A Brief History of the Creston Valley

Woman with CanoeLying at the foot of the Skimmerhorn, the Creston Valley in British Columbia, Canada, is a unique geological region between the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges. The wide valley is a flood plain of the Purcell Trench that is divided by the Kootenay River—which runs from Banff and Yoho National Parks and winds its way through Fort Steele into northern Idaho—where it turns north at Bonner’s Ferry and makes it way down the Creston valley into the magnificent Kootenay Lake before forming its west arm at Nelson and descending rapidly into the Columbia River at Castlegar. This rich soil valley that was created 12,000 years ago by the melting of glaciers was populated by aboriginal peoples, the original residents being the Kutenai—one of three groups who formed the Ktunaxa First Nation. Traditionally, they lived mainly by hunting, trapping and fishing, and at tribal ceremonies worshipped the sun and the Great Spirit.

The pre-history of the region can be documented by the Kutenai canoe which is unique in North America. It is made from a single piece of white pine bark that was laid smooth side out over a frame of cedar strips and maple ribs. Either cedar root or wild cherry bark is used for binding, and pitch from the ponderosa pine or Douglas fir provided caulking materials for joints and knotholes. Since the Kutenai canoes are of a similar design to those discovered in the Amur River region of northern Asia in the mid-1800’s (where they also fished for sturgeon), this coincidence coincides with some anthropological evidence of a land bridge between the two continents.

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The Neo-European discovery of the Kootenays was engineered by David Thompson, a London orphan who apprenticed with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1790s. He learned mapmaking and several aboriginal languages, and joined the Northwest Company in 1797 as their chief geographer—tasked with finding a watercourse from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Crossing the Rockies over Howse Pass with his aboriginal wife and two small children in mid-winter, he reached the Columbia River and traced its source to Columbia Lake in June 1807, where he established Kootenae House near what is now Fairmont Hot Springs south of Radium, Windermere and Invermere. He returned in the following spring, camped at Canal Flats, and discovered the Kootenay River that was two kilometres away.


Setting out with four voyageurs, Thompson’s party paddled down the Kootenay past the future site of Fort Steele to Bonners Ferry, and arrived in the Creston valley at the foot of Kootenay Lake on 9 May 1808. Meeting the Kutenai at a spot that resembles the later Kootenay Landing, he took long notes on their customs and lifestyle, and wrote approvingly of the lush valley that surrounded him. He left the next day to return back up the rivers he had descended to Rocky Mountain House. Thompson was followed first by other explorers, and then by mining prospectors from Idaho, Washington and California who searched the mountain sides of Kootenay Lake for precious and hard rock metals.

When the Dewdney Trail (the origins of Highway 3) was blazed in the 1860s as a southern route from the Pacific coast through the BC interior, more prospectors came through the Creston Valley, drawn by the rumours of gold discovered at Wild Horse Creek. When that discovery did not pan out, some of the prospectors—and many new arrivals—took up homesteading. John C. Rykert was the first official white settler in the Creston area, and he built a one-room log office near the banks of the Kootenay River in 1883. Acting as Customs and Immigration officer from this site opposite what is now known as Porthill, Idaho, he retired in 1924. The large house that he built just north of the border still stands today. Also in 1883, William Adolph Baillie-Grohman began investigating ways of reclaiming the Creston flats from the annual flooding of the Kootenay River. In the following year, as part of his grand settlement scheme, he brought the S.S. Midge by rail from Montreal to Sandpoint to begin transportation on Kootenay Lake.

This early settler era saw a renewal of interest in mining in the region which gained international notoriety in 1885 with the murder of Thomas Hammill by Robert Sproule at the Blue Bell mine just north of Creston. The affair reached the newspapers of Toronto, Chicago, New York and London, England, tested Canadian, American and British diplomacy, and was concluded at the Supreme Court of Canada. The most prominent mine was the Alice mine, located on Goat Mountain and staked in 1890. Several other mineral-bearing sites were also discovered before the turn of the century.

