Before prospectors arrived in search of gold and silver, the area where Nelson now sits was home for thousands of years to the Ktunaxa and Sinixt First Nations, who fished once-abundant salmon.
The Sinixt (pronounced sin-eye-kst) speak an Interior Salish language and are also known as the Arrow Lakes people. Although declared legally extinct in Canada in 1956, they continued to live on the Colville reservation in Washington state and have since returned to this area.
The Ktunaxa (k-too-nah-ha) are also known as the Kootenay or Kootenai. Six bands of the Ktunaxa Nation live north and south of the border, including the Lower Kootenay, or Yaqan Nukiy, near Creston.
Nelson’s modern era began in 1887 when a party from Colville discovered the Silver King mine on Toad Mountain and a townsite developed, named for BC Lt.-Gov. Hugh Nelson.
Within a few years, two railways reached the fledgling settlement, providing transportation for goods and ore, while a fleet of elegant sternwheelers connected points on Kootenay Lake.
Many other mines, primarily silver, developed in the surrounding area. A four-and-a-half mile tramway was built to bring ore down from the Silver King mine to the Hall Mines smelter.
Nelson incorporated as a city in 1897 and became the administrative centre of the Kootenays. It boasted its own streetcar system and hydroelectric power plant — the first in BC — plus many impressive brick and stone buildings.
In addition to English and American settlers, Nelson was home to sizable Chinese and Italian communities, as well as Doukhobors who immigrated from Russia to escape persecution.
Fruit farming became a viable industry on Kootenay Lake at the turn of the 20th century, although many unsuspecting investors bought land sight unseen, only to discover it was much less suitable for agriculture than promised.
Forestry eventually supplanted mining as the area’s major industry: Nelson was home to a large sawmill, a sash and door factory, a matchblock plant, and other operations.
In the 1950s, Nelson also became a university town when the Roman Catholic diocese established Notre Dame, which later became David Thompson University Centre. However, the city fell upon hard times during the recession of the early 1980s, and both the school and the sawmill closed, while other major employers shed employees.
Just as things looked dire, Nelson bounced back on the strength of its history: a downtown revitalization project uncovered and restored many hidden heritage buildings and Hollywood soon discovered the city’s charms.
Today Nelson’s population is just over 10,000, while its trading area is twice that. It boasts a vibrant downtown, a thriving arts scene, and the cultural and recreational amenities of a much larger centre.
Selkirk College has taken over the former university campus, where it offers music and tourism programs, while Kootenay Studio Arts continues a long tradition of arts education.
Snow has been another salvation: Nelson is blessed with nearby Whitewater Ski Resort and Baldface Lodge, plus other cat and heli-ski operators.
You can learn more about the city’s fascinating past by visiting Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History, as well as the Nelson Sports Museum in the Civic Centre, the Chamber of Mines of Southeastern BC, and the fire hall museum. Self-guided walking and driving tours are also available.