It was to be an overseas Utopia for the upper classes of England—lush gardens and orchards, a heavenly climate and all the familiar trappings of aristocracy. It lasted about a decade. What went wrong?
It is high noon in late July sitting here on a long-abandoned water flume in the dry hills of British Columbia’s semi-desert interior. The merciless sun has taken its toll—boards long blackened and split are grown through with sagebrush and bunchgrass or splayed down the mountainside. Looking south across the Thompson River you see tiny Walhachin. A century ago, this flume was to be the lifeblood of that town’s wildly ambitious scheme.
It started when American surveyor and entrepreneur Charles Barnes was searching for funds to develop this dry cactus-filled benchland. When he checked the London-based British Columbia Development Association (BCDA) he was pleased to note that 70 per cent of its shareholders listed their occupations as “gentleman” or “knight.” The remainder were largely lawyers and senior military officers. They were just the sort of titled and moneyed investors he wanted.
Barnes was a promoter at heart. He saw a couple of acres of lush apple orchard on local rancher Charles Pennie’s land near the town of Ashcroft where he was working, and couldn’t help but dream. There were 5,000 acres of seemingly fertile and well irrigated soil out there above the banks of the Thompson used for nothing but cattle grazing. He immediately saw it growing the finest apples, peaches, cherries and more.
His mind hatched a scheme: BCDA would offer British landed gentry five- and 10-acre parcels with ready-made orchards and houses on easy payment terms as well as arranging their steamship and rail transportation. The Canadian Pacific Railway that skirted the property promised a ready market: supplier of fresh fruit to the prairie provinces.
Depending on location, planted land was first offered at $350 per acre; unplanted, $300. Should an immigrant desire to wait until trees were producing fruit before making the move, the development company would kindly manage their land for a fee of $50 an acre, and “any intermediate crops raised between the trees by the Company during this period are the property of the Company,” read the promotional brochure. A reasonably luxurious hotel was built, a place for newly-arrived settlers and their families to board and lodge while they waited for their houses.
Houses were to cost $1,100 for four rooms and a bath, with extra bedrooms optional at $125 apiece. They were modern, with pressure water systems, indoor plumbing and carbide lighting. Designed with the climate in mind, steeply pitched roofs and 12-foot ceilings were the norm to offset the often 40C summers. Full-length shaded verandas promised a cool place to sit out in the evenings. Until the golf course and tennis courts could be completed, the offering brochure pointed out “splendid wild fowl shooting, a fair quantity of deer,” and Thompson River trout as large as 32 pounds.
Applications flooded in from overseas and soon aristocratic scions were arriving with their fine china, silverware and Chippendale furniture—under Canadian law settlers’ effects were admitted free of duties. And they were advised to bring lots of good clothing, “especially strong tweeds and serges… as the price for this class of goods is much higher in Canada. Strong boots and woollen underwear are also recommended.”
Typically for business promotions, a rosy financial picture was painted. With purchase interest charged at six per cent per annum, it was anticipated land tracts bought for $350 per acre (land prices weren’t fixed) would be paid off at the end of the fifth year, with clear surpluses from then on, especially as the orchards’ production grew to optimum. Even at $1,000 per acre (no promises were made that land prices wouldn’t go up) payout would occur after the eighth year.
But probably few of the prospective orchardists were attracted by the get-rich-quick aspect. The new arrivals included so-called remittance men—second sons and upper-class folks whose families were paying them to stay away from the home estates to avoid sullying the family reputation, and some noble names were amongst them. “Among the younger settlers, few had any choice,” writes Nelson Riis in his 1970 University of British Columbia master’s thesis, Settlement Abandonment: A Case Study of Walhachin, B.C. He notes most of those supported or assisted by money sent from home were of three backgrounds: “one of repeated failure and/or behavioural problems in schools such as Eton and Marlborough, or one of military or civil service expulsion.” He added they had little willingness to work, a lack of useful skills, and little motivation to succeed.
