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An Erie tale
Fifty-second in an alphabetical series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names
Erie is today a bedroom community of Salmo but it was once a mining town in its own right, originally called North Fork for its location on the Salmo River.
It’s first mentioned in the Nelson Miner of September 5, 1896: “The camp is easily reached from Nelson, there being daily trains on the Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway, which reach the North Fork in about an hour …”
The fledgling town was also called Gilliam’s on a ca. 1897 Salmo townsite map and the 1900-01 directory of BC mining companies listed the Monterey Gold Mining Co., incorporated in 1897, as having its registered office at Gilliam.
That was after miner and hotelkeeper Marcus Heath Gilliam (1868-1948), whom author Clara Graham credits in Kootenay Mosaic with renaming the town Erie. She gave pioneer druggist and postmaster James R. Hunnex as her source, but when Hunnex answered an inquiry from the Geographic Survey of Canada in 1905 about Erie’s name, he didn’t mention Gilliam. However, he explained the change was to avoid confusion with the north fork of the Kettle River:
“Accordingly, one of the then-residents who had at one time lived at Erie, Penn. suggested the name of the settlement be changed to Erie, and as the American element has always been numerically strong here, the matter was so decided.”
While it’s unclear if Marc Gilliam ever lived in Erie, Penn., his mother was born in Erie County, N.Y. Both those places as well as Lake Erie honour the Erie tribe, an Iroquoian group whose name was a shortened form of Erielhonan, meaning “long tail.”
Coincidentally, Salmo’s Desirae Clark was recruited to play hockey for Mercyhurst College of Erie, Penn. In a 2004 Vancouver Sun story, she admitted “it was a case of rushing to the atlas after the call to find out where exactly Erie was located.”
It’s also possible Erie, BC was named for the Erie Mining and Milling Co. or Erie Consolidated Mining Co., both founded in 1897. The former owned a claim in the Slocan called the Erie.
In any case, the Erie townsite was surveyed on May 27, 1897 by Henry B. Smith. Its streets included Garnet, Crystal, Coral, Agate, Topaz, Ruby, Opal, and Pearl. Only the latter three survive today.
The first newspaper reference was in the Victoria Daily Colonist of June 13, 1897: “The towns of Ymir, Salmo, and Erie are all reported to be thriving finely ...” (All three were laid out for railway magnate D.C. Corbin.)
However, it took a little while for the new name to catch on, for when journalist R.W. Northey asked a Rossland railway ticket agent for a ticket to Erie, he received a blank stare: “‘North Fork,’ I continued, rather amused at his mystification. ‘Oh, ah! North Fork. Here you are. Three dollars and ten cents.’”
The Erie post office operated from 1898 to 1948. The body of water near the townsite was originally called Trout Lake but became known as Erie Lake.
Marc Gilliam moved back to the US, dreaming of California, but was immortalized at Erie by Gilliam Creek, so named by 1901. Gilliam County, Oregon is named for his great grandfather Cornelius Gilliam. Marc’s granddaughter Holly Michelle Gilliam is better known as Michelle Phillips of the 1960s folk rock group The Mamas and the Papas.
Previous installments in this series