History of Vernon

The City of Vernon would like to thank Joseph Harder for researching and writing this history of Vernon.

Vernon, B.C., is within the Okanagan Indian Nations traditional territory, also known as the Syeelhwh Nation, which means "the people who live here". S-Ookanhkchinx or Okanagan translates to "transport toward the head or top end". This refers to the people travelling from the head of the Okanagan Lake to where the Okanagan River meet the Columbia River. In other words Okanagan Lake and Okanagan River were the traditional transportation routes of the people and their traditional boundaries encompassed this area.

The current area of Vernon was called Nintle-Moos-Chin by the Syeelhwh, meaning “jumping over creek”, so named because the banks of BX Creek nearly met and it was possible to leap across it. A man of note among the Syeelhwh was Chief Kalamalka. He was so popular that one of the first hotels in the city was named after him. Later, the beautifully coloured lake just south of Vernon would be renamed Kalamalka as well.

In 1811, David Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company (later part of the Hudson’s Bay Company) became the first white settler to see the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan Brigade Trail was a main Hudson’s Bay trail linking Fort Vancouver in Washington to what is now Kamloops. The trail followed the Okanagan River and made use of early Indigenous trading routes blazing through the woods of the west side of Okanagan Lake.

Many miners also came up from the U.S.A. through the Okanagan and back to the areas of the Fraser River gold rush. In 1863, gold was discovered in Cherry Creek about 40 kilometres east of Vernon.

Luc Girouard is known as the first permanent white settler in the Vernon area (c.1861); his cabin can still be seen beside the roundabout near the Schubert Centre ( 30 Ave. and 35 St.)  In 1859, the Oblate Missionaries of the Catholic Church travelled from France via the Oregon Territory and entered the Valley. Anglican and Protestant churches would soon arrive.

In 1864, Forbes and Charles Vernon obtained a large ranch from fellow Irishman Charles Houghton. Houghton had named it the Coldstream Ranch likely after the Coldstream Guards, a regiment of the British Army. The District of Coldstream retains this name to this day and the nearby city was named in honour of Forbes Vernon.   In the same year Francis Barnard, of the BX Express fame, started a ranch north of Vernon to breed his horses for use in his stagecoach business which was a formative influence in the early days of British Columbia. Today the area north of Vernon is still known as “The BX”.

In 1867, one of the most famous ranchers, Cornelius O’Keefe, arrived with two others—Thomas Greenhow and Thomas Wood—to establish a ranch at the Head of Okanagan Lake. This is the same year that the first town site was settled due in large part to satisfy the needs of the surrounding ranches. Price Ellison was also a very influential rancher, businessman and politician in the area and had his ranch near the bottom of East Hill. Vernon was at one time (c.1877) known as Forge Valley because of Ellison’s blacksmith shop.  Later it would become known as Priest’s Valley due to the presence of the Oblate Missionaries.

Up to this point the area now known as Vernon had gone by three previous names (Nintle-Moos-Chin, Forge Valley and Priest’s Valley). Then, in 1885, E.J. Tronson and Charles Brewer laid out a townsite and gave Vernon its fourth name: Centreville.  It wasn’t until 1887 that the town was officially named Vernon after Forbes George Vernon. In 1892, Vernon was finally incorporated as a city of British Columbia. It became home to banks, hotels, schools, a fire hall, a hospital, a city newspaper, a courthouse and many varieties of stores. Japanese and Chinese settler were also an important part of the culture and history of Vernon and there was for many years a “Chinatown” in Vernon’s midst.  Vernon was not only the first city incorporated in the Okanagan Valley but was for many years the largest and most influential one as well.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen visited the Vernon area in 1890 and a year later purchased the Coldstream Ranch from Forbes Vernon. In 1892, the Aberdeen's had 100 fruit trees planted at the ranch “in an effort to kick start a fruit growing industry in the region”. They also subdivided several parcels of land for others who wanted a future in the fruit growing business.  However, they soon realized the need for irrigation channels, leading to the construction of the Grey Canal in 1908. The canal provided irrigation for the entire Vernon area.  The fruit industry in Coldstream and Vernon would eventually become famous all over the country and the world for its fine produce.

In 1892, a spur line called the Shuswap and Okanagan Railway was completed. Beginning as on off-shoot of the famed Transcontinental Railway in Sicamous, the S & O was the brainchild of Forbes Vernon and F.S. Barnard, among others, and it connected Vernon, Okanagan Landing, and eventually all of the Valley to the rest of the world.

Where the tracks ended at Okanagan Landing, the steam boats began. They travelled the entire distance of Okanagan Lake, paddling past such places as Fintry, Okanagan Centre, Kelowna, Summerland and Penticton. Small scale commercial boating had been running since 1882 through the efforts of Captain Thomas Dolman Shorts but when the railway came and the first steam boat, the SS Aberdeen, was built, commercial goods and passenger transport really took off.

Although there had been a number of attempts to form a militia unit in Vernon, it wasn’t until 1908 that the first such unit was officially formed. They were originally called the Canadian Mounted Rifles and later the 30th Regiment B.C. Horse, but were more commonly known as the Okanagan Mounted Rifles.

Today Vernon, along with the District of Coldstream and other surrounding areas, is part of the Regional District of the North Okanagan which was formed in 1965.