For July and August, the Vernon Museum will share a series of articles that explore some of the many heritage sites around the North Okanagan. To plan a visit to any of the sites featured, please visit https://vernonmuseum.ca/explore/heritage-field-trips/.

 

The First Balloon is Released

In the afternoon of October 31, 1971, more than 100 people turned out, including the mayor, a federal deputy minister, and the local MP, to watch Russ Colville, a meteorological technician at the Vernon Upper Air Station, launch the site’s first hydrogen balloon.

The Vernon weather station opened that year on a hill overlooking the commonage for a cost of $200,000. At the time, it was only the fourth of its kind in the province, and the thirty-fifth in Canada, and was part of a world-wide network of stations that provided data for weather-forecasting purposes. 

During the station’s first few years, it operated under a staff of four; two men worked per shift, five hours on, five hours off, with two days in between.

How Weather Balloons Work

Twice a day, at 3:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., a hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from the Vernon station and sent more than 32 kilometres into the atmosphere. These weren’t your average birthday balloons; they were white and massive, at more than 1.5 metres in diameter. Tied to the bottom of the balloon was a lightweight instrument called a radiosonde. As it ascended into the sky beneath the balloon, the device beamed atmospheric information such as pressure, temperature, and humidity back to the ground station via a small radio transmitter. 

The balloon would rise at about 1,000 feet per minute, expanding until it reached a maximum diameter of around 20 feet. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, the balloon would burst, and the radiosonde would hurtle back towards the earth. A little parachute helped to slow its descent, and eventually it would touch down, often great distances from its release point. The device was not recovered, but instead was left to biodegrade.

A final Launch

By 1994, technological changes meant that the manual release of balloons was no longer required. The weather station’s duties were transferred to the Mountain Weather Service office in Kelowna which employed a quicker, more automated system. But for those who had dedicated their lives to measuring weather using balloons, the final launch on January 13, 1994, marked a sad occasion. Russ Colville was called out of retirement to release the last balloon, and a handful of people arrived for the occasion.

The building that once housed the Vernon Upper Air Station still stands, and now contains the Allan Brooks Nature Centre.

 

 

 

Russ Colville releases the last weather balloon from the Vernon Upper Air Station on January 13, 1994. GVMA #14980.

The Vernon Upper Air Station during its decommission in 1994. GVMA #14916.

The Allan Brooks Nature Centre now occupies the building used by the Vernon Upper Air Station at 250 Allan Brooks Way. Image courtesy of the Allan Brooks Nature Centre. 

 

 

 

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

For July and August, the Vernon Museum will share a series of articles that explore some of the many heritage sites around the North Okanagan. To plan a visit to any of the sites featured, please visit https://vernonmuseum.ca/explore/heritage-field-trips/.

 

The Okanagan Landing Stationhouse Museum

One of Vernon’s hidden gems is the Okanagan Landing Stationhouse Museum, located in Paddlewheel Park.

In addition to a variety of other artifacts, the museum boasts an incredible scale model that depicts life in the Okanagan Landing in 1914.

The Era of Sternwheelers

Life was different in Vernon when sternwheelers still plied the waters of Okanagan Lake.

The Landing was a hub of activity, since it was the terminus of the Shuswap and Okanagan spur line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the most northerly steamboat port on the lake. It wasn’t unusual for the arrival or departure of ships to draw large crowds to the Landing, and perhaps none more so than for the launch of the S.S. Okanagan in 1907. 

A New Ship

On April 16 of that year, the town was all but deserted, for the majority of its population had descended on the Okanagan Landing. Mayor W.R. Megaw had declared a half-holiday, and school, stores, and offices were closed.

The Landing, meanwhile, was festively decorated, with bunting, flags, and streamers waving cheerfully from every building.

But it was the S.S. Okanagan that was drawing the most attention from onlookers, with her gleaming white and gold trim.

Construction had begun on the CPR vessel a year earlier, in 1906. She was built to replace the aging S.S. Aberdeen in transporting passengers and freight between Vernon and Penticton. After a year of construction, she was finally ready to be put to work. 

The Christening

As the crowd waited impatiently, the ship’s gang plank was removed and she started to slowly slide along the greased stringers towards the water.

