Two hundred seventieth in a series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names
Comparisons between the Kootenays and Switzerland have been made since at least 1893, on account of their towering, snow-capped mountains. Robert T. Lowery’s New Denver Ledge took up the cause with its July 23, 1896 edition: “New Denver is the most beautiful townsite in America [sic]. There is nothing in Switzerland that will equal it.”
On Nov. 19 of that year the paper added: “New Denver is the Lucerne of the west.” Then, on Jan. 7, 1897, it called New Denver “the Lucerne of the west … Canada’s Helena.” A week later, an ad taken out by Angus McGillvray read: “New Denver (may never be a second Butte, but it will be) The Helena of Canada (and is now) The Lucerne of North America.”
Lucerne is the largest city in central Switzerland and the capital of the canton of the same name. It’s on the shores of Lake Lucerne. The name dates to the ninth century but its origin is unknown. It may be derived from lucius, Latin for pike.
Lowery might have coined the phrase Lucerne of North America, or it could have been either of his colleagues on the Ledge, Harry Walker or Charles Smitheringale. The Arrow Lakes News of Aug. 27, 1936, reported on Walker’s return to New Denver from Enderby, noting “He was always a great booster for the Slocan mining district and calls New Denver ‘The Lucerne of America.’”
Other publications embraced the nickname — with variations such as Lucerne of America, Switzerland of the Americas, Switzerland of North America, and Lucerne of Canada — and it also continued to be used in ads in The Ledge.
In 1931, New Denver’s auto park was named Lucerne in a contest. Ruth Aylwin and Fred Greer both submitted the winning entry. Twenty years later, New Denver’s new high school was also named Lucerne in a contest. The name was picked over other finalists Valhalla and Selkirk. Wayne Morrison received $5 and a handshake from the minister of education for his suggestion.
Lucerne of North America was also used to describe Kaslo. The earliest instance is a Board of Trade publication from late 1899 or early 1900, titled Health and Wealth: Kaslo, the Lucerne of North America. While applied less frequently than in New Denver, plenty of examples exist of Kaslo being likened to Switzerland, up to the present.
Nelson also got in on the act.
According to a ca. 1920s CPR brochure: “The people of Nelson say that Nature practised on Switzerland before making British Columbia. They compare the location of their city to Lucerne …”
The Nelson Daily News of April 22, 1927 listed a series of nicknames for Nelson, included “Kootenay Lucerne.”
When Premier Richard McBride referred to Kaslo as the Lucerne of British Columbia, Robert Lowery took mock umbrage, writing in The Ledge of March 7, 1912: “Thus we see that anything good is liable to be stolen or imitated … Since we departed from the Slocan that beauty spot, New Denver, has had no one to defend its claim to that title, and the poetical people of Kaslo have picked it up.”
The Slocan Record told Lowery to calm down: “In a few years the Lucerne will probably be called the New Denver of Europe. The colonel must admit that the people of Kaslo are modest, even if they did pilfer his pet term.”
The only other commentary on the subject began with this item in The Kootenaian of Nov. 13, 1913: “The Nelson Independent, in a recent issue, dubbed Nelson ‘the Lucerne of America.’ If Nelson, Kaslo, and New Denver all get started scrapping over that title, it is likely that the poor thing will get worn to tatters so that no place will want it.”
The Independent’s former proprietor, J.L. Thomas, replied: “I beg to say that I never wrote such a nom-de-plume or was such ever printed. What was printed was ‘The Lucerne of Canada.’”
The Kootenaian was not mollified: “New Denver and Kaslo people will … be pleased to hear that competition for the honor of being called ‘The Lucerne of America’ rests between their respective towns alone, and that Nelson is not, after all, going to hog it, being content as far as Mr. Thomas is concerned, with the more modest title of ‘The Lucerne of Canada.’ What will become of the title ‘Venice of Canada,’ which Nelson has hitherto claimed, is open to discussion.’”
Google “Lucerne of North America” today and the contenders are chiefly Kaslo, Burnaby Lake, and Lake Willoughby, Vermont. Type in “Switzerland of North America” and you get several possibilities, including Atlin, Glacier National Park; Valdez, Alaska; the Wallowa mountains in northeastern Oregon; and Ouray, Colorado.
For all the places in BC compared to Lucerne, there was an actual Lucerne, west of the Yellowhead Pass on the BC-Alberta border, named by the Canadian Northern Railway in 1912. It’s now a ghost town but remains on the books as a locality, along with Lucerne Peak.
We’ll conclude our look at civic nicknames next week with a roundup of Nelson’s many other cognomens.