Early Days in British Columbia

January 4, 2001

It is a dull winter day with overcast skies and a suggestion of rain. Son John was up from Vancouver for a short and welcome visit before Xmas.

Being interested in family history he persuaded me to record some family history. What will evolve as a result of his encouragement and my procrastination?

My father Preston Charles Coates was a fourth generation Canadian. His great grand father emigrated from Yorkshire England in 1816 The Coates family were sheep farmers near the village of Kirk Ella, Yorkshire, not far from Hull where wool was an important world export.

My father was born in May 16, 1880 in Barrie Ontario at the family home on the corner of Owen and Worsley Streets. In the late 1880's his family moved to Vancouver Island in the vicinity of Comox. The area was not settled at that time. Courtney and Comox evolved much later. The post office and areas were known as Sandwich P.O. As there was no school there at that time most of the family's early education was taught at home by their parents.

He was reported to be a good student and when schooling was later available he progressed rapidly, attended the University of Toronto and graduated as a Civil Engineer in 1904. He married Edith Kate Roper, my mother, in Toronto, December 21, 1905.

His first work after graduation was at Cobalt and around

the silver mining area country in northern Ontario. He also worked in northern Alberta in the Lake Athabasca area. He enjoyed
the outdoor life and adventures in remote and virgin country. He talked of survey trips in the Kootenays in the big bend country, the Blaeberry and Canoe Rivers.He also worked in the Shuswap Lake country. This note appears in some old records. "Mother and Jean arrived Salmon Arm December 29, 1907. Bought house in Salmon Arm for $850.00 on corner of Centre Street and 3rd Avenue.


Surveying mining claims and timber limits entailed rafting the rivers and travel by pack trains with equipment and crew. The big Mica Dam River development above Revelstoke flooded the Big Bend of the Columbia River. It is now the big Kinbasket Lake making much of the area accessible only by boat. I drove over this big bend area with its interesting and powerful rivers before it was flooded.

In 1917 with a family of five children and work that entailed much traveling and necessitating being away from home a lot he opened an office in Victoria. His stationary read

P.C. Coates, Dominion & British Columbia Land Surveyor;
Timber Limits, Purchase Lands, Subdivisions and Mineral Claims

In 1912 he purchased a lot on Violet Avenue in the Saanich area of Victoria and built a two story house for his family. A farmer at heart he soon had a good garden, a cow which "I learned to milk", a flock of chickens and a pig

To complement the family farm he had a nice grass tennis court where I recall he entertained some of his friends

Among his records is an agreement dated 1921, to purchase a 1920 Ford touring car for $695.00 on the installment plan at 45.18 per month, interest at 6.5%.  (See copy at end)

About 1919 partly for family reasons and the lack of demand in the engineering field he accepted a teaching job at Victoria High School and in 1924 he accepted a school principal job in Prince George.  In August that year my father, myself, 14 years old, and an assistant driver and friend of fathers, Charles Drennan, drove to Prince George, the family to arrive later after accommodation was arranged.  We drove the ford car to Hope where we transferred the car to a flat car on the Kettle Valley Railway to get from Hope to Princeton.  The Fraser Canyon was not open at that time.  We then continued from Princeton to Spences Bridge and up what is now Highway 97 to Prince George.  The road was rough and treacherous; sections were "suspended" at that time around Spences Bridge.  The weather was hot and the roads were washboard.  As I remember the Ford behaved well and we arrived safely in Prince George. I think that Charley Drennan our driver was a brother of my last school teacher in Victoria, Rose Drennan, who I admired and enjoyed as a teacher!  The Drennans may be related to Ann Drennan, police liaison officer in Vancouver, who was well respected and mentioned quite often in the news. The name Drennan always rings a bell (a nice bell)

Prince George at that time was considered the hub of the north, being surrounded by great timber resources, mineral potential and the valuable gas and oil potential of northern B.C.  There were three areas competing for the future growth of the town; South Fort George, present Prince George and an area I think was called Centralia.  As the C.N. railway passed through Prince George it was the logical choice for the present city.  The Pacific Great Eastern had surveyed and built the road bed ready for the laying of steel but that did not come about until 19??.

We rented a house in south Fort George named after the old Hudson Bay fort on the Fraser River.  It was in this house that I had what could have been a fatal accident. I had heard of and known people playing or working with dynamite caps who had lost arms and had been totally blinded.  Investigating our rented house, I found a Copenhagen (snoose) box on a beam in the basement.  Opening it I found it contained what looked like 22 shells. Dad had previously warned me about blasting caps.  Whether it was caution, good luck or the good lord watching over me I did not investigate any further but put them back on the beam. It was tempting to investigate further.  What a catastrophe if I had; as my parents were struggling without having a crippled kid in the family. I hesitate to think of what might have happened.

