Borland Ranch overlooking Williams Lake.

Borland Ranch overlooking Williams Lake.

Haphazard History: The interesting birth of today’s Williams Lake

The first white settlement of Williams Lake appeared in 1860 at the height of the gold rush.

The first white settlement of Williams Lake appeared in 1860 at the height of the gold rush.

It was located in the area behind the old Jackpine mill site on the land which is now commonly known as the dairy fields.

This little community was fairly short lived, withering away as the gold rush declined and after being bypassed by the Cariboo Wagon Road.

Gradually, William Pinchbeck bought up the townsite and the surrounding area, including all the valley land along Williams Lake Creek, and by 1885 he had built up one of the finest ranch and farm operations in all of B.C.

After Pinchbeck died in 1893, however, all of his land, buildings and equipment were sold at auction for pennies on the dollar.

In 1899, Robert Borland, a prominent Cariboo businessman, packer, trader, hotel owner and entrepreneur, purchased the lower part of the old Pinchbeck Ranch and the buildings there for the sum of $17,000.

He named the ranch Kinlochaline, after his childhood home in Scotland, but that name never really caught on, and people just referred to it as the Borland Ranch.

For more than 10 years, Borland farmed the area successfully, declaring it “one of the best fodder-producing farms in the district.”

He also opened and operated a post office, and a small settlement began growing around the main ranch house.

That house, by the way, had been built by Pinchbeck as his family home in the early 1880s and was then known as the Lower or Lake House.

In Borland’s time, it became known as the Borland House.

It was located very close to where the curling rink stands today.

By 1912, the provincial government was becoming quite serious about opening up the province with a railway, and in that year, Borland sold his ranch to the province.

The plan was that a town would be built on the flat area (now the Stampede Grounds), and the railway marshalling yards were to be located closer to the lake where the industrial site is currently.

In 1913, the PGE sent their purchasing agent, a Mr. McQueen, to arrange a railway right of way through the Onward Ranch and adjacent lands.

However, before any construction could begin, the First World War broke out and all activity ceased.

By 1919, though, the railway project was back on track, so to speak, and proceeding quickly.

That year, the Borland ranch site was confirmed as the future townsite by the PGE planners. It was decided, as well, that the new town was to be called Borland.

Then the politicians in Victoria got involved, specifically, Premier John Oliver, who thought of himself as an accomplished town planner.

He came up to view the townsite and found the little settlement which had good potential in everyone’s eyes but his to be lacking.

So, he unilaterally changed its location to a bleak, dusty hill about half a mile further north, even though he acknowledged that it would mean at least an additional $15,000 in construction costs.

A local surveyor, Mr. Bagshaw, was hired to lay out the new townsite into blocks and lots, streets and avenues.

It extended from Yorston Street in the south side to Comer Street on the north end, and from Railway (now Mackenzie) Avenue down near the creek up to Third Avenue.

Premier Oliver personally walked the area with Mr. Bagshaw to describe exactly what he expected the layout would be.

In September of 1919, Premier Oliver himself officially opened the town and named it Williams Lake.

The main street on the hillside was given the name of Oliver Street in his honour.

A reliable supply of drinking water was a problem, so three miles of wooden pipe was shipped in to bring water from the Comer Springs area (Glendale).

After a mile of trench had been dug, several workmen fell ill and the water was tested.

It was found to be unfit for human consumption, so the trench was filled in and the pipe was piled up where, after a year or so, it had dried out, cracked and become completely unusable.

Water is essential for any town, so a short term solution was reached.

The PGE station and rail yards were built at the foot of the hill, and a very large water tower was constructed.

Water was pumped up into its tank from Williams Lake creek, and this water was used both for the needs of the railway and the town (later on, a much larger water tower was built to service the town only).Then, Premier Oliver had four of the newly laid out streets dug up and a water main system put in, which involved a four-foot trench down the middle of each street.

Pipe was laid, the trenches were filled in, and the water turned on.

The system leaked so badly it had to be completely redone, and then during that first winter (1920) it froze.

People began wondering why they had honoured the Premier by naming the main street after him.

But the town began to grow.

By the end of 1920, along Railway Avenue, were two hotels, a meat market, a dance hall, a general store and a bakery.

Other businesses in town included a billiard hall, a barber shop, a bank and a blacksmith shop.

Small private homes were also being built, many of them using wood scrounged from the earlier buildings found at the dairy fields and from the abandoned pile of old water pipes.

On July 10, 1921, a fire engulfed most of the buildings on Railway Avenue.

Only the Log Cabin Hotel was spared, however, the structures were rebuilt, and the town continued to grow and prosper.

By 1922 a second gold rush had begun in the Cedar Creek area near Likely, and more than 7,000 goldseekers made their way up to Williams Lake where they could stock up on supplies and equipment before heading out to the gold fields.

A May, 1922, issue of the Vancouver Sun called Williams Lake a “city of tents” and that was an apt description.

There were tents pitched everywhere, both in the town and on its outskirts.

Many of those who came for gold stayed and put down roots and, before long, the town found itself with a new $40,000 government building, churches, a school and a hospital.

In 1929, it was officially incorporated as a village. After some unique and unusual growing pains, Williams Lake had arrived.

Barry Sale is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Weekend Advisor.