The Pioneer Park Cemetery. Photo courtesy of the Vernon and District Family History Society.

Vernon’s First Cemetery

An unassuming plot of land off of Alexis Park Drive is all that remains of Vernon’s first cemetery. The Pioneer Park Cemetery, as it is now known, was established in early 1885 on 52 acres of land donated by Vernon’s first white settler, Luc Girouard. Up until then, the closest cemetery was located at the Okanagan Mission, and with a growing population, Vernon was in need of its own facility. Girouard’s fellow pioneer E.J. Tronson was the main driving force behind the establishment of the Pioneer Park Cemetery.

 

The Pioneer Park Cemetery is accessed from 35th Avenue off of Alexis Park Drive in Vernon. The cemetery is on the right approximately 100 metres along 35th Avenue. Photo and directions courtesy of the Vernon and District Family History Society.

A state of Disrepair

In July of 1885, the first body, that of one-year-old John William Hozier, was laid to rest in the site. But only ten years later, in 1895, the cemetery was in a state of disrepair, with the fence rotting away. Conditions improved somewhat in 1898, when a source of water was located near the cemetery which allowed for the planting of flowers.

 

A New Cemetery is chosen

However, the site was ultimately deemed inadequate, and, in 1901, G. Milligan offered the city five acres of land on Pleasant Valley Road for the establishment of a new cemetery. A year later, the Pleasant Valley Cemetery was ready for use. Starting in 1913, bodies were exhumed from the Pioneer Park Cemetery and moved to the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.

 

Preservation and Commemoration

Details of tombstones at the Pioneer Park Cemetery. Photo courtesy of the Vernon and District Family History Society.

In 1932, some Vernon City Councilors suggested that the old cemetery should be preserved out of respect for the early pioneers who established it. Once the deeds to the land were transferred from the Girouard Family, city crews were sent it to improve the cemetery’s appearance and to restore any remaining tombstones. In 1973, the site was turned into a park, and named the Pioneer Park Cemetery.

Although you might not recognize the park as a former cemetery with just a cursory glance, the lives of those who were buried there have not been forgotten; a memorial plaque at the park’s entrance bears many of their names, and members of the Vernon and District Family History Society are working to compile a complete burial list.

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of alcohol and alcohol consumption.

The Vernon Hotel bar room, with patrons, circa 1895. 

September 12, 1916

On this day (Sept. 12) in 1916, a public referendum was held in Vernon and across B.C. to determine whether or not prohibition would be implemented around the province. Three days later, the official results were all in; those in favour of prohibition had won with a 56.5% majority.

Contrary to popular belief, the Prohibition Act did not actually make drinking or manufacturing alcohol illegal, but instead prohibited its sale. Moreover, doctors and pharmacists could still purchase liquor for medical purposes from government-appointed vendors.

Local historian A.J. Hiebert completed an in-depth thesis in 1972 on the social and political impacts of prohibition’s arrival in the Okanagan, and a few of his findings are outlined here. For the full document, please visit https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/exhibits/living-landscapes/thomp-ok/prohibition/prohibition.htm.  

Prohibition in Vernon

The results of the referendum in Vernon showed that 365 individuals were in favour of prohibition, while 332 were against is. Most, however, adopted a moderate response to the consumption of liquor.

For example, in an article published on November 21, 1913, the editor of the Vernon News discusses the importance of limiting activities like excessive drinking to uphold the city’s “high moral standards” but also cautions against “extreme and impracticable views.” 

When prohibition officially came into effect in B.C. on October 1, 1917, it didn’t seem to actually cause too much of a stir among Vernon’s citizens, perhaps because the notion was not an entirely unfamiliar one.

Petitions in favour of banning the sale and manufacture of liquor had circulated around the city as early as 1891, although they never came to pass. Vernon’s Mayor from 1908 to 1909, R.W. Timmins, was also an outspoken prohibitionist, but dry laws were never implemented in the city during his time in office. A by-law was even passed by referendum in 1910 that ordered places that sold liquor to be closed between 11 pm and 6 am, and to keep their blinds up during these hours to allow the premises to be inspected.

