Before Europeans arrived with the gold rushes and the fur trade, the Nelson area was the home to the Sinixt and Kutenai people. They would trade throughout the Kootenay Region and into the Okanagan, but also with the Blackfoot on the eastern side of the mountains, who occupied the prairies. This trading network lasted for centuries until it was heavily disrupted with the arrival of Europeans.
There were plenty of fur traders, including David Thompson, who came to the area but they did not stay long. It was not until the discovery of gold and silver in 1867 that settlers arrived and decided to stay. This would begin the slow process of establishing the community of Nelson.
In 1886, two brothers named Osner and Winslow Hall left their home in Washington and journeyed into British Columbia in the hopes of finding gold themselves. They would begin to look at Toad Mountain, near present-day Nelson but they were unsuccessful. Then, while they were fetching horses for the return trip home, they came upon something else, a copper-silver deposit and from that point, the community of Nelson was born.
Beginning in the winter of 1887-1888, around 400 people lived in tents along the creek in what is today the centre of the community. G.M. Sproul, the magistrate for the area, then started to lay out a townsite and he would name it Stanley, in honour of Lord Stanley, the Governor General and creator of the Stanley Cup.
The issue was that Harry Anderson, the constable for the growing tent community, already named the town Salisbury. What followed was a feud between those who wanted the town named Stanley, and those who wanted it named Salisbury. In the end, the decision was made to call the community, Nelson, not for Admiral Nelson as some assume, but for Hugh Nelson in 1888, who was the Lt. Governor of British Columbia at the time.
By 1889, lumber was being produced in the community and the tents were gone, to be replaced with log shacks and frame buildings that started to spring up across the community. At the time, all the ore had to be shipped down to the smelter in Butte, Montana by pack train, boat and railroad.
In 1894, two railroads had been built to the community to take advantage of its growing wealth.
In 1895, two years after the British Hall Mining Company was formed, a four-and-a-half mile long gravity-operated aerial tramway was built from the mine to a new smelter in the community. This would greatly increase the prosperity of the community as 875 buckets of ore, amounting to 10 tons, went down the mountain ever single hour.
By 1897, the community had grown enough that it could be incorporated with a population of 3,000. The local mining activity turned Nelson into a major distribution and transportation centre for the entire region. By this point, the community had several homes, stores, hotels and churches, a new school, hospital, jail, firehall and the first hydro-electric generation plant in the entire province.
Around this same time, Nelson began to develop a thriving Chinatown. The Chinese community in Nelson would develop many thriving businesses in this area including restaurants, stores and hotels, as well as laundries and grocery stores. Many others worked as cooks, labourers and gardeners in the growing community. Sadly, at the time those Chinese Canadians were heavily discriminated against and it was not an easy life so far from their home. In 1901, the Sing Chong Laundry would be built and today, it stands as the last remaining Chinese Canadian built and owned building in the original Chinatown of Nelson. That building, which stands to this day, is also a reminder of the vibrant culture that existed in Nelson in that area before the area was taken over by new arrivals and the Chinese Canadians were pushed out. The building, which is now a Kootenay Co-op Radio building, as well as a commemorative stone monument, honours the Chinese Canadians who settled in Nelson over 120 years ago, and in 2016, it was made a Provincially Recognized Heritage Site.
In 1908, a stunning four-storey stone building would be built in Nelson, with an arched entryway, square corner tower and a round turret. It wasn’t a castle, but a new courthouse that was built on the location of the original courthouse for Nelson. This grand courthouse is a stunning building and it showed the importance of Nelson at the time as a centre for the legal system of British Columbia. The building still stands to this day and is incredibly impressive to see. It is often called the most beautiful building in the entire City of Nelson and it is no surprise it was listed as a Provincial Heritage Resource in 1985.
On Sept. 4, 1911, the Hill Mines Smelter that had helped to fuel the growth of Nelson, was destroyed in a terrible fire after someone lit it on fire. This was not the only case of arson that year, with 12 other fires lit over the previous two weeks. The smelter fire was especially devastating for the community and it would bring down not only the office and several other buildings and cause heavy damage to the 200-foot smokestacks at the smelter. One was discovered by a watchman around noon and he was able to put it out and extra guards were called to watch the smelter. Then, at 9 p.m., another fire erupted and within a few minutes, the entire plant was burning and by midnight, everything had been consumed. The plant was built of timber, and there was no water supply available to fight the flames. At the time, the smelter had not been used in three years, but the loss of such a prominent structure after two weeks of other fires hit the morale of the community hard. In all, it was estimated the fire caused $50,000 in damages.
