On Canada’s 150th birthday, journey through B.C.’s past

The B.C. Parliament Buildings, lit up at night, overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Destination British Columbia

Silvery totem poles peek through the mists of Haida Gwaii. An abandoned rail track meanders along a Kootenay mountain pass. In Gastown, the perfume of gin lingers in a former bootlegger’s haunt.

Traces of the past are all over British Columbia, if you know where to look. Luckily, B.C.’s 91 National Historic Sites, 10 Provincial Historic Sites and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites make it easy to journey back through the 150 years of Canada’s history in its westernmost province.

In 1867, British Columbia was still largely the home of indigenous peoples who had lived here for more than 13,000 years, but that was changing fast. It had been less than a century since Spanish Captain José María Narváez and British Captain George Vancouver became the first Europeans to truly explore this coast and already it was clear that nothing would be the same again.

By the time B.C. joined Confederation on July 20, 1871, Simon Fraser had already charted much of what was then known as the Columbia District. The Hudson’s Bay Company had built its Fort Langley fur-trading outpost. The young colony had survived the gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s. And, on the shores of Burrard Inlet, a loquacious Yorkshireman named “Gassy” Jack Deighton had opened a saloon in a logging camp that would grow up to become the City of Vancouver.

In the 150 years since Canada was born, and long before that, the history of British Columbia has been one of epic adventure, a tale that is at times tragic, sometimes heroic and occasionally scandalous.

Celebrate Canada 150 by becoming part of the adventure at these 10 great historical destinations.

Panning for the past in Barkerville

Barkerville in the Cariboo-Chilcotin.

Once a thriving gold rush boom town in the Cariboo Chilcotin, today Barkerville is the largest living-history museum in western North America and a bucket list destination for every British Columbian.

Back in the 1850s, a British prospector named Billy Barker had given up on California and headed north to try his luck. Good thing he did; on Aug. 17, 1862, he struck gold here on Williams Creek, 80 kilometres east of Quesnel, and the rush was on. It turned out to be the world’s greatest creekside placer gold deposit ever found, a 20-year, multi-billion-dollar bonanza that helped build this province.

The town of Barkerville grew up virtually overnight. From a smattering of tents and ramshackle cabins, it became a prosperous, if somewhat transient, community of 5,000 people, with several general stores including the Chinese-owned Kwong Lee Company as well as numerous boarding houses, saloons, churches for the “sober set,” a theatre and a literary society. Like so many frontier towns, it burned down, back in 1868, and was rebuilt with haste and optimism. It flourished until the gold rush ended and the price of gold fell; by the end of the Depression it was just a small village in the wilderness.

It was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1924 and a Provincial Heritage Property in 1958, a year after the B.C. government decided it should be restored and turned into a tourist attraction.

Today it is known as Barkerville Historic Town and it still boasts more than 140 well-maintained historic buildings and displays where you can watch costumed characters enact life in the 19th century. Visitors can experience authentic gold rush theatre and pan for gold, browse in Chinatown shops, watch a courtroom in action or take lessons in a traditional schoolhouse.

Barkerville also has accommodations, numerous campsites and plenty of merchants and restaurants, making it a comfortable trip back into B.C.’s golden age.

Ghosts of the Kootenays

Main street in the historic village of Kaslo.

The towering mountains of southwestern British Columbia have long attracted nature lovers, fortune seekers and adrenalin junkies, as well as those with something to hide — or something to hide from. Rugged and remote, the peaks and valleys of the West Kootenays have plenty of fascinating stories tucked in their forested folds.

The historic city of Nelson.

For a scenic but haunted drive, take the loop along Highway 6 from Nelson to New Denver, then the twisty Hwy 31A to Kaslo and back to Nelson along Hwy 3A and take in these sights along the way.

In the late 19th century, Nelson was a prosperous city of merchants providing supplies to silver prospectors. Later, it became a refuge for Doukhobors fleeing persecution in Russia and Americans dodging the Vietnam War draft. Today, it has a laidback, artsy vibe — be sure to check out the funky boutiques and restaurants along bustling Baker Street, as well as the large number of well-preserved heritage homes.

A little bit north, in the valley known as the “Silvery Slocan,” you’ll find the picturesque village of New Denver, once a silver mining boomtown, now a destination for outdoors adventurers. In a much darker time, it was an internment camp for hundreds of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Their lives are commemorated at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, a National Historic Site that opened in 1994.

Another former silver boomtown is Sandon, halfway between New Denver and Kaslo and today B.C.’s most famous ghost town. In the late 19th century, it had a population of more than 5,000, two railroads, several taverns and even more brothels. Then a flood almost wiped it out, followed by plummeting silver prices, a devastating fire, and another flood. Sandon simply faded into the wilderness. Today, the railway lines have been turned into hiking trails and the old mercantile building is a museum. The best reason to visit, though, might be the 10,000 silver coins rumoured to lie on the bottom of the stream that runs through town.

