For the months of June and July, we are thrilled to present a series of blog posts by Collections Intern Rebeka Beganova. Rebeka (she/her) is a post-secondary student with a passion for research, literature, and history. Having completed an Associate of Arts Degree at Okanagan College, she is glad to be joining the MAV team during her last summer in Vernon before heading off to UBC Vancouver. There is no better way to say goodbye to her hometown than to explore its local history!

A black and white image of a steam engine with "129" on the front and several men standing on the train or beside it on the rails.
Shuswap & Okanagan Railway construction crew photographed at Mara Lake ca. 1891.

From 1890 to 1892, the construction of the Shuswap & Okanagan (S&O) railway stirred excitement throughout Vernon. It was a time of bright possibilities, of newfound connections – and of gathering stories. Incoming technology manifested in people’s minds as both a benevolent friend and an unpredictable beast, and it occasionally inspired the creation of mystical local tales. Around dinner tables and across schoolyards, the train and its tracks became the domain of eerie ghosts and spectral monsters.

Guiding Spirit

In June of 1891, the Vernon News featured a report of railroad worker JR Beesling’s encounter with an unknown, life-saving entity while on the job. During one stormy night, he described, he was riding the train and happened to spot “a strange, weird-looking blue light” floating ahead on the tracks. Suddenly possessed by an inexplicable urge to stop the train, he rang the bell and the vehicle came to a screeching halt.

The engineer and the brakeman accompanied him on an investigation of the area, but they found nothing, not even a trace, indicating anything (or anyone) had come and gone. Upon continuing down the tracks, however, they came upon a bridge that was almost completely washed away by the rising water levels below. It seemed the train and its occupants had barely avoided a catastrophic accident. No matter how much Beesling swore they had just encountered a “Divine Providence,” he lamented that no one would believe him.

Swan Lake Demon

A few pages later in that same newspaper, an unnamed author detailed the “Legend of Swan Lake.” Although already established as a local tale, this new rendition included details clearly echoing themes of the locomotive. The story went that, long ago, a stockman and his horse were lumbering homeward along the shore of Swan Lake. Much like in Beesing’s report, a sinister storm was brewing against the dark sky. Just as lightning flashed, a blood-curdling cry split the night. The horse immediately reared up and scampered away to safety, but the man – not too tired to bravely investigate the noise – cautiously approached the rushes. A terrifying creature swam into view.

It was seemingly too horrifying to warrant a detailed description, but the author of the article wrote that “Nature seemed evidently to have created it in an idle moment, in order to show how she could diverge from her ordinary course.” There was just one clear detail: the eyes (however numerous) were a frightening, fiery red, and the nostrils (equally abundant) spewed a noxious smoke. The stockman stood paralyzed with fear until he fainted, overwhelmed by the fumes. When he woke, the sky was innocently shining and his horse calmly grazing nearby. The author reported a popular theory that the monster, with its burning stare and billowing breath, was symbolic of a railway engine.

The S&O railway evoked all manner of activity, from labour to leisurely travel. The storytelling it inspired is similarly meaningful – the fear and awe that new technology can inspire remains, after all, familiar to us today.

Do you enjoy local ghost stories? Check out this other blog post

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!

Rebeka Beganova, Collections Intern