The Coast Salish First Nations people reaped the bounty of the delta lands and tributaries of the Fraser River and two Coast Salish groups, the Sto:lo and the Chehalis lived along the Harrison River and Harrison Bay.
They called the Harrison hot springs Warum Chuck, and believed them to have spiritual and super-natural medicinal qualities. For hundreds of years, it was their secret alone. Even when explorer Simon Fraser canoed past the Harrison area in 1808, charting much of what would become British Columbia, he made no mention of the river, let alone the lake. And later, when Hudson Bay explorers discovered the lake in 1846, the hot springs remained unknown.
That changed 12 years later during the Gold Rush. By then, Port Douglas at the north end of the lake bustled with the comings and goings of miners en route to the Cariboo gold fields and Harrison Lake was their major thoroughfare. So when a storm capsized a party of prospectors one winter, they were astounded to find themselves in warm, not freezing, waters.
A Resort is Born
News of their survival spread fast and "the Baths" soon became a fashionable tourist attraction. Visitors traveled by paddlewheeler up the Fraser and Harrison rivers from the coast, or took carriages that connected to the new Canadian Pacific Railway transcontinental stop at Agassiz. They stayed at St. Alice Hotel, the community's first hotel which advertised rather over-enthusiastically that the hot springs provided a "sure cure" for an assortment of maladies "to which human flesh is heir," from paralysis to diabetes. Today's claims may be less ambitious, but the waters' high mineral content is still said to ease arthritis, improve circulation and soothe various skin conditions.
Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa
When the heady days of the Gold Rush ended, Harrison's economy slumped and the hot springs quickly became the main source of the community's well being. Consequently, when fire destroyed the St. Alice in 1920, ground was broken for a new hotel. It opened six years later and today has evolved into the Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa. By the twenties, the automobile had come onto the scene and where miners had once pitched a shanty, auto camps with cabins were established and the village began to grow again.
Harrison Hot Springs Today
Until fairly recently, that growth has been modest, and Harrison is becoming a bedroom community to a fast-growing Vancouver. Many of the newer developments are owned as second properties by city-folk and pre-retirees looking forward to a slower, freer pace of life.
As a result, Harrison's neighbourhoods are well cared for and the village retains a relaxed, holiday ambiance. Other than in the resort, few people wear business suits and although shops in the tiny mall open extended hours in summer, some may close in winter, as if to take a breather between Harrison's many summer events and festivals. Whatever the season though, the welcome mat is always out. After all, tourism has been a mainstay in Harrison since the hot springs were first discovered only today, there are so many more things to enjoy.
Kilby Historic Site
The Kilbys were among the region's earliest settlers and their home, general store and farm as been preserved, much as it was when the Kilby family live here in 1906. Kilby Historic Site is a flashback in time, complete with elevated boardwalks that enabled people to walk from one building to another, above the seasonal floods.
Sliding ladders roam the floor to ceiling store shelves, each packed with artifacts and curiosities. Ask to see the rare set of Jack & Jill shoes, a see-through fitting shoe from which the real pair was ordered, and an innovative winding razor sharpener. A small restaurant serves home-made pies, costumed interpreters hand-churn ice-cream and children are free to interact with the farm's chickens, piglets, sheep, goats, rabbits, turkeys and ducks. There's a lovely picnic area in the orchard.
Housed in the oldest wooden railroad station still in existence in BC, the displays at the Agassiz-Harrison Museum are both informative and charming. Many pieces are on loan from long-time local residents whose families helped develop and settle the area, particularly in farming and logging. It's an intimate look at how the region's earliest residents earned their livelihood and made their homes.