Further down the road, Kaslo began as a sawmill camp, but like its neighbours grew rich on the silver boom. Evoking those heady days is the SS Moyie, the world’s oldest surviving intact sternwheeler, which used to ply the waters of Kootenay Lake from 1889 to 1957. The ship has been beautifully restored and is now a National Historic Site.

Keeping watch in Haida Gwaii

Haida mortuary poles in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on Haida Gwaii.

Look at the top of a Haida totem pole and you will often see three human figures wearing tall hats, one looking ahead, the other two out to each side. These are the watchmen, whose role is to alert the people to the approach of danger. It is also the symbol of the Haida Gwaii Watchman program, which protects culturally significant sites in the South Moresby Island region now known as Gwaii Haanas, or Island of Wonder.

Today, Gwaii Haanas is a protected national park reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But it wasn’t always so.

In the 19th century, Haida watched in dismay as European sailors blithely carried off their treasures, including the intricately carved mortuary boxes that held the remains of their ancestors, and vowed, never again. And so they started keeping watch.

In 1981, the Haida realized that once the area was deemed a park more visitors would bring with them the potential for vandalism at sites like Ninstints, the haunting Haida village painted so memorably by Emily Carr.

And so they created the Haida Watchman program, in which volunteers camp for a season, keeping watch over the most precious sites. At the same time, they would act as guides for visitors, sharing the stories and traditions of their people.

All over Haida Gwaii are extraordinary First Nations experiences, like the Haida Heritage Centre near Skidegate, with its many totem poles and hand-carved canoes. But an afternoon spent with a Haida Watchman truly is one of the most moving and inspiring experiences one can have.

Gastown by night

Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood at night.

Need an excuse to hit the trendy bars and restaurants on Vancouver’s Gastown? Tell yourself you’re on a historical research mission. It was here, after all, that the city of Vancouver was born.

In 1867, a chatty Yorkshireman named “Gassy” Jack Deighton arrived in what was then a sawmill camp known as Granville. He opened the first saloon in the town, which soon became a sort of rowdy port of call for loggers, fishermen and sailors.

Boom times followed when the Canadian Pacific Railway built its cross-Canada terminus there in 1886 and the town became a major shipping centre. That same year, it was incorporated as the City of Vancouver and saw the great fire that destroyed all but two of its buildings. (One of the few to be saved, it is said, was the brothel.)

As Vancouver entered a new century, Gastown continued to be the place locals came to drink, and by the 1930s, there were some 300 licensed establishments in its 12-block area.

After the Great Depression, though, Gastown fell into decline and became little more than a seedy Skid Row of beer parlours and flophouses. It got so bad that, in the 1960s, the city was planning to demolish it to build a freeway. Then an unlikely alliance of business owners, hippies and preservationists joined to save and restore it.

Today, of course, Gastown is a major tourist draw, a centre for creative businesses, and a lively entertainment district that includes top restaurants and stylish cocktail bars.

One of the best ways to discover its fascinating past of bootleggers, blind pigs and bawdy houses is to join one of Forbidden Vancouver’s nightly Prohibition City walking tours. For tickets and info, visit forbiddenvancouver.ca.

Ride or hike the rails

The Myra Canyon trestles, part of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail in the Okanagan Valley.

Back before highways crisscrossed this province, people got around on trains, which also shipped timber, oil, fur, fruit and other goods to world markets. Several now-defunct lines such as the Kaslo and Slocan Railway or Kelowna Pacific Railway served the otherwise remote Kootenay, Cariboo and Okanagan regions.

Today, many of those old rail lines have been transformed into recreational trails, including the old Kettle Valley Railway that winds between Midway and Hope.

Its 600-kilometre corridor travels through spectacular scenery that ranges from cool forests, lakes and mountains to Canada’s only desert, and includes the heart-stopping tunnels and trestles of Myra Canyon. Best of all, as an abandoned railway bed, the route has a grade that never exceeds 2.2 per cent, making this a relatively easy hike or ride.

Beautiful, historic and adventuresome, the Kettle Valley Railway is now part of the recently completed 22,000-kilometre Great Trail (formerly the Trans Canada Trail).

Shopping through time in Victoria

The impossibly narrow Fan Tan Alley in Canada’s oldest Chinatown.

B.C.’s capital city is known for its countless historic buildings, which range from the grand, chateau-style Legislature and Fairmont Empress Hotel clustered around the Inner Harbour, to the Victorian cottages of James Bay and Edwardian mansions surrounded by sweeping gardens in Oak Bay.

But one of the most charming places to browse through history is also one of the best places to browse for, well, just about everything else, from tattoos to tapas to trendy fashions.