However, there were others who didn’t fit any of those categories and others still who were quick to answer the call when war broke out in 1914. “My father came to Walhachin to survey the lots here,” says 101-year-old Roy Bertram, who arrived here as a two-year-old in 1909. Bertram was the senior guest at the Walhachin centenary celebrations. Well over 100 people with some sort of tie to the old town showed up at the original community hall in August to reminisce, play music, put on shows and take in the Walhachin artifacts and photographs.
Bertram explained that his father was one of the lucky (or smarter) ones who got to know the land early on and so could choose wisely, unlike many who bought their lots sight unseen. “We got the only lot on the north side of the river that had water on it,” says Bertram. “There was a spring just a hundred feet from the house.”
The south side of the river, where the town was located and where the railroad ran, had an adequate water supply from diverted nearby creeks. However, 80 per cent of the acreages offered were located on the north side where, apart from Bertram’s spring, the only water was the 19 centimetres of annual rainfall—the same as Phoenix, Ariz. It wasn’t something that Barnes had completely overlooked. At 300 metres above the Thompson, the land was too high to pump river water with existing technology, so in 1909 the company undertook to build a flume to supply the needed irrigation. The closest sizable source was 32 kilometres away, at Snohoosh Lake.
Planning was soon underway. The lumber was bought, Chinese labourers hired, and water charges to the orchardists calculated to ensure payback to BCDA. At six feet (1.8 metres) wide and 30 inches (76 cm) deep, Riis figured the flume would have provided five acre-inches (513,950 litres) per week, “which would have been sufficient for the area.” The aqueduct was built over six months, he writes, and was designed as “a temporary structure to be reconstructed when the property got self-supporting.”
The flume was completed in 1910. By then 56 English settlers had put down roots. Those who had arrived early enough in the spring to plant, did so. In the fall of 1910 over 2,000 tons of top-quality potatoes were shipped out to market and crops of tobacco had become successful.
In fact, the year 1910 looked like the banner year. The upscale hotel was finished. Managed by Miss Eleanor Flowerdew, whose brother would earn the Victoria Cross eight years later in France, afternoon tea was served daily and card parties held weekly. A piece of upper-crust England, several musical evenings were held and formal balls presented every month complete with dinner jackets, top hats, white gloves and canes were de rigueur for the men; formal ball gowns, fur stoles and long gloves for the ladies. Bachelors’ and Spinsters’ Balls were highlights. A string of classy carriages was on hand for tours around the nascent south side orchards.
It was all upper-class clientele however and just as class-conscious as what many of the settlers had left behind in the old country. Local ‘colonials’ and those not of the right breeding weren’t invited to these lavish affairs. Even guests who came by train from Vancouver belonged to the correct station in the British order of peerage.
And as tradition held it, sporting events were given equal prominence: formal tennis tournaments, polo, and of course, fox hunts. Properly regaled for the hunt, the lack of real foxes didn’t deter them. Coyotes were raised on a local ranch to play surrogate fox. The first hunt produced some unexpected entertainment: with anxious horses, men and a baying hound pack, the bugle was sounded, the “fox” released and the hunt was on. Off sprinted the wily coyote—full tilt back to his kennel at home. From then on, only captured wild coyotes were used.
Fitting for the time, the men were military-minded. In 1911, they formed the Walhachin Company of the 31st British Columbia Horse, drilling and parading in fields and hills three times a week. “They would be wearing their formal hats, and carried swords,” recalls Bertram, who was captivated with them as a child.
And they were a patriotic bunch. At a full day’s festivities on the occasion of the coronation of King George V, the cavalry put in their formal finest. “I remember them parading down the main street,” says Bertram. Horse races, tug-of-wars, footraces, fireworks, bonfires and an evening formal ball rounded out the day.
By Christmas that year the town had grown to 180 souls and boasted the hotel, a general store, a butcher, three laundries, a barber shop, a restaurant, a livery stable, a ladies’ haberdashery store, two insurance offices, and a wood and coal dealer. And a spanking new community hall was in the cards. The building was big enough for a ballroom to hold several hundred dancers and a stage with a grand piano at one end. The spruce-planked floor was springy and well into the 1960s boasted the reputation of the best dance floor in the region.
