Before Europeans ever came to Canada. Long before fur traders and explorers, the land that would be Vernon was occupied by the Okanagan people, who named the area Nintle Moos Chin, which means ‘jumping over place where the creek narrows’
This name comes from the fact that the banks of the creek through the community nearly meet at one point, and it was possible to jump across.
One of the most notable Indigenous to occupy the area was Chief Kalamalka, who was born sometime around 1800. Chief Kalamalka was a hunter who was widely respected in the area, who had once taken down a grizzly bear at close quarters. It is for him that one of the first hotels in Vernon was named, as was a lake nearby.
Europeans started to arrive in the area in 1811 when David Stuart, who worked for the Pacific Fur Company came to the area. He would become the first white person to see the Okanagan Valley. With the abundance of furs in the area, and the beautiful landscape, it did not take long for the area to become an important.
In 1860, missionaries established a priest’s house along the creek, to be used as a temporary residence for the priest as he travelled to Okanagan Mission.
The first white settler would be Luc Girouard, who settled around 1861. He would build a cabin in 1867 and that cabin continues to exist to this day. Girouard had come to the area from Quebec to find gold and decided to stay. Considered the first permanent resident of Vernon, he would plant the first commercial orchard in the Vernon area as well, using the creek to develop an irrigation system. In 1921, work began to preserve the cabin. It would be used by the Vernon Lawn Bowling Club for 75 years and in 1981 it was made a municipal heritage site. The building was moved to Girouard Park, 70 metres from its original site in 1997 and completely restored.
I would like to take a moment to talk about this park as it has a long history in the Vernon area. Rock Park, or The Rock, or Girouard Park, is a prominent rocky hill that the Indigenous called Nintle-Moos-Chin, which means Jumping Over Place. It was at this park that the priest’s house was established in 1860, and in 1871 the trail was upgraded to a wagon road called the Okanagan Brigade Trail, which linked Fort Vancouver in the future state of Washington to what is now Kamloops. This trail followed the early Indigenous trade routes that crisscrossed the landscape.
Along with Girouard, Rock Park is associated with several other pioneer families including Gideon Milligan, who owned the Okanagan Hotel and Victoria Hotel. He would sell a cottage he had on the property to F.B. Jacques in 1891, and it would remain in that family until 1975 when the city bought it. In 1983, it was zoned to become a park. Today, it is one of the most beautiful parks in Vernon, celebrated for its ecological and aesthetic value. Its historical value is massive as many of the early buildings of Vernon were built using stone from the hill, and indigenous flora and fauna can still be found in the area.
In 2000, it was made a Community Heritage Resource.
The history of Vernon truly begins in 1863 when gold was discovered nearby, igniting a gold rush that brought in prospectors and miners. With those miners came people looking to make money off of them and those who came after.
Ranches also sprang up in the area thanks to the beautiful land. Cornelius O’Keefe saw this potential and in 1867, he would establish the O’Keefe Ranch. This ranch would slowly grow as O’Keefe grew his herd of livestock until 1891 when it covered 12,000 acres. On the ranch, he grew wheat and raised cattle and sheep. O’Keefe would keep his ranch operating even as the price of beef began to fall in the 1890s and the land around him was converted for use as orchards. He would sub-divide his land as time went on, and finally sold his holdings to the Land and Agricultural Company of Canada in 1907. O’Keefe would use the money to invest in Vernon, buying town lots and building businesses. In 1911, he was elected as the honorary president of the Vernon Conservative Association. O’Keefe’s son, Tierney, would go back to his roots by opening the O’Keefe Ranch 12 kilometres north of Vernon. He and his wife Betty would operate the ranch for 10 years and then sold it to a charity, who sold it to the City of Vernon for $1 to be used as a historic site. Today, the O’Keefe Ranch still exists and operates from May until October. At the ranch, there are over 10,000 artifacts from the history of the area, including 2,500 that originally belonged to the O’Keefe family. The Ranch also includes several original historic buildings. The St. Anne’s Church, which was built in 1889, can be found here with its original pews, pump organs and priest’s vestments. The original log house of Cornelius and his wife Mary Ann is also at the ranch. In 1882, when the Governor General of Canada visited the area for a hunting trip, he stayed in this log home. There is also the O’Keefe Mansion, built between 1886 and 1896, which features the original furniture bought by Cornelius. You can also find the Balmoral Schoolhouse, built in 1912. The Greenhow Museum also operates at the site out of a house that was built in 1941. In this museum there are several rotating exhibits, as well as artifacts, documents, books and photographs.
The start of Vernon begins with William Campbell, who bought the site of the village and started up a store. He did not finish the building but in 1864, John Imlay arrived. He had been a stone mason who worked on the Parliament Buildings, and he bought the Campbell land and started a store, arguably the first store in the area of Vernon. In 1885, E.J. Tronson and Charles Brewer arrived and laid out a proper townsite and called it Centreville.
