Long before there were ever Europeans in the area of Trail, the land was occupied by the Salish people, who would travel through the area looking for game and harvesting the many berries that grew around the area.
The Columbia River was also a vital resource for the Indigenous, providing them with food as well as fresh water and a quick way to move through the landscape.
The Salish relied on wild game and fish in the area, and their language and customs were similar to those of the Indigenous of the Pacific Northwest, rather than the Okanagan to the north.
In fact, it was through the Columbia River that the first Europeans would come through the area, making contact with the local Indigenous. David Thompson came through the area in the early 19th century during his quest to travel along the entire Columbia River and reach the Pacific before the Americans so he could establish a North West Company post.
If not for a trail that went through the area, it is likely that Trail may never have existed. The Dewdney Trail was constructed as a trade route with the interior of British Columbia, with its second section being built through the Trail area and it was this trail that would spawn Rossland, and in turn, Trail.
In 1890 when gold-copper ore was discovered on the face of Red Mountain, 10 kilometres west of future Trail, by Joe Moris and Joe Bourgeois. Their gold claim straddled the Dewdney Trail that ran through the area, as they had noticed promising ground on the mountain across the valley as they journeyed through. These two men would stake claims on Red Mountain in July of 1890, which gave rise to Rossland as a mining centre for North America.
The two men had laid down five claims, and they kept four claims for themselves but gave the fifth claim to a man named Eugene Sayre Topping, if he paid the recording fee for all five claims. Topping agreed, having come to the area two years earlier to find his fortune in mining.
In June of 1892, Topping would pre-empt 343 acres of flat land at the mouth of Trail Creek, and he had a townsite surveyed. Topping and his partners then built a two-storey log cabin to offer accommodation to those people traveling from the river to Rossland. As interest in Rossland grew, the popularity of this stopping house increased and by 1895, Trail was ready to become a major community in the Kootenays.
At the time, ore from Rossland was taken to Trail Creek Landing, as Trail was called at the time, and sent along the river to the United States. Before long, many began to wonder why Trail didn’t have a smelter of its own. Topping must have agreed because he would offer 40 acres of bench land above the townsite, and a one-third interest in the townsite, for Augustus Heinze, a mining promoter, to build a smelter. Heinze agreed and in late 1895, construction began on the new smelter. This structure would change Trail forever. No other building or business would have as large of an impact on the community as it would. Throughout this episode, you will see the many ways this smelter helped to shape Trail to what it is today. The Nanaimo Daily News would report on Sept. 16, 1895, quote:
By the end of 1895, there was already talk of getting a narrow-gauge railway built from Rossland to Trail.
The Vancouver Daily World would report quote:
“The line will be about twice as long as the distance between Rossland and the Trail smelter owing to the curves and loops necessary in making the grade. It is understood that the rails and rolling stock have been purchased and that they are to be delivered this winter.”
On Feb. 1, 1896, the first copper furnace began operation and on Aug. 10, 1897, the first gold brick was produced.
The mining and ore heritage of Trail is celebrated every Mother’s Day weekend with the annual Silver City Days. The multi-day event includes music, a midway, a parade and much more. If you’re going to visit Trail, going during Silver City Days is a great way to experience the community.
The railroad would arrive around this time as well. Completed in December of 1896, the first train from Trail to Rossland made the journey on Dec. 20. There was no bridge across the river, but that would not be far off. The Vancouver Daily World would report quote:
“Today the Rossland extension of the Spokane and Northern Railway was opened. With the completion of a bridge, it will make a complete all-rail connection from Spokane to Rossland.”
With the smelter, Trail began to explode in size. By 1899, 1,500 people were living in the community and in 1901, Trail officially became a city.
During this time, when automobiles were still a few years away, the quickest form of transportation was along the river and for Trail that meant sternwheelers. These large boats would carry men and supplies to town for work at the smelter and at the Rossland mines. The heyday of these vessels was the 1880s and 1890s, but as the railroad arrived in the communities of Rossland and Trail, their importance quickly diminished. Some of the ships that used to travel near Trail were the SS Nakusp and the SS Trail, which was sadly destroyed by fire in 1900. The Nakusp had been launched in 1895 and it was considered to be the finest vessel in the entire province with three decks, 33 staterooms and the ability to carry more cargo than most of the other ships combined. It also had hot and cold running water, steam heating and electric lights. Sadly, it would see its time on the river end when it burned on Dec. 24, 1897.