However, development of these claims could not occur until railways were built to handle the shipment of ore and supplies, and the mines of the Creston Valley would be short-lived. The Alice mine, however, was sufficiently lucrative that a concentrator was built near the CPR tracks at what became known as Alice Siding, just north of Creston itself. The ore was shipped from the mine down to the concentrator on an aerial tramway. In 1898, the Canadian Pacific Railway built an extension—the Crows Nest Pass Railway—through the Creston Valley. Within two years, the Great Northern had also opened a line through the valley from Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, to Kuskanook on the east shore of Kootenay Lake. These railways were built to access the rich mining districts near Nelson and Kaslo. Both railways had a terminus on Kootenay Lake, where steamboats would meet the trains to take passengers and freight to Nelson, Kaslo, and other points along the lake, providing a transportation corridor in the Kootenays. Kootenay Landing, at the south end of Kootenay Lake, became a permanent harbour for steamships that coursed its waters.

Three men—F. Little, J. Arrowsmith and J. Dow—arrived in the valley in 1891, each claiming a section of land. These early pre-emptions would later become the site of the town of Creston. Fred Little, who filed his claim on 20 April 1891, also chose the name Creston in 1899 after a small town in Iowa he had once visited. Several other families arrived in the early 1890s. The Huscroft family, which came by covered wagon from Utah in 1891, originally settled near the Kootenay River but the flood of 1894 forced them to move to higher ground into the area east of Creston now known as Huscroft.

Diking of the river began in 1893. The Alberta-BC Exploration Company brought in a floating barge as the company office in 1893 with the goal of reclaiming the south end of the valley for agriculture. Armed with funding from English investors, the company under the leadership of George Alexander constructed a dike near the Canadian border at Rykerts, dredged Boundary Creek, erected a bridge over a channel at Nick’s Island and Reclamation Farmhouse in 1895. Some 8,000 acres were reclaimed, but the flood of 1894 destroyed the dikes and the idea was abandoned for the time being An early farmer on the Creston flats was Guy Constable who grew hay in 1915 and formed Reclamation Farm by 1920. An “S” bridge connected West Creston in 1921, but continual flooding made farming precarious.


The diking of the Kootenay River in 1935 was a historic moment in the history of the valley. Aided by one of the first Caterpillar tractors and dredges, the rich alluvial soil of the valley floor could now be farmed. Nevertheless, the Kootenay and Goat River floods of 1938 and 1948 that covered the valley floor prompted local residents to mount sandbag brigades to maintain the dikes from Rykerts to Wynndel. With Duck Lake diked in 1950, the Lewis Island ferry for the east channel of the Kootenay River and the Black Bridge vaulting over Goat River in 1951, the valley could now be easily traversed in all directions.

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The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed the early development of Creston as a town. Forestry was its first industry—and the valley’s principal one, followed by agriculture. Renowned today for its orchards, the first apple orchards using trees imported from Ontario were planted in 1901, and the first fall fair was held in 1908. A strawberry co-operative was established in Wynndel about 1912 by O.J. Wigen—the progenitor of a major valley family that owns the state-of-the-art Wynndel Box and Lumber. The Board of Trade was established in 1908, and on 8 August the first issue of the Creston Review, the valley’s first newspaper, was printed. Within a few years, three churches, a bank, and a new two-room school were built to accommodate the influx of miners, farmers, and loggers into the valley. The Canadian Pacific Railway dominated the transportation industry as its rival, the Great Northern, could not compete. All the Great Northern steamships on the lake were retired by 1910, and the railway between Bonner’s Ferry and Kuskanook was closed down by 1915. With the outbreak of The First World War in 1914, the men of the 41st Company, Forestry Corps, left the quiet valley they had come to call home to serve overseas. One hundred and seventy-five men boarded the train and twenty-six never returned.

