Where it all started

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Richard Rolke gains insight into blast from the past at new Okanagan landing museum

Long before direct flights to Mexican resorts and five-hour drives to Vancouver, there was Okanagan Landing.

“You can compare it to the Kelowna International Airport of the time,” said Ron Candy, Greater Vernon Museum curator.

Between the late 1800s and the early 1930s, the narrow strip of land we now know as Paddlewheel Park was the transportation hub for the valley as small tugs and impressive sternwheelers plied Okanagan Lake, and trains from Sicamous and points east terminated there.

“There wouldn’t have been much of an Okanagan without it,” said George Copley, with the North Okanagan Model Railway Association.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Thousands of families had their first introduction to the Okanagan as they waited to be called on to the Aberdeen, the Sicamous or countless other vessels. From there, they would put their past lives behind them and seek out new futures at points across the central and south Okanagan, whether it was as fledgling orchardists, professionals or merchants.

“You went down to Okanagan Landing by the train and got onto the old Aberdeen. It would go backwards and forward across the lake,” stated an early pioneer in Bright Sunshine and a Brand New Country.

“You called in at those various little settlements on the lake where there wasn’t a house in sight, except a man and a dog would come down and pick up a paper or a can of coal oil or something like that and walk away.”

It was through Okanagan Landing that some of my family made their way to Kelowna in 1911 (the first wave came overland in 1909), and it was a scene repeated in the mid-20s as the rest of my great-grandparents and grandparents established roots in Westbank and Osoyoos.

But beyond being a gateway for settlers looking for their forever home, Okanagan Landing was a critical link between the isolated valley and the rest of the world.

Carloads of apples, pears, peaches and cherries were shipped to far-off markets, allowing the fruit sector to become a major economic catalyst.

And when Europe became embroiled in a bitter trench war between 1914 and 1918, men throughout the valley eagerly enlisted, boarded the closest ship on Okanagan Lake and then, via train at the Landing, headed overseas. Many of them, including two great-uncles of mine, never felt the warmth of the Okanagan sun again.

All of this came to mind as I toured the new Okanagan Landing Stationhouse Museum, which was unveiled at Paddlewheel Park Sunday.

The brainchild of the Okanagan Landing Community Association, the Greater Vernon Museum and the North Okanagan Model Railway Association, the museum captures a time period before four-lane highways, passenger jets and the World Wide Web. One small community served as the welcome mat for an entire region.

It is a reminder that the Landing had its own identity long before being annexed by Vernon in 1993.

“It plays a part in holding all of us together,” said Alan Hill, the former Okanagan Landing electoral area director.

Bygone days may be easy to ignore, but the Okanagan wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for those dreamers and risk-takers who established roots here. Their descendants expanded by the thousands and it’s through them that our communities remain vibrant and active.

 

Head to Paddlewheel Park and see where it all started.