It seemed the settlement was living up to its promoter’s promise.
Then cracks started to appear. Although tens of thousands of seedlings had been planted, less than a quarter of the land was ever used; most of it proving much too rocky and sandy. And those acres planted lacked sufficient water—the flume had proved inadequate. Riis pointed out the haste in which the flume was constructed was evident from the neglect to ensure solid footings and correct design. The result was considerable leakage as cited in the 1913 report of the BC Hydrographic Society.” Riis found that the developers likely had little concern whether or not Walhachin would one day be self-supporting.
That seemed to be true: in June 1912, BCDA withdrew its assistance and support to the settlers. The financial load went to the Sixth Marquis of Anglesey, who already had his own estate west of the town, complete with in-ground concrete swimming pool. By that autumn, many trees planted in 1909 began to bear and soon fresh apples were being shipped out from the Walhachin train station. In October 1914, the Ashcroft Journal reported a “trainload of apples” went out to Canadian markets. However, yields were still nowhere near what had been expected from an originally planned 5,000 acres.
By then, Little England had grown to 300, including Chinese field workers and servants. But the patriotic call of war would see all but 10 of the 107 fit men volunteering.
Many served with distinction. A John Francis Fuller Kitson earned a Distinguished Service Cross for ramming a U-boat with his Royal Navy boat. Arthur Reginald William fought at Gallipoli. But the most revered is Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew who earned the Victoria Cross on March 30, 1918, with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse at Moreuil Wood for leading a charge on an installation of German machine-gun nests. He lost many of his men, but more than 60 enemy were killed with swords. Flowerdew died the following day as a result of wounds suffered in the battle. France’s Marshal Foch was reported to have said Flowerdew’s deed “possibly deflected the whole course of history.”
Bertram recalls Flowerdew before the war lifting him onto the counter in the general store. “He used to make me sing for a candy,” he says. “He was an easy-going guy, sure enjoyed life. He was part of the community.”
About the time Flowerdew earned his VC, a violent spring rainstorm lashed Walhachin for two days, ripping out a mile of the precious flume. A repair estimate came in at $240,000 shortly after the war and neither the Marquis of Anglesey nor the provincial government were willing to put up that kind of money for the restoration.
Local myth has long had it that the town’s fate was sealed because most of the volunteers were killed in combat. But just seven died. Riis found that most returned after the war temporarily but few remained long. “Many had decided to pursue other means of livelihood,” he writes. “With the flume in disrepair, fruit prices declining and an atmosphere of failure,” all of the original settlers had abandoned their lands by 1922.
Much of the early settlers’ undoing was their own, was Riis’s post-mortem. Taught from birth of their superiority, many held attitudes that kept them isolated from ‘colonials’ so locals often pooh-poohed them as an experiment. “With respect to attitudes and dress, Walhachin was considerably closer to London or Victoria than any of the neighbouring communities,” he writes. “Assistance from neighbouring settlers was seldom sought or offered.” And, as few had horticultural or business experience, that isolationism doomed their scheme to failure. “More were content to receive regular income from England and devote energies to their social lives.”
But the town never died. A thumbing of the Ashcroft Journal’s Walhachin society pages throughout the 1920s to 1950s reveals life went on without the upper crust.
Apart from the townsite, the land was purchased in 1947 by a local rancher for $40,000 who used it for casual cattle grazing. The use was appropriate: in 1953 a B.C. Government study found none of the land was fit for fruit farming—and only three per cent good for growing vegetables.
Trudging back down the dusty hill, cactus sticking to your boots, you can’t help but compare what’s happening to the same land a hundred years after Barnes’s scheme. A walk through town reveals some healthy gardens and fruit trees, but in the place where a few scraggly apple trees have beat the odds and survived, another company has recently sold out the now-dubbed Thompson River Estates.
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