The Kootenays region in Southeastern BC is a popular travel destination thanks to its beautiful lakes, awesome mountain vistas, plentiful hot springs, and diverse outdoor recreation options. But did you know there’s another reason you should visit the area? The region has one of the largest concentrations of ghost towns in North America, earning it the nickname ‘The Valley of the Ghosts’.
The Kootenays region takes its name from the Kootenay River, which in turn got its name from the Ktunaxa (Kootenay/Kootenai) people, who have inhabited the area for over 10,000 years. For almost 100 years after it was travelled by the first European explorer David Thompson in 1807, the region remained quiet. Then, in 1887 silver was discovered on Toad Mountain, near Nelson, and what followed was one of the largest silver booms in Canadian history. Many other mines popped up in the area in the 1890s and early 1900s and the region became a productive mining region with many dozens of towns and camps. But like all mining booms, it couldn’t last forever. Falling silver prices and the lure of the Klondike Gold Rush spelled the demise of many of the silver boomtowns. Over the years, as residents left, the towns were looted of their remaining treasures and fell into disrepair. Some of the ghost towns have been preserved while others have been reduced to nothing but legend.
Here are a few of the places you can’t miss when you’re hunting for ghosts in the Kootenays:
You can’t visit the Kootenays and not stop in Nelson. Nicknamed ‘The Queen City,’ it’s the original silver boom town, that not only survived the collapse of the industry, but is thriving as a center of tourism, culture, and year-round recreational activities. The town’s history is evident in over 350 preserved heritage buildings in a picturesque, walkable downtown. With excellent dining and shopping options, it’s a great place to start and end a trip around the popular ‘Kootenay loop’ driving route.
One place ghost-hunters can’t miss is the historic Hume Hotel. Built in 1898, it was one of the most modern hotels of the day, even boasting electric lights! While it is one of BC’s oldest hotels, it is also said to be one of its most haunted. One room in particular, room 335, is said to be especially disposed to paranormal activity, and there have been numerous sightings of a male ghost in a top hat around the hotel, who many believe to be the original owner, Henry Hume.
Just north of Nelson you’ll find the Blaylock Mansion, originally built in 1937 as a summer home for Cominco President Selwyn Blaylock. The home is one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture in western Canada and was designed by the same architectural firm that had designed the Banff Springs Hotel as well as several other famous CP Hotels across Canada. A very special feature of the property are the rare trees and shrubs the original owner carefully collected from all over the world over his lifetime of devotion to gardening. The mansion is said to have a supernatural presence who some say is the ghost of Blaylock himself.
Kaslo was established on Slocan Lake in 1892 to service the booming silver industry and remains a charming small town of approximately 1000 residents today.
One of the most interesting pieces of history that remains in Kaslo from the silver boom period is the S.S. Moyie, the world’s oldest intact passenger sternwheeler. The ship sailed the lake for 59 years and was the Queen of the Lake during the boom years of the early 1900s when the population of the Kootenays was expanding and there was increased demand for passenger and freight services. She has been lovingly restored and is now a National Historic Site where visitors can blow the ship’s original steam whistle, peek into a cabin, and check out the mechanics of a working sternwheeler.
One of the most famous ghost towns in BC is Sandon. Once the unofficial capital of the mining region known as the “Silvery Slocan”, the town had over 5000 residents in its heyday and boasted 24 hotels, 23 saloons, three railways, shops, brothels, theatres, a bowling alley, and not one but TWO ski hills! After the decline of the silver industry, several fires, and a major flood, the town was reduced to a shadow of its former self. Only a small portion of the town remains standing today and there are only a handful of full-time residents. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for ‘Headless Eric’, Sandon’s long-time ghost, who sometimes occupies a rocking chair on his favourite porch.
Near Sandon is Retallack, a true ghost town with very little physical evidence of its existence remaining. Originally established as the town of Whitewater, servicing the Whitewater Mine, it boasted several hotels, numerous brothels and casinos, its own school, and was a key stopping point for the Kaslo to Sandon Railway. Due to the large amount of mail that went to Major John Ley Retallack, the owner of the Whitewater Mine, the postal service decided to officially rename the town Retallack. The mine continued to operate until the 1950s, after which Retallack became a ghost town.
When it was founded in 1891, the town was called Eldorado City, with the hope of finding gold and riches, but was later renamed New Denver when it appeared the silver reserves in the area would make it richer than its namesake in Colorado.
During World War II the Kootenays region was the site of a very dark chapter in Canadian history when 22,000 Japanese Canadians were moved to isolated internment camps. The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver is a National Historic Site dedicated to telling their stories. Located on the site of “The Orchard” internment camp, the Centre contains original buildings, period artifacts and interpretive displays as well as the Heiwa Teien Peace Garden.
Greenwood is one of the two great mining towns in BC that are still mostly intact (the other being Nelson). It was the center of a number of mining camps and boasted 7,000 inhabitants at the turn of the 20th century when copper, gold, and silver were booming. Today it is the smallest incorporated city in Canada and has done an excellent job of preserving its fascinating history. The downtown has over 60 heritage buildings including the courthouse and post office. There are several ghost towns in the area surrounding Greenwood, including Phoenix and Deadwood.
Join Wells Gray Tours as we explore the ghost towns and hot springs of the Kootenays
Join us this fall as we explore the fascinating history of this region and soak in a few of the region’s famous hot springs on a 5-day tour of the Kootenays.
Kootenays Ghost Towns and Hot Springs
Over five days, we visit ghost towns such as Retallack and Sandon, as well as a created one at Three Valley Gap, and historic towns like Revelstoke, Kaslo, Nelson, and Greenwood. We visit the gardens at Blaylock, the Kootenays’ grandest mansion. Unique experiences include a ride on Nelson’s heritage Streetcar #23, lunch with a Nelson historian, an overnight at Nelson’s old Hume Hotel, and the historic powerhouse at Sandon. Guides are hired at each attraction or town to explain the historical details as only a local person can do. Come and join us on this exciting tour with a ghostly twist!
If you love BC History as much as I do and want to dig into the history of this fascinating period in the Kootenays in more detail, here are a few book suggestions to get you started:
Children of the Kootenays: Memories of Mining Towns – by Shirley D. Stainton
This warm-hearted memoir of a childhood spent living in various mining towns in the Kootenays throughout the 1930s and ’40s offers great insight into the forces that shaped the communities.
Ghost Towns and Drowned Towns of the West Kootenay – by Elsie Turnbull
This book includes the stories of more than 50 ghost towns and relics in the West Kootenay region. From numerous ghost towns to drowned towns and power dams, this is the best collection of information on the subject.
Ranch in the Slocan – by Cole Harris
Drawing from letters, diaries, family stories and recollections, photographs, as well as official records, Harris creates a rich portrait of his family’s experiences ranching in the Slocan Valley. Over a period of 120 years, beginning with his grandfather’s arrival in Canada in 1888, the ranch’s history included the discovery of a silver–lead mine on the property, a period as a Japanese internment camp, brushes with American counterculture, and the back-to-the-land movement.
Written by Pam Jensen