Williams Lake currently lies within the traditional territory of the Secwepemc (suh-wep-muh) territory. Evidence of Indigenous habitation in the region dates back at least 4,000 years, with some estimates going back as far as 6,500 years. The region was also inhabited by the Tsilhqot’in (CHIL CO TIN) and Dakelh (TAK HEY), who helped create a unique cultural makeup.
The Secwepemc are part of the interior Salish people who inhabited the central and southern portion of British Columbia. The local band of Secwepemc once inhabited the area where Williams Lake is now, but they were pushed off the land as the gold prospectors came in during the Fraser Gold Rush.
The Tsilhqot’in inhabited land that stretched from the Coast Mountains to the Fraser River. They would operate long distance trade networks that brought salmon from the coast, to nearly the interior of what would one day be Alberta.
The Indigenous of the area were part of a large distance trading network that would bring in salmon and other items. This allowed the local Indigenous to live in abundance through the years.
The Dakelh inhabited the area north of Prince George, east to Nechako Country and south to the Fraser River. They would share the territory with the Tsilhqoti’in, becoming part of the trading network that thrived through the area.
For the Indigenous in the region, they had a network of temporary camps and village sites that surrounded permanent winter villages. This created a web of interaction and connection with the land and people. Depending on the availability of resources, camps would move between well-established hunting, plant harvesting, fishing, ceremonial and trading sites. The migration of wildlife and the ripening of berries played an important part in where the Indigenous would settle for a time.
Knowledge of the landscape, its plants and animals would be passed down through families over the centuries. Hunters would walk great distances to hunt moose and deer. As with other Indigenous groups who hunted large game, very little of the moose and deer were wasted. The meat was eaten, and the hide was tanned for clothing and to make drums.
The first Europeans to come through the area were explorers and fur traders who wanted to take advantage of the ample wildlife and resources found in the area.
Very little in the way of Europeans or Canadians would come into the region over the course of the next century but things would change in 1860 when the Cariboo Gold Rush began. The gold rush would bring in many British and Canadian prospectors who wanted to find their fortune. For the Williams Lake area, two trails led to the goldfields in the south. One was the Douglas Road, and the other went through the Fraser Canyon. These two trails met right where Williams Lake is, and that resulted in a growing number of settlers and merchants choosing to set up in the area.
With more people setting at these crossroads, Gold Commission Philip Henry Nind built a government house and requested the funds from the government to build a jail to house the unruliest of the individuals living in the area and passing through. William Pinchbeck would come in as the constable, arriving from Victoria, and providing law and order to the community. Pinchbeck didn’t just enforce the law in the area. He also built a roadhouse, saloon and a store, while also buying up large portions of the valley on the anticipation that the region would continue to grow in population. At the same time, he fulfilled the role of being the Justice of the Peace, lawyer, judge and jailer. He also built a horse racing track that drew large crowds, with stakes going as high as $100,000, a fortune at the time. It would be logical to then assume that given his many roles in the area, that Williams Lake is named for him. That is not actually the case. Williams Lake is named for the Secwepemc chief William, whose prevented the Shuswap people from joining in the Indigenous uprising against the settler population during the Chilcotin War in 1864 that was fought between the Chilcotin people and white road construction workers.
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Sadly, the hope for the small community of growing into a major centre were dashed in 1863. At the time, the belief was that since the community was an important crossroads on the trails, that the new Cariboo Road would go through the community, further establishing it as a trading centre. Instead, Gustavus Blin Wright, the road builder, completely bypassed Williams Lake and instead built through to 150 Mile House. This change would be devastating to the community, and many felt that Wright was changing the route to benefit himself since he owned a roadhouse that was along the new route.
This would be the end of the community, at least for a time.
It would not be until 1919 when the community would rise again, this time thanks to the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which was built through the area, arriving in the middle of September of that year. The Vancouver Daily World would report on Sept. 16, 1919, quote:
“According to the telegraphic advice received at the Parliament buildings from Chief Engineer Proctor, steel was laid on the Pacific Great Eastern system as far as Williams Lake at 11 o’clock yesterday morning.”
