The tragic fire that consumed most of Lytton on June 30 this year is the end of a chapter of the community’s history.
Lytton is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America, with an Indigenous history going back thousands of years. The site at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser rivers is the heart of the Nlaka’pamux Nation.
The visit of the first white people to Camchin, as explorer Simon Fraser wrote that the Nlaka’pamux called the place, was on June 19, 1808. In his journal, Fraser spoke of the hospitality he and his crew received from the Chief and his people — numbering 1,200. Fraser states, “I had to shake hands with all of them.”
Lytton was also called “the Forks” by the fur traders and “Grand Forks” by HBC governor George Simpson in 1828. His party ran the Thompson and Fraser rivers in canoes, barely escaping with their lives.
In 1857, a Hudson’s Bay Company depot called Fort Dallas was established about five kilometres downstream from the river confluence.
But it was short-lived. When the Crown Colony of B.C. was established in August 1858, Fort Dallas was closed and the buildings were moved to the site of the new town.
In November 1958, James Douglas, B.C.’s governor, decided that the settlement would be named Lytton, after Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton who was Secretary of State for the Colonies. Douglas reported that “the Forks, where the Town site of ‘Lytton’ was laid out, now contains 50 houses and a population of 900
In 1859, another visitor to the town, Lieutenant R.C. Mayne, described it as “an irregular row of some dozen wooden huts, a drinking saloon, an express office, a large Court House — as yet unfinished — and two little buildings near the river which had once belonged to the H.B.Co. but which were now inhabited by the district magistrate.”
Another account from 1859 in the Victoria Gazette, said of the town, “The ‘City’ of Lytton is beautifully situated on a high plateau of green sward, as level and smooth as a carpeted floor… The town numbers twenty-six houses, built mostly of logs, one or two being very nicely finished…”
Following B.C.’s entry into Confederation in 1871, a start was made on planning the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
In 1872, Sandford Fleming and his CPR survey party stayed at the Globe Hotel run by the Hautier family, saying of Lytton that it can “scarcely be considered worthy of its aristocratic name. A single row of frail unpainted sheds or log shanties, the littleness and rickettiness of which are all the more striking from the two noble rivers that meet here and the lofty hills that enclose the two valleys, is the sum total of Lytton.”
In 1866, there was an attempt to have Lytton named as the capital of the newly amalgamated Crown Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.
Victoria was chosen over New Westminster but not before Lytton was nominated as a possible seat of government.
In 1871, photographer Benjamin Baltzly, (mentioned in this author’s previous article in KTW) described Lytton: “Most of the houses are unpainted, one storey buildings. It has a grist mill, several stores, groceries, and a few hotels… The soil is light and sandy and the wind blows unceasingly almost like a hurricane, and one can imagine the effect of sand
There had been a significant Chinese presence in Lytton starting with the gold rush and then the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through B.C. in the early 1880s.
A Chinese joss house, where deities are set up on an altar for people to pray for good health and peace, was located at the south end of town.
The C.P.R. was completed through the town in 1885 and was followed by what is now the Canadian National Railway in 1914.
Sadly, much of the history of Lytton was lost in the recent conflagration that destroyed the Lytton Museum and the Lytton Chinese History Museum that had only opened in 2017.
This article is dedicated to the people of Lytton who have lost their lives and their homes in the recent fire. It is hoped that the community can be rebuilt and the two museums that were lost and the history they preserved can be revived.