While parts of BC have history rooted in the Gold Rush, Nelson's history is more silvery.
The story goes that in 1886 a prospector, frustrated by what had been an exhausting and fruitless expedition, petulantly kicked a rock, accidentally uncovering evidence of significant silver deposits. Thus began the Silver King Mine, and a mining boom that kickstarted the development of Nelson.
By 1890, a town site was laid out and wood frame buildings began to replace the tents and shacks that had housed the first few hundred pioneers. When the city was incorporated in 1897, the population had grown to 3,000 and there were already some fine homes and public buildings.
Two railroads had been built to support mining activity, and within a few years, Nelson developed its own hydro-electrical utility, a gasworks and a streetcar system. A growing fleet of sternwheelers connected Nelson with other small communities and mining camps around Kootenay Lake.
Nelson Heritage Buildings
Devastating fires prompted Nelson's first city council to pass a bylaw requiring all buildings in the downtown core to be constructed of noncombustible materials. This led to the construction of the elegant brick and stone Victorian structures that form the centrepiece of Nelson's inventory of more than 350 heritage buildings.
In the aftermath of the short lived mining boom, the forest industry became the largest employer and Nelson settled into its role as the commercial and government centre of the region.
The establishment of Notre Dame College in 1950 heralded the beginning of a new focus on education. Today, Nelson is home to Selkirk College, the Academy of Classical Oriental Sciences, the Kootenai Art Therapy Institute and the Kootenay School of the Arts.
Culture and People
In a history that spans more than a century, Nelson has attracted miners and fortune seekers, railroad workers, orchardists, forestry workers, academics and artists.
The 1960s and early '70s brought a very specific wave of migration to the Nelson area – "draft dodgers" from the United States seeking to avoid military service in Vietnam. While some returned with the offer of amnesty in 1977, many remained to make significant contributions to the cultural fabric of the area.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a growing number of people moving to Nelson to escape big city life. Nelson is a rare blend of cultures and attitudes, and continues to be a magnet for visitors looking to enjoy that sense of community and the active lifestyle that comes with it.
Learn more about the architecture of Nelson's heritage buildings with self-guided tours of both the downtown core and the fine Victorian homes that can still be seen all over town. Brochures for both tours are available from the Nelson Visitor Centre. Or pop in at Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art & History to peruse its extensive archives, or simply admire the building, which was built in 1902 as a post office and customs house.