A black-and-white photo shows a forest fire coming down a gully between two hills.
A forest fire pictured in Coldstream in 1921.

The 2023 Fire Season

2023 has been reported as Canada’s worst fire season. Although this fact cannot be denied, it may or may not provide some comfort to know that folks in and around Vernon have been battling blazes for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Okanagan-Similkameen areas practiced controlled burning as a means to maintain forest and grassland ecosystems. Once settlers arrived in the area, the Vernon News, then a farm and livestock journal, often featured advice on how to protect one’s property from fire damage. For example, an 1894 article states, in no uncertain terms, that “the cutting and clearing away of the forest for a radius around the settlement sufficient to ensure safety would be neither an expensive nor a laborious undertaking.”

1900s-1910s

A heatwave in May of 1901 wreaked havoc on the Valley, and the South Okanagan was particularly hard-hit. A forest fire near what is now the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre outside of Penticton saw bridges and culverts burn down, and fallen timber litter the road. At the same time, the whole town of Fairview (now a ghost town) came out to fight a fire that was creeping towards their properties down a nearby gully.

In 1912, the newspaper printed “Six Good Rules for Care with Fire in the Mountains,” one of which was a reminder to knock out one’s pipe ashes or throw cigar and cigarette stumps only where there is nothing to catch fire. In 1922, the “cigarette menace” was once again discussed, with the paper reporting that hundreds of the fires recorded that year in Canada were “due to the evil habit of tossing away lighted tobacco.”

1920s-1950s and beyond

Sometime in the late 1920s, Silver Star Mountain experienced a devastating fire, which was unfortunately not unusual for the region as evidenced by the installation of a forest fire lookout at the mountain’s summit more than two decades earlier. In the spring of 1930, Bill Osborn, David Ricardo, and Michael Freeman became among the first to ski down the mountain – and later described seeing a number of snags (still-standing dead trees) that have been destroyed by this fire a few years earlier. 

In July of 1940, a series of forest fires ravaged the Sugar Lake area. Men were pulled away from their homes and work to fight the blazes, which finally abated thanks to heavy rain. In 1950, a mid-summer fire at Kingfisher was finally brought under control after several long weeks. Fires continued to ravage the Okanagan Valley in the years following, including the unforgettable White Rock Lake fire of 2021.

Thankfully, the area’s inhabitants have demonstrated their resiliency in the face of nature’s wrath time-and-time again, helped along at times by some much-needed rain.

 

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

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

A beige certificate with a red stamp. The title reads "The Silver Star Mining Company."
A stock certificate from 1897 preserved in the Vernon Archives that shows A. G. Fuller purchasing 100 shares in the Silver Star Mining Company.

International Mountain Day

Today is International Mountain Day! Did you know that Vernon’s own mountain, SilverStar, was once the site of a promising but ultimately unsuccessful mining operation?

However, long before this, the mountain was used for generations by the Syilx People of the Okanagan Nation, with foot trails providing access to the mountain’s rich hunting and foraging grounds. Once settlers arrived in the region, the peak became known as Aberdeen Mountain after Lord Aberdeen, Canada’s governor general from 1893 to 1898.

Silver Star Mining Company

The mountain’s earliest claim was staked in 1896 by the Silver Star Mining Company, of which rancher Cornelius O’Keefe was the president. Shafts were dug near the mountain’s submit by pick and shovel, while black powder was used to break up larger pieces. The raw ore was loaded into buckets, and then transported down the mountain on pack horses.

Trace amounts of silver, lead, zinc, molybdenum and copper were quickly found in the ore, which lead miners to believe they had found their own Montezuma’s treasure. Mining fever was spreading all across the province at this time, and reports by the Vernon News of the “magnificent specimens” coming down from the mine only served to generate more excitement. Several well-known Vernonites invested dozens of shares in the company, which were sold at a cost of $1.00 each.

Moving forward

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to fade, as prospectors quickly realized that the ores were too low a grade to be worked at a profit. The mountain’s mining era quietly ended in disappointment around 1926. But a handful of intrepid skiers were waiting in the wings for their turn to explore the mountain…

 

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

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrated Local Athletes

The Winter Olympics in Beijing are underway, with Vernonites Kevin Hill and Emma Lunder having competed in their respective sports (Elena Gaskell was also nominated, but was sadly forced to withdraw after sustaining a knee injury). In addition to Hill, Lunder, and Gaskell, Vernon has been home to several accomplished athletes over the years, including Rob Boyd.

The highlight of Rob’s successful skiing career came on February 25, 1989, when he soared down Whistler Mountain to become the first male Canadian to win a gold medal in a World Cup downhill race in his home country.  

An origin story

Rob started skiing in Vernon when he was only three years old, using a homemade tow rope his father, Sandy Boyd, had built. By his mid-teens, Rob decided to pursue a career in skiing; the fact that his parents owned their own ski hill (the New Winterside Ski Hill and Recreation Area in Tillicum Valley, which operated in the 1970s) was likely a great help in sharpening the young athlete’s skills. He also competed with the Silver Star Ski Club

Rob qualified for the provincial ski team at the age of sixteen and moved to Whistler with his parents. Two years later he made it to the national downhill team. In 1985, he won his first downhill at Val Gardena in Italy’s Dolomites; it is this Italian mountain that saw Rob place in the top-ten six times during his career, including two of three World Cup victories.

