How Kelowna grew to become the biggest city in the Okanagan

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KELOWNA - While Kelowna is the dominant city in the Okanagan these days, there was a time when either Vernon or Penticton held that title and Kelowna was little more than a backwater.

“Kelowna was a very isolated little community,” Sharron Simpson, author of The Kelowna Story, told iNFOnews.ca. “I think I have a picture in my book that says this is a pathetic and unpromising little place.”

Actually, on page 81 of her book, there is a photo of Bernard Avenue in Kelowna from the early part of the last century with a caption saying “the initially uninspiring town” soon began to grow.

The reality was Kelowna was a small community in the middle of the Okanagan Valley with the bigger centres of Vernon and Penticton growing at either end of the lake.

While European settlement came to the valley in the 1800s, it was the extension of the Canadian Pacific Rail line in 1891 through Vernon to Okanagan Landing that triggered growth and development.

Vernon incorporated on Dec. 30, 1892. In 1904 it was declared the largest municipality in the Okanagan. That honour was before Kelowna was even incorporated. That happened on May 4, 1905 with Penticton following on Dec. 31, 1908.

While Vernon had the early start as a shipping centre, Penticton began its own boom when the Kettle Valley Railway went through in 1915.

“It was really built to get the products from the mines in the Kootenays out to a Canadian port,” Simpson said. “It was far easier to send it on the Grand Trunk down to the U.S. The Canadian government and CP Rail didn’t want that so they built the Kettle Valley.”

Prior to the Kettle Valley Railway, material for the mines in the Kootenays and Princeton areas were shipped across Canada by rail to Okanagan Landing then by boat to Penticton.

Even though the Kettle Valley Railway passed near Kelowna, there was no spur line into the town. The only way to get to it was by horse and buggy up the steep climb on what is now June Springs Road.

At the time of the 1921 census Penticton, with a population of 3,979, was the largest city in the Okanagan. Vernon, which was the administrative centre as well as a key shipping hub, was not far behind at 3,685. Kelowna had a mere 2,520 residents.

In those days, much of Kelowna was swamp.

The area north of City Hall was called Whittup’s Pond, Simpson said.

“That was all swamp,” she noted. “If you wanted to get to Manhattan (Point), you had to go during low water time or you had to take a boat down around Manhattan because the water levels were so high.”

In order to build in that area of the city, fill was needed to cope with high water levels.

“The sawmill down at that end was always in trouble when the lake rose,” she added. “There are many layers of sawdust and gravel and oil and sawdust and gravel and oil all over where the sawmill is.”

The oil was used to dampen down the sawdust so it would stay in place.

To the south of downtown, Mission Creek meandered through that area, often flooding vast tracts of land in the spring.

Still, by the time of the next census in 1931 (census were conducted every 10 years until 1956), Kelowna had snuck ahead in the population race, reaching an impressive 4,655, edging out Penticton (4,540) for top spot with Vernon lagging behind (3,737).

A decade later, Penticton regained top spot with 5,777, not that far ahead of the other two cities.

It kept that ranking through to the 1966 census.

“The thing that boosted Penticton was when the Hope Princeton Highway went in,” Simpson said. “The Hope Princeton dropped everyone on the beaches in Penticton and they never bothered to come to Kelowna.

That highway was opened in 1949.

The 1961 census showed Penticton as still the largest city but, at 13,859 residents, it was only 671 ahead of Kelowna, with Vernon some 3,000 behind.

The completion of the Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge in 1958 gave Kelowna a bit of a boost as it added almost 4,000 new residents between 1961 and 1966, more than twice the number in Vernon and Penticton combined.

By 1966, Kelowna posted 17,006 residents, Penticton dropped to second at 15,330 while Vernon was third at 11,423.

The major change that made Kelowna the largest city in B.C.’s Interior came in 1973 when the provincial government forced it to amalgamate with neighbouring communities such as Okanagan Mission, Glenmore and Rutland.

That more than doubled its population between 1971 and 1976, bringing it to 51,955 while, without the aid of amalgamation, Penticton sat at 21,344 and Vernon at 17,546.

While Kelowna’s growth continued at a torrid pace, further helped by the completion of the Okanagan Connector highway in 1990, Penticton slowed to the point that by 1996 Vernon had moved into second spot with 31,817 residents to Penticton’s 30,987 (Kelowna’s population had hit 89,442 by then).

In the last 20 years, Penticton has added only 2,774 people, bringing it to 33,761, barely ahead of West Kelowna, which wasn’t incorporated until 2007 and is now only about 1,100 people behind.

During the same 20-year time period, Vernon grew by about 8,300 to reach a population of 40,116 while Kelowna leaped ahead with almost 40,000 more people to reach population of 127,380 at the time of the 2016 census.

It seems likely that Kelowna will continue well into the future as the largest city in the Okanagan. City planners expect another 50,000 people by 2040 and West Kelowna will likely move into third spot ahead of Penticton.

Simpson says Penticton is bound by two lakes, the agricultural land in Naramata and First Nations land, so they don’t have room to grow.

And Vernon no longer has the shipping and administrative functions that were its core years ago.

“Penticton, from my perspective, from being involved with Okanagan College, is a vibrant little community,” Simpson, who is chair of the Okanagan College Foundation, said. “And Vernon is a vibrant community. Both are overshadowed by Kelowna but they don’t see much in Kelowna that they aspire to.”


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