Reflecting Back on Day One: Thinking Historically about Walhachin

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

As the school year has drawn to a close, I have been reflecting back on the first class in September. Every opening day I start the year by bringing in an artifact or photograph from my summer, that I attempt to connect to the study of history. This year was no different as I brought in a 100-year-old rotted and crumbling board of lumber, complete with rusty nails jutting out in all directions.

I had pilfered this potential health risk from the hills above the Thompson River, near Cache Creek, B.C. The students looked bemused, if not outright embarrassed for me, as I enthused about this “historical artifact” that I was going to connect with larger trends and events in Canadian and world history.

I began this year with the story of Walhachin, which I will summarize here:

In 1907, an American named Charles Barnes attempted to create an orcharding community in the Thompson River Valley, in the interior of British Columbia, sold as a “garden of Eden.” The semi-arid hot summer climate, in conjunction with fertile soils on the plateaus along the river was considered suitable for orcharding, much like the Okanagan. All that was needed was settlers, and of course a reliable water source.

Through the British Columbia Development Association, Barnes convinced primarily secound born males of the British nobility to immigrate to this largely uninhabited valley, west of Kamloops (there were First Nations communities nearby). These noble men and their families were pressured to immigrate to Canada as they stood little chance of inheriting their family’s estates, and as Nelson Riis (1970) explains, they shared similar backgrounds that included “repeated failure and/or behavioural problems in schools such as Eton and Marlborough, or … military or civil service expulsion.”

Several hundred settlers arrived bringing with them the attitudes and lifestyle that went along with the British nobility, as the Empire stretched around the globe.  Soon a hotel (complete with smoking room) and swimming pool were built; tennis, cricket, and other games were all played as the British elite held balls and picnics by the river. The water problem was solved as Chinese and Aboriginal workers built an extensive wooden flume, five miles in the mountains north of the Thompson River Valley into Deadman Valley.

While the fruit trees slowly grew, the settlers, again with the help of Chinese and Aboriginal labour, successfully farmed potatoes, barley, tobacco, and onions. The community thrived and in 1910 the government even built a bridge across the Thompson to replace the old cable ferry. This unlikely settlement in the interior of BC was thriving and appeared to be a success.

In the late summer of 1914, everything changed. One by one, the great powers of Europe declared war on each other with the British Empire, including Canada, declaring war on Germany on August 4th. Men across the British Empire enlisted in great numbers, with Walhachin being no exception. Of the 107 white men of fighting age in Walhachin, 97 enlisted. One of highest percentages in Canada!

While not many of those who left to fight died, the community was never the same. Of those that returned after the war, few remained long. The flume fell into disrepair as the often extreme micro-climate of the valley warped and twisted the lumber. By 1922, Walhachin was deemed a failure and abandoned by most remaining settlers, rendering it almost a ghost town.

Today, some original houses still stand and there are still permanent residents of Walhachin, including a few who run a small museum, holding various artifacts from the day prior to the war. Last summer, passing through the area, I visited Walhachin and as I drove along the highway I stopped to see the rotting remnants of the flume running along the hillside. I crawled up the rocky hillside to take a photo and while there I collected a small piece of the flume that sat in front of my students that first class of September. 

After this sharing this brief story, I asked the students several questions:

1)   How can this artifact be used as historical evidence

       - we then discussed the nature of historical evidence and different types of sources. i.e. primary vs secondary, traces vs accounts.

2)   Is this piece of lumber historically significant? If so why? 

      - We then discussed how something can acquire historical significance if we connect it to larger trends or events in history. The artifact, connected to the story of Walhachin can connect to many larger narratives in Canadian history (the Great War, immigration, class systems, etc.) 

3)   What does the story of Walhachin tell us about cause and consequence and most importantly how can we explain Walhachin’s failure as a settlement? 

      - We discussed how events on the other side of the word can have unforeseen consequences in Canada. We also discussed what causes people to immigrate and what causes people to enlist in the army. We also answered the also answered the essential questions: Why did Walhachin fail? Most students interestingly explained (as is Riis thesis) that is was not World War One but other variables – climate, poor farming skills, lack of water etc.

The story of Walhachin could even be extended further to take historical perspectives (of 2nd born noble males perhaps) or to identify how continuities and changes in the development and settlement of BC; however, I decided to focus on three concepts.

I am still not sure if this introductive activity was effective in demonstrating historical thinking, but it apparently was memorable. Several students in the last class mentioned it as something they will remember from this year. (Even if, in their minds, their memory is of my baffling enthusiasm for B.C.’s history.)

Further reading about Walhachin, if you’re interested: 

Chandler, G. (2009) The Short Season of High Society. Legion Magazine. June 4.

Riis, N. (1970) Settlement Abandonment - A case study of Walhachin – myth and reality. UBC Masters Thesis. 

Vanishing B.C.