Summerland Museum & Archives Society

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Summerland: A Brief History

“There no cloud shall dim the sky, in that happy home on high,

In that heavenly Summer Land, in that heavenly Summer Land.”

excerpt from a spiritualist hymn.

Those words are said to have been the inspiration for the naming of our town; a name certain to entice early settlers to come west to a heavenly Summerland.

Originally, the area was called Nicola Prairie, after Grand Chief Nicola of the Okanagan Nation. A few major First Nations trails passed through Nicola Prairie and in the early 1800s fur traders were happy to make use of them, establishing the Fur Brigade Trail and later the route to the Cariboo gold rush. Priest Camp, established by a Jesuit Priest in 1846, was an encampment along the trail and was the only non-native Okanagan Valley settlement identified on maps until 1860.

Cattlemen and tradesmen traveling the trail with supplies for the miners saw the potential of the excellent grasslands along the route. Word spread and in 1890 Nicola Prairie became the Trout Creek Ranche, established by Englishman George Barclay. Others settled in the area and it wasn’t long before the semi-arid climate and good soil suggested a new industry and fruit trees began to appear along with cattle on the ranches. James Gartrell started the first commercial orchard with trees he brought all the way from Ontario in 1887.

In 1898 J.M. Robinson arrived from Manitoba and was amazed to find peaches and other fruits growing in British Columbia. Recognizing the possibilities, he contacted Thomas Shaughnessy, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway and by 1903 the Summerland Development Company was formed with Shaughnessy as president, 3 other directors, and Robinson as the managing director to promote the new fruit farming community. The Company helped to establish the road, water and electrical systems (the first in the Valley) and assisted in the development of the Summerland Telephone Company.

Incorporated in 1906, the first Summerland town site was situated on Okanagan Lake where the sternwheeler boats delivered goods and people and exported the fruit to market. The lakeshore town soon ran out of growing room and homes and businesses began appearing “up on the flat.” James Ritchie negotiated a land trade which moved the small Indian Reserve #3 from Siwash Flat to an area along Trout Creek bordering the existing Penticton Indian Reserve, leaving room for a new town site which became West Summerland. By 1915 the Kettle Valley Railway came through providing even more transportation and shipping options from the West Summerland station only a mile or so from the new town.

The fruit ranches grew and brought more people and new industries to town. Packing houses, a box factory, canneries, pitting plants, jam factories and even, at one time, a potato chip factory. In the mid-1950s the main highway through the Okanagan was rerouted; the lakeside town site was bypassed and consequently West Summerland became the hub. By 1964 the main post office was moved up town, the “West” was dropped and one name served the entire district.

At one point, as the downtown business centre aged, the buildings’ facades were refurbished to match one of the oldest buildings, the Bank of Montreal. A pretty and cheerful town, Summerland provides a wonderful combination of history, arts, culture and, of course, the fruit industry which started it all. Welcome to Summerland.

Points of Interest:

  • Trout Creek Bridge, spanning Trout Creek Canyon and built in 1913, was one of the largest steel girder bridges of its kind in North America.
  • The Summerland Town Band ranked second in the province at a competition held in New Westminster in 1906.
  • Summerland’s Okanagan Baptist College was the first college in Western Canada in 1906.
  • Summerland had the first consolidated grade school in BC in 1912.
  • Summerland was the first community in the Okanagan Valley to have electricity in 1905.
  • Summerland had the first fruit storage in the Okanagan.
  • The Dominion Experimental Farm was established in Summerland in 1914 to assist the fruit industry and farms. It is now the Pacific Agri-food Research Station.
  • Sam McGee, immortalized by the Robert Service poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, was a Summerland pioneer from 1909 to 1912.

What’s in a name?

The town’s name may indeed have been inspired by a song as noted above, though other origins have been suggested.

-“Summerland: so named because of the mild climate and summer-like weather.”

(Helen Akrigg, 1001 British Columbia Place Names, 1970)

-Two Salish words: “summa,” an expression for white man and “lann” meaning land. (Larry Pierre, Penticton Indian Band)

(Source: According to the Giant, Sherril Foster, 1998)