A Brief History of Nelson

by Shawn Lamb, retired archivist, Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History

In August 1886 a group led by brothers Osner and Winslow Hall left Colville, Washington to search for gold. They ended up on Toad Mountain southwest of Nelson, with no luck and dampened spirits. While the young men of the party were fetching the horses for the trip home they found a copper-silver deposit, which began the rush to Toad Mountain and the establishment of Nelson, the Queen City of the Kootenays.

By the winter of 1887-88, between 300 and 400 people had set up tents along Ward Creek (now the centre of Nelson). G.M. Sproul, gold commissioner and magistrate, laid out the government town site, which he named Stanley after Lord Stanley, Canada's Governor General. There was an argument about the name from Harry Anderson, mining recorder and constable, who had already named the town site Salisbury.

The feud was settled when the townspeople applied for a post office 1889 under the name of Stanley. As there was already a town of that name in the Cariboo district, Nelson was named after the then-Lieutenant-Governor of BC, Hugh Nelson.

Tents gave way to shake and log shacks, until lumber began to be produced 1889 by the G.0. Buchanan mill. Frame buildings began to proliferate in the town site and the milled lumber supplied timbers for the area's hardrock mine tunnels. Lumbering overtook mining as the main industry, and remains important today.

Transport of the Silver King ores by pack train, boat and railroad to the nearest smelter in Butte, Montana proved costly. When the new British Hall Mining Company was organized in 1893, things began to improve.

In 1895 a four-and-a-half-mile gravity-operated aerial tramway was constructed from the mine to a smelter site in the Rosemont area of Nelson. Every hour, 875 buckets carried a total of 10 tons of ore to the smelter. By 1894 Nelson was served by two railroads, the Columbia and Kootenay (a CPR affiliate) and the Nelson and Fort Sheppard. The smelter produced a variety of ores and although the Silver King began to diminish, the plant was active until 1908, when SG. Blaylock was appointed receiver. The smelter buildings were destroyed in spectacular fire, one of the many set by Nelson's notorious firebug in 1911.

The City of Nelson was incorporated on March 4, 1897, population 3,000. It had many fine homes and stores, hotels and churches, a school, a hospital, jail, fire hall, courthouse, water company and the first hydro electric generating plant in BC.

By 1899 Nelson owned its own electrical utility and was making plans to move its electrical generation from Cottonwood Creek to a dam site on the Kootenay River at Bonnington Falls. This project was accomplished in 1907. A street car system begun by the Nelson Electrical Tramway Company in 1899 and a gasworks started in 1900 were also later taken over and operated by the city until the second half of the century, when they were supplanted by bus transit and natural gas.

Many Nelson men and women distinguished themselves in the First World War, among them the Nelson-based 54th Kootenay Battalion and Nelson's first Victoria Cross winner, Lieutenant Commander Rowland Bourke, R.N The Depression years saw many work projects improve Nelson's facilities and beauty, including the impressive Nelson Civic Centre: a rink/badminton hall/theatre complex that was described as a "miracle." The Civic Centre spawned the Nelson Midsummer curling bonspiel, bringing visitors to the community for over 50 years. The Second World War produced another Nelson hero, and Victoria Cross winner, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, R.C.V.V.R.

Education became a new focus for Nelson when Roman Catholic bishop Martin M. Johnson began Notre Dame College in 1950, and the BC Vocational School (with Kootenay School of the Arts) was established in 1960. Now the Notre Dame buildings house the Selkirk College School of Digital Media and Music and the School of Hospitality and Tourism. The former vocational school is now the Silver King campus of Selkirk College, and Kootenay School of the Arts has been re-established in downtown Nelson.

Nelson's heritage potential was realized in 1977 with its centennial of incorporation and the heritage designation of over 350 buildings. Today Nelson serves as the busy centre of West Kootenay government, arts, tourism, commerce, small manufacturing and home-based business.

Visit the Discover Nelson website to read more about Nelson's history.