BCHF News Time Travels: Princeton and District Museum and Archives

Time Travels: Princeton and District Museum and Archives

Mark Forsythe travels through BC, and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation members 

Bridge Street, Princeton, ca. 1920s.

“There’s history everywhere you turn here, if you choose to see it.” — Todd Davidson, Princeton and District Museum and Archives 

Each bend of the Crowsnest Highway unveils a new vista of mountains, serpentine rivers and forests. Climb the summit of the Allison Pass and motor beyond Manning Park to multiple switchbacks that serve as grand escalators to the Similkameen Valley bottom.

Nearby Copper Mountain, Granite Creek and Hedley drew the first miners, and half-a-dozen ghost towns in the area still whisper those stories. Silvery sagebrush and Ponderosa pines mark the transition to the interior drylands and rolling grasslands, which attracted the first ranchers. For a while, the infamous Bill Miner was hiding in the hills, plotting his next train robbery. 

The Similkameen and Tulameen Rivers merge at Princeton, not far from ochre bluffs, an ancient site of the Similkameen people. Tulameen means “red earth” in the Similkameen language. Called Vermilion Forks by early fur traders, Governor James Douglas christened it Princeton in 1860 to honour the Prince of Wales. A few hundred metres from the confluence is Princeton and District Museum and Archives, providing answers to many questions that surface during this awe-inspiring journey into the interior. 

The Museum can thank two Centennial celebrations for its existence. First established inside a log cabin during British Columbia’s 1958 Centennial, a second building was constructed by the Town of Princeton as a 1967 Canada Centennial project.

A livery stable and 1905 era Welby Stagecoach (which ran between Penticton and Princeton from 1905–1913) were added later; also a new wing to house one of the province’s most extensive fossil and mineral collections — the Pollard Collection.

More recently, the Museum renovated a former library space to spread its wings and display more artifacts. Drawing on connections with the BC Museum Society president, Kimball Maynard says searching out the area’s history and stories is a high priority.

“One of our most knowledgeable citizens just passed away — a tremendous loss. Fortunately, the information Joe Smuin collected is probably the most valuable we have for our railway history. We’re getting to the end of the pioneers, and as they go, some of this history is lost. We have to be proactive.”

Two railways — the Great Northern Railway and Kettle Valley Railway — competed for business here; their old rail beds now beckon the world’s hikers and cyclists. 

Todd Davidson moved here from the Fraser Valley where he was president of the BC Farm Museum at Fort Langley. He and his wife bought a 1910 house, renovated it, and have been charmed by the town of Princeton.

“It’s a pocket community — I can walk to work. We’re settled in, and it’s the place to be.” Today he is the sole staff person at the Princeton Museum, not including summer hires. “There’s history everywhere you turn here, if you choose to see it.” 

Princeton Museum Interim Operations Manager Todd Davidson stands beside an 1880s log cabin, once home to John and Lily Norman and family. Lily was one of the daughters of John Allison and his first wife, Nora Yakumtikum. Mark Forsythe photo 

As we walk through the exhibits I’m struck by deep timelines — Indigenous basketry, settler artifacts, and thousands of fossils. “We have a very close relationship with paleontologist Bruce Archibald at Simon Fraser University who is a research associate with this museum,” says Todd.

“Two fossils have been named after members of the Society who discovered brand new species, including a scorpionfly (Eomerope simpkinsae) found by Kathy Simpkins.” An extinct rose fossil, Stonebergia, is named in honour of Margaret Stoneberg. The Similkameen is a fossil hotbed that attracts international attention. 

Entranceway to the Joe Pollard Collection of minerals and fossils. The Museum features an extensive collection of fossils. Mark Forsythe photo
Similkameen peoples’ basketry display.  Mark Forsythe photo 

The Museum’s centrepiece is a hand-hewn cabin with connections to the John Fall Allison family. Allison was a rancher and Justice of the Peace who mapped a lower pass route between the Skagit and Similkameen Rivers, and Allison Pass bears his name.

Todd expands on the family’s contributions: “John Fall Allison was the gold commissioner, and his [second] wife Susan Moir Allison was recognized by Margaret Ormsby as one of the most prolific pioneer female writers in BC history.”

Susan forged strong friendships with Indigenous women who taught her how to dry venison and make moccasins, and her writing helped preserve the history and legends of the Similkameen people. The amateur ethnographer was identified as a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government in 2010. (See also: A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison by Margaret A. Orsmby and Susan Allison). 

Todd adds that the Museum is working to strengthen its own connections with Indigenous communities. “We have a relationship with both Lower and Upper Similkameen Bands. We need to formally establish our relationship in this coming year with a memorandum of understanding) that will set the stage for the future. Then we can start working with them to present the stories they want to tell, and the way they want to tell them.” 

Thanks to dedicated volunteers, lots of projects are underway — from digitizing photos, historic maps and local newspapers, to cataloguing fossils and celebrating Princeton’s 160th anniversary this year. Like all memorable museums, the Princeton and District Museum and Archives makes one want to return. Gold brought the first miners into this region in the 1850s, and historical nuggets remain to be discovered in the Museum’s collection and in its engaging storytelling. • 

Princeton and District Museum and Archives 

167 Vermilion Avenue, Princeton 

Further information: princetonmuseum.org 

An online collection of 1,400 archival images from the Princeton and District Museum and Archives here: https://arcabc.ca/islandora/object/princeton%3Aroot  

Mark Forsythe photo
Mark Forsythe photo

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