A brief history of Birch Island

Valley Voices

The following is an excerpt taken from Upper North Thompson Reflections

by Lois Moss

Birch Island is a quiet hamlet, nestled in the heart of the North Thompson Valley. It is about one and a half hours’ drive from Kamloops — just a few kilometers north of Clearwater.

Passengers on Via Rail might have glanced out and seen a residential community. Those travelling the highway, on their way to Jasper, might not notice the hamlet at all, unless they happened to stop at the view point — there they could enjoy its scenic setting.

Over the years, Birch Island has undergone many changes, but somehow the size and community has remained pretty much the same.

The history of this small community begins in the early 1900s, when trappers and prospectors, who had come looking for furs and minerals, decided to take up land. Some trapping continued over the years — mining companies have come and gone.

Birch Island became a dot on the map with the coming of the railroad. In 1915 the rail-bed was completed and the station was built and ready for occupancy. The first agent-operator was Harold Squibb, who arrived in late 1915 — he was joined by his wife and family in early 1916.

In September of 1915, Mrs. Sara Holt, at the request of railroad officials, named the station “Birch Island” — and so the hamlet was officially born.

The present site of Birch Island was once owned by Robert (Bob) Alexander. Mr. Alexander started the ferry service, near where the bridge is now. He, with the help of a man named Olie North, built the first general store. This store, which was constructed during the First World War years, while the railroad was also being constructed, served the community for more than 60 years, with just a little renovation.

In 1922, T.J. McCracken purchased the store and it was operated by the McCracken family until its closure in the late 1970s. E.R. (Bob) McCracken was the owner/manager of the store at the end of its existence. Bob personified “service with a smile” as well as fair prices and friendly service. Like other storekeepers in the area, he gave credit, and kept many families in food and clothing during hard times. Most paid at the end of each month, but many were never able to do so and debts went unpaid.

As soon as there were enough children living in the community, a school room was provided in one of Alexander’s buildings behind the store. The first teacher was a Miss Anne Lynne. The second one-roomed school, which was constructed on a site at the east end of the hamlet in 1922, was later moved to the edge of the property to serve as a community hall. A two-room school was built in 1956.

There was an original community hall, built next to the church property in the early 1920s. This little building was the site of fall fairs, concerts, socials and dances for a long time. It was sold to Rexspar Mining Co. in the 1950s, and used as a storehouse/bunkhouse. It burned down in the late 1960s.

In 1922, the J. Popp family was constructing a stopping-place, a small hotel — the first in Birch Island. This building was destroyed be fire in 1928, but a replacement was built almost immediately. In 1930, the hotel was purchased by the A. Irvines. It became very well known as a home away from home for teachers, railroaders and travelling salesmen. Doug and Mildred Masterton purchased the hotel in 1946. They continued the good service and traditions started by the Irvines. Unfortunately, history repeated itself — the hotel was lost to fire in 1960.

In 1991, Birch Island had a never-to-be-forgotten homecoming. More than 500 people gathered in the little community to socialize, reminisce and renew old friendships, as well as make new ones. A parade was organized, which was the first in Birch Island’s history. Family ball games and other sports and competitions, as well as some great stage entertainment, had been organized. Everyone was there to participate, with enthusiasm. What a wonderful time of reliving old times it turned out to be … and what an example of community hard work and cooperation.

Birch Island, named for the beautiful little island of birches in the North Thompson River, up near the railroad bridge, is still a very fine place to live.

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