During these early years, there was a large influx of Italian immigrants who came to Trail to find work, and many would settle in a very unique place, and a place I always enjoyed visiting, The Gulch.
Created by the Trail Creek as it came down from the mountains, the area was originally part of the land grant to the Columbia and Western Railway, but squatters soon came in and settled.
Originally called Dublin Gulch, and then shortened to The Gulch, it was made up of Italian immigrants who did not want to live on the original Trail townsite. It is believed the first Italian immigrant in The Gulch was Isaco Georgetti, who worked at the smelter. At the time, there were a lot of Chinese Canadians living in the area as well, working as cooks and launderers, who grew beautiful gardens. As the Chinese Canadians left for other places, the immigrant families would continue the tradition of vegetable gardens, utilizing the steep terrain of the landscape. Italian organizations formed as well to help locals in The Gulch, including the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge, which assisted its members in time of sickness or death. Eventually, Italian immigrants moved elsewhere in the community after the Second World War, but the original character of The Gulch remains. Today, you can visit The Gulch, see its historic buildings and read the historical markers that highlight a very unique part of not only Trail, but the Kootenay region.
For the first few decades of Trail’s existence, the only way to get across the Columbia River was through the use of a cable ferry, or by using canoes and row boats if the weather was calm.
Eventually, community leaders saw that Trail needed to get its own bridge and in June of 1909, Premier Richard McBride came to Trail to assess plans and listen to locals who wanted a bridge built.
The MLA for the area, James Schofield, who came along on the trip, would tell locals quote:
“One of my first duties when I return to Victoria will be to secure an engineer’s report on the Rock Island Bridge proposition and if the plan is feasible, and conditions warrant it, I can only corroborate what the premier has already said.”
In 1911, a bridge would be built across the Columbia River, and it is a bridge that exists to this day, although it was decommissioned in its 99th year. The Trail Old Bridge saw construction begin in October of 1911, using most local labour. For the next nine months, work would continue until it officially opened on May 24, 1912. The total cost to build this bridge, which stretches for 691 feet, amounted to $170,000, or about $4.5 million today.
At the big event to open the bridge, 2,000 people came out and the entire day was filled with celebrations that included sporting competitions, a Boy Scouts exhibition, a rifle competition, fireworks and a dance.
The year of 1912 proved to be an important year in the history of Trail. Not only was the bridge opened, but Central School, the first school in Trail, was officially built and opened.
In June of 1913, the new community would deal with the worst flood it had seen since 1894 when the Columbia River began to rise quickly. Before long, the sawmill of the Doukhobors was under water. The Vancouver Sun would report quote:
“Not since the big flood of 1894 has the Columbia gone to such a rampage as this year. It is generally believed during the winter months that owing to the excessive snowfall there would be a considerable rise in the river, but few expected that it would assume the dimensions it attained.”
The flood would cover Bay Avenue under three feet of water but by the end of the month, things would improve, and the water level would decrease. The Vancouver Sun would report quote:
In November of 1917, work at the smelter would grind to a halt when workers at the facility walked off the job. Initial reports were that the strike happened as a form of protest against the Military Services Act, which was proposed by the federal government in order to enact conscription. A total of 1,500 workers walked off the job on Nov. 15. The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:
“The employees of the Trail smelter, who are mostly foreigners, are said to be determined in their attitude.”
Later reports had the strike occurring because the workers wanted an eight-hour work day for the masons, electricians, yard workers, carpenters and mechanics. At the time, 1,100 of the 1,500 workers worked eight hours a day, but the strike was so that the remaining 400 could have that same luxury.