Meanwhile, a ceremony was taking place on the ship’s main deck; the wife of Captain Gore had been given the honour of naming the ship, and was presented with a flower bouquet and a silver water service. 

As the Okanagan slipped into the lake for the first time, Mrs. Gore showered a bottle of champagne across the ship’s bow. The guests on board toasted to the new vessel’s success, before they were transferred to the S.S. Aberdeen and brought back to shore.

Celebrations continued into the evening, with performances by the Vernon Fire Brigade Band and a dance hosted by Captain and Mrs. Gore at the Landing’s Strand Hotel.

 

YEARS OF SERVICE

The S.S. Okanagan was in service for 27 years before being retired in 1934. While most of her pieces were dismantled and sold as scraps, the Ladies Saloon from the boat’s stern was rescued by the S.S. Sicamous Restoration Society and moved to the heritage park in Penticton.

 

The Okanagan Landing Stationhouse museum is housed in in the original 1892 railroad station house. 

 

The S.S. Okanagan on her day of launch in 1907.

 

Okanagan Landing, showing the Strand Hotel, railroad, and SS Okanagan, sternwheeler circa 1910. GVMA #11232.

 

Gwyn Evans

 

 

 

Grappling with disaster

“No more appalling disaster has ever been recorded in the annals of this province than the catastrophe of Tuesday morning [August 10, 1909], when the Okanagan Hotel was destroyed by fire and eleven helpless victims perished in the flames. A sickening pall of gloom rests over the city.”

Thus read the front page of the Vernon News on August 12, 1909, a few days after the Okanagan Hotel fire that resulted in the death of 11 individuals and left the City of Vernon shocked. 

The Okanagan Hotel

The Okanagan Hotel opened in June of 1891 on the corner of 30th Avenue and 33rd Street. It was built of brick veneer and, when it was destroyed, represented one of Vernon’s oldest buildings. 

A Fire Breaks Out and a hero emerges

Early on the morning of August 10, a fire started in the hotel. 60 people were inside at the time. 

Fire fighters rushed to the scene but little could be done. Efforts instead turned to rescuing those inside and stopping the blaze from spreading. 

It was then that a Vernon man named Archie Hickling sprang into action. He ran into the building to rescue two children who were safely evacuated. Hickling then heard a trapped waitress calling for help.

“I’ll get her or I’ll die,” said Hickling, according to the Vernon News. “Darting into the hellish cauldron of flame, smoke and noxious gases, he reached the girl and got her out through the window, whence she was speedily rescued; but heroic Hickling sank back into the pit of death and was seen no more alive.”

We Will Remember them

Hickling was one of 11 men who perished in the Okanagan Hotel Fire. 

An investigation lasted nearly a month after the fire before it was determined that “the fire was of incendiary origin by a party or parties unknown, and we consider from the evidence produced that the night watchman on the night preceding the Okanagan fire, did not perform his required duties.” The perpetrator of this crime has never been discovered. 

A monument in Hickling’s memory was erected in December of 1909. In 1999, the other 10 victims (save one) were identified, and their names listed on a bronze plaque that was added to the Hickling Monument. The memorial currently stands in Vernon’s Polson Park.

  • Wilbur Smith, carpenter
  • J.J. Funston, labourer
  • Jas. Anderson, baker’s assistant
  • Julius Fuerst, bartender
  • M. Chabtree, labourer
  • George Gannett, cement worker
  • George McKay, cement worker
  • George Seltgast, painter
  • Archibald Hickling, labourer
  • Wm. Cook, prospector
  • An unknown man

Additional Resources

Hero of Okanagan hotel fire remembered 110 years later,” article by Roger Knox. 

When Duty Calls – The Story of The Okanagan Hotel Fire of 1909,” documentary by Bruce Mol.

A headline from the Vernon News of August 12, 1909.

 

 

The Okanagan Hotel, undated. GVMA #17562.

 

 

The ruins of the Okanagan Hotel Fire on August 11, 1909. GVMA #004.

 

 

(Left) Archie Hickling circa 1908. (Right) The Archie Hickling Memorial in Polson Park, “In Memory of a Hero.” GVMA #19341 and GVMA #24630.

 

Gwyn Evans