Wilmer (Community), Wilmer Lake, Wilmer Creek
Other names: Columbia City (1898-1899), Peterborough/Peterboro (1899-1902), Klunwakaqlalali?it
“[Wilmer] remains a genuine native product, an epitome of the life of the Valley. Wilmer is not pushful. It is old enough to have acquired dignity, and if it ever adventures itself, it does so with becoming moderation.”
(Columbia Valley Times, 21 December 1912)
The town of Wilmer began life in 1898 as a proposed townsite with the name of Columbia City. It was staked late that year by Henry Edward Neave, Robert Randolph Bruce, and William Gilbert Mitchell-Innes on the west side of the Columbia River midway between Toby and Horsethief Creeks.1 For some reason the name Columbia City was dropped in July 1899 in preference for the name Peterborough (or Peterboro).2 The reason for the name change is never explained: it seems to have happened after the townsite was surveyed and before lots were actually put up for sale.3
Columbia City/Peterborough was not the only townsite to be laid out and promoted during the mining boom in the Valley at the time. Athalmer and Copper City (Invermere) were also surveyed and buildings begun with their, “respective owners… arranging to make things hum this fall.”4 The opposition between the three towns was considered healthy to trade in the area, however it did force business owners to make a gamble as to where they should set up shop. Being directly on the river and where travellers tended to cross the Columbia River, Athalmer seemed to have an edge, however Peterborough soon began pulling ahead.
By October 1899, “Peterborough [was] undoubtedly the liveliest burg in the district,” with buildings, “springing up in all directions.”5 Peterborough’s growth was helped by its location. The town was convenient to all the routes then being used to get up both Toby and Horsethief Creeks.6 As the Toby Creek trail went up on the northern side (the Wilmer side) of the creek, ore being taken down from Toby Creek (for example from the Paradise or Delphine Mines) could be brought to Peterborough without having to cross Toby Creek. The proximity of Peterborough to Horsethief Creek was also key. What was then the largest projected mine in the Valley, the Red Line, was up the Horsethief, and those interested in the Red Line announced in 1899 that they planned to ship ore via Peterborough.7
By early 1900 the population of Peterborough was estimated to be about 100: a year later it had tripled to around 300.8 Peterborough had become every inch a western boom town: almost every occupation was represented, and soon the town became home to the Valley’s first hospital.9 Billed as an “emergency hospital”, namely for the treatment of injured and sick miners, its presence was welcomed even as the newspaper editor remarked ruefully that, “the climate here is so abominably healthy that up to date there have been no patients.”10
The Peterborough boom lasted for a few years, making, “the surrounding villages appear very quiet in comparison.”11 That didn’t mean that all businesses were centered in Peterborough, however. The first newspaper in the Valley, The Outcrop, started in Canterbury (Invermere) in 1900 and only moved to the very newly minted town of Wilmer in May 1902.12
A Change of Identity
Although the residents of Peterborough were proud of their burgeoning town there was some dissatisfaction with the town’s name. In an era before postal codes and standardised addresses, Peterborough British Columbia might easily be confused with Peterborough, Ontario. I was unable to verify the exact sequence of events, whether the name change came organically from residents or at the direct request of the Postmaster General. Regardless, it seems that residents of Peterborough requested the name of the town be changed to Wilmer, and on 12 March 1902 the town received notice from the Deputy Postmaster General in Ottawa that such a change was approved for, “the immediate future.”13
The name change from Peterborough to Wilmer came into effect on 1 May 1902.14 The name Wilmer was chosen in honour of the Honourable Wilmer Cleveland Wells, “who has done much for the town,” and was then the Chief Commissioner of Land and Works in British Columbia (see below for more).15
Wilmer’s Early Days
For a time, Wilmer was the centre of activity in the Valley. In addition to having the area’s first hospital, Wilmer was the location of the first Court House in 1902. The Mining Recording Office was also moved from Windermere to Wilmer in 1904.16
Wilmer was also the base for the Valley’s first “radio” broadcast, although the event did not use actual radio waves. In 1903, just weeks after long distance telephones were set up, A.R. Yates set up a gramophone in the Wilmer telephone office and called up friends at the Ptarmigan Mine, Starbird’s Ranch up Horsethief Creek, Paradise Mine, Pinehurst (near what is now Panorama), Athalmer and Windermere. People across a distance of 28 miles, “reported that the music was distinctly heard and much enjoyed.”17
