Picture an instant town with 13 stores, five bakeries, two butchers, three restaurants, and a stationery shop. Six physicians, a pharmacy, two barbershops, eight wash houses and a bath house took care of the community’s physical needs. Business was booming for two breweries and the town’s six saloons.
It isn’t a stretch to imagine the half-dozen saloons filled with rough miners suffering from gold fever and a friendly staff pouring them beverages. The year was 1866.
But that list is far from complete. The trades, key to sustaining any small town, were also there in force: 11 shoemakers, two blacksmith shops making implements, a livery stable attending the needs of the horses, and, of course, painters painting.
This was a civilized place. It had a coffee and donut stand! Notably absent was a photographer’s studio, documenting town life, but luckily, where no pictures survived, some letters to the outside world have.
A letter from Seymour City tells the story.
“I might also mention an extensive fishery,” W.E.O. signed his letter with initials only on May 27, 1866.
The writer was recording life at the head of Seymour Arm, the northern-most point on Shuswap Lake. The city had recently undergone a name change from Ogden City and Ogdenville to Seymour City, after the Governor of the Colony of British Columbia. The message was clear. This town was no longer a Hudson’s Bay outpost named for a Chief Factor. It was the busiest place in the Shuswap!
Four years earlier, gold had been discovered on the Columbia River and its tributaries. The news travelled fast and miners flooded into the area from as far away as California. The first wave of adventurers journeyed north on boats, canoes, and raft scows. Later they travelled on the SS Forty-Nine stern wheeler via Colville, Washington. A second route brought miners from the Cariboo, up the Thompson River and into the “Souswap Lakes,” to dock in Seymour Arm.
A William Downie found gold in 1865 in paying quantities on Carnes and French Creeks and Goldstream River. By September the Victoria Colonist reported diggings paying $16-$18 a day and at least one miner made $500 in one day!
The Big Bend Gold Rush put the Shuswap on the map. Responding to the influx of miners, the Hudson’s Bay established an outpost at the head of Seymour Arm. In short order the outpost became a community with all the amenities.
The stern wheeler SS Marten began plying the Shuswap, transporting goods and passengers from Savona Ferry to Seymour City and all points between. In April, the settlement boasted 20 buildings. By May the population had grown to 500.
But by the summer of 1866, the rush was being called the Big Bend Bilk. A thousand miners working French Creek left for other fields. The following year only 300 returned. Entrepreneurs moved on leaving vacant buildings in Seymour City. The boom was over.
According to authors Gwen Bauer and Estelle Noakes, the collapse of the Big Bend Rush and diminished returns in the Cariboo sent the Colony of British Columbia into a recession. It was a perfect time to consider an offer of confederation. Sweetened with the promise of railway, the Colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island joined Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario in 1871. Confederation, the railway, and settlers would bring even bigger changes to the Shuswap.
For the whole story see Seymour Arm: Historical Gem of the Shuswap by Gwen Bauer and Estelle Noakes available at local bookstores, and the Bradleys’ Historical Outline of Seymour Arm Area 1860-1970, online at www.milligan.ab.ca/seymourarm/Seymour-Arm-History.html.