Chapter 3

Commercial Beginnings

The founding of five Rossland claims by Joe Moris and Joe Bourgeois proved to be a stroke of luck for one important figure in this city’s history.  The two “Joes” traveled to Nelson to record their claims; however, mining legislation at the time permitted only two claims each.  The fifth claim they offered to the deputy mining recorder, Mr. Eugene Sayre Topping.  In exchange, he paid the recording fees for all five claims.  That fateful decision led to the birth of Trail.  Renaming it the LeRoi, Topping’s claim would become an extremely lucrative mine.

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Topping convinced friend Frank Hanna that this claim and others in the area would prove profitable.  The two, along with the Hanna clan, made their way to Trail Creek Landing, pre-empted 343 acres of land and began the development of a townsite.  Promotion was key, and soon prospectors and workers began arriving in droves.  With the Heinze contract secure and the construction of the smelter underway, a narrow gauge tramway was constructed linking the river, the smelter, and the mines of Rossland.

By 1896, the town began to grow steadily.  More of the townsite was cleared, streets were graded, and a bridge across Trail Creek was planned.  One of the first businessmen to arrive in Trail was Simon Petersen, who built Trail’s first large hotel, The Crown Point.  R.T. Daniel, of Spokane, WA, invested in several business ventures and promoted the town extensively.  He was also responsible for the development of Columbia Heights, bench lands above the town.  Daniel also built the Arlington Hotel, directly across from The Crown Point.  W.F. Thompson arrived to launch the town’s first newspaper.  

The townsite was laid out in a standard grid pattern, common to new towns of the period.  This was in spite of the huge gully of Trail Creek running through the middle of town.  Trail grew first along the “Bowery,” an alley between Bay Avenue and the river later called Dewdney Avenue and along Bay Avenue.  Gradually, development spread along these two streets, then onto Cedar and Pine Avenues.  Commercial development dominated Bay Avenue but residential and public uses were mixed with commercial expansion on Cedar and Pine.  Trail Creek was the problem for the small town, not only during the spring when the creek rose and the river backed up the gully to Pine Avenue, but because the gully tended to divide the town.  In 1896, the Bay Avenue Bridge was built.  Early plans were made to fill in the gully, but in the meantime buildings were erected on piles.  By 1911, the creek was eventually contained in a culvert and then fully filled with slag from the smelter.  This made available one hundred lots along Bay and Cedar Avenues, thereby expanding commercial opportunities in the downtown area.

Trail had no less than 20 hotels and rooming houses by 1896, catering to smelter workers, miners, and general public interested in the mining boom of the area.  The majority of those early hotels were either destroyed by fire or torn down to make way for a more diversified commercial core as Trail grew after World War I.  In 1899, the town grew to nearly 1500 people and pressure increased for some form of local government.  The town was officially incorporated on June 14, 1901 as the City of Trail.  Hospitals, churches and schools were erected to accommodate the growing population.  Additionally, recreational facilities, such as curling and ice rinks were established.

As improvements and increased employment at the smelter were achieved during this time, so, too, were civic improvements.  After significant lobbying at the Provincial level, the opening of the bridge across the Columbia River in 1912 was commemorated.  The bridge opened a new era for Trail with access to the much-needed flat land of East Trail, and soon homes began to appear.  In addition, between 1924 and 1930, considerable funds were dedicated to improvements of the downtown core, which included sidewalk and street paving.  Incidentally, Trail was the first city in the interior to have concrete paved streets.  The year 1926 saw the construction of a new hospital along Victoria Street and the construction of large brick commercial buildings in the downtown core, including: the Memorial Hall, the Knights of Pythias Hall, the re-design of the Crown Point Hotel, Trail Mercantile Store, the Company Store, and City Hall.  Social activities flourished with the production of plays and musicals; bands, orchestras and choirs were formed, sporting activity increased and the local radio station was established.

The story of Trail could not be told without the inclusion of the famed area, known as the “gulch.”  The “gulch” is a unique part of Trail, not only because of its physical characteristics, but also because it was the historical setting for the foundation of Trail’s large Italian community.  First called Dublin Gulch, it is a narrow valley created by Trail Creek as it comes out of the Rossland Mountains.  It was part of the Columbia and Western Railway’s land grant and as early as 1896 was being settled by squatters, who erected small shacks, planted gardens and raised chickens on unpaid-for land.  After incorporation the area was taken into the City and the land sold to the squatters to legitimize their occupancy.  When the first Italian immigrants came to Trail they settled in the Gulch, planting the seed for Trail’s Italian community.  The first immigrant was Issaco Georgetti who arrived in 1897 to work in the smelter.  Others soon followed, opening businesses in the Gulch, working on the railroad, or employed by the smelter.  A veritable “city within a city,” the development of the Gulch was as much affected by opportunities at the smelter as Trail-proper was.  

Pre-World War II days were tough times for the majority of the western world, however Trail did not feel the full effects of the depression.  As a smaller, relatively unified community supported by a commodity-based industry, the isolated mountain city was able to distance itself from outside pressures.  Welfare programs were established by the Company and employees had health and hospital insurance and were provided with milk from the Company’s dairy.  The Company also established a mortgaging program, which meant most employees owned their homes.  While no one was wealthy, most were able to survive comfortably and the town prospered.  A stable place to live and work, the City of Trail and the smelter would continue to prosper in the coming decades.