JackJack PatPat


I was fourteen at the time and moving to Prince George was a thrilling adventure.  We lived close to the mighty Fraser River and the old Hudson Bay Fort then serving as the town police station.  There were two old relic river boats along the river bank.  They were locked up and out of bounds but we had to find a way to investigate them thoroughly as boys.

The big interesting river was an invitation for us young fishermen.  I set night lines in the big back eddies for Dolly Varden trout.  I was surprised one morning when I pulled in after a bit of a struggle a creature that I though at first was a shark. It turned out to be a sturgeon, the only one I ever caught or expect to catch. It was consumed and enjoyed by the family.  They are boneless, good flesh and good eating.

Prince was a young rough town, plain board buildings with gravel roads and extreme winter temperatures.  Woolen underwear, heavy socks, moccasins or shoe packs were the norm with warm toques with a small visor to see and breath through. The Northern lights were also spectacular.

Winter was cold with temperatures 40 and 50 below Fahrenheit and the river froze to a depth of four or five feet.  Teamsters hauled sleigh loads of logs over the ice in winter.  It was common to hear timber wolves serenading from the far bank of the river at night.

The break up in the spring was a sensational and interesting event.  At break up time there was a continuous rumbling and growling with huge house size chunks of ice grinding their way down river.  The Nechako River ice making its contribution as well.

I was very interested to see dog teams and toboggans mushing down Main Street in the winter.  Trappers in for supplies and I presume selling furs.

In the summer Indian canoes with several people in each boat were occasionally seen silently plying the river.Summer weather was warm and much enjoyed, including berry picking, fishing and getting acquainted with the country.  Prince George was a wonderful berry country. Blueberries, Saskatoons and cranberries.  Small bands of natives had berry picking expeditions.  As a family we also picked quantities of berries for preserving, and many delicious pies.  These expeditions left us with red faces and hands not to mention leaving us quite healthy.

As kids we enjoyed some great toboggan rides and parties on some good hills.  We also played scrub hockey on some of the sloughs in winter.

Homes were heated mostly with wood stoves and heaters necessitating a good wood supply.  My father had a most unfortunate accident while on a wood cutting expedition.  After a day cutting wood he was on his way home with a load of wood pulled by a team of horses and two other helpers when he had a fall and injured his hip.  As I recall this was in August 1925.  He would be 45 years of age.  The men assisted him into the house and to bed. A doctor was called and he was diagnosed as having a sprained hip. The doctor's name was Dr. Ewart.  There were no X-ray facilities there at that time. When X-rays were taken in Penticton a year later it was discovered that his hip had been broken and a section of bone about 2 inches had been pushed out of position and absorbed by his body.

He went through a period of severe suffering and exercises as directed by the doctor; using crutches and eventually a cane. He was determined to recover and it was essential to him to be able to carry on teaching.  This must have been a very trying situation, being in the north country with a family of five children and a wife to take care of.  He suffered and struggled and finally decided X-rays were necessary and applied for and accepted a teaching position at the Penticton High School.  An X-ray examination clearly told the story.  As a result one leg being two inches shorter than the other he was left with a permanent limp for the rest of his life

Around the 1925-26 era there was a concerted movement to unite the several religious denominations into one body.  This eventually evolved into what is today the United Church of Canada.  My father came from a Presbyterian family and my mother a fundamentalist Baptist family. Moving around the province they became involved and accepted into various denominations.  Mother was always welcome as she was an organist and piano player.  My father was a scientist leaning heavily to the H.G. Wells and Darwinian theory and automatically expressed the theory of evolution.  I recall several meetings with dedicated fundamentalists and evolutionists trying to reach a conclusion to unite the churches.  For the dedicated fundamentalists it was a life and death struggle determined to continue with their Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic and Anglican faiths.  The Methodists, the Congregationalists and two thirds of the Presbyterians affirmed what is now the United Church.

I was young, uncommitted and sitting on the fence.

The principal of the Pentiction High School was a fundamental Baptist however and my father as a scientist with a teaching instinct expressed the evolution theory.

The result of the story was that he decided to try fruit growing.  I recall him perusing the attractive advertising circulars promoting the wonderful opportunities for orchardists under the South Okanagan Lands Project (SOLP) and was not surprised when he discussed the thought of fruit growing with the family and asked me if I would go in with him.  Having moved several times and attending three different schools I was not an enthusiastic student so was quite agreeable to his invitation.

A New Chapter

After nearly a life time 43 years as a fruit grower in Oliver with all the trials, tribulations and rewards we (my dear wife Margie and I) sold the "Foothills" our last orchard property in 1974 and purchased a retirement home at Vaseux Lake,thereby graduating from the continuous work and responsibilities associated with fruit growing.  Any branch of farming entails gambling with mother nature, Spring frosts and extreme winter weather and windstorm are a few of the hazards over which the fruit growers has little control.


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Aug/09