Due to the strike, orders to stop sending ore to the smelter were sent out until everything could be resolved. The strike would drag on for weeks and by Dec. 4, it was reported that the effects of the strike were being felt by 20,000 people who lived in the Kootenay region. Rossland, for example, would see all of its mines closed down for the duration of the strike. Unlike other strikes of the time, there were no reports of violence on either side. The Vancouver Daily World reported quote:
“In spite of the fact that the smelter is closed down and the men are out of work, good order prevails.”
Finally, on Dec. 22, the strike would end as workers called off the strike after it was deemed illegal by the executive of the Mine, Mill and Smelterman’s Union. It is estimated that there was $25,000 in lost wages during the strike, amounting to about $439,000 today.
The year that the workers in Trail went on strike, a baby named Robert Hampton Gray would be born. I could literally have an entire episode all about the famous people who came from Trail, but I decided to focus on one and that person is Gray.
Gray was born on Nov. 2, 1917, in Trail. After time at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia, he would enlist in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. He would eventually transfer to the Royal Canadian Air Force where he served in Africa, Norway and eventually, by April of 1945, Japan. It was in Japan that he joined the British Pacific Fleet that was involved in the invasion of Okinawa. On July 18, 1945, Gray was leading a strafing mission against the airfields around Tokyo. A few days later on July 24, he led another flight to the inland sea where he damaged an airbase, a merchant ship and damaged two seaplane bases. He would earn the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.
On Aug. 9, 1945, the same day that the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Gray was leading an attack on Japanese naval vessels, where he sank the Amakusa before his plane crashed into the water. For his actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His medal citation states quote:
“For great valour in leading an attack on a Japanese destroyer, in the face of fire from shore batteries and a heavy concentration of fire from five warships, Lt. Gray pressed home his attack, flying very low in order to ensure success, and although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he obtained at least one direct hit, sinking the destroyer.”
Gray would lose his life in the attack, becoming one of the last Canadians to die in the Second World War. He was also the second last Canadian to ever be awarded the Victoria Cross.
A memorial to Gray was erected at Onagawa Bay in 1989, the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil. A mountain is also named for him in British Columbia.
As Trail grew and traffic increased with the new automobile becoming more popular, there was a need for a silent police officer to stand on corners to ensure drivers didn’t break the law. That problem would be solved in 1922 when beer barrels were utilized. The Vancouver Province reports quote:
“Painted red and filled with stones, these barrels are in position on the intersections and there you are.”
In 1926, a team that would make Trail world famous was created. The Trail Smoke Eaters began to play that year, becoming one of the best teams in Canadian history. The team came about through a desire to create an Allan Cup contender, something the organizers of the Smoke Eaters would achieve. The Trail Smoke Eaters are a legendary team for many reasons, and that is why I won’t go into a lot of detail about them here. Instead, I will be doing an entire episode on my hockey podcast Pucks and Cups on Jan. 11, all about the Smoke Eaters and their early history, so be sure to check that out.
As for that name, well there are a few stories of where it came from. One says that a Trail player had a penalty called against him and items were thrown on the ice by fans, including a lit corn cob pipe. He picked it up and puffed away on the pipe, hence smoke eaters. Another story states that the name dates to as early as 1901 and comes from the smelter’s emissions. Personally, I think the pipe smoking makes a great story and I like to think that is where it came from, but I will go into more detail about that on my Pucks and Cups episode about the team.
With a goal of the Allan Cup set, the Smoke Eaters got to work and by 1927, they won the league and provincial title but would lose in the final at the 1927 Western Canada Allan Cup Playoffs. The team was just getting started though. The team would win seven consecutive Savage Cups as the best senior ice hockey champion in British Columbia. In 1938, the team captured its first Allan Cup, given to the best amateur team in Canada. This gave the team the right to play in the World Ice Hockey Championships in 1939. Played in Switzerland, the Smoke Eaters dominated, only giving up one goal the entire tournament and capturing Canada’s 11 title.
The team would continue to be one of the best hockey teams in British Columbia. From 1940 to 1960, the team would win seven Savage Cups.
