Spillimacheen (Community), Spillimacheen River (Yaknusuki), Spillimacheen Glacier (Head of McMurdo Creek), Spillimacheen Range, Spillimacheen Mountain

Other names:
Spallumacheen, Spallumcheen, Speylumacheen, Spillamachene, Spillemacheen, Spillemachene, Spillemachine, Spillemcheen, Spill-e-mu-chem, Spillimacheene, Spillimachine, Spillimachene, Spillimachin, Spillomochene, Spillumacheen

“[W]e had lunch and rested the horses after which we started out for ‘Spillimacheen.’ I have spelt the name as above but it is open to any one wishing to spell it any other way to do so if he likes, the only part of the work about which there is any agreement being ‘Spil.'” 4 I would disagree. From the list of spellings I’ve encountered, I would argue that the most anyone has agreed upon on is “Sp.”

Spillimacheen is unique in two ways: (1) it is the oldest town name still in use in the Windermere Valley, and (2) it is one of very few names in common usage that has First Nations origins. The first mention of the name I found was in 1864 letter to J.C. Haynes in reference to the mining excitement on Canyon Creek, located 30 miles (48 kilometres) below Spillimacheen (Canyon Creek is just south of Golden, but in 1864 Golden was decades away from existing).1

The name Spillimacheen comes from a Shuswap language word, either “spil-a-mi-shine” meaning “flat mouth,” or “spal-lum-shin” meaning “meadow flat.”2 The root is also the source of the name Spallumcheen in the Okanagan.

The Shuswap Band are relatively recent arrivals to the Columbia Valley, having relocated from over the Selkirk Mountains in the early 1800s. The name Spillimacheen began to be used after their arrival. In the Windermere Valley, the name Spillimacheen came to refer to the place where the river flowed into the Columbia River, then to the river itself, and eventually to the community that developed there and the region around it.

In the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) tradition, the area of Spillimacheen is called Yaknusuki, meaning “red waters.” It appears in some versions of the Ktunaxa Creation Story. When the water monster, Yawonek, was being chased in a cycle from Canal Flats down the Kootenay River and back up the Columbia River to its source, the water monster was wounded at Yaknusuki (Spillimacheen), turning the water red when it bled. (Other versions of the story have the water monster being injured at the salmon fishing site at Brisco).3

Spilli a what?

The name Spillimacheen has given no end of problems to travellers as something of a tongue twister. In a 1895 report to The Province the writer states, “we had lunch and rested the horses after which we started out for ‘Spillimacheen.’ I have spelt the name as above but it is open to any one wishing to spell it any other way to do so if he likes, the only part of the work about which there is any agreement being ‘Spil.'”4 I would disagree. From the list of spellings I’ve encountered, I would argue that the most anyone has agreed upon on is “Sp.”

In another example, In the 1920s, a group of travellers set out to travel down the Columbia River by boat. About to leave Windermere, the narrator (Lewis Freeman) remarked to his companion that:

“By hard pulling, we ought just about to make Spillimacheen at the end of the first day.”
“Spilli a what?” ejaculated Roos anxiously? “you didn’t say ‘machine’, did you?”
“Yes; Spillimacheen,” I replied. “It’s the name of a river that flows down to the Columbia from the Selkirks.”
“Then that settles it for me,” he said decisively. “I don’t want to spill my machine. It cost me fifteen hundred dollars. I’m not superstitious; but, just the same, starting out for a place with a name like that is too much like asking for trouble to suit yours truly.” And so we went to Golden by train.

It is likely due to the difficulties people had in spelling “Spillimacheen”, and that Spillimacheen could be easily confused with Spallumcheen in the Okanagan, that even though the district as a whole was known as Spillimacheen, and the steamboat landing and later the train station were located in Spillimacheen, the post office was located 1.5 miles further down the road at Galena. Galena, after all, is less likely to be misspelled and confused.

Spillimachene [sic] Train Station (Windermere Valley Museum, a280)

Economic Activity

Spillimacheen quickly became a notable point on the Columbia River due to deposits of low grade galena ore on nearby Spillimacheen and Jubilee Mountains. In 1883, there are reports that the first smelter in all of British Columbia was erected on the south side of the Spillimacheen River near its junction with the Columbia. Built by prospector John McRae of stone and iron, it was meant to smelt silver lead ore. It was dismantled in February 1906 and the stone used to repair the bridge over the river.6

Further mining claims continued to be staked on the mountains over the next years, and ranches were also developed in close proximity. As the mining claims were relatively close to the river and later to the railway, the lower shipping costs made the low grade galena ore profitable when higher grade ore located far up in the mountains was not. Mines on Spillimacheen and Jubilee Mountains continued to be worked when others were deemed too expensive due to difficulties in getting the ore to smelter.

