Experience Our History
The history of Princeton is the history of Interior British Columbia.
Evidence of every stage in the settlement of British Columbia can be found in the creek valleys and mountains surrounding Princeton and in the almost 150 years of Princeton's history. All of this history comes to life at the Princeton and District Museum and Archives and in the Ghost Towns that may still be explored easily from a base in Princeton. Click here to visit the Princeton and District Museum web site
There are also many other ways to experience the history of the old West around Princeton.
- Pan for gold: borrow a pan at the Princeton Visitor Centre
- Play the horses at Princeton Racing Days (see Events)
- Watch’em rope’em and ride’em at the Princeton Pro Rodeo (see Events)
- Take a turn in the saddle at one of our many Guest Ranches
- Take the Ghost Town self-guided tour (Ask at the Princeton Visitor Centre or Princeton Museum)
- Hike or bike along the route of the Kettle Valley Railway
- Hike the Hudson Bay Company’s Brigade Trail and locate its five camps (recommended for experienced back country hikers only)
- Visit the Ochre Bluffs, source of ochre traded by the Similkameen people before settlement
- Take the historical walk in downtown Princeton (maps available at the Princeton Visitor Centre)
- Visit the Hedley Museum and Mascot Gold Mine Tours
Yak-Tulamn (the place where red earth was sold) was home to First Nations for many millennia prior to the arrival of the first settlers. Known today as the Upper Similkameen Indian Band, the original inhabitants were industrious miners and traders of ochre and chert. People from as far away as the prairies and Oregon coast brought buffalo hides, eagle feathers and other goods to the Similkameen to trade for the sacred ochre, which is used to make ceremonial paint. The earliest scientific evidence places the Similkameen People in the area at least 7,500 years ago; according to the First Nations people their inhabitance has been since the beginning of time. The many villages, campgrounds and trail routes of the Similkameen people are evidenced in the numerous archaeological sites in and around Princeton.
The Similkameen people were decimated by illnesses they caught from settlers, but they and their culture survived. Very quickly they took up ranching and trading, something they had been doing for centuries. By 1900 a annual event was the Klutchman Race, at which Similkameen women raced on horseback madly down Vermillion Ave, second main street in Princeton.
The Snaza’ist Discovery Centre in Hedley (35 km west of Princeton) offers portraits and exhibits of the Similkameen People.
Vermilion Forks, present day Princeton, where the waters of the Similkameen and Tulameen Rivers meet, was an early stopover for travelers passing to and from the West Coast along the trails of the Interior.
The first white men to come were fur traders. In December 1812, Alexander Ross set out from Kamloops for Fort Okanagan (WA.) and decided to take “an unknown route in order to explore a part of the country I had not seen before.” Ross’s route was through the Similkameen Valley and was full of hardships which he described in his journal. Today we can marvel at the stamina of men and horses who journeyed across unknown lands in the depths of winter.
Following the establishment of a Canada – U.S. border in 1846, it was necessary for the Hudson’s Bay Company to create an all-Canadian route from the Lower Mainland into the Interior. They sent Alexander Caulfield Anderson to find this new route. The route became known as the Brigade Trail and was completed in 1849. It began at Fort Hope, crossed the eastern range of the Coast Mountains, past present day Tulameen and down the Tulameen River to present day Princeton. The Whatcom Trail (1858) and Dewdney Trail (1860) followed and provided routes for fur from the Interior and for supplies to the few outposts in the Similkameen, Okanagan and Kettle River Valleys.
The first white settler, John Fall Allison, arrived at Vermillion Forks in 1858. He staked gold, copper and coal claims and established the first cattle ranch. Allison took a native wife by the name of Nora Yakumtikum; together they had four children. Nora was an industrious woman who ran a pack train for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Later, Allison married Susan Louisa Moir who, when she died in 1928, left fourteen children, sixty-five grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren. Historian Margaret Ormsby titled her book on Mrs. Allison, “A Pioneer Gentlewoman of British Columbia.” Today many native and non-native Similkameen residents trace their family lineage through John Fall Allison, Nora Yakumtikum and Susan Louisa Allison.
In 1860, the community of Vermilion Forks became known as Princeton. The name change was to honour the visit to Eastern Canada of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward V11. In the same year, the first Princeton town site was laid out in East Princeton by the British Royal Engineers. This area covered approximately 700 acres.
Prospectors and Miners
For decades prospectors extracted placer gold from the Similkameen and Tulameen rivers. Then 1885 saw a discovery near Granite Creek that touched off a gold rush and the rapid development of the town of Granite Creek as the third largest community in BC. Chinese immigrants had their own mining camps and began the long history of Chinese residents in the Princeton area. By 1910, Granite Creek was mostly panned out. Except for several ruins, a commemorative concrete cairn and the eerily silent old cemetery, nothing remains to bear witness to the former glory days. The Princeton Museum holds many artifacts from these ghost towns including the bar from one of Granite Creek’s saloons.
