A five-stop historical tour of Kelowna — the grizzly bear city

Beaches, peaches, silver mines and history — this B.C. city does it all with a modern, urban twist.

  • Jul 20, 2021
  • 1,254 words
  • 6 minutes
From settlement to metropolis, Kelowna has a rich history ready to be explored.
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In 1860 August Gillard emerged from his underground winter soddy draped in fur and blinking at the blinding sunlight. A group of First Nations people stood outside, drawn to Gillard’s humble dwelling by a rising stream of smoke. They named him “Kim-ach-Touch”, Syilx for grizzly bear. Thirty years later, this word became the name of a small settler town hidden within the B.C. interior. 

Today, Kelowna is also emerging from hibernation and tracking towards a new chapter in its history. One that balances a history of beaches, peaches, silver mining and settlement with a modern, urban twist.

Here are five activities for a weekend warrior hoping to dive into the rich history of this grizzly bear city.

Pre-contact: Indigenous World Winery 

The glacial retreat and receding waters of Okanagan Lake left behind rich, fertile sediment — land perfectly suited to the nomadic Sylix First Nation. And today, these same fertile lands serve their ancestors through Indigenous World Winery, the first fully Indigenous-owned winery in North America. 

Opened in 2016, this new addition to the Okanagan’s tapestry of famous wineries merges traditional art and wisdom with modern culture and techniques. The winery’s first Bordeaux was given the ancestral family name of Simo, which means “connected to the land” and animals of Indigenous significance, like the eagle and fox, are featured on the labels. 

Indigenous World Winery is a unique blend of modern technology and Indigenous culture, art and practices. (Photo Credit: Ryan Walley)
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ACTIVITIES: Enjoy award-winning wine at daily tastings or try Indigenous World Wineries’ distilled onsite gin, whiskey, and vodka alongside a locally-sourced charcuterie board. On special occasions, the winery also celebrates Indigenous culture with dancing, storytelling and drumming.

The start of settlement: Father Pandosy’s Mission 

In 1859, French-Catholic Oblate Father Pandosy arrived in the B.C. interior. He set up a chapel, school and ranch on the banks of Mission Creek. In 1860, he filed the first land claim in the interior, effectively making the Mission de L’Immaculée Conception the first permanent white settlement in the B.C. interior. At its peak, the mission covered over 2,000 acres. It included an orchard, vineyard, vegetable garden, approximately 550 head of cattle and was home to 1,700 people, many of whom were Syilx First Nation.  

In 1896, the official headquarters for the Oblates moved away from Mission Creek to Kamloops’ St. Louis Mission, where they set up and ran the Kamloops Residential School

Today, Father Pandosy Mission is a four-acre designated Provincial Heritage Site owned by the Catholic Church.

Visitors to Father Pandosy's Mission can tour seven original buildings, including a chapel, a root house, a barn, a blacksmiths and dwellings.
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ACTIVITIES: Self-guided tours are available from dawn to dusk, Easter through Thanksgiving. Visitors can tour seven original buildings, including a chapel, a root house, a barn, a blacksmiths and dwellings.  Special events, such as Pioneer Days, are also hosted. Check the events calendar for more information.

The industrial awakening: Myra Canyon Trestles

In 1887, intrepid prospector Eli Carpenter set his chisel to a 125 tonne boulder 25 miles away from Kootenay Lake. He discovered silver, kick-starting a wild gold rush in the southern B.C. interior. Thousands of Americans crossed the tenuous 49th parallel, purchasing supplies and sending resources south via the US Northern Pacific Railroad. The Americans, who had long envied the abundance of land and resources to the north, commercially annexed the Southern Interior of B.C. 

Canada responded by building the Kettle Valley Railroad, a Kootenay to Coast rail line. But sovereignty came at a high cost. The $20 million project, finished in 1914, blasted through three mountain ranges and scaled numerous canyons, the highest of which was the Myra Canyon — a steep, wide and deep mountainous amphitheatre containing chasms, gorges, creeks and rivers. 

