R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum president Norma Harisch, Mayor Nancy Cooper, advisory committee member Bryan Kassa, North Okanagan Shuswap MP Mel Arnold, Neskonlith elder Louis Thomas and author/historian Jim Cooperman cut the ribbon to officially open the Montebello Museum on July 8. (Photo contributed)

Digging into Shuswap mining history

Montebello Museum displays artifacts and stories on the search for a fortune in gold

A dirt floor littered with rock samples sowed the seed for a new exhibition at the Montebello Museum at R.J. Haney Heritage Village.

“Seeds live in curators’ minds,” laughs curator Deborah Chapman who, in 1989, lived in a house owned by Ethel Belli Bivar, a female prospector known as Pete the Gold Widow, who went to Big Bend in search of gold after her husband died. “When I started working at the museum in 1990, I saw photos in Rex Lingford’s glass plate negative collection.”

Chapman says miners headed for the Big Bend on the Columbia River via Shuswap Lake six years after the Cariboo Gold Rush, which began in 1860. A year later, the Columbia Gold Rush was officially a bust, she says.

Many bitter miners gave up their golden dreams, but in 1866, 80 die-hard miners wintered at Scotch Creek, having seen coarse pellets and nuggets found 10 miles from the creek’s mouth.

This ignited mining fever in the Shuswap, says Chapman, noting the new Montebello exhibit, “Can You Dig it?” explores the history of placer and hard-rock mining in the Shuswap.

Related: Montebello Museum opens at Haney

The exhibit includes artifacts from “Jolly” Jack Thornton’s Sunset Mine Claim on Mt. Ida. A miner’s pump, rocker and assaying equipment from other claims accompany stories in photos captured over the last century, says Chapman.

Also contributing to the exhibit is Jim Cooperman, an avid environmentalist, historian and author of Everything Shuswap.

He has combined four of his columns that appeared in the Shuswap Market News to create Scotch Creek Gold Rush History Fever, a booklet on the history of gold mining in the area. It is available to read online at salmonarmmuseum.org.

“This has been an exciting project that has involved a lot of people, including longtime residents Larry Speed and Ralph Bischoff,” says Cooperman who explains that the 84-year-old Speed moved to the Shuswap when he was 10.

As a boy, he had discovered evidence of mining operations that had taken place as late as the 1930s and ’40s, as had Bischoff, who belongs to the first Caucasian family to move to the Scotch Creek area.

The two men shared their knowledge, taking Cooperman on hikes to show him some structural remains of the local gold rush.

Related: Launching into Shuswap

Cooperman says that even after five hikes there is potential for ongoing research.

“It’s just been a lot of fun; it’s great that we have an area like Scotch Creek Valley,” he says. “I would like to hike from the bottom of the trail at the Scotch Creek bridge up to the forks of Scotch Creek.”

Cooperman says Speed and Lola Bentley loaned artifacts and the North Shuswap Historical Society contributed images to the exhibit.

“As (now deceased) Salmon Arm board member Mary Lou Tapson-Jones was fond of saying, ‘There are traces of gold throughout the Shuswap but no one has found the mother lode yet…’” Chapman adds.

Residents and tourists are invited to catch the fever by learning to pan for gold outside the Montebello Museum, where the grand opening of the exhibit was celebrated on July 8.

R.J. Haney Heritage Village & Museum, located at 751 Highway 97, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week in July and August.

The village is set on 40 acres of farmland and features many historical buildings, beautiful gardens, a gift shop and Marjorie’s Tea Room, which serves homemade soups, sandwiches, salads and desserts. The annual Villains and Vittles Dinner Theatre runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and features a homemade meal and a show that includes music, humour and local history. For more information, call 250-832-5243, or go to salmonarmmuseum.org.


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