Prohibition was difficult to enforce and ultimately encouraged crime and corruption (prohibition commissioner Walter Findley was even arrested in 1918 for trying to smuggle in a train-load of rye from Ontario) and the system was rescinded across the province in 1921.

 

Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator

 

 

Vernon in the summer of 1908.

 

2021 Western Canada Heat Wave

This past June, dozens of records were set in Vernon and across B.C. during an unprecedented heat wave. The highest reported temperature in Vernon during this time was a staggering 44.2 C, recorded on June 28.

Although different weather stations around the City reported different temperatures, and, moreover, historical temperature data for Vernon is not conclusive, it is believed that this high shattered a previous record of 40 C set on July 21, 1908.

Staying cool before A/C

Needless to say, the luxury of air conditioning did not exist 113 years ago (the first in-home unit was installed in a Minneapolis mansion in 1914), but a variety of methods were used to help people stay cool.

An ad for the Cooper and Christien Grocer in the Vernon News of July 23, 1908, encouraged the public to stock up on lemons and limes for lemonade. (Hot! Hot! Hot! And it may be hotter,” reads the headline). Refreshing treats such as ice cream, watermelon, and iced tea were a particularly popular way to cool down, something which to this day hasn’t changed. 

On the same page of the Vernon News, the W.R. Megaw department store announced that they were hosting a hot weather sale, with discounts on kilted sailor suits for children and taffeta silk parasols for their mothers. Light-weight materials like canvas, cotton, and linen were popular choices during the hot summer months.

Another ad recommended the use of Zam-Buk, a medicinal skin balm first sold in 1902, to relieve the symptoms of heat rash. Although there was no over-the-counter cure for heat-related illnesses, strenuous work was avoided when the sun was at its most extreme; instead, afternoon naps were popularized as a way to reduce the threat of heat exhaustion or stroke.

July 21, 1908

However, despite the best efforts of advertisers, the high temperatures of July 1908 actually did not seem to cause much of a stir among the people of Vernon. The record high was relegated to a small note in the newspaper’s “Town and District” section that read “Tuesday was the hottest day experienced here for some years. The thermometer at the Government meteorological station at the Coldstream Ranch registered 104 [40 C] in the shade.”

However, a description of the lacrosse match for the Minto Cup played by the Montreal Shamrocks and the New Westminster club on the same day that Vernon reached its record high temperature earned a full paragraph.

 

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

 

what this site has seen

January 10, 2020

The site of Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary and MacDonald Park is fraught with memories. Not only was it the former location of a World War One internment camp, but also less commonly known, a Hospital for the Insane. An article from the Vernon News of 1946 indicates that even then it was hard to find people who knew, or were willing to talk, about the Hospital that once occupied a turn-of-the-century brick building, lined by an avenue of trees. 

 

Seaton Secondary

 

Photo of “The Asylum”, Vernon, BC, 1902

Today, the hospital’s history is virtually unknown, buried, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, beneath the location’s current uses.

The building was built in the spring of 1902, and was originally used as a jail until 1904, when the Provincial Insane Asylum in News Westminster was overcrowded. Two carloads of inmates were sent from the Coast to Vernon, while prisoners of the former jail were sent to Kamloops; by the end of the year, there were forty-eight inmates in total.

In the 1946 Vernon News article, well-known Vernonite Fred Hardwood recalled visiting the hospital as a grocery delivery boy; he said that the order was collected by a Chinese cook who was an inmate, as well as a talented chef and master of mental calculation.

The building was surrounded by beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, but an underperforming hot water system, and a worn out furnace and boiler, made life on the inside rather bleak.

The hospital closed in 1912, and the sixty-nine patients were transferred back to New Westminster. The site stood vacant until 1914, when it became an internment camp for so-called enemy aliens. The building was destroyed some time before 1943, and with it the memories of the men and women who had been locked behind its doors.

We are lucky that this past is behind us, and the location has been put to much more positive uses; however, the Hospital for the Insane remains an important, if unfortunate, aspect of our city’s history, and one that must be uncovered if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Gwyn Evans