When the US commercially annexed the Southern Interior, Canada responded with the Kettle Valley Railroad, a $20 million project. (Photo Credit: Logan Pay)
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To build the tunnels of the Myra Canyon KVR labourers blasted apart rock with black powder, nitroglycerine and pickaxes. Sometimes the nitroglycerin froze in the bitter B.C. winter. Rushed and exhausted labourers heated it up in cooking skillets, leading to multiple fatalities.

The staggering trestles — of which there were 19 spanning 5,000 feet — were largely built by hand and without the assistance of heavy milling equipment. To construct each trestle a crane operator would swing the timbers out and down to labourers who would scale the trestle, hold the beams in place and bolt them by hand, all while suspended precariously above a chasm. 

The railway workers of 1910 earned $2.75 per day — a rate comparable to other unskilled work at the local canneries and sawmills. But the wages and conditions were too low for Canadian and British workers, so the bulk of the Myra Canyon KVR was built by Slavic, Swedish, German and Austrian immigrants, many indentured and locked into exploitative contracts. 

The work finished in 1914. However, 75 years later, the KVR closed down. The same features that made it expensive to build, meant it could not compete with the ease and economy of road and air transportation. 

19 trestles spanning 5,000 feet traverse the Myra Canyon. (Photo Credit: Logan Pay)
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ON YOUR VISIT: In 2002 Myra Canyon was made a National Historic Site of Canada and remains a popular recreation site for hikers, cyclists and horseback riders. Visitors can rent a bike and opt for a guided tour at Myra Canyon Bike Rentals or they can stay at Myra Canyon Lodge, four suites nestled in the mountains complete with stables and unparalleled views. 

The birth of Kelowna’s vacation scene: Hotel Eldorado 

In 1926, English aristocrat Countess Bubna arrived on the shores of Okanagan Lake. The former wife of an Austrian Count and a popular London stage actress, she had a storied past. She was also wonderfully wealthy; her mother has been the Mistress of the Duke of Sutherland and she one of the benefactors of his fortune. 

Countess Bubna established The Eldorado Arms Hotel, Kelowna’s most sophisticated social hub in the ’50s and ’60s. It hosted dog shows, garden parties, croquet and Olympic medalists. It is perhaps the most iconic of Kelowna’s hotels, and certainly speaks to the region’s history as a vacation destination. 

Almost a century later, the Hotel Eldorado is still the place to be with a private marina, boat tours, upscale restaurant and an old-school Whiskey Room. (Photo Credit: Hotel Eldorado)
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HANGING AT THE EL DORADO: Today visitors are still drawn to The Eldorado for its private marina and beach, tours aboard the 34-foot, 1952 cruiser and curated Whiskey Room. 

Birth of a metropolis: Brewery Row 

Fruit packing warehouses nestled at the bottom of Knox Mountain, seven blocks from the downtown beachfront, were once the hub of the Okanagan’s industrial sector — and the heartbeat of Canada’s largest fruit producing region. While eccentric Europeans lounged by Okanagan lake, warehouses wrapped up and shipped out produce via the Kettle Valley Railroad. 

But these days Kelowna’s industrial sector buzzes with a different kind of energy. 

These warehouses, shadowed by the construction of high-rise apartments, are now home to a collection of local breweries that offer live music, tasty snacks and a variety of games. Red Bird brewing company — a name inspired by a boat from Kelowna’s famous 1920s regatta — serves smokies from the back of a food truck while drinkers sip on locally crafted beer and rosé in a backyard patio (warehouse car park), overlooked by a DJ mixing beats from a loading dock.

Former fruit-packing warehouses, shadowed by the construction of high-rise apartments, are now home to a collection of local breweries that offer live music, tasty snacks and a variety of games. (Photo Credit: Kathryn Helmore)
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MUST VISIT: In the red-brick BNA Brewing warehouse, once a leaf drying warehouse during Kelowna’s short-lived tobacco boom, you can drink, eat and play at the boutique six-lane alley featuring 10-pin bowling, arcade games and pinball. 

In the red-brick BNA Brewing warehouse you can drink, eat and play at the boutique 6-lane alley featuring ten-pin bowling, arcade games and pinball. (Photo Credit: Evan Berg)
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