The legend of Walhachin gets a fresh look

A review of a new book which looks at a local 'ghost town'

A fresh look at Walhachin ensures that the town's legend will continue to grow.

A fresh look at Walhachin ensures that the town's legend will continue to grow.

Walhachin: Birth of a Legend

by Larry Jacobsen (2014)

Reviewed by Barbara Roden

 

Walhachin, located halfway between Cache Creek and Savona, is often referred to as a ghost town; but it’s an odd sort of a one. Most ghost towns are long since abandoned and forgotten, and Walhachin is neither. Several dozen people still live there, and far from being forgotten, Walhachin has passed almost into the realm of legend, the subject of books and dissertations, home to a vibrant museum and community centre, and an enduring fascination to many.

This unlikely community was the brainchild of American engineer Charles E. Barnes (no relation to the Barnes family that first settled Ashcroft) who, in late 1906 or early 1907, passed through the area by train and was attracted by the verdancy of the Penny Ranch, with its 40 acres of irrigated land in the middle of a seeming desert. Barnes had seen the Okanagan Valley, and knew what could be coaxed from the land there. He envisioned the same thing for the area around the Penny Ranch, which would not just grow the cattle fodder that Penny had devoted most of his space to. For Penny also had two acres of apple orchard, and Barnes knew that fruit and vegetable crops were worth much more than feed.

He turned to the B.C. Development Association, founded in Britain in 1895 to invest in development projects in the province. After an agriculturist and engineer from the BCDA had visited the site, the group purchased the Penny Ranch and the nearby Greaves Ranch—nearly 1,750 acres—in 1908. By 1911 more than 500 acres of apples had been planted, following the building of an extensive flume system which brought water to the parched land. Four years later the apple orchard had doubled in size, with filler crops of vegetables planted alongside the apples to provide revenue until the trees could produce crops.

Then came August 1914, and the start of World War I. Most of the Walhachin settlers were English in origin, and they answered their country’s call and left for war. The fact that almost none of them came back—combined with the failure of the main flume in a disastrous 1918 storm—are, in the popular imagination, what doomed Walhachin.

In Walhachin: Birth of a Legend author Larry Jacobsen examines the birth, rise, and fall of Walhachin. In addition to a thorough look at the community itself, Jacobsen extends his scope to include a history of the Christie family, which was instrumental in the early days of Walhachin, as well as a thorough look at the people who were there when the area was known as “Walhassen”: the Skeetchestn Indians. He gives valuable insight into many of the men who settled in Walhachin in its early days: the so-called remittance men, second (or third or fourth) sons of middle- to upper-class British families who had been educated to be gentlemen and little else, and thus were unsuited to much in the way of work. Their families shipped them off to the Colonies, and places like Walhachin, with little more than a remittance sufficient to get them across the ocean and away from being a burden on the family.

Jacobsen breaks away from popular wisdom—which states that the Snohoosh Flume, that brought water from the Deadman Valley to Walhachin, was shoddily constructed, hence its destruction after a two-day downpour in 1918—by arguing that the flume was well engineered and built, and that its destruction was just one of many factors which doomed Walhachin. In addition to the lack of men in the community during and after the war, he points to depressed land prices both during WW I and in its immediate aftermath, and the dramatic drop in fruit and produce prices after the war, which would have made labour- and water-intensive Walhachin a poor fruit-growing area.

Along the way, Jacobsen’s book provides a fascinating look at the genteel, quasi-English country life of the early Walhachin settlers, as well as the toll the war years took, and the sad aftermath. A facsimile of an early advertising brochure for Walhachin, intended to promote the settlement in England, is also included. An early page states that Walhachin is “An Indian word signifying an abundance of Food Products of the Earth”; research shows the First Nations name actually meant “land of round rocks”. Also included are dozens of wonderful photographs—many of them never before seen—of the community and its early inhabitants.

If I have a criticism, it is that the information is marshaled in rather haphazard fashion, with certain threads picked up, dropped, and then picked up again; more coherent organisation of information would have been helpful (particularly as there is no index). And while Jacobsen asserts that none of the Walhachin men who went off to war came back—the story he heard in 1969—he fails to go into the details as to why this might have been the case. (Although Walhachin certainly sent a disproportionately large number of men, as a percentage of the population, off to war, the number of Walhachin men killed was well within the average, leaving room for speculation as to why the survivors did not return. It is not beyond the realm of probability that, since most of the Walhachin enlistees were of British origin, those who survived decided to return to their homes in England rather than go back to an uncertain future in far-off Walhachin.)

That said, anyone interested in the history of Walhachin in particular, or in the early days of our area in general, would be advised to get a copy of Walhachin: Birth of a Legend, for its evocative look at a nearby community, and for its wistful photographs of an attempt to turn the dusty benchlands of the Thompson into something more akin to what the early settlers were accustomed to in the English countryside. And the next time you’re driving along Hwy. 1, if you have an hour to spare then take the time to turn off the road and visit Walhachin, the not-quite-ghost town, and imagine what could have been, and almost was.

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

Okanagan Lake (File photo)
Thompson-Okanagan ready to welcome back tourists

The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association expects this summer to be a busy one

Aerial view of a wildfire at 16 Mile, 11 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, that started on the afternoon of June 15. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire at 16 Mile now being held

Wildfire started on the afternoon of June 15 at 16 Mile, east of Highway 97

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read