Centreville soon had a hotel, general store, school and post office. The post office would be located in the Girouard Cabin. Girouard would also donate land to be used as the first cemetery for Vernon and it was there in 1895 that he would be buried.
The name Centreville would not stick, and the name would become Vernon in 1887 in honour of Forbes George Vernon, who was a member of the British Columbia Legislature, who owned a large amount of land nearby to present-day Vernon.
In 1890, Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General of Canada, along with his wife Lady Aberdeen, visited the Vernon area. He would say after his visit that he was very impressed with the landscape of the area. He would also buy 450 acres of agricultural land in the area after visiting from Forbes George Vernon.
While the gold rush had helped to begin the development of Vernon, things still moved slow. That would all change in 1891 when the Canadian Pacific Railway came through. On Dec. 30, 1892, Vernon became a city and in 1903, a new city hall was built. In 1904, Vernon was the largest community in the Okanagan and the first to have a telephone and bank.
On Feb. 23, 1893, the first Winter Carnival would be held on Long Lake. It is believed to be the first winter carnival to be held on ice in the history of British Columbia. The carnival would be held every so often from that point on. Finally, on Jan. 27 to Feb. 5, 1961, the annual Winter Carnival as it is known was held. This carnival featured a minor hockey tournament, skating, ice races and a parade. People from across British Columbia came out for it. The parade had 10,000 people lining the streets to watch 106 floats go by, making it the biggest parade in the history of Vernon to that point.
The entire carnival was declared open by Lt. Governor George Pearkes, who was on hand to take part in the festivities. He would call this first carnival an outstanding success and was sure that it would continue to grow.
The return of the winter carnival was a massive success. The Vancouver Province would report quote:
“This first winter carnival represents months of community planning and community drive.”
The carnival is still held to this day, and over 100 events occur over the now 10-day festival. What started small has grown to be the largest Winter Carnival in Western Canada.
The year the first carnival was held, the third elementary school in Vernon would be built. This two-storey building, which cost $5,000 to build, would become one of the most prominent buildings in the community. For over a century, this school would be a centre of education for the community. Originally, it featured four rooms, with activity rooms for boys and girls in the basement. As time went on, the school would be expanded on. While other schools would come and go, including the Vernon High School, Vernon’s first brick school continued to serve the community. In 1918, Clarence Fulton would become the principal of the school and remain with the school system for 35 years. Eventually, the high school would be named for him.
Today, Park School is the oldest surviving brick school in the British Columbia interior, and by some accounts, the entire province. As can be expected due to its long history, it was made a heritage property in 1981.
In 1896, a young man named Frederick McCall would be born in Vernon. During the First World War, he would enlist with the 175th Battalion and was in France by mid-1917. He would then transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, serving with the No. X111 Squadron. He would shoot down his first German aircraft soon after training and earned the Military Cross. Two weeks later, he shot down another plane and earned a Bar on his medal. In May 1918, he recorded four kills in the air and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On June 28, 1918, he shot down another four German aircraft. Two days later, he shot down five more German planes, four in the morning and one in the afternoon. For that, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Orders.
He would be shot down on Aug. 17, 1918, the day he recorded his last of 35 air victories against a German plane. While he was recovering, the war ended.
McCall then began to work on various civil aviation ventures, including stunt flying. On July 5, 1919, while doing a stunt, he crashed into the merry-go-round at the Calgary Stampede. He would eventually found Great Western Airways, which prospered in the inter-war years. In 1939, the Calgary Airport was named for him, but has since been renamed the Calgary International Airport.
When the Second World War began, he was recalled into service, serving as a squadron leader at various Western Canada bases.
On Jan. 22, 1949, he would pass away in Calgary at the age of 52.
In 1905, work began on the Grey Canal, a project that was pushed forward by Lord and Lady Aberdeen. This project’s plan was to bring in water from the highlands to the southeast of Vernon and create benchlands that that circle Vernon to Okanagan Lake.
The entire project was a massive undertaking, and it would take nine years to finish, costing a massive $423,000 or $10 million today.
The Vernon News reported quote:
This canal would help the orchards and ranches in the area, greatly, while also encouraging more settlement in the Vernon area. This canal and its irrigation system was the largest such district in all of British Columbia, even delivering more water than the system that supplied Vancouver. Its usefulness would eventually decline by the 1950s and in 1963, rising costs had resulted in ditches being replaced with buried pipes. By the end of the decade, it was no longer being used.
Today, the Grey Canal has a new use as a 50-km route that is used for hiking, snowshoeing, horseback riding and biking.
Vernon’s importance in the area as a growing centre was shown in 1911 when a new Canadian Pacific Railway station was built. This new station, made of brick, replaced the old station that was beginning to show its age after two decades. The fieldstone featured in the construction of the building helped to limit damage from trolleys that were moving freight in the area. The decorate roof ornamentation also gives the building a unique look that helped it become a landmark in the community. It was from this station that soldiers would leave Vernon to fight in the First and Second World Wars or arrive to train at the Vernon Army Camp nearby. In the 1960s, passenger service ended at the station and in 1973, freight services ended. Soon after, the building became a restaurant, but a fire damaged the interior in 1981 and it was sold. The City of Vernon was unable to buy it but today it houses the Downtown Vernon Association and a law office and can still be visited for a look of a beautiful building that is now 110 years old. In 2000, the building was made a Community Heritage Resource.