The number of small communities in the valley increased in 1919, when Camp Lister was established south of the town. This was a settlement, founded by Colonel Fred Lister, for soldiers returning from the war. Residents bought their land over time and established a store, church and school within a few years. Local industries expanded quickly as mechanised equipment was brought in. The first bulldozer in the valley was used by the Canyon City Lumber Company to replace horses. Agriculture became increasingly significant, and by the early 1920s Wynndel had earned the title “Strawberry Capital of the World.” Over 17,000 cases of strawberries were grown each year and shipped to the United States. The livestock industry was also becoming well established; there were approximately 1500 cattle and 300 horses in the valley in 1920. The hay harvested from the river flats amounted to over 2500 tons every year. In 1930, Dr. Olivier, persuaded by the Board of Trade to set up practice in Creston, established the first hospital. The problem of hydroelectric power was solved in 1933 when the Goat River dam (still intact) was completed. Such progress prompted a debate over incorporation, and on 14 May 1924 a village charter was granted. The community’s new status was confirmed in a special ceremony that August, in which visiting Governor General Lord Byng swore in the first village council.


Many new organisations were formed following Creston’s incorporation: a curling club, Boy Scouts, the Royal Canadian Legion, and a golf club all established themselves in Creston. The Great Depression of 1929 had a salient effect on Creston. Farmers on the flats, struggling against the annual floods of the Kootenay River, could not pay the debts on their machinery. Ultimately, The International Harvester Company repossessed all the machinery it had loaned or sold with debt, and kept it locked up below the town for two years. However, with an economy based on agriculture and plenty of water for irrigation, the community was able to take care of itself, and its population grew as people arrived from other, less fortunate parts of the country. Nevertheless, there were some very poor families, and the Village Council accepted its responsibility to provide for them by supplying them with groceries.


A growing town and economy, however, had brought with it criminal activity when, in October 1925, two men attempted to rob the Imperial Bank of Canada. Little did they know that the entire community, including school children, would band together and finally capture one of the robbers and half of the stolen money.

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After the Creston (river) Flats were finally reclaimed in 1935, and the Kootenay and Goat River diked, large-scale cultivation of the flats began almost immediately as the rich soil lent itself to grains. In 1935, in anticipation of a 165,000-bushel wheat crop, Creston’s first grain elevator was built, and a second followed in the next year. In June 1938, flood waters broke through the dikes and flooded 14,500 acres of reclaimed grain land. The cost of rebuilding the dikes was estimated at $150,000, but they were considered so essential that the work was started as soon as conditions permitted. Agriculture in the Creston Valley expanded rapidly into the mid-1940’s. Construction of a creamery began in 1940, and agricultural labour shortages occurred when a pea plant was opened in 1941. The Future Farmers of Canada was organised in Creston in 1944.


When World War II broke out in 1940, residents of Creston once again rallied behind the war effort. Men and women went overseas, and the local government applied rationing to coffee, tea, and sugar. The IODE began knitting woollen items, and the Red Cross organized packages to be sent to men overseas. Local residents consistently surpassed fund-raising goals and quotas for government-issued Victory Bonds. The announcement of the cruel war’s end on 7 May 1945 brought on a spontaneous celebration. Stores were closed, streets were decorated with flags and bunting, and a day of prayer was declared. A victory dance was held when the war in the Pacific was over. The war years were not, however, entirely dedicated to rationing and fund raising. The Lions Club organised the first Blossom Fest in 1942, and its success encouraged the club to repeat the project in 1943—and every year since, with a Blossom Fest Queen contest added in 1945. By the early 1940’s, traffic through Creston had increased to such an extent that bottlenecks on Canyon Street were becoming major problems. Starting in 1947, all the buildings on Canyon Street were moved back ten feet, widening the street by twenty. As a sign of “traffic”, parking meters were introduced in 1957. The town is blessed, however, with just four stop lights.