As for the other fires over the previous two weeks, they included the Nelson Brewery, the home of a Chinese Canadian, the home of the manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company store, a homestead residence, stables and in the lumber yards, causing upwards of $150,000 in damages, no small amount at the time. The city wanted to catch the person, offering a reward of $500 for information leading to the apprehension of the person. An armed man was also placed at nearly every house in the community. It was said that everyone was suspicious of fellow citizens and it was impossible to walk through town without being watched. Two watchmen were even held up at the point of a gun under the belief they were the arsonists.
Only days after the smelter fire, James McDonald, a former alderman, saw a man walking along the lake shore where he lit a fire. He was questioned by McDonald and then began to run and McDonald gave chase, eventually catching him in the streets of Nelson. The man stated his name was Brownson and he had just arrived from Spokane. With no evidence against him, he was released and told to go back to Spokane and never return to Nelson. At this point, the fires completely stopped in the community.
On Nov. 2, 1917, Robert Hampton Gray was born in nearby Trail, but he would grow up in Nelson where his father was a jeweler. After attending university in Alberta and British Columbia, he would join the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, which was called into action at the outbreak of the Second World War. He would transfer to the Royal Canadian Air Force and would fly in Africa, Norway and as part of the British Pacific Fleet during the invasion of Okinawa in April of 1945. On Aug. 9, 1945, only a week before the end of the Pacific War, he was flying at Onagawa Bay leading an attack on several Japanese naval vessels. He would sink the Amakusa ship before his own plane was shot and he crashed into the bay. For his bravery in concentrating fire on five warships and flying low to ensure success, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Sadly, he would lose his life in the crash, becoming one of the last Canadians to die in the Second World War. He is also the second-to-last Canadian to ever be awarded the Victoria Cross. Several places, including the Legion Hall in Nelson, are named for him. There is also a memorial to him, the only memorial to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil, at Onagawa Bay. Grays Peak, a mountain in British Columbia is named for him, as is an airport, a school and a Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessel.
On Sept. 5, 1927, the Capital Theatre would open in Nelson. Costing $75,000, or $1.1 million today, Mayor J.A. McDonald cut the ribbon on the building and called it one of the finest theatres in North America. The building quickly became a movie house for the Paramount chain of movies, and occasionally showcased live performances and local groups, including vaudeville performers. Unfortunately, by the 1940s, the building had fallen into disrepair, a sad state that would continue for decades. Eventually, the roof collapsed and left the theatre in shambles.
In 1982, the Capital Theatre Restoration Society was formed with the goal of returning the building to its former glory. On April 17, 1988, the restored 426 seat theatre was once again open to the public and would begin to showcase local and regional theatre groups, musicians and other artists. The building, looking as it did when it opened almost 100 years ago, hosts 140 performances a year, in non-Covid years, and averages 30,000 ticket sales per season. If you go to Nelson, stopping by this majestic building that has been lovingly cared for after years of neglect is a must.
By the early-1980s, Nelson was dealing with an economic downturn and a large shopping centre was taking business away from the businesses in the core of the community. To save the area, and specifically Baker Street, Nelson restored all the buildings to their original style with no aluminum facades. By 1985, Baker Street was completely transformed and this would be the beginning of the move of Nelson from being a resource town to an arts and tourism town. Today, walking down Baker Street in the Historic District is one of the promoted Nelson visitor activities. The restoration of the street had another impact as well. In 1986, it was chosen as the filming location for Roxanne, a movie starring Steve Martin that was an adaptation of the classic Cyrano de Bergerac. The movie was shot all over town, and the local fire hall served as the primary set. The movie has gone on to become a classic, ranking as the 71st funniest movie of all time by Bravo. Today, you can take the Roxanne walking tour through the community to see all the sites that were part of the classic 1980s film.
South of Nelson, you will find the Doukhobor Discovery Centre. This museum lets you experience the sights and sounds of Doukhobor life in the southern British Columbia through ten historic buildings on ten acres of land. The site was officially opened in 1971 and has been operating for half a century and providing guests with the chance to see what life was like for the Doukhobors who came to the area, were persecuted for their beliefs but would persevere and become part of the fabric of the province. The village ensured that the disappearing Doukhobor villages were not lost to time, and the buildings that were used by those pioneers, as well as their artifacts, would have a place for years to come and the message and story of the Doukhobors would continue to be told.
If you want to learn more about the history of Nelson and the people who populated it over the past 125 years, you should visit the Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History. The museum, which is housed in a nearly 120 year old building itself, has extensive displays that highlight the Indigenous people, the arrival of Europeans, what life was like in the mines, transportation, the hydroelectric history, the culture and much more. As for the building, it used to be the post office and customs office for many years until 1962, when the city government took over the building for their own needs. The museum occupied a small portion of the building from 1955 to 1959, and then returned in 2003 and made the building its permanent home. At one point, from 1960 to 1971, the museum was housed in a formal brothel building from the wild and crazy early days of Nelson.