This would once again fuel growth in the community, and it was also in that year that the first Williams Lake Stampede would be held. In the early years, the stampede was a place for local men and women to show off their rodeo talents. The first stampede was little more than a get-together for the locals and railway crews who were in the area. That first stampede was organized by Jo Fleiger and consisted mostly of saddle bronc, bareback and steer riding, along with a horse race. Not only was this Williams Lake’s first stampede, but by all accounts, it was the first stampede held in British Columbia. By 1921, the stampede had gone from a one-day event, to a three day event and people were arriving from across the west to participate. For the stampede that year, 3,500 people arrived. The Vancouver Province would report, quote:
“Ten months ago, when the writer stepped off the construction train here, he was greeted with a vision of autumn-hued hills and a small construction camp of four tents. Today, he finds himself in the midst of a rapidly developing little town. A stampede on more pretentious lines will be staged each year along with a two- or three-day program of horse racing and athletics. A natural amphitheater beautifully set at the north end of Williams Lake and only a five minutes’ walk from the town has been chosen.”
Throughout the 1920s, a highlight of the stampede was a downhill race, which went for 2 kilometres down a steep hill. The race was extremely dangerous, to the point that by 1929 only six racers signed up and women were barred from competing.
As time went on, the rodeo continued to grow until today, when it is the second-largest rodeo in Canada after the Calgary Stampede. Many of the same rodeo performers go to the Williams Lake Stampede, and then onto the Calgary Stampede which typically follows the following week. The Stampede would stop in 1939 and take a break of eight years due to the Second World War, but it would return in 1947. It would again not be held in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Around the same time that the Stampede was hitting high gear in 1930, a unique house would be built in Williams Lake. Known locally as the Potato House, this house is located at 49 Borland Street and features an extensive rear yard area and mature fruit trees, along with a beautiful stone wall and wooden gate. The house was built by the Borkowski Brothers, who were not trained as carpenters but learned how to build the house through borrowed books. The property was purchased by a new owner in 1956 and this owner established a market garden on the property that would become an iconic part of the community. The garden mostly grew potatoes, and the residents of the community began to call the home the Potato House. In 2012, the house was purchased by the Potato House Sustainable Community Society and turned into a centre for the promotion of community agriculture and sustainability. Today, it continues to serve as a community garden and in 2015, became a Municipal Heritage Property.
On July 21, 1939, the residents of Williams Lake were awoken to two huge explosions that rocketed through the sky. Many were scared awake and as they rushed outside, they saw a flaming meteor that, quote:
“was more dazzling than the sun.”
It was believed at the time that the Earth was moving through a comet tail that had been seen by humans in 1866. It was also believed that two meteorites hit the nearby countryside, one falling near Brighouse that was seen by fishermen, and one that fell into the water not far from shore. Many residents of Williams Lake raced into the streets after hearing the bangs, which were reportedly followed by 40 to 50 smaller bangs, until it tapered off to a rumble.
Around the 1960s and into the 1970s, a notable Canadian would spend their youth in Williams Lake. Rick Hansen was born in Port Alberni but would grow up in Williams Lake where he was active in sports including volleyball, softball, baseball and basketball. On June 27, 1973, Rick was on a fishing trip when he was involved in a car accident that resulted in his being paralyzed from the waist down. Hansen would work on his rehabilitation and would become the first student with a physical disability to graduate from the University of British Columbia. Inspired by Terry Fox and his courage, Hansen decided to take on his own journey to prove the potential of people with disabilities. His plan was to circle the world in his wheelchair. On March 21, 1985, he left from Oakridge Mall in Vancouver and for the next 26 months, he would log 40,075 kilometres through 34 countries on four continents before arriving back in Canada. On April 2, 1987, Hansen would arrive back in his hometown of Williams Lake and the community gave him $200,000 towards his fundraising goal, which was equal to what Prince George, a city five times the size, raised. On May 22, 1987, he would arrive back in Vancouver as a Canadian hero, having raised $26 million for spinal cord research and quality of life initiatives. The song, St. Elmo’s Fire was written in his honour, and several items from his Man in Motion World Tour are now in the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Following his round, the world journey, he would establish the Hansen Foundation in 1988 and for the past 30 years it has helped countless people with their disabilities. Hansen is a member of the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s Walk of Fame, has received the Order of Canada, has four schools named after him and has received an astounding 14 honorary degrees.
Over this episode, I have covered a lot about the history of the community of Williams Lake. If you want to learn more about the history of the community and the area, then the best place to visit is the Cariboo Chilcotin Museum, also known as the Cowboy Museum. Inside you will find the British Columbia Cowboy Hall of Fame and exhibits that look at the history of the Indigenous in the area, the railway, mining, medical and forestry industries. The museum features many photos and artifacts from the past 150 years history of the area, and beyond into the era of the Indigenous before the arrival of Europeans. Admission is free and donations are accepted.