Spilli also marked the crossing point on the Columbia River for prospectors and miners to trek up the Spillimacheen River, and a stopping house was built close to the steamboat landing. As traffic over the river increased, a ferry was operated (1908-1912), and in 1913 a 95 foot (29 metre) long swing span bridge was built over the Columbia.7 A bridge was also kept and maintained across the Spillimacheen River, including a 161 foot (49 metre) bridge built in 1906.8

Railway, Mines, and Dams

The railway reached Spillimacheen on 1 August 1913, after which a train ran up to Golden on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.9 The rail line, the Kootenay Central Railway, eventually stretched south to connect Golden with Fort Steele, but the entire line was not opened until 1 January 1915. In preparation for the railway’s arrival, the Kootenay Central Railway Company took over seventy-five acres on the east bank of the Columbia River at Spilli with the intention of laying out a townsite, which was to be the central settlement between Golden and Lake Windermere.10

The arrival of the railway aided in again lessening the transportation costs associated with mining. Still, it was only after the Second World War that early mining claims developed into larger operations. The Giant or Silver Giant Mine on Jubilee Mountain operated extensively from 1945 until 1957, and became a major employer in the area. Around the same time, in 1946, the post office was also moved from Galena to Spillimacheen. Major production at the mine began in 1951 with 100 people on the payroll, and the population of Spillimacheen jumped from about 130 to 500 in just a couple of years.11

At around the same time, in 1948, the Spillimacheen River was selected and surveyed by B.C. Hydro as a potential future site for a run-of-the-river hydroelectric project. Previous to the project, a diesel-electric generating plant in the Windermere Lake area was used to provide the Valley’s electrical load. Plans and estimates for the hydro-electric project were prepared so that it could be carried out once demand for electricity became large enough.12 Such demand occurred within a few years, and the hydro-electric plant was officially opened Wednesday 6 July 1955 as a 5,500 horsepower project including an intake dam, powerhouse, and generating units.13

Descriptions of Spillimacheen

Notable in early descriptions of Spillimacheen was the scenery. A traveller in 1887 described a stopover from the steamboat, “We stopped… at Spillumacheen [sic] Landing, consisting only of a couple of cabins lying at the foot of a gigantic mass of rock, clothed almost to its bare summit with a scattered growth of pines; in fact, we were so immediately below it that the eye was wearied and strained painfully by any effort to gaze up at its rugged crags.”14

Some years later, another writer again described the steamboat trip through the area, stating that, “From Spillimachene [sic] for several miles the scenery is grand beyond description. Looking toward the Selkirks, a magnificent range of snow-capped peaks slope away to the South, prominent among which Mount Ethelbert is seen soaring far above its companions, its turret-shaped head never yet scaled, and owing to its great altitude too frequently hid in mist; while down the deep cut ravines come a number of streams which swell the waters of the Columbia, Salmon River [Templeton], Bugaboo, Spillimachene.”15

In early summer of 1909, a group of American professors and writers from the Eastern United States drove down the Valley on the rough, narrow trail of the time. Describing the trip: “Forty miles from Golden you whirl up to a little tavern alongside the road. The place is called Spillimacheen. Phonetically you are convinced it is aptly designated as indicative of the road over which you have travelled and the path that lies before you.”16 Although the road has certainly been straightened since then, I can’t be the only one who enjoys telling strangers that they live “South of Spillimacheen” (or, even better: “between Skookumchuck and Spillimacheen”).

A Random Fashion Footnote

Among the most fascinating descriptions of Spilli I found was in reference to the “dress” of Spilimacheen in the late 1890s. A traveller describes, “the ordinary full dress of the city of Spillimichene [as] not going further than a dark blue flannel shirt and moccasins… and blue butcher’s cloth over trousers.”17 Another author expanded on this description of the local dress, writing in 1889, “I noticed a fine-looking fellow on the boat, dressed in the costume of the country, blue overalls, long boots, blue shirt all embroidered and laced up the front, and a cowboy’s hat.”18 (I can’t describe how much I would love to see someone wearing a Spillimacheen tuxedo next Halloween)

Technically, this kind of dress would not have been confined to “the city of Spillimacheen”, but I found this description so fascinating I had to share it somewhere. Reports such as these of the “ordinary dress” of working class men are very hard to come by, especially for this time period. I’ve seen archaeologists get absolutely giddy over finding an intact shirt or underclothes: fancy dress is reasonably known, but daily clothes have simply not survived.

