First Nations occupation of this immediate area stretches back over 3000 years according to recent archaeological excavations at historic Lemon Creek village and pithouse sites. Early explorers, prospectors and settlers in the Slocan noted First Nations encampments, watercraft, fishers and hunters. Local stories credit First nations people with showing rich ore deposits to lucky prospectors. Historic encampments are described with tipi-like reed shelters, typical of Lakes or Sinixt camps. Around Slocan Lake in the pioneer days many pictographs or rock drawings coloured with red and yellow ochre, white and black dyes were known on the cliffs above the Lake.
Although they may have, there is no direct evidence that they inhabited the south end of the Slocan Lake for long periods of time. There is evidence in pit houses lower on the Slocan River that does indicate more long term residence.
There are a few theories on how Slocan got its name, and the most widely accepted is that it comes from a First Nations word that means to “strike on the head” and reflects the harpooning and harvest of the abundant salmon fishery that once thrived in the Slocan system.
The last known interaction between the First Nations and the miners was in the early settlement years. Clarence Tipping told this story about the encounter: “There was a band of Indians living in the cabins on the lakefront. They were living there steady when we came in here. There was one of them was supposed to have stolen something, and I don’t know what it was now. And old Christie, the policeman, went down to arrest him. And he jumps on a cayuse that was packed and started out and he fired a shot. He never… fired over his head, never intended to hit him or anything. They all picked up and left after that and never came back.”
According to local papers, in 1892, the two miners that were the first to settle in this area were Billy Clements and Tom Mulvey. These two men were on the hunt for valuable minerals with which to make their fortune. It was a mere 5 years later that the Canadian Pacific Railway laid down track to make Slocan a hub of activity and by 1901, this small community became a City. Here is where all the action was – Main Street was designed as a four lane roadway to meet the future needs of the community. Prior to the railway, in order to travel to Slocan, a person would need to take a boat up the Slocan River or hike in by foot or on horseback. But once the CPR laid down tracks a person could travel by train from the south and by steamship from the north. Travel to all points in the Slocan Valley was made much easier.
The Slocan Lake became the extension for the railway and the CPR made regular runs from Nelson to Nakusp using this route. It was the most cost effective option for moving goods and materials to market. The SS William Hunter, SS Slocan, SS Sandon, SS Rosebery, and the Iris G were all commercial vessels over 40 feet in length that were at one time or another a part of the CPR fleet. The book, Early Boats on Slocan Lake by G. H. von Krogh, details these and many other vessels that plied the waters here.
On Dec. 22 1903, a CPR boxcar carrying an estimated 700 bullion bars from the Trail smelter went off the transfer slip at Slocan and into the lake, carrying brakeman Edward Connolly to his death. Most of the bars were soon recovered; subsequent salvage in 1929, the 1960s and 1970s probably recovered the rest. While most of the ingots salvaged were lead, popular lore continues to fuel the general belief that silver ingots or treasure are lost in Slocan Lake. The Legend of Lost Bullion lives on.
The Lake View Hotel (later called the Cumberland) was the first hotel built in Slocan and was built by Thomas Mulvey and W.R. Clements. It was a storey and a half and offered bunks rather than rooms for four years before being moved to make way for the grand Arlington Hotel. ” … was the only building on the prettiest townsite in British Columbia. It may be despised by the pilgrim of today, but it has friends among the hardy prospectors of other days who never tire of the stories of the hospitality and good cheer that it sheltered.” … “They never made any pretense of running a “first class” house. They paid 10 cents a pound for all provisions from Slocan crossing, and the table was provided with an abundance of game of all kinds, for which they charged 75 cents a meal – if you could afford it – if you didn’t you were welcome to the meal and got the glad hand just the same.” Slocan Pioneer 1 May 1897
In 1896, Neil Gething & George Henderson built the Arlington Hotel on the former location of the Lake View. An elegant three storey structure with a balcony and tower, it was by far the most famous and most photographed building of Slocan City’s Heyday. (Greg Nesteroff) With the completion of the picturesque Arlington at the corner of Lake Street and Main Street, Slocan City was suddenly a business and mining hub of the booming Slocan district. It saw brisk business throughout the silver rush.
In 1952, the CPR bought the Arlington Hotel for $400 and had it demolished. During this same era Slocan Mayor Clement Denison waged a successful campaign to remove the derelict buildings from Main St. in hopes of attracting development. Just missing the Heritage Conservation wave, he was quoted as saying: “When this place is cleaned up we’ll have one of the most beautiful towns in the district. The old buildings are too disreputable to keep any for their historical value.” Thus the impressive Victorian facade on Main St. met its end.
Main Street in the 1920s and 1930s was already showing age. Most buildings had been hastily built with green lumber. Maintenance was not being done and condition was going downhill fast. The flooding (c1930) didn’t help.
With the internment of over 4700 Japanese Canadians, the population of Slocan reached historic highs. Community and the uprooted had to deal with intense changes. The roofs of the decaying buildings were patched together one more time.
“We were among the first contingent to arrive in Slocan City and got to live in the hotel closest to the lake. We had a small room on the second floor at the back of the building. It must have been a grand building it its day … but the boards of the porches were so weathered and rotten that we weren’t allowed to run around on them … our building was filthy and cramped … ” David Suzuki, 1987
New Canadian newspaper says that 600 lived in the old buildings of Slocan, while other sources say that the Japanese Canadian population occasionally reached near 1000. Certainly Slocan and region had never been so busy.
Along with shelter in the old buildings, temporary tents were used for internees until three room shacks could be built between Slocan and Lemon Creek. By the end of 1942 … “residents had adapted themselves to lamps and candles, outside taps, double decker beds, green fuel, damp walls, community baths and winter snows. New Canadian 1943
In 1943 over 1000 of the 4764 Japanese Canadians in the Slocan were working; many in the bush on firewood or rail tie projects or as carpenters, social workers, clerks, teachers or farmers. And with changing government policy in 1945, Slocan becomes a “muster station”, where those “returning” to Japan awaited their shipment out.
While outlying camps were evacuated and the shacks bulldozed, moved or taken apart, many families moved into Slocan as “self-supporting”. They remained here, becoming an essential part of both heritage and community.
“The action of the Canadian Government of the day… was a black mark against Canada’s traditional fairness and devotion to the principles of human rights. We have no reason to be proud of this episode, nor are we…” Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, 1964