Remains of the Walhachin flume

Remains of the Walhachin flume

Golden Country: Past, Present, and Beyond: Ghosts of Walhachin part eight

Many returning orchardists wanted to remain at the site; but one seemingly insurmountable obstacle made that impossible.

The final instalment of a series looking at the history of Walhachin

As we have seen, there was no single factor that triggered the demise of Walhachin. The poor soil in the region, which was completely unsuitable for orchards (a fact not discovered until 1953); the harsh climate, which left crops susceptible to frost; the advent of World War I, which led to nearly all the able-bodied young men of the community leaving to fight; and the dismissal of Charles E. Barnes as manager all played a part.

Another major factor—perhaps the single biggest one—in Walhachin’s downfall was the deterioration of the extensive flume system which brought water to the majority of the site from Deadman’s Creek, 12 miles away, and fed it into an extensive series of ditches, which in turn fed the orchards. However, the initial investors in the site were wary of spending too much money, since Walhachin was an unproven entity. The flume system built by the B.C. Development Association (BCDA) over the course of six months in 1910 was a “temporary structure to be reconstructed when the property got self-supporting to a permanent structure” (according to minutes taken at the Ashcroft courthouse in the case of Steward versus the Indian Department: The Safety of Snohoosh Lake Dam, April 17, 1929).

The developers were not, it seems, interested in the long-term capabilities of the flume system; they merely wanted to get something in place to serve the immediate needs of the orchardists, something that would, in the course of time, be replaced by a more permanent system. For that reason, solid footings were not built, and there was considerable settlement, which meant a loss of water. In some sections, the lumber used was too thin to be satisfactorily calked, which mean more water loss.

The lumber delivered for construction of the flumes was not cut in standard lengths, but the settlers incorporated them into a larger whole, meaning that a wash-out that would normally have affected only one small section had a much larger impact on the whole system. A rain storm in 1918 that affected a small section of the flume ended up wiping out nearly a quarter-mile of the system when the trestles supporting the flume came unmoored.

A section of the Walhachin flume, photographed in 2014, more than a century after it was constructed. Photo by Barbara Roden.

The irrigation ditches were also a factor. The builders of the flume did not line the ditches with concrete, and the sandy and gravelly nature of the soil through which the water passed meant that as much as 40 per cent of it was lost due to seepage.

With almost all the younger men from the community serving in the Canadian military for some or all of World War I, the running of all the orchards and the maintenance of the flume system fell on the shoulders of a handful of men, each of whom was looking after six to ten separate acreages. Not only were they unable to adequately maintain and repair the flume, they were not able to prune and look after the trees to the necessary extent.

Still, the community limped on, and by 1919 most of the orchardists had returned from Europe. They were confronted with orchards that needed a tremendous amount of work, as well as the fact that the flume system would need extensive repairs. The cost of the repairs was estimated to be some $240,000, which the orchardists would be responsible for paying. This was in addition to being on the hook for the more than $330,000 that it had cost the BCDA to construct the system in 1910. The BCDA had built the flume on the understanding that when the settlement was fully operational and making a profit, the cost would be paid back by the settlers.

A strong leader such as Charles E. Barnes—the man whose passion and determination had led to the creation of Walhachin—might have been able to rally the settlers and convince them to stay on and do the necessary work. However, he had been dismissed as the townsite’s manager in 1912, and young Ralph Chetwynd, who took over the position, simply did not command the respect of the orchardists the way Barnes had.

The Marquis of Anglesey, who had purchased the townsite after the BCDA backed out, was unable to invest the necessary money. He had only inherited the title after the death of his brother; and along with the title he had inherited his brother’s debts, estimated at some £544,000 ($61,000,000 million in today’s currency). The Marquis was under considerable pressure from creditors to pay off the debts, which left no money for Walhachin.

In 1919 the Marquis approached the province with an appeal for financial assistance, but was refused. He then offered to donate the land to the province as an area for returning soldiers to settle in, which would have brought fresh blood in the form of new settlers to the area. However, Premier John Oliver declined the offer, and purchased land in the Okanagan instead.

The writing was on the wall. Faced with the prospect of a massive amount of work and debt just to get the orchards and flume system back to what they had been—never mind expanding the site—most of the settlers opted to sell (or try to sell) their holdings and move elsewhere; often back to England. By 1921 the flume system had ceased to operate at all, and by 1922 the last of the English orchardists had left Walhachin.

Walhachin is often referred to as a ghost town, although a few dozen people still live there. A handful of original buildings (including the Soldiers Memorial Hall), a few tenacious apple trees, and the remains of the flume on the hillside north of Highway 1 are all that are left now to mark the dream of an orchard in the desert of the Thompson River valley.

The B.C. Stop of Interest sign commemorating Walhachin. Sadly, it has been missing for several years, but the government has said it will be replacing the vanished signs around the province.