In 1961, the team once again proved that it was the best in the world when the team played again in Switzerland and captured Canada’s 19th international title in hockey, but the last for 33 years. Canada again dominated with the Smoke Eaters lineup, finishing at the top of the standings and claiming gold with Seth Martin of the Smoke Eaters being named the best goaltender of the tournament. The team would then win its second Allan Cup in 1962, proving itself to be a legendary team in the history of hockey.
That wouldn’t be the end of glory for the Smoke Eaters. The team would win the Savage Cup in 1962, 1979 and 2004. In all, the team has won 18 Savage Cups, more than any other team in the province’s history.
Listen to my episode on the team here: https://canadaehx.com/2022/01/11/the-trail-smoke-eaters-2/
In 1928 during a tour of Canada, the Governor General, Viscount Willingdon, would come to Trail for a special visit on May 9. While in the community, he would lay down the cornerstone of the new city hall building for the community.
In 1933, Hugh Robertson would donate a slice of land called Sandy Island to the City of Trail. From that donation, one of the best parks in the Kootenay region would form but under a new name, Gyro Park. The year before the donation, on Oct. 12, 1932, the Trail Gyro Club was formed with 12 members. That organization and its members would clean up Gyro Park and put in many of the changes that would come over the decades, and that is how Sandy Island became Gyro Park. In 1968, the Columbia River dams stopped the water flowing as strong as it once had, allowing more of the park to be accessible to residents as an added bonus.
During the Second World War, Trail would become part of a historic and highly secretive project that would fundamentally change the world. It was the Manhattan Project, and Trail can lay claim to part of it. It was in that year that Cominco agreed to produce heavy water for the United States, which it would use for its research in the project that would develop the Atomic Bombs. The project was given the codename of P-9 Project. Cominco had actually been producing heavy water in Trail since 1934, and the National Defense Research Committee would offer a contract to produce 2,000 pounds of heavy water. Cominco was also offered $20,000 for plant modifications. While the project was going to be on Canadian soil, the Canadian government did not learn about it until August of 1942, after the contract had been signed at the beginning of the month. The total construction cost for the project was $2.8 million for modifications to the plant, the new exchange tower and for the purchase of some land. In June of 1943, 15 pounds of heavy water was produced but this increased to 326 pounds by January 1944 and 1,055 pounds by January 1945. Even after the war, Trail’s smelter would continue in the production of heavy water until 1956.
In March of 1948, the eyes of the curling world fell on Trial when a rink from Trail made history. That year, the Brier was being held in Calgary and the Theo “Frenchy” D’Amour Rink would represent British Columbia at the championship event. The D’Amour Rink, consisting of Frenchy, Fred Wendell, Bob McGhie and Jim Mark, would cruise to victory winning eight games, and losing only once but the title match was not without drama. It took an extra end for the Trail Rink to defeat the rink from Quebec City allowing D’Amour and his team to claim the title. This was the first time that any rink from British Columbia won the title, and it would be the last time until 1964. In order to win against Quebec, D’Amour had to come through on his last shot, which he did, sending the rock right where he needed to in order to claim the Brier. The D’Amour Rink also won in front of a record crowd for the time for the Brier. That was not the only success for D’Amour and his rink. They would win the BC Championship in 1947 and 1948 as well and in 1980, the entire team was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame.
The same year the Frenchy was bringing curling glory to the community, Trail would be hit by arguably the worst flood of the century for the community. When the flood hit its peak, it was 14 metres high, and houses and garages were swept away. At one point, the water was rising upwards of 60 centimetres per day and thousands of people came out to fill sandbags, hand out meals and help anyway they could as the flood endangered the entire community. The flood was widespread throughout southern British Columbia, with the Fraser River breaking through several dikes near Vancouver. In Trail, one woman found four feet of water in her basement, and she was forced to move all of her furniture into the gymnasium of Central School, along with many others, to protect what they owned. Over 100 people were pushed from their homes in the disaster. In all, the flood lasted two weeks as the community held its breath.
The flood was so bad that cities across British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest raised funds to help including Nelson, which raised $705 through a July hockey game played to raise money between Nelson and Trail. The Spokane Rotary Club would give $252 to help the community.