Following the parking meters (parking is free during the summer tourist season!), new services were introduced: automatic dial telephones and the first ambulance association in 1958, the Endicott Centre as a home for the handicapped in 1965, and the highway over the Salmo-Creston Pass in 1963. Today, the “Skyway,” is the highest highway in the province. Improvements in community services, and an increase in population, led to a change from Village status to that of Town in January 1966. Since community needs were of a top priority, new facilities were created for a Public Library and elderly residents (Swan Valley Lodge), and in 1978 the community received $100,000 for an airport which is now managed by skilled private hands. Today, the Creston Valley Airport is considered one of the best airstrips in the region.


Nature and recreation have always been a major feature of the valley. The Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area was created in 1968 as the largest wetlands in British Columbia to link other wetlands from California to the Arctic Ocean. The wetlands were diked in 1970, a new interpretation centre was built in 1974, and the centre quickly became one of the major attractions of the valley. Suported by the Columbia Basin Trust and Ducks Unlimited, it was designated a Ramsar International site of major importance in 1994. It’s warm, shallow waters and marshlands attract bird watchers from across North America and Europe.


The Creston valley is also known for its game, hunting and fishing. Apart from the world-famous Gerrard rainbow trout on Kootenay Lake, the bass on Duck Lake draw fishers from all over. Other pastimes include visiting the vineyards and wineries coming on stream—the Skimmerhorn Winery has won national awards – as well as the famous Columbia Brewery, home of the Sasquatch.

Agriculture has remained the primary industry, as it has been throughout Creston’s history. The completion of the Libby Dam in Montana in 1972 (which created Lake Koocanusa) virtually assured that the flats would be free from flooding. The best alfalfa crops ever were harvested in the autumn of 1980, no doubt due to the rich volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens which had fallen on the valley the previous May. The industry, however, has changed and diversified over recent years. All of the major fruits have been joined by other produce in the valley. There are major dairy farms, hay, alfalfa and canola crops, ostrich farms, a hothouse pepper operation, and a number of pure-bred horse ranches are among the new elements of the agricultural industry in the Valley. The College of the Rockies has assisted new ventures in organic and over-winter gardening, and a heady array of locally grown and hand-crafted products are available throughout the summer.

Since 1971, the Creston & District Historical Society has worked to preserve this rich and diverse heritage. The Archives houses a vast collection of photographs, documents, and newspapers, while the Museum portrays the history of the Creston Valley through varied displays and a series of special events and programs. Come and visit us; there is always something happening at the Creston Museum.

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The Creston Museum was created by the Creston & District Historical & Museum Society—which was established in 1971 to save remnants of the valley’s history that were fast disappearing. Previously, the Olde Town (or Pioneer Park) Museum in Yahk had gathered artefacts of the area. Once it faced financial difficulties and went bankrupt in 1979, the CDHMS obtained a court injunction to stop the auction of its holdings mere minutes before the auction began, and the Historical Society then purchased the collection.

At first, the artefacts were stored in the old potato shed of Swan Valley Foods on the flats. When the shed was sold shortly afterwards, the collection was moved to a partially-open shed in Canyon. Finally, the Historical Society was able to buy the Stone House, a unique building bordering Highway 3 on Devon Street just north of the downtown area. As considerable work was required to ready the house for the artefacts, the bulk of them were moved in 1982 and the Museum opened to the public that summer.

The richness of the Historical Society’s collections led to additional construction on the site. In 1985, a shed was built along the southern edge of the property to protect some of the agricultural, forestry and industrial machinery and equipment from the weather. In 1986, a storage building was constructed on the Museum’s grounds to house the growing collection. In 1989, a small trapper’s cabin, now considered an historic building, was moved to the Museum grounds. In 1994, the Archives, which housed the region’s archival collections, was moved into an office area in the storage building, as its previous home at the Town Hall was becoming far too crowded. In 1995, the Kingsgate Schoolhouse, which dates from about 1913, was moved there and since then has been restored and now houses several displays.