Lower Johnson Street — or LoJo as the neighbourhood is inevitably called — is the strip of candy-coloured buildings between Government and Wharf streets. Dating back to the 1850s, this Old Town neighbourhood once served prospectors on their way to and from the Gold Rush with everything they needed for celebration or commiseration: hotels, saloons, brothels, supply stores, even opium dens in Chinatown.

Like many historic neighbourhoods, this area had fallen into disrepair until preservationists took it on in the 1970s. They fixed up Market Square, rebranded Lower Johnson and the surrounding streets as “LoJo,” gave everything a lick of brightly coloured paint, and the independent boutiques and restaurants soon came flooding in.

Today, it is Victoria’s hippest place to spend a day.

In its dozens of shops, you can find everything from locally made clothing to designer shoes, handcrafted soaps, home décor, garden supplies, pretty paper, and that gift idea you didn’t know you needed. You can take a break at one of the many coffee shops and restaurants, including Willie’s Bakery, the city’s oldest bakery, with its lovely courtyard.

And don’t miss out on Chinatown, Canada’s oldest, and home to Fan Tan Alley, which is also Canada’s narrowest street, and even more boutiques and eateries.

First Nations culture at Nk’Mip

A First Nations pit house at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.

For millennia before Europeans arrived in B.C., First Nations peoples lived, traded, fought, hunted and fished here. And the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos is doing its best to make sure we don’t forget that.

Inside a First Nations pit house.

An initiative of the Osoyoos band led by the dynamic Chief Clarence Louie, Nk’Mip is a sprawling complex that features the Spirit Ridge resort, a golf course, RV park and winery. But the cultural centre is its heart and soul.

It’s a 22-hectare site with a beautifully designed, award-winning main building for art exhibits, films, interactive displays and a gift shop where you can buy everything from dream catchers to fine art. From there, a trail meanders through sagebrush habitat (keep an eye out for rattlesnakes) to a reconstructed aboriginal village complete with a traditional pit house.

In summer, the centre offers daily guided walks and cultural programs that provide a rare glimpse into First Nations life both past and present. This is no kitschy theme park, but a serious, and often deeply moving, look at a traditional culture.

Fish for the past at Gulf of Georgia Cannery

Back in the 19th century, dozens of salmon canneries lined the shores of West Coast communities such as Alert Bay, Boswell and Port Essington. They employed thousands of people, with Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and First Nations peoples working side by side. Prosperous communities of shops, bars and restaurants sprang up around them. And then it all stopped.

The Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a National Historic Site in Steveston.

Today, little remains of the historic canneries but rotting ruins, except for one: The Gulf of Georgia Cannery, still perched on the pilings over the Fraser River at Steveston.

In its heyday, it was the biggest and busiest salmon cannery on the coast. Today, it is an exceptional interactive museum and National Historic Site that tells the story of Canada’s West Coast fishing industry in a lively and engaging way.

If you’re visiting the cannery, make time to check out the Britannia Shipyards, Garry Point Park with its fishermen’s memorial, and the busy marina, as well as the many boutiques and restaurants of historic Steveston village.

Fort Langley: Where the colony of B.C. began

Fort Langley, a National Historic Site.

Back in 1827, the Americans and British were still debating who actually possessed what was known as the Columbia District and where the boundaries would be drawn. So when Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, decided to build the fur-trading outpost of Fort Langley, he insisted it be constructed on the north side of the Fraser River — just in case.

And so began modern British Columbia.

Today, Fort Langley is a living museum and National Historic Site where visitors can experience life as a 19th century voyageur. You can dress up like a pioneer, pan for gold, watch craftspeople at work, even camp in a historically themed oTENTik.

Fort Langley hosts engaging events throughout the year, such as the Cranberry Festival in October and Canada Day in July. But any time, you can explore the site with an audio tour and live demonstrations of blacksmithing and barrel-making.

Hang with dinosaurs at Tumbler Ridge

Monkman Tarns at Monkman Provincial Park, Tumbler Ridge.

Get away from it all — far, far away — in northeastern B.C., at Tumbler Ridge in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This is the ultimate destination for outdoor adventure, a place of jagged mountain peaks and rushing streams. It is also a place that offers us a rare glimpse into the prehistoric past when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

Tumbler Ridge, you see, is rich with fossils. In 2000, a pair of local residents on a rafting trip discovered a dinosaur trackway along a creek. Within a couple of years, B.C.’s first and only dinosaur and ancient fossil research centre, the Peace River Paleontology Research Centre, was established there. Tumbler Ridge also became the first site in western North America to become part of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network.

For visitors, the best place to explore the prehistoric past is at the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, an old schoolhouse that features numerous fossil exhibits. Exhibits feature both real and replica fossils (if the originals are too big or too delicate to show), as well as an interactive display, and large interpretive murals.

Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday in B.C.

• For more information on these and other historic sites around B.C., visit the Destination British Columbia website at hellobc.com.

• Note that in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, Parks Canada is offering free admission to all national parks and historic sites all year. For more info, visit pc.gc.ca.