In addition to gold and platinum – the Tulameen River being one of two in the world where the two metals occur side by side – Princeton was renowned for its many mining resources. Coal was used from the times of the early settlers, but the first recorded commercial output was in 1909. At its height, the coalfield featured 15 mines, the last of which closed in 1940. Over 1,600,000 tons were extracted. The deep mine operation at nearby Blakeburn also closed in the 1940’s because the main customer for Blakeburn’s high quality coal, the Canadian Pacific Railway, no longer needed coal to drive its locomotives.
Copper was the third abundant mineral found in the Princeton area. Ten kilometres from Princeton, at the aptly named Copper Mountain, a separate community developed around the underground mine. Copper was extracted from the 1920’s until the late 1990’s. In 1957, the deep mine was abandoned in favour of an open pit operation. With the change, 600 inhabitants had to abandon their homes at Copper Mountain. Many of the dwellings were sold, dismantled and moved. Some of these houses can still be seen in and around Princeton today.
The first railway in Princeton was the Vancouver, Victoria & Eastern, a subsidiary of James Hill’s American Great Northern. The VV&E arrived in 1909. In their race to establish a new route to Vancouver across the Southern Interior of the Province, much rivalry and animosity existed between the Great Northern and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Stations were torn down; rival gangs confronted each other with the tools of their trade in their hands. Both companies drove their crews to complete the route before the other.
On April 23, 1915, the final spike on the KVR was driven at Princeton, linking Vancouver with the Kootenays and giving victory to the Canadian company. An odd quirk of history is that James Hill was Canadian, while the President of the CPR, Cornelius Van Horne, was American.
The KVR served the Princeton area until 1974. Since then, the railway has been converted into a breath-taking hiking and biking trail.
Logging and Ranching
The logging industry has also played a large part in the development of Princeton’s history. Names recorded in the annals, but now long gone, include the Kettle Valley Lumber Company, Taylor Lumber Company, Huff Brothers Sawmill and W. T. Squelch and Son of Tulameen. Others have sprung up in their place, but today the main operator, Weyerhaeuser Canada, is Princeton’s largest employer.
The first settler in the Princeton area, John Fall Allison, started the first ranch. By the end of the 19th century the grasslands and open woodlands of the valley bottom were divided up into ranches. The Similkameen People became ranchers and some of the present day Indian Reserves conform to century-old ranch boundaries that are occupied by descendants of the original family.
Prior to 1949 and the opening of the Hope-Princeton Highway, isolation was always a keyword in Princeton’s history. The community relied heavily on the horse for transport. Whether it was Bill Garrison’s freighting, Pat Wright’s guiding service, Doug Currie’s cattle horses or Luke Gibson's race horses, the horse was king. To this day, ranching and horses play a big part in the area’s economy and culture.
Princeton’s history is not without colourful characters of the type Western movies cloth in black hats. Probably the most infamous of those old timers was one Jack Budd. Prior to arriving in Princeton at the age of 53, it is claimed that “Budd” had led a life as a cattle rustler south of the Canada/US border. Whatever his past record, this insular character became one of the top horse breeders of the Southern Interior. Perhaps this is what inspired his close friendship with the equally infamous American train robber Billy Miner. Between 1903 and his capture in 1906, Miner lived openly in Princeton under the alias of George Edwards. Mr. Edwards was known for his fine form on the dance floor, on horse back, and his eye for the ladies.
W. A. (“Podunk”) Davis is another of the many characters brought to life at the Princeton Museum. Like Billy Miner, he was a native of Kentucky. Born in 1859, he made his first trip to the Similkameen in 1887. “Podunk” Davis played many parts in the valley’s history, including road-builder, rancher, miner, prospector, explorer, railroader and even distiller! And let’s not forget hero. In August 1926, Nurse Ada Warbourton became lost while hiking from Hope to Princeton. All hope of finding her alive was lost, except by “Podunk” Davis. He found her in Paradise Valley on September 27th, 1926 and was awarded the Medal for Bravery by Premier Oliver.
W. A. “Podunk” Davis died in Princeton on October 27, 1943 at the age of 84. In passing he said, “I’ve had a good time. Life owes me nothing.” A fitting tribute to all of the men and women who explored, trapped, prospected, mined, drove trains, logged, ranched and bred horses, giving Princeton a history that surely encapsulates the spirit and history of BC settlement.