Even as the town enjoyed something of the comforts of city life, it remained a mining camp. The first purpose-built church in Wilmer was the Presbyterian Church in 1904.18 Previous to this, services were held in an unoccupied building, which had had substantial improvements made in 1902 when the beer and whiskey barrels, as well as the coal and coal oil boxes, were replaced with benches.19 There seemed to be an appreciation in Wilmer for the less stringent societal rules of a “wild new mining camp… [where] everyone is allowed to think as they please on religious matters and none interfere.”20 When two separate church services (Presbyterian and Anglican) were held at the same time in 1906, “neither were over-crowded.”21
For a time, Wilmer’s prosperity was very much tied to the mines, however there were early moves to diversify its economic base. As early as 1904 the Canadian Pacific Railway was considering a vast irrigation scheme for agricultural purposes on the Toby Benches behind Wilmer.22 These plans eventually evolved to become the Columbia Valley Irrigation and Fruit Lands Company (CVI), which operated in earnest from 1911 until the start of the First World War in 1914, and brought hundreds of new immigrants to the Valley.23 Unfortunately for the town of Wilmer, for a time expected to be the supply base for all these new farmers, the former mining town was eventually dropped in favour of the company-owned leisure town of Invermere.24
Descriptions of Wilmer
The town of Wilmer was described as being, “very prettily situated” standing, “on a bench above the Columbia River, which can be seen from the village winding lazily through miles of rich meadow lands.”25 The location of the town surrounded on both sides by mountain ranges was also commented on.
In a 1912 comparison between Wilmer and the other nearby towns [Athalmer, Windermere and Invermere], the author of The Columbia Valley Times remarks:
Wilmer C Wells
The namesake for Wilmer was Wilmer Cleveland Wells, born 4 November 1839 in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. Wells married in 1865 to Isabella Therese MacDonnell, also from Vankleek Hill, and the couple had two sons, George and James. The family came west between 1881 and 1886. Although Wells had worked as a merchant out east, in Calgary he purchased the Mount Royal Ranch along with Nelson Brown and the two went into cattle ranching.27
Wells’ stint with cattle ranching didn’t seem to last. He also had interests in British Columbia, and by April 1887 he had constructed a sawmill at Palliser (between Golden and Field) for the production of lumber on the new CPR line.28 Wells must have been successful in Palliser as he stayed there for about twenty years.
In 1897, Wells decided to run as a candidate for the North East Kootenay in the Provincial Election.29 Wells was popular and described as “a good all round man.”30 At a political address in Windermere he impressed the audience with his, “straightout practical character,” and his “thorough grasp of the political situation, as well as the necessities of the District.”31 Wells lost the 1898 election to William George Nielson, however Nielson died shortly after and Wells was successfully elected (by acclamation) in a by-election the next year.32
Member of Provincial Parliament
Wells jumped enthusiastically into his new position as representative for North East Kootenay. As the by-election came during the middle of a mining rush to the Windermere Valley, Wells quickly got to work in helping his constituents there.
His first steps were to see a bridge constructed across the Columbia River at Athalmer (the Salmon Beds) to give access to mining properties in the Purcell Mountains.33 Wells quickly used his influence to secure a grant for $3,500 for the bridge, however there were some delays to the work. As the Columbia River was a navigable stream, plans had to be approved by the Marine Department in Ottawa, and that took time.34 Still, by August 1899, piles were being driven for the bridge and work was due to be completed by the end of the year.35
Wells did not let the wait for approval for the bridge slow him down. Within months of his election, he met with Ministers in Victoria to push other works in the Kootenays including clearing trails up Spillimacheen River, building a bridge over Horsethief Creek, starting a wagon road at Toby Creek to better access mines there, and repairing the road between Golden and Canal Flats.36 He also soon pushed for a wagon road to be built up Horsethief Creek to give access to the very promising Red Line Mine.37
Wells’ influence in the Windermere Valley did not go unnoticed. After the grant for the first Athalmer Bridge was secured, residents expressed “great jubilation” and decided that Wells was “allright.”38 After also pushing forward improvements on the Toby Creek trails and a survey for a wagon road to Toby and Horsethief Creeks, their reserved response lightened to giving him, “a hearty reception” with the observation that, “When Mr Wells does a thing he does it thoroughly.39 He was, in short, “undoubtedly… the right man.”40
Wells again won the North East Kootenay Riding in the 1900 Provincial Election (his closest opposition was Francis Patrick Armstrong).41 There was little slowing to Wells’ activities. In total, some $20,000 was paid out by the Provincial Government for road works in the Windermere District in 1900.42 The wagon road from Athalmer to Toby Creek was completed, then extended further up Toby Creek until, at the end of 1900, it stretched just over eleven miles from the Athalmer bridge.43 With its easy grade, the road was built for the transportation of ore down to the Columbia River.