Crazy Canucks

Rob was following in the footsteps of “Crazy Canucks” Jim Hunter, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Steve Podborski, and Ken Read, a group of Canadian athletes who earned a reputation for impossibly fast downhill skiing and consistently challenged European athletes on the World Cup circuit in the 1970s and ‘80s. Besides the  three World Cup victories, Rob finished on the podium six times and captured 28 top-fifteen results in his twelve years on the national team. He also qualified for six world championships and three Olympics before retiring in 1997.

Rob Boyd was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

Vernon Vanguards of Winter Sports

If you are interested in learning about other celebrated local athletes, the Museum and Archives of Vernon is hosting a Winter Sports Display featuring vanguards Larry Kwong, Josh Dueck, and Sonja Gaudet. Check is out during the museum’s open hours.  

 

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

 

Vernon Winter Carnival chairman George Melvin presenting the silver plate and trophy to the new Queen Silver Star, Rhondda Oliver (Biggs), in 1961.

The Vernon Winter Carnival is always new

One thing you can be sure about with the Vernon Winter Carnival is that each year will bring something new. However, in 1961, everything was new, since that was the year the annual event began.

From radio coverage captured by CJIB (now 107.5 FM) and preserved in the Vernon Archives, we are able to relive the exciting moment the Carnival’s first ever Queen Silver Star was crowned.

Royalty and Dignitaries

As the coverage begins, announcer Jack Pollard states that the crowd of two-to-three thousand gathered on Barnard (30th) Avenue is awaiting the arrival of the Vice Regal Party, composed of Lieutenant Governor George Pearkes, Mrs. Pearkes, Lieutenant Colonel David Kinloch, and Mrs. Kinloch. Once the dignitaries arrive, they gather near a large ice palace, which was carved on the main drag for the occasion, with the Queen Silver Star participants and the visiting royalty. Queens from Trail, Summerland, Victoria, Kelowna, Vancouver, Port Alberni, Salmon Arm, and Lumby travelled to Vernon for the occasion.

Vernon: A Winter Playground

Peter Seaton, the president of the Vernon Board of Trade, then says that the occasion marks the “final lap in a long hard race to make Vernon and Silver Star a winter playground … The Carnival is going to be to Vernon like a drink to a man in the desert.” The crowd cheers, some standing around the palace, others watching from the roofs of nearby businesses or parked cars.

Queen Silver Star I accepts her crown

The RCMP clears a path through the crowd to the sounds of the McIntosh Girls’ Pipe Band. The Vernon Girls’ Trumpet Band then escorts a car carrying the new Queen Silver Star to the ice palace. The young lady emerges, and is revealed to be Miss Rhondda Oliver (later Biggs). She is helped up the palace’s stairs by two six-year-old pages. They neatly arrange the long train of her blue and white robe as she takes her place on the throne. Her princesses, Sharon Magee and Joyce Moilliet, stand on either side.  

Mayor Frank Becker and Miss Vernon Barbara Wolsey then place the crown on Rhondda’s head. As she gives her acceptance speech, a bonfire of Christmas trees on the hill behind the ice palace blazes to life. Mayor Becker wishes her a happy reign, before reading congratulatory telegrams from Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and M.P. Stewart Fleming. Lieutenant Governor Pearkes then declares that the first ever Vernon Winter Carnival has officially begun.

More than 60 years later, the 2022 Vernon Winter Carnival is set to begin on February 4.

To the Max 80’s Party – Virtual Edition

As part of Carnival, the Museum will be hosting “To the Max 80’s Party – Virtual Edition.”

Tease your bangs, pull on your leg warmers, and grab the kiddos for an 80’s style sing-and-dance along with Kiki the Eco Elf. This family-friendly virtual event will feature music, dancing and prizes for best dressed, all from the comfort of your own home. Tickets are $20 and on-demand video access will be available for the entirety of the Winter Carnival! For more details, please click here

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

 

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aerial photo of the ski runs at the New Winterside Ski Resort (Tillicum Valley) circa 1972. The raceway can also be seen.

SilverStar’s Little SIbling

It may have only operated for a few years, but Vernon’s Tillicum Valley Ski Hill played host to several professional athletes and even launched the career of a future downhill champion.

In the mid-1960s, Vernonites Molly and Sandy Boyd decided to rig up a tractor-driven tow rope from an old purse seiner so that they could ski down a hillside on their property, since the couple were too busy with five kids and a farm to make the trek up to SilverStar. After a few quiet first seasons that saw mostly family and friends using the hill, it began to garner attention following the addition of a new tow rope, safety gates, groomed slopes, and even a children’s ski school.

Night Skiing at New Winterside, undated.

