Nelson is a beautiful town nestled in the Selkirt Mountains, British Columbia. Locals call it the “Queen City” because of all the historical building and interesting history.
History of Nelson
Gold and silver were found in the area in 1867. Following the discovery of silver at nearby Toad Mountain in 1886, the town boomed quickly, leading to incorporation in 1897. Two railways were built to pass through Nelson. Due to its location near transportation corridors, Nelson grew to supply the local mining activity and soon became a transportation and distribution centre for the region.
The town soon matured from a false-fronted boom town to a sophisticated city. Francis Rattenbury, a noted architect most noted in British Columbia for the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse, and the second Hotel Vancouver, designed chateau-style civic buildings made of granite, which stand today. By the 1900s, Nelson boasted several fine hotels, a Hudson’s Bay Company store and an electric streetcar system. The local forestry and mining industries were well established.
The town built its own hydroelectric generating system. English immigrants planted lakeside orchards, and Doukhobors from Russia, sponsored by Tolstoy and the Quakers, tilled the valley benchlands. The Doukhobor museum is located nearby, close to the neighboring town of Castlegar.
During the Vietnam War, many American draft dodgers settled in Nelson and the surrounding area. This influx of liberal, mostly educated young people had a significant impact on the area’s cultural and political demographics.
Nelson’s mountainous geography kept growth confined to the narrow valley bottom, except for certain hillside structures such as the local High School and the former NDU campus. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, when more prosperous cities were tearing down and rebuilding their downtowns to the design of the time, Nelson merchants ‘modernized’ their buildings with covers of aluminum siding.
Baker StreetIn the early 1980s, Nelson suffered a devastating economic downturn when the local Kootenay Forest Products sawmill was closed. Downtown merchants were already suffering from the opening of a large, regional shopping centre on Nelson’s central waterfront, the Chahko Mika Mall. At the time, Victoria and Vancouver were experimenting with historical restorations of their oldest areas, with great success. To save downtown and Baker Street from blight, Nelson quickly followed suit, stripping aluminum facades and restoring the buildings to their original brilliance. Local designer Bob Inwood, one of Nelson’s many American immigrants, played a major role as a consultant. By 1985, Baker Street was completely transformed. Affirmation of the street’s success came in 1986 when Steve Martin chose to produce his feature film Roxanne largely in Nelson, using the local fire hall as a primary set and many historic locations for others. More broadly, the transformation marked the beginning of Nelson’s ongoing transition from a resource-based town to an arts and tourism town. A walk down Baker Street through the Historic District is now one of Nelson’s promoted visitor activities.
Nelson has earned a reputation as a cultural centre. The downtown area is packed with good restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, local shops, small art galleries, the restored Capitol Theatre and impromptu theatre venues. The city is about forty-five minutes away from the site of the annual Shambhala Music Festival, an internationally known artistic music festival held in August at the Salmo River Ranch. It is also home to the Whitewater Ski Resort, the Nelson Brewing Company (a regional microbrewery), and the restored Capitol Theatre (a regional hub for the performing arts).
As with many communities in British Columbia, Nelson has experienced a real-estate boom. Over the last few years, real-estate prices have skyrocketed, putting ownership out of reach for less affluent residents. Nelsonites are proud of their community’s “small town” feel, which has remained relatively free of the chain stores, franchises and strip-mall developments that are common in other towns of similar size. Despite this, there are a number of US mega-retailers operating in the city, including Wal-Mart, KFC, Quizno’s and Subway. However, Nelson does not have a McDonald’s. There has been a push[by whom?] for residents to buy from local businesses, as opposed to supporting large corporations.
Nelson is also an alternative lifestyles hot spot noted for its profitable (albeit unlawful) marijuana production, with The Guardian reporting that “Nelson was able to make the transition from a typical rural lumber town into a thriving arts and mountain sports hotbed, due in part to the wealth generated by marijuana growers. If one were to have spent the last three years in this idyllic mountain hamlet, the economic crisis would have been barely noticeable.” Hemp clothes and cannabis-related products are sold in local stores.
Activities in Nelson
ActivitiesCultural activities abound in Nelson. Set in the natural beauty of the Selkirks, many artists and writers make Nelson their home. Nelson is highlighted as the “Number One Small Town Arts Community in Canada” by the publisher of The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America, and is home to a large and diverse artisan community. Artwalk features local talent. July, August and September mark three months of exhibitions throughout the downtown core in variety of galleries and local businesses. Each month has a separate grand opening, (usually the first Friday evening of the month), which includes refreshments, musicians and artwork for locals and visitors to enjoy as they stroll through downtown Nelson. Nelson also has regular farmer’s markets where local artisans can be found selling a unique and diverse variety of arts, crafts and imports.
Two local hiking trails are popular. The Nelson-Salmo Great Northern Trail is a very gently sloped rail trail which runs across Nelson and allows biking.
The Pulpit Rock Trail offers a short but somewhat challenging hike that ends in a beautiful view of the city. After Pulpit Rock the trail continues up the spine of Elephant Mountain (as the locals call it) to more postcard views, and eventually to the radio towers which are visible from everywhere in the city. Hikers venturing beyond Pulpit Rock should have basic wilderness gear and exercise common sense. Public access to the Pulpit Rock trail has been restored with the opening, in the spring of 2009, of a new access point several hundred metres west of the old trail head, which was on private land.
In the winter, skiing and snowboarding are Nelson’s primary outdoor activities. Thirty minutes south of town is the Whitewater Ski Resort, which provides access, (via one triple chairlift, two double chairlifts and a handle tow), to 396 vertical metres of beginner to advanced terrain. The resort also provides access to hundreds of kilometres of off-piste skiing and back country touring. The Nelson area is home to over 20 cat-skiing, heli-skiing and ski-touring operators, and hundreds of kilometres of cross-country trails are available for the Nordic skier.
Mountain biking is part of the local culture, and Nelson offers a wide variety of MTB-oriented trails for all levels of experience. Excellent trail maps are available at local bike shops.
Rock climbing is also a popular summer activity. Kootenay Crag, Hall Siding, Grohman Narrows and CIC Bluffs are popular city crags. Slocan Bluffs and Kinnaird are in nearby Slocan City and Castlegar. 2003 saw bouldering take off in Nelson, with extensive new development of bouldering areas in Grohman Narrows and nearby Robson. Mountaineers and alpine rock climbers head to the Valhalla Provincial Park in the Selkirk Mountains for long alpine routes on unique textured granite. The Mulvey Basin, Cougar Creek and Nemo Creek areas have routes ranging in grade from 5.4 to 5.12.
A walk down Historic Baker Street is a must for visitors, and a heritage streetcar line, the Nelson Electric Tramway, runs along the lake front, through the middle of the Chahko Mika Mall carpark. Maps for downtown and residential walking tours are available at the local Chamber of Commerce.
Nelson is also located close to Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park.