Revelstoke’s gone downhill ever since …

Can we really find common ground on which to build a prosperous community?

Some things never change. A local hands over the keys to his vacation rental to some sledders from Alberta. Photo: Revelstoke Museum & Archives

In this article that first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, writer Bryce Borlick takes a tongue-in-cheek look on Revelstoke changes over the years.

I tell ya’, this town hasn’t been the same since the summer of ‘11 … 1811 that is. Before that, no one really lived here permanently, so there was hardly anyone to disagree with. Since then, people have been coming in waves and, like 57 unattended rail cars rolling down the hill from Greeley, steady change hasn’t stopped for anyone. But before you get your long johns in a knot, let’s consider how these changes have helped develop and define Revelstoke as we know it today.

In the early years, the Columbia River wound its way peacefully past towering peaks with nary a hint of human industry. When the first surveyor arrived he found that Sinixt First Nation seasonal villages dotted the lowlands, particularly in the Tum Tum Creek area of the Big Eddy where residents hunted birds, lived in non-permanent dwellings, and relied on the creeks for fresh water. Well, I stand corrected — some things haven’t changed that much after all.

The construction of the Revelstoke Dam was met with grumbling about the hordes of newcomers, many of whom stuck around to grumble about the next wave of newcomers. Photo: Revelstoke Museum & Archives

For the most part, the 19th century was a peaceful period in which development was slow. Provincial Surveyor AS Farwell had an approved land grant of 1,175 acres and had grand plans to build the modest settlement of Farwell into an economic hub of the west. However, when the Canadian Pacific Railway rolled into town and located their new yard just a few kilometres to the east and named it Revelstoke, businesses followed and Farwell’s plans were dashed. Despite his legal challenges and numerous rants on Ye Olde Stoke List (which was just calligraphy on a tree back then) Farwell was told to get Revelstuffed and he became the first local to gripe about CP Rail.

The railway only accelerated change as settlers capitalized on new opportunities that the rail line created. Revelstoke thrived as resource extraction grew and, without caribou habitat or tree-hugging mountain bikers to contend with, logging became an economic mainstay. The prosperity of the sawmills brought fine architecture and elements of culture to the area, such as The Ol’ Frontier Motel and open mic night at The Last Drop Pub. It was also in this era that fundraisers for the Kovach Park skatepark began.

But prosperity only sent Revelstoke downhill, especially when the Norwegians arrived with their fancy long snowshoes and their unusual desire to explore the mountains in winter, even when they didn’t have to. In fact, it went downhill so fast that a guy named Nels Nelsen eventually said “Hei, kan bygge et hopp!” which roughly translates as “Hey, let’s build a jump!” Little did he know that with this innocuous comment, an illustrious legacy of Canadian ski-bumming was born. To their credit, European ski bums are still keeping the Revelstoke Search and Rescue team alert and ready to search the Greeley drainage. Again.

Edmund Wood, age 77, and Henry Okumura, age 1, January 20, 1960 — the oldest and youngest skiers in Revelstoke Ski Club. Photos: Revelstoke Museum & Archives

Tales of rugged peaks and rugged people only piqued public interest and by the time Revelstoke National Park was created in 1912, a new scourge was arriving via rail: tourists. Visitors flocked from such places as Spread Eagle Bay, NL; Happy Adventure, NL; and even Dildo, NL, just to leave their money in town and spend a mere day or two in this wonderful valley that we indulge ourselves with year-round. What nerve, eh?

But if Revelstokians thought that was a problem, they were in for a big dam surprise. In the early 1980s, BC Hydro built a new energy generation facility on the Columbia River that would also control flooding of the homesteads and farms that dotted the lowlands. Of course, some those homes would first have to be vacated and burned to the ground but at least they were safe from flooding. The boom-and-bust cycle that resulted from this intensive project also spurred the restoration of many historic downtown buildings and, thankfully, a shift away from a gag-inducing faux-Bavarian alpine style. Dam good decision.

Nowadays, lots of locals seem to aim their disparaging hot air in the general direction of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. It’s to blame for rising municipal taxes, the high cost of housing, and that general eau de sewage down on Oscar Street. Those complaints have merit, especially if your glass is half empty, but the ski hill has also brought positive change. Even if you’re not interested in fantastic on-piste skiing and the colourful outdoor culture that has grown around it, you can’t ignore thriving retail, fantastic restaurants, and a bright economic future ahead. Not into any of that stuff? Well, there’s always Quesnel.

So change has always been a part of Revelstoke and there’s always been a steady influx of different people, ideas, and cultures. We have loggers and hippies and tech entrepreneurs and ski bums and sledders and artists and environmentalists and train engineers and people from very diverse backgrounds. Can we really find common ground on which to build a prosperous community?

You betcha Revy! The spirit of cooperation is strong in Revelstoke and it not only brings us together, but keeps us together. A culture of volunteerism germinated here more than a century ago and it’s grown into something we can all be proud of. The Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services volunteers have been saving people’s lives and homes since 1892. The Rotary Club of Revelstoke has developed facilities at Williamson’s Lake and has championed countless other goodwill initiatives since 1929. The Revelstoke Hospital Auxiliary Society has been improving our medical care and facilities since 1901. These are just three of the more than three dozen volunteer organizations that work tirelessly to improve our daily lives. Rest assured, when you’re most in need of a helping hand, it will be there. It may be young, old, calloused, tattooed, white, brown, or even in a duct-taped ski glove … but it will be there.

So, no, Revelstoke isn’t what it used to be. Nor should it be. Without change we’d never have the diversity and colourful history that we celebrate today. No, we don’t always agree on everything but that only helps ensure that growth is balanced and healthy. Ultimately, those differences of opinion fall by the wayside and it’s the selfless generosity of countless people, past and present, who make this town a dam good place to call home.

Bryce Borlick
Bryce Borlick is a world traveler, outdoor enthusiast, and urban refugee whom you’re most likely to find wandering the mountains in search of nothing in particular. With an unruly interest in sustainability and permaculture, he may be the only person in Revelstoke dreaming of one day doing burnouts in an electric F-250 towing a tiny house.