a beer garden with a stage and dance floor, a race track approved for thoroughbred racing, a rodeo complex for professional rodeos, three multi-purpose buildings suitable for small gatherings, and every facility possible to support horses.
9. The Mining Economy
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 impacts on Princeton throughout its 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. Sometimes, people have feared that Princeton might suffer the same fate. Thankfully, however, Princeton is no longer just a mining town. It isn't going anywhere.
10. Boom & Bust at Granite Creek
In 1885, John Chance discovered gold in the creek and sparked a stampede of prospectors to the Tulameen Valley, most of whom came 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 Granite Creek faded away. A devastating fire in 1907 gutted the town, and though there were some efforts to rebuild it, by 1919, the site had been abandoned. Like many small pioneer towns, fire was a constant threat. In 1912, another small fire occured when Ernest Eplett accidentally knocked over a lamp while sleeping in the Granite Creek jail. The building was no longer serving as a jail at that time, and Eplett was using it as a temporary residence. The accident cost him his life: he perished in the fire.1 Granite Creek was all but forgotten for decades, and most of the surviving buildings rotted away. It was only recently, with the tireless work of the Granite Creek Preservation Society, that this exciting chapter of BC's history was brought back to life.
11. People from a Bygone Age
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 was 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. The stories of these early Princeton inhabitants weave a rich tapestry of a bygone era. The social scene in Princeton was as vibrant as its residents. The Elk's Hall, on the corner behind the cenotaph, was the "Hub of Princeton life." The hall hosted many community events, along with dances that gained something of a reputation, according to one reminiscence: "I will tell you another thing. More things happened in the bush at the back of the hall than inside it."
12. From Horses to Cars
Princeton waited for a road to the coast for an age before the Hope-Princeton Highway was finally completed in 1949. The idea for a highway had been proposed many years before its completion. BC Governor James Douglas suggested the highway as far back as August 1860, during a speech he gave in Fort Hope. At this time, Fort Hope was the primary launching point to the Cariboo gold fields. In his speech, Douglas proposed making Hope the head of steamship navigation on the Fraser River. He also intimated that he wanted to build two roads to the Interior from Hope, one north up the Fraser Canyon, the other east to the Similkameen Valley, and Princeton. Yet when the question came up of how the road would be paid for, Donald Chisholm, a political leader in Hope, balked at the idea of placing tolls on freight, while Yale representatives jumped at the opportunity. The Fraser Canyon route was built, and the Hope-Princeton road fell by the wayside. When the road was finally built almost 90 years later, Premier Byron “Boss” Johnson ceremoniously opened the road, throwing open a padlock to the 6,000 eager motorists who had turned out for the opening. The Vancouver Sun reported on the occasion: “As the padlock sprang open in the Premier’s hands, he declared the $12 million Hope-Princeton Highway officially open… Cars drove over the new stretch of blacktop highway which will lop 100 miles off the distance from the South Okanagan to Vancouver. The road, conceived more than 100 years ago, is the last link in the 713-mile highway which stretches across the province.”1 While the road was significant for residents of the southern interior, it was built with a high human cost, as well as a financial one. The road was built largely with the unpaid labour of interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government shipped thousands of Japanese-Canadians inland away from the coast, where it was feared they would pass information to Japan—despite many of them never having even been to Japan. The labour was brutal. Without mechanized equipment, the interned Japanese-Canadians dug the foundations of the road by hand, using picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. This contribution went unrecognized until September of 2018, when a sign was finally placed on Highway 3 in remembrance of one of these road camps.
13. A Love of Sport
Skiing wasn't the only recreational activity that was popular with the people of Princeton. In the summer, they'd race horses, swim, and play golf, lacrosse, football, basketball, soccer, tennis, baseball, volleyball and badminton—to name a few. In the winter, there was hockey, curling, skiing and skating. Hunting and fishing were also a popular pastime all year round in the wilderness around town. A fervent rivalry with surrounding mining towns contributed to the intense sporting culture in Princeton. Princeton competed against Hedley, Keremos, Blakeburn and Copper Mountain, with baseball being the most popular sport prior to World War II. The Princeton Royals (named after a local brew) reigned supreme, winning 63 games and losing only nine during a three-year period. The rivalry was so intense that one Hedley man, G. McGonigle, the manager of the Hedley Gold Man, "imported an entire baseball team from Vancouver just so he might beat Princeton. In a July 1st game, played on the old Wallace field, over $1000 changed hands. Princeton won." As Laura Currie writes in Princeton: 100 Years, "No other community in the province can boast of a more diversified sporting area than Princeton." She is surely right.
14. To Incorporate?
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. "Solid citizens came to Princeton, stayed only a short time, then left; those who did stay became so firmly entrenched that they virtually controlled the economy of the community. Their fears incorporation would raise their taxes proved groundless and their view shortsighted."2 Over time, pressure built. After World War II, the decades-long fight over incorporation reached a crescendo. Various attempts to incorporate over the years had failed, but with the completion of the Hope-Princeton highway, it could no longer be avoided. 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.3 Princeton's days of being the "dirtiest hole in the interior," were in the past.
1. Starting at the Beginning
- 1. Beer in cave was better
2. Vermilion Forks
- 1. 7500 years ago
- 2. Princeton Our Valley
4. The Gentleman Bandit
- 1. Hands Up
- 2. Edward Butts, "Mill Miner," The Canadian Encylopedia, January 18, 2019. Online.
6. Soviet Princeton
- 1. Soviet 1
7. Fate of the Hotels
- 1. Okanagan Historical Society, "Okanagan History: Seventy-First report of the Okanagan Historical Society," (Vernon BC: The Okanagan Historical Society, 2007), 101.
8. Horse Capital of BC
- 1. Gary Bannerman, "Horse racing in the North Okanagan: Historic Kin Horse Park and the future," Proposal prepared for the Okanagan Equestrian Society, October 9, 2007, Appendices.
10. Boom & Bust at Granite Creek
- 1. Ghost Towns: Granite Creek Cemetery.
12. From Horses to Cars
- 1. John Macke, "This Week in History, 1949: The Hope-Princeton Highway opens," The Vancouver Sun, Nov. 2, 2019. Online.
14. To Incorporate?
- 1. Laurie Currie, 73.
- 2. Laurie Currie, 73.
- 3. Laurie Currie, 73.