A very grainy example of the “costume of the country”. (Lees and Clutterbuck, BC 1887, p 147)

See Also



1. BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen,” Accessed 2 January 2020.
2. A.G. Harvey, “Okanagan Place Names: Their Origin and Meaning,” The Twelfth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, (Okanagan Historical Society, 1948), p 220.
3. Creation Story, Ktunaxa Nation, Accessed 2 December 2019.
Ktunaxa Nation Council, An Application by British Columbia Transmission Corporation for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the Columbia Valley transmission project (Project No 3698591), 20 May 2010, p 8, Accessed 2 December 2019. https://www.bcuc.com/Documents/Proceedings/2010/DOC_25494_C7-4_KNC_Written-Evidence.pdf
4. “Up-Country Notes,” The Province Vol 2, No 37 (14 September 1895) p 589.
5. Lewis Freeman, Down the Columbia, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co, 1921), p 87.
6. Mollie Esther Cottingham, “A History of the West Kootenay District in British Columbia,” Master’s Thesis, (University of British Columbia, 1947), p 190.
S.S. Fowler, “Early Smelters in British Columbia,” British Columbia Historical Quarterly, Vol 3 (July 1939), p 184. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0190731
7. F.C. Gamble, “Columbia District: Ferry, Spillimachene,” Mail Herald, 20 May 1908, p 3. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0311088
British Columbia. Legislative Assembly. Report of the Minister of Public Works of the Province of British Columbia for the Fiscal Year 1911-12, (Victoria: Government Printer, 1913), p 9. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0065783
8. British Columbia. Legislative Assembly. Report of the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works of the Province of British Columbia for the Fiscal Year 1906-07, (Victoria: Government Printer, 1908), p H 17. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0064400
9. “Golden to Spillimachen [sic] Service Opens Tomorrow,” The Daily News, 1 July 1913, p 1. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0385396
10. “Political and General News,” Fort George Herald, 1 June 1912, p 6.
11. British Columbia and Yukon Directory, (Vancouver: Sun Directories Limited, 1948), p 202. https://bccd.vpl.ca/browse/title/1948/British_Columbia_and_Yukon_Directory
Cranbrook and East Kootenay Directory, (Vancouver: B.C. Directories Ltd, 1953-54), p 291-293. https://bccd.vpl.ca/browse/title/1953-1954/Cranbrook_and_East_Kootenay_Directory
12. British Columbia, Legislative Assembly. Seventh Annual Report of the British Columbia Power Commission for the Year Ended March 31st 1952, (Victoria: Government Printer, 1953), p H 54. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0347426
13. “B.C. Power Commission’s newest hydro project…,” The Coast News, 7 July 1955, p 4. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0174433
14. Ellen Elizabeth Cameron Spragge, From Ontario to the Pacific by the C.P.R., (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1887), p 100. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0222134
15. C.F. Yates, Mountain, Lake and River : One Hundred Miles of the Finest Scenery in British Columbia ; Golden to Windermere , Golden: The Golden Board of Trade, 1904), p 23. http://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.78497
16. Wilbur D Nesbit, “Another Playground for the World,” The World of Today, IN Clara Graham, This Was Kootenay, (Vancouver: Evergreen Press, 1963), p 147.
17. Douglas Brooke Wheelton, Being the Journal of Pilgrimage Along the Queen’s Highway…, (London: Ward, Locke & Co Ltd, 1895), p 327.
18. Susan Margaret (McKinnon) Saint Maur, Impressions of a Tenderfoot…, (London: John Murray, 1890), p 156-157. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0222336



BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen,” Accessed 2 January 2020. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/16493.html
BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen River,” Accessed 2 January 2020. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/16494.html
BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen Glacier,” Accessed 2 January 2020. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/16492.html
BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen Range,” Accessed 2 January 2020. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/16495.html
BC Geographical Names, “Spillimacheen Mountain,” Accessed 2 January 2020. http://apps.gov.bc.ca/pub/bcgnws/names/27212.html


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