The Museum expanded again in March 1999 when construction began on a new workshop/storage building called the Carr Building after Bertel Carr, whose legacy enabled the Historical Society to build it. This structure currently is used for a wide range of activities, from construction of exhibits to Historical Society and other community group meetings, and is the regular meeting work place of the quilters. The Museum’s expansion in the 1980s and ‘90s was made possible by the area’s residents supporting the Historical Society’s fundraisers, which ranged from meat and wood raffles, bingos, donations and garage sales to the Pony Express Ride of 1981. In the latter memorable event Historical Society volunteers on horseback raced the Post Office, using trucks, to see who could deliver a letter from Cranbrook to Creston fastest. The Society’s Pony Express won!!


Recently, in 2008-9, the Historical Society raised over $300,000 to mount a major reconstruction of one of the old Stone House’s original buildings from the ground up, including making it wheelchair accessible and outfitting it with modern cooling and heating. It is now called Founder’s Hall, a jewel of the Society in recognition of the countless volunteers who established the Museum and kept it running for so many years.

Benefactors from Ontario to the Pacific Ocean have kept the Society vibrant and sensitive to the needs of its visitors and residents. A home for the region’s quilters, the site also supports a very active Model Railway Club that is an on-going venture to recapture the valley, its people and industries through an extensive model railway augmented with scenes of the valley and its industries. Apart from individual donations, the Society has an “Own-A-Stone” campaign where, for $100, donors can have a memorial plaque placed on the stone of their choice on one of the Museum’s walls.

Planned capital projects for the next few years include an extension of the Outdoor Shed, which will enable us to better house and display the larger objects in the collection, and allow us to accept offers of other farm equipment representative of the rich social and economic history of the valley and its environs. In addition, the security system is being updated, the electrical systems in the main Museum building will be replaced, as well as the roof on that building. These projects will all depend on the continued efforts of volunteers and supporters to preserve the artefacts and archival holdings which the Museum proudly displays.

The Historical Society’s collections are constantly growing. This growth caused the Society to adopt a collections policy in 2005 that limited the acceptance of new objects to only those items that have a documented connection to the history of the Creston Valley and its environs. Even so, storage areas are overcrowded. Since special and temporary exhibits have been successful in the past, in the winter of 2009 the Society created two display areas in the Museum specifically for temporary exhibits. One, in the main Museum building, is designated for use by the Historical Society, and allows us to put objects on display that have been in storage for many years and never seen, and to explore a wide range of themes relating to local history. The other, in the Founders’ Hall, is a community display space that is open to groups and individuals in the community who create their own small exhibits relating to their or the valley’s history.


History, however, is not just artifacts. It is also people. Recognizing this important fact, the Society in recent years has planned annual events to see and recreate the adventures and pastimes of its people and of those who have passed through the region. In May 2008 the Society held a recreation of David Thompson’s ‘discovery’ of the Creston Valley two hundred years before on that date with a historic canoe paddle down the Kootenay River from the U.S. border at Porthill to Kootenay Landing. Renting authentic voyageur canoes, a large group of Americans and Canadians embarked at Porthill, were schooled in the songs and rhythms of the voyageurs, and were “drummed in” by drummers of the local Ktunaxa band at the fork in the Kootenay River where they would have greeted Thompson. The event was presaged by a lecture on Thompson’s career and on the art of canoe-building at the Prince Charles High School auditorium, and followed by a barbecue on the Museum grounds where local musician Mark Koenig played with his group a song that he composed about David Thompson and his epic voyage.

More recently, in 2009 the Museum featured a special exhibit and events celebrating the region’s industries, past and present, and in 2010 hosted a Girl Guides, and a Canyon, centennial exhibits as well as a history of electrification in the valley. Other activities of this “living museum” include events such as school tours, dream catcher workshops, gold panning demonstrations, quilt shows and sales, antique car shows, and the annual favourite “Old Fashioned Tea”. Look at the Events Calendar for the next exciting event!

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For a very complete online history of the Creston Valley please visit our exhibit at the Virtual Museum.