One year the Trail rink shocked the curling world, Cominco Arena would open. I’ve lived in a lot of communities in Western Canada, and I have been in a lot of arenas. I can say without a doubt that the Cominco Arena is the best of the bunch, and better than some of the WHL arenas I have visited. This 2,537-seat arena was built in 1949, thanks to community donations and money from the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada. The facility, which featured wooden benches at the time, was built completely by tradesmen who volunteered their time. Today, it is home to the Trail Smoke Eaters of the BCHL and it is a beautiful place to watch a hockey game. It holds a special place for me as it was where I not only got to touch the Stanley Cup, but it was also where I interviewed Walter Gretzky. The arena cost $600,000 at the time and opened on Dec. 1, 1949. Due to its wooden benches, it could seat 4,500 people. It featured not only a hockey rink but a curling sheet, an auditorium, a gymnasium, bowling alley, a library and a practice ice sheet. At the time, it was an arena that came close to rivalling some of the NHL arenas. The opening was no small affair with a packed house enjoying music from the Legion and Maple Leaf bands, several dignitaries, and even some lifetime seats awarded to a lucky few. A 1949 Sedan was even given away to one of the attendees who had the lucky ticket.
In April of 1969, one of the worst floods in Trail’s history would strike. While thankfully no lives were lost, sections of the city were under five feet of water. The flooding was blamed on heavy rainfall and rocks and debris that had blocked culverts. Throughout the night of April 23, 1969, crews worked to clear culverts and protect structures in the flooded areas. Unfortunately, in a 12-square-block area, 75 per cent of the structures, including businesses were under water, leaving 240 families homeless. A midnight curfew was also implemented, and 850 volunteers came out to salvage what they could while also searching for anyone who may have been trapped. Flood losses would amount to $3 million, or $21 million today. The provincial government would provide money for two-thirds that amount, while locals would raise money to help those who had lost everything in the disaster. The province also declared Trail to be a disaster area. Thankfully, through the hard work of crews, water levels began to decline within a day.
There are many people, as I mentioned, who came from Trail and achieved great things in Canada and the world. I can’t cover them all there, because there are truly that many. One person was Jason Bay, who played Major League Baseball from 2003 to 2013 and won the National League Rookie of the Year. His sister Lauren would become an all-star softball pitcher and would win bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Another Olympian was Kerrin Lee-Gartner, who won gold at the 1992 Albertville Olympics in downhill skiing. It is in hockey though that Trail has truly stood out. An astounding 17 hockey players from Trail have gone on to play in the NHL. There is Shawn Horcoff, who captained the Edmonton Oilers, Barrett Jackman who won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the Rookie of the Year in 2003. Of the 15 players, only a few have their name etched on the Stanley Cup. Thomas McVie, who worked as a scout with the Boston Bruins had his name added in 2011, while Adam Deadmarsh won the Stanley Cup in 1996 with Colorado and Dallas Drake won with Detroit in 2008.
While no player has made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, yet, Seth Martin, who backstopped the Smoke Eaters to glory in 1961 is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame.
If you would like to learn more about Trail and its history, then the best place to visit is the Trail Museum and Archives, located at the Trail Riverfront Centre. The Trail Historical Society was organized in 1953 at the home of Elsie Turnbull, in the hope of providing a way to protect and preserve the history of the community. In 1977, a museum would open for the organization. The museum is a stunning place where the history of the community is highlighted in gorgeous displays. Some of the items you will find at the museum include shards of ceramic plates, spoons and trading beads from Fort Sheppard, voice recordings of pioneers, a century old cabinet that contains bagpipes, a clarinet and a fancy evening gown. There are also letters from the Trail soldiers who served in the trenches of the First World War, and section devoted to Jean Stainton, who was the Rosie the Riveter of Trail. The museum also includes the Sports Hall of Memories, which contain the photos, trophies, uniforms and other items that represent the long and amazing sports history of the community, some of which I have touched on in this episode. You can also watch archival film footage of the 1938 Trail Smoke Eaters returning to the community after winning the Allan Cup, and you can view the final game of the 1961 World Hockey Championships, when the Smoke Eaters won their second title. Entry to the museum is by donation.