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.