It is said that history is written by conquerors and subject to change but that heritage, as the tangible evidence of history, stands the test of time. Each year, the provincial government designates the third week of February as Heritage Week. This year’s theme is Distinctive Destinations and the diversity of Nelson’s natural, architectural and human heritage clearly fits this description.
The natural beauty and abundance of the region in which Nelson is located has attracted people for millennia. Archaeological evidence indicates that people referred to as the Kootenay (Ktunaxa) lived along the shores of the lakes and rivers near present day Nelson as early as 5,000 years ago. Others including the Sinixt indigenous peoples also relied on the bounty offered by the area. The north shore of Kootenay Lake across from Nelson still offers up a wealth of artifacts including decorative carvings and arrowheads attesting to their presence.
Europeans arrived in search of fur in the early 1800s but difficult terrain determined this area remained relatively unexplored until the 1860s when gold was discovered. The ensuing rush of prospectors was short-lived and it wasn’t until 20 years later when silver and copper were discovered that Nelson boomed as a transportation hub for mining operations. There followed a fascinating history of murder and mayhem involving well-known locations bearing the names of those involved: Ainsworth, Grohman, and Sproule in particular.
In 1897, Nelson incorporated as a city. At the time there was a sizable Chinese population drawn to the city as prospectors but later also as service providers growing food and running laundries and restaurants for well-heeled Nelson residents. Recently, the provincial government formally acknowledged the heritage significance of Nelson’s Chinatown and in particular the Sing Chong Laundry now housing Kootenay Co-op Radio.
Also honouring Chinese heritage, the Oxygen Art Centre-premiered art installation High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese recently won the UK’s New Media Writing Prize. A collaboration of Nelson and Vancouver-based artists including local notables Nicola Harwood, Bessie Wapp and Thomas Loh, the piece “unearths some of the layers that make up our shared history of place.”
By 1901 Nelson was (after Rossland) the second-largest city between Winnipeg and Vancouver. As with other mining boom towns, settlement started with tents and wood-framed structures erected close together. In 1897, city council passed a bylaw requiring new construction be of fire-resistant materials. So began construction of the city’s stately stone and brick structures including the courthouse (1908) and the art deco Capitol Theatre, deemed “the finest in the province,” on completion in 1927.
Nelson continued constructing distinctive buildings during the depression with the Civic Centre described in a Vancouver newspaper as “BC’s major building project of 1935.” Nelson’s jail, fire hall and its many elegant homes, hotels, stores and churches all added to the reputation of the Queen City as a distinctively desirable destination.
While much of this architectural heritage was buried under newer facades throughout the decades that followed, the mid-1970s economic downturn prompted a period during which over 350 buildings were designated “heritage” and many painstakingly restored. Nelson is now renowned for its restored heritage buildings and, according to Heritage BC, is one of the finest heritage cities in Canada.
This small city has a richness of history and heritage far greater than this column can capture. If you are inspired to learn more, Touchstones Museum, housed in the post office and custom house of 1902, offers historical exhibits and archives and online access to the museum’s extensive stored collection at touchstonesnelson.ca. Also, be sure to check out this year’s Heritage Week event at Expressions Cafe on Thursday at 7 p.m.