Rolling into the Canadian city of Kamloops marked the end the first day of a scenic journey from Vancouver to Banff aboard the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train.
As we neared the city of 90,000 people — which, by area, is one of the largest municipalities in Canada — a member of the train’s guest experience team pointed out St Joseph’s Church. Next to it is a First Nations’ graveyard. Smallpox, brought by settlers in the 19th century, wiped out many of the area’s Secwepemc inhabitants. Seeing the eternal flame that burns in memory of one of the chiefs made me keen to explore.
A walking tour of Kamloops
A group of us did that courtesy of one of the newly launched Act Adventures walking tours, led by local guide Kayly. We started by heading into the Riverside Park, where bands perform free-of-charge concerts from 7pm to 9pm each night of the week during July and August.
The North and South Thompson rivers flow together close to the park. A few paces back from the waterfront a stone memorial records the flood levels recorded since Kamloops incorporation in 1893. The level of the 1894 flood was etched well above my head. Did that surge in the water level make settlers question the wisdom of choosing the area as the location as their new home?
Kamloops Chinatown and Chinese cemetery
Many were attracted by the opportunities brought by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Numerous Chinese labourers worked on the construction of the line, which helped ensure that British Columbia became a part of Canada rather than the United States of America. Consequently, Kamloops had a sizable Chinatown in the 1890s. Kayly told us that Kamloops has a sizable Chinese cemetery where it’s said that the bones but not the spirits of the migrant workers rest. According to Chinese beliefs, repatriation of their mortal remains to China would be necessary for the latter.
As we headed along Victoria Street, Kayly pointed out that single storey buildings are wedged between brick-built facades that rise two levels. They occupy what were once lanes between long-established premises.
Basketball in the opera house?
Reading a heritage sign at the location of the opera house, which burnt down in 1932, I discovered that, in addition to recitals and musical performances, it hosted boxing and wrestling bouts, and even basketball games. Canada can even claim a hand in inventing that game. James Naismith, basketball’s inventor, was born over in Ontario.
At the bottom of the street a memorial stands to the Overlanders, Kamloops’ first settlers of European descent. In April 1862 140 people trekked westwards from Fort Garry, modern day Winnipeg. A sculpture depicts Catherine and Augustus Schubert. Catherine gave birth just a day after arriving at Kamloops, six months after beginning the journey.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
Brownstone Restaurant (118 Victoria Street; tel. +1-250-851-9939), across the street from the memorial, is regarded one of Kamloops finest dining establishments and occupies premises built as the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Robert Service used to work in the bank. He is now better known as the poet who wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee, which tells of “strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold.” Several of the Canadians in the tour group recognised his work from school.
Heading up 1st Avenue we heard how as many as 4,000 cigars a day used to be rolled in the city on the way to Kamloops Courthouse Gallery (7 Seymour Street). Works by 14 local artists are sold in the store. The basement holds display cabinets with law and order related exhibits, including an improvised tattoo gun and weapons.
The trial of Billy Miner
Outside the Victorian courthouse, Kayly recounted the tale of Billy Miner, a train and stagecoach robber from the USA. He was renowned for his politeness and consequently nicknamed the Gentleman Bandit and also the Grey Fox, on account of his drooping moustache. In 1906 a bungled robbery netted Miner and his two accomplices just $15.15, prompting a manhunt that resulted in their capture and subsequent trial at the courthouse.
The tour concluded with a tasting of local craft beers, wine and snacks at one of the many bars on Victoria Street. Join one of the walking tours and you’ll learn lots more about Kamloops’ heritage.
Stuart was a guest on this walking tour courtesy of Tourism Kamloops, whose website has information about the city and things to do and see. Click on the ACT Adventures website to reserve a place on one of the company’s tours of Kamloops.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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The Rocky Mountaineer luxury train travels to Kamloops on two of its four routes. Kamloops features on both the First Passage to the West (between Vancouver and Banff) and the Journey Through the Clouds (between Vancouver and Jasper) routes.
Where to stay
Stuart stayed at the four-star Sandman Signature Kamloops (225 Lorne Street, Kamloops; tel. +1-250-377-7263), in a modern room overlooking the South Thompson river and Riverside Park.