The following year (1901) was again productive. An extension was begun on the Toby Creek Road for another five miles to the branch with Delphine Creek, on which there were a number of promising mines. The Horsethief wagon road to connect the Red Line claim was also begun.44 Unfortunately, 1901 was also a tragic year for Wells personally, as his wife passed away at the end of January at the age of sixty-two.45
Approval for Wells’ work seemed to extend beyond the Windermere Valley. Wells was appointed as Chief Commissioner of Land and Works in 1901, a department that he directed with “zeal” so that it was, “more systematic, practical and in every way satisfactory than under any other previous incumbent, irrespective altogether of politics or party.” In a write up on Wells published originally in The Province (and keeping in mind that newspapers were very partisan at the time), it was remarked that, “His conscientious devotion to work, sincerity and systematic zeal are little short of phenomenal,” while his discussion of matters did not rely on party politics but was “crisp, practical, decisive and reliable.”46
The approval of Wells is perhaps not surprising as this was before British Columbia elections were run on party politics. Candidates tended to run based on support for the current government, support for the Opposition, or as an Independent. Regardless, they had to rely on their personality, and tended to keep their positions based on how well they did their job.47
Third and Fourth Terms
Wells ability to work across so-called party lines was demonstrated when he was re-appointed as Commissioner of Lands and Works in 1902 by the next premier (Edward Gawler Prior). Wells was dropped soon after, however, following allegations that he was an agent for the CPR (the Prior government was the second shortest in British Columbia, and was one reason for the turn towards party politics in the 1903 election).48
It was during Wells’ tenure as Commissioner of Lands and Works, in 1902, that residents in the town of Peterborough decided to name their town after him. This honour reportedly made him “very proud,” and as a Golden resident later commented, “I think that pleased him as much as his appointment to the high office in the Cabinet.”49
Meanwhile, even after Wells had been unceremoniously dismissed from Cabinet, he won the 1903 election by acclamation (no one ran against him). Although it could be argued that as the only candidate his election hardly reflected a massive amount of support, his popularity among his constituents had not much diminished.50 Even so, with the downturn in the economy of the Windermere Valley, combined with a decrease in the political influence of Wells himself, his accomplishments in this term were certainly far fewer.
Wells ran reluctantly in the next election (1907), which he lost to Henry George Parson.51 Just months later, Wells left Palliser and moved to Nelson where he purchased the Hume Hotel, which he intended to run with the help of his sons. That venture did not last long, and Wells sold the hotel in October 1912.52
I was not able to track too much of Wells’ later life. He passed away in Vancouver on 19 October 1933 at the impressive age of 93.53 As a legacy, having a town named after him, particularly when he neither founded or ever lived in said town, is impressive. The honour suggests that Wells’ was highly approved of by the majority of Peterborough residents. As was remarked in 1900 with respect to Wells’ contributions: “When a man does you a good turn it does no harm to show that it is appreciated.”54
In addition to the town of Wilmer, Wells’ name also survives in the name of Wilmer Creek and officially in the name of Wilmer Lake. The later confused me as I hadn’t been aware that there was a Wilmer Lake: I had always thought it was Munn Lake. That moment of absolute confusion, combined with an informal family survey, was enough to convince me that the local name of Munn Lake remains popular and well-known enough to warrant further exploration. So next week’s post will be about Wilmer Lake, aka Munn Lake and its namesake: Henry Toke Munn.
Red Line mine
Henry Toke Munn
Hi Alex thanks for another excellent history lesson, I have been enjoying them all. John
Thanks John! Glad to hear it