Birdwatching at Scout Island
(Picture BC photo)

Williams Lake

Culture & History

Williams Lake has a colourful history that incorporates First Nations, prospectors who followed the gold rush, settlers who arrived with the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and many a rugged cowboy.

First Nations in Williams Lake

The first Aboriginals that lived in the Williams Lake area were descendents of the Secwepemc (or "Shuswap") people. They were semi-nomadic travelers who followed the food sources during the different seasons. The Shuswap would return every winter to their permanent villages, characterized by the sunken structures known as Akickwillie or Aquigly houses. They referred to the Williams Lake area as "Columneetza," the meeting place.

Visitors keen on learning more about the area's Aboriginal history should stop in at Xat'sull Heritage Village, located about 37km/23mi from Williams Lake. Experience the Northern Secwepemc spiritual, cultural and traditional way of life through day tours or all-inclusive extended stay packages. Cariboo Chilcotin Jet Boat Adventures, a First Nations owned and operated business, provides dynamic cultural tours on the Fraser River and visits historic First Nations and Chinese gold mining sites. The company provides shuttle service to its boat launch about 15 minutes outside of town.

Gold Rush and Cariboo Road

The area really opened up when thousands of gold prospectors entered the interior via the Fraser River valley and helped to create the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. For almost a decade, the community grew and supported numerous prosperous businesses.

In 1863, a proposed road, the Cariboo Road, was expected to be created and was meant to pass through this burgeoning trading centre. However, road builder Gustavus Blin Wright had difficulties obtaining funds and rerouted the trail through 150 Mile House, bypassing Williams Lake altogether. This bypass nearly destroyed the community and many settlers left.

The Pacific Great Eastern Railway

In 1919, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway linked the town to the rest of the province. The railroad built the major stock yards, forming a hub for cattle trade in the region. Williams Lake prospered, developed and fanned out from a road house owned by Constable William Pinchbeck.

There was a great stir of excitement amongst the population as the steel rails were laid. To celebrate, a cowboy sporting event and an impromptu picnic were held near Williams Creek. Within a year, hotels, stores and homes began to cover the hills as the city grew. The casual cowboy event was organized into an official stampede and eventually attracted the attention of competitors all over the country. Today, the Williams Lake Stampede is rated second only to the Calgary Stampede, and has the best Canadian and US cowboys and riders competing.

The city of Williams Lake was incorporated in 1929 and covers 33sq km/21sq mi.

Practical Points

Learn more about the historic and heritage sites in and around Williams Lake, or stop in at the magnificent log structure that is the Williams Lake Visitor Centre. Have a seat in the "living room" and watch an enjoyable video about the area's history, as well as info about things to do in and near town.