A look at West Kootenay/Boundary’s local government landscape

Ahead of Local Government Awareness Week in BC, we study the complicated history of municipalities in our area.

Greenwood city hall

West Kootenay-Boundary has a fascinating — if convoluted — local government history.

Consider: two once-thriving cities no longer exist, one city started out as a village, two villages started out as cities, many cities weren’t actually cities, two towns became one city, two cities became one city, two cities went bankrupt, and one district broke away from a city and then rejoined it.

On top of this, two cities have boasted of being the smallest city, another has boasted of being the highest city. Several cities, if incorporated today, would be towns and another would be a village.

Despite their names, places like Bear Lake City, Bonanza City, Green City, Trout Lake City, and Volcanic City were never cities, except in the minds of their promoters.

The first to actually incorporate in the Kootenays was Kaslo, on Aug. 14, 1893. It was BC’s seventh city and 21st municipality. (In those days there were only cities and districts, no matter the population; towns and villages didn’t exist in BC until the 1920s.)

With the passage of the Speedy Incorporation of Towns Act in 1897, Rossland, Nelson, Grand Forks, and Greenwood also became cities.

Sandon joined them early the next year. One of its council’s first acts was to issue debentures for a plank flume to carry water. However, when the debentures came due, the city was broke. It was placed in receivership in 1913 and remained there for six years. Things brightened up and receivership was cancelled in 1919, but the city was disincorporated the following year.

Left: Sandon disincorporated in 1920, but its city hall, built in 1900, is still standing. Today it’s home to the Prospector’s Pick store, open during the summer.

A similar fate befell the Boundary boom town of Phoenix, incorporated in 1900. When copper prices fell with the end of the First World War, the city was doomed. It was disincorporated in 1921.

Phoenix claimed to be the highest city in Canada, with an elevation of 1,412 m. (By comparison, the present title-holder is Airdrie, Alta. at 1,089 m, while Rossland’s is 1,023 m, and Banff’s is 1,383 m, although it’s a town, not a city.)

The little-known city of Columbia was incorporated in 1899, in an area west of Grand Forks, despite bitter opposition from Grand Forks residents. The rivalry grew to a feud that saw a Columbia hotel burn and Grand Forks founding mayor John Manly charged with arson. However, the case was dropped when a key witness failed to appear. In 1901, residents of both cities voted to amalgamate, although the marriage didn’t become official until two years later.

Trail and Slocan incorporated within two weeks of each other in 1901. Slocan, like Sandon, suffered the ignominy of being placed in receivership, due to a backlog of unpaid taxes combined with a disastrous tax sale. The mayor and council resigned en masse, but the Municipal Act contained no provision for such an event. It was seven months before the city’s financial house was back in order.

By 1941, Slocan’s population dwindled to fewer than 200 people, but it remained a city despite a clause added to the Municipal Act in the 1930s that stated cities needed a minimum of 5,000 people. Slocan and several other places were grandfathered as exceptions and by the early 1950s, city clerk Frank Norris had a rubber stamp made declaring it to be the “Smallest incorporated city on the North American continent” (pictured below).

In 1957, the Municipal Act was further revised allowing municipalities to change their classifications. If Slocan became a village, the province would assume more responsibility for road maintenance, schools, and policing. Residents voted 72 per cent in favour, and the change took effect the following year.

The mantle of Canada’s Smallest City then fell to Kaslo — which barely had time to think about it, for soon after residents there also voted to become a village, which took effect at the start of 1959. Greenwood then assumed the title and proudly holds it to this day, with a population in the last census of 708. Greenwood may be North America’s smallest city too: Vergennes, Vermont claims to be the smallest in the US, with a population of just under 2,600.

If incorporated today, Greenwood would only qualify as a village, while Rossland and Grand Forks, each with populations under 4,000, would only qualify for town status.

Silverton, incorporated as a village in 1930, is BC’s smallest municipality by area, and between 2001 and 2011 it was the smallest by population too, with fewer than 200 people. However, Zeballos, on Vancouver Island, is smaller still with 125 people on the last census.

Several unincorporated areas have larger populations than Silverton, and some have considered incorporating, such as Christina Lake, Genelle, and Riondel. Riondel does have a commission of management, which functions very much like a village council.

Other places that considered incorporating around the turn of the 20th century but either decided against it or weren’t able to meet the requirements included Cascade, Poplar Creek, Ferguson, and Ymir. New Denver and Nakusp were also among the latter group, but did finally become villages in 1929 and 1964 respectively. Nakusp also had an unofficial village council in the early 1900s.

Salmo and Castlegar incorporated as villages on the same day in 1946. Castlegar’s twin community, Kinnaird, became a village in 1948. Castlegar then became a town in 1966, followed by Kinnaird in 1967, although there was always talk of amalgamation, which became a reality in 1974 following a referendum. Voters were then asked to name the new city. Castlegar was the overwhelming favourite.

The most peculiar local municipality was Tadanac, the exclusive neighborhood adjacent to the Cominco smelter which broke away from Trail in 1922 and became a separate company-owned district. This was despite the objections of the provincial Labour party, which claimed the arrangement was a convenient way for Cominco to avoid paying municipal taxes.

To satisfy critics, the company agreed to make annual payments to Trail, cover half of all school costs, help with the upkeep of parks and cemeteries, and not allow any stores in Tadanac. The reeve and council were elected by Cominco employees, although candidates were invariably company lawyers and executives.

Tadanac survived as an independent municipality for more than 40 years, when amid threats of lawsuits, an amalgamation agreement was signed. In 1969, Tadanac rejoined Trail.

In the 1950s, three bedroom communities of Trail declared themselves villages: Fruitvale, Warfield, and Montrose. On several occasions Warfield considered becoming part of Trail. The idea of a district municipality to combine all the Greater Trail communities has also been considered repeatedly, as has the notion of a Beaver Valley district municipality.

Since the creation of the regional districts of Central Kootenay and Kootenay Boundary in the 1960s, which provided local government representation to rural areas, only one other new municipality has been created in our area. Midway became a village in 1967 — and until 2005, only ever had one mayor, Jim McMynn.

Since Castlegar and Kinnaird amalgamated in 1974, the local government landscape has remained unchanged.

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