On Nov. 24, 1944, people reading the Vancouver Province were shocked to see a headline that stated Zombies Maul Army Officer. While we would think something different today, back then it meant something completely different.
It was on that day that 200 Home Defense troops attacked a captain and lieutenant during an anti-conscription demonstration in downtown Vernon. The captain tried to intervene when the draftees were marching through the streets yelling “Down with conscription”. Yelling “You dirty yellow zombies!” He was then struck by some of the protesters. The protesters then stated they were going to tear down the Legion Hall. One man yelled quote:
“If they send us overseas, it will be in shackles. We want total conscription of wealth and materials as well as manpower. Why should we be the 16,000 appeasers for the rest of Canada.”
A group of men attempted to intervene, which caused a brief fight to start in the streets.
The entire incident was brought under control quite quickly, and the excitement died down in Vernon for the rest of the day.
In 1949, the Vernon Canadians were established as a men’s hockey team, playing in the Okanagan Mainline League and the Okanagan Senior League. In its 12 years in those leagues, the team would reach the highest level in amateur hockey in Canada. In 1950-51, in only its second year of existence, the Canadians reached the league final but would lose. In 1954, they won the league championship and the provincial championship, the Savage Cup. One year later in 1955-56, the team won not only the league and provincial championship, but also the Allan Cup, the top amateur trophy in Canada at the time. The team reached the Allan Cup again in 1958-59 but lost to the Whitby Dunlops.
From 1949-50 to 1960-61, the team reached the league final seven times, winning five times. They also won the Savage Cup a total of three times.
The team exists to this day as a beer league team and is the longest existing men’s ice hockey team in the community. Several of its players have also played in the NHL, including Don McLeod who played in the 1974 Summit Series and Doug McKay who won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1950.
On July 19, 1958, Vernon would get its first Royal Visit when Princess Margaret touched down in the community but there was a bit drama before her arrival. As the plane was coming in at 4:45 p.m. to make an amphibious landing at the lake, the plane came within inches of hitting the diving pier that was at the end of the main pier. Thankfully, the pilot was able to steer the plane away from it and Princess Margaret was unaware of the near miss. Originally only supposed to spend 15 minutes in Vernon, she ended up staying for half an hour. She would ride through the city in an open black convertible, as thousands of people waved to her along the route. She would meet the mayor, reeve and their wives, and received flowers from Vernon’s May Queen, Cherryll Shunter. She then cut a ribbon on the floral clock built in Polson Park and she was reported to have said to the mayor quote:
“What a beautiful place.”
Most communities are lucky to get one visit from Queen Elizabeth II, but Vernon is one of those rare communities that not only got one visit, but a second one as well.
The first visit was on May 6, 1971, when the Queen and Prince Philip were touring through British Columbia in honour of the 100th anniversary of the province joining Confederation. That first trip was a short one. The queen arrived in the community at lunch, spending 30 minutes in Vernon before heading off to her next stop in Kelowna. Other than the band starting late upon her arrival, everything seemed to go smoothly. During the brief stop, she would also speak with cadets who had gathered to welcome her. Hundreds of people would come out for the brief visit.
The next visit would not come for another 12 years. It was on March 10, 1983, when she arrived, this time without Prince Philip. The visit would be longer, lasting for about one hour from 1 p.m. to just after 2 p.m. She was in town to celebrate the 90th birthday of Vernon. The birthday cake depicted the town as it was 90 years ago and Doris Dawson, the baker, stated she was so nervous she needed sleeping pills to calm down. The BC Dragoons and the local navy cadets were on hand to welcome her as she arrived in town. The town’s entire population seemed to be out to greet her as she had attended a luncheon party in the community. Mayor Lyall Hanson would greet her upon her arrival, and he would state quote:
“I was a little nervous at first, but she is a very nice lady.”
He would add that she stated the community had changed since her last visit in 1971. He would say quote:
The Mission Hill Vineyards would then commemorate the visit by producing 500 bottles of their wine with the label stating quote:
“To commemorate the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Vernon, March 10, 1983, in celebration of the city’s 90th year.”
If you would like to learn more about Vernon, then you should visit the Vernon Museum. The museum is located in a 12,000 square foot museum that features 11 permanent displays that outline the history of Vernon through chronological displays. Displays begin with The Ice Age, then look at the Indigenous history of the area, before moving on the settler era and the eventual growth of Vernon into one of the most important cities in British Columbia.
You can also travel around the community and see the history of Vernon in the many historical murals that have been painted, highlighting everything from the Indigenous heritage to modern history in the city.