Moving on up

By 1969, the Boyds and business partner Neil Wolliams had decided that it was time to move their venture five miles up the hill to their Tillicum Valley property where a northern exposure offered better snow conditions. They installed a 2,000 foot T-bar to service two lit runs that could be used for day or night skiing, and named it the New Winterside Ski Hill and Recreation Area.

The resort officially opened in January of 1970. In addition to the two slopes, it included a skating rink, snowmobile trails, and ski-doo rentals. Eventually, it would come to be year-round playground with a hot spring, a raceway, hiking trails, and even an alpine slide. It is here that Rob Boyd, one of Molly and Sandy’s sons and the first male Canadian to win a gold medal in a World Cup downhill race in his home country, began his athletic career.

Sandy Boyd and an unidentified woman looking at the bottom of a cart for the alpine slide at Tillicum in 1979.

From New Winterside to Camp Tillicum

After several seasons of poor snow conditions, the Boyds were forced to sell New Winterside in the early 1980s. They moved to Whistler to support their son’s blossoming skiing career, and New Winterside faced an uncertain future as its assets were sold off. Thankfully, in 1989, the property was purchased by the Girl Guides of Canada, and “Camp Tillicum” is still used by the group today. Molly and Sandy eventually moved back to the Vernon area, and continued to serve as active and energetic community members. 

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

Gwyneth 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 Silver Star Mountain Museum

A series of year-round exhibits by the Silver Star Mountain Museum located throughout the resort’s village share the ski-hill’s long history.

After more than 90 years of development, the hill now welcomes thousands of local, national and international visitors each year. Although hundreds of individuals worked to shape Silver Star into what it is today, it took just a few to discover its potential.

A First Ascent

In 1921, Bert Thorburn and Tini Ryan road their bicycles up Silver Star Road, stopping one half mile below the first switchback. Strapped to the frames of their bikes were pairs of skis.

After leaving the bikes behind, Bert and Tini continued to trek by foot and by ski for 17 kilometres up to the mountain’s summit. After many hours, they reached the open slopes of the Star and completed the first ever ascent of the mountain.

Exploring the Possibilities

Then, in the spring of 1930, Bill Osborn, David Ricardo, and Michael Freeman obtained permission to stay overnight in the mountain’s forest fire lookout.

The next day, they retraced their steps, and were among the first to ski down the mountain. 

In 1934, Phil Hoskins, Robin Richmond, and Carl Wylie spent four days at the summit, exploring the open slopes. They returned full of enthusiasm for the possibilities of future skiing at Silver Star.

A Club IS FORMED

Finally, in 1938, the Silver Star Ski Club was formed with Carl as president. Bert, Tini, Phil, and Robin were all instrumental in the club’s formation.

The City of Vernon even donated a log cabin to new club as a weekend home for the more adventuresome skiers.

The Village, courtesy of the SilverStar Mountain Resort.

 

Bert Thorburn, Mike Freeman, Jim Duddle, and George Duddle on Silver Star’s southern slope in 1939.

 

Group of people sitting in the Silver Star Mountain lookout tower circa 1930. GVMA #290.

a reputation is established

In December of 1938, the hill’s first downhill race was held, with competitors coming from Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, and Summerland. In less than 20 years, Silver Star had gained a reputation as a skiing mecca across the Okanagan Valley, and it hass only been up from there!

 

 

Gwyn Evans

 

Intrepid early ski club

 

December 5, 2020

After what’s felt like a long, challenging year, several Okanagan locals are looking forward to finding a sense of freedom in the feeling of skiing down the slopes of Silver Star.

However, in its early days, simply getting up Silver Star Mountain was a feat and challenge in and of itself, only attempted by the most adventurous and determined ski enthusiasts.

In the 1930s, North Okanagan citizens realized Silver Star – which was named after a mining claim on the mountain – was a superb destination for skiing. 

 

Two unidentified skiers pose on the Birnie Range Ski Hill, with the city of Vernon in the background, circa 1940s

However, the mountain could only be accessed by trails, and later, a small, unmaintained road which only allowed vehicles to make it halfway up the hill. Hoping to make skiing accessible to a wider public, the Silver Star Ski Club decided to move their winter pursuits to Birnie Range on a hillside overlooking Kalamalka Lake on the west side of Highway 97.

On February 9th, 1939, the Vernon News reported: “the Silver Star Ski Club, which will be host to the second annual Okanagan Valley ski championships, on Sunday, February 19th, has completed an addition to the main jump on Birnie Range that should make leaps of 110 to 120 feet possible.  Jumping for men and junior boys will be one of the features of the meet.”

It was here that the club started their annual four-way championships, consisting of ski jumping, cross-country, downhill, and slalom events. Memberships cost between $0.75 for youth and teens, and $2.50 for adults.

In 1948, the club moved its activities away from Birnie Range after a mild winter produced a lack of snow. They tried a couple different locations around Vernon, before deciding that the lower elevation was not ideal and returned to their goal of conquering Silver Star Mountain as an accessible ski hill for local and visiting enthusiasts. 

Gwyn Evans