Cornelius O’Keefe was a man with a tremendous drive to make something of his life.
Not content to just raise cattle, he was the first rancher in the North Okanagan to open a general store on his property. His ranch became a gathering point for newcomers to the Okanagan Valley and soon was being called “Okanagan.”
So it is no surprise that, once British Columbia had joined the Canadian confederation in 1871, the man who rallied the few settlers in the area to ask the Canadian government for a post office was Cornelius O’Keefe. As a result of the petition organized by O’Keefe, the chief postal inspector announced in the Victoria Colonist on August 6, 1872 that he “had made temporary arrangements with Mr. Barnard for a weekly mail service to Kamloops and Okanagan.”
The very next day, the same newspaper had an advertisement from Barnard’s Express:
Barnard’s Express Stages for Okanagan … the undersigned has placed a line of Passenger Stages on the New Wagon Road to Okanagan, running in close connection with Stages from Yale to Barkerville … A General Express Business will be transacted over the route. Freight carried, Parcels delivered, Communications executed, Collections made. F.J. Barnard & Co.
It is important to note that the name “Okanagan” referred to the area at the Head of the Lake settled by Cornelius O’Keefe and Thomas Greenhow on their land not far from the original Hudson’s Bay Company Brigade Trail.
This first post office in the Okanagan Valley was established on August 14, 1872 with Cornelius O’Keefe as postmaster, a position that he held for the next 40 years.
The post office was located in the tiny little general store that O’Keefe had set up on his ranch. The “Okanagon” Post Office was so-spelled because the clerk who recorded the new post office in Ottawa miss-copied the form. It was not until 1904 that the name was corrected to “Okanagan.” Once the post office was established at the ranch, the B.C. Express Stage Lines ran a weekly stagecoach from Cache Creek to the O’Keefe Ranch on the new wagon road from Fort Kamloops. It carried all the mail and passengers to the O’Keefe Ranch and then turned around and headed back to Cache Creek via Fort Kamloops. O’Keefe would put up stagecoach passengers for the night if necessary, before they proceeded on horseback to their destination in the valley.
The stagecoach traveled to Okanagan once a week, leaving Cache Creek on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and returning the following week to connect with the stages going north and south on the Cariboo Wagon Road.
Even though there was a post office established in Okanagan Mission, near present-day Kelowna, at the same time, there was no mail delivery that far south because there was no road beyond the O’Keefe Ranch.
In 1876, construction began on a wagon road to Okanagan Mission but, for some years after the road was completed in 1877, mail was carried from the O’Keefe Ranch to Okanagan Mission on horseback.
Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.