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A history of Lytton, from First Nations to the Gold Rush to disastrous fires

One of the oldest towns in the province, Lytton was once promoted as the possible capital

Lytton is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited areas in North America, with a First Nations history stretching back thousands of years. Bruce Hutchison wrote that it is “an ancient town, more ancient than any built by white men in America. Here … [was] found a thriving Indian community, centuries old. The confluence of two great rivers and the natural trails of men’s travel made this one of the crossways of the continent.”

The site at the confluence of the mighty Thompson and Fraser Rivers has long been considered the heart of the Nlaka’pamux territory. In 1858, celebrated Indigenous leader and peace-maker Chief Cexpe’nthlEm said “At Lytton is my centre-post. It is the middle of my house and I sit there.”

The Nlaka’pamux name for the site has been transcribed phonetically into English in a number of ways, and variously spelled Camchin, Shilkumcheen, Thlikumcheen, Tl’cumjane, Clicumchin, and Kumsheen. The word has been translated in different ways: it could mean “cross mouth” or “shelf that crosses over”, although today it is often translated as “where the rivers meet”.

The first white people to visit the site were Simon Fraser and a small band of explorers, on June 19, 1808. In his journal, Fraser spoke of the hospitality he and his party received:

“The principal chief invited us over the river. We crossed, and he received us on the water side, where, assisted by several others he took me by the arms and conducted me in a moment up the hill to the camp where his people were sitting in rows, to the number of twelve hundred… We had every reason to be thankful for our reception at this place; the Indians shewed us every possible attention and supplied our wants as much as they could.”

Various people who followed called the site the Great Forks, the Grand Forks, or simply The Forks, referencing the meeting of the two rivers. In 1857 a Hudson’s Bay Company depot was established about three miles downstream from where the rivers met, and the site was called Fort Dallas.

When the Crown Colony of British Columbia was established in August 1858 Fort Dallas was abandoned, and the buildings were moved upstream to the present site of the town. James Douglas, the Crown Colony’s governor, decided that the settlement would be named Lytton, as a “merited compliment and mark of respect” for Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Bulwer-Lytton’s legacy as a British government official is not a memorable one; he is best known today as a best-selling novelist whose works included The Last Days of Pompeii. He is credited with inventing the phrases “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar”, but his most lasting fame (or infamy) as a writer is having penned the much-parodied opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”, in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

During the Gold Rush that began in 1858, Lytton became an important spot along the road north. In 1859 a visitor to the town, Lt. R.C. Mayne, described it as “An irregular row of some dozen wooden huts, a drinking saloon, an express office, a large Court House — as yet unfinished — and two little buildings near the river which had once belonged to the H.B.Co. but which were now inhabited by the district magistrate.”

Another account from 1859, in the Victoria Gazette, said of the town “The ‘City’ of Lytton is beautifully situated on a high plat [sic] of green sward, as level and smooth as a carpeted floor… The town numbers twenty-six houses, built mostly of logs, one or two being very nicely finished… Just above the level on which the town is located, [the] Thompson river empties its clear cold flood into the murky Fraser, presenting a singular contrast as the two streams flow side by side along the front of the town.”

The best-known of Lytton’s many hotels was also one of the earliest: the Globe, which opened in 1862 and was operated by the Hautier family for 40 years. Another well-known establishment was the Baillie Hotel, built in 1868. It was torn down in 1912, and replaced by the first Lytton Hotel.

There had been a significant Chinese presence in Lytton for many years, starting with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through British Columbia in the early 1880s. The CP ran through the town, and was joined by what is now the Canadian National Railway in 1914.

The Chinese community built a joss house — a place within a communal house where deities are set up on an altar for Chinese people to go and give thanks to, or pray to for good health and peace — at the south end of town in 1881. Although the building was torn down in 1928, in 2016 the site was recognized as a historic place with provincial significance, and included in the B.C. Register of Historic Places. In 2017 the Lytton Chinese Museum was opened at the site, thanks to the hard work of site owners Lorna and Bernie Fandrich.

In 1866 there was a short-lived and ultimately futile attempt to have Lytton named as the capital of the newly-amalgamated Crown Colonies of Vancouver Island (capital: Victoria) and British Columbia (of which New Westminster was the proposed capital). Victoria was chosen by 13 votes to eight over New Westminster, but not before champions of Lytton threw that town into the ring as a possible seat of government.

“The only argument that can be advanced in favor of Lytton as the capital, is that its location is central,” huffed The British Colonist newspaper. “In every other respect, there is not a hamlet on the Lower Fraser that does not possess advantages superior to those it has to offer. For nearly four months of the year the town is almost unapproachable from the lower country, and until a railroad has taken the place of the wagon road, and the iron horse has superseded the patient pack animal, it is folly to imagine that the prayer has any chance of success.”

Just as Lytton has a long history as a settlement, however, it also has a long history of fire. The Sept. 12, 1931 issue of the Journal contained the headline “Village Of Lytton Swept By Fire Thursday A.M.” In the early morning hours of Sept. 10, a fire started in a power-house attached to the Lytton Hotel, and the flames were not discovered until they were sweeping the lower section of the building. High winds fanned the flames, and several hotel guests had to jump from the building, as all other routes were cut off.

“In less than half an hour most of the business section of the town was in flames,” the paper noted. “The fire jumped from the hotel to other buildings and two large blocks were reduced to ashes. The fire department had a good head of water but they were unable to get near the hotel owing to the intense heat.”

Fire struck again on Jan. 29, 1938, when a blaze broke out at the historic Globe Hotel. As in 1931, strong winds fanned the flames, and the entire business district of Lytton was threatened, but firefighters — realizing they could not save the hotel — concentrated their efforts on preventing the spread of the fire to nearby businesses. The Journal said that “The good work of the firefighters kept the flames back.” Three months, fire destroyed two cafés and a barber shop in town.

On June 16, 1949 the front page of the Journal featured the headline “Business Blocks At Lytton Burn”. This time, a fire that broke out in the BR Store at about 7 a.m. on June 13 destroyed many of the businesses and houses on two downtown blocks. The Journal stated “A visit by the staff of the Ashcroft Journal revealed a sight that compared with the big fire at Ashcroft in 1916.”

Lytton marks the place where the temperate rain forests of the coast finally give way to the arid semi-desert of the Interior. In his book The Fraser, Bruce Hutchison wrote that of all the places on that river, his favourite glimpse of the morning came at Lytton:

“The dawn here is stark and violent. It is pungent with the exudation of sagebrush and pine, with the heavy sweetness of syringa and alfalfa in the spring, with the alkali dust of summer, and the smell of dried poplar leaves in autumn. The colours of this dawn are too vivid for the painter. The snow of the peaks turns to orange. The bulk of the mountains floats in blue haze. The walls of the valley glow deep red where the rust of iron has smeared them. Safe from sight, nature can squeeze out the paint tubes, load her brush, and let herself go.”

Barbara Roden

About the Author: Barbara Roden

I joined Black Press in 2012 working the Circulation desk of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal and edited the paper during the summers until February 2016.
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