Learn – Harrison Hot Springs; rich in culture and history

Learn about Harrison Hot Springs


Early history and the Stò:lo: The real history of  Harrison Hot Springs began many thousands of years ago with the first inhabitants of the area. Although there is no certain date for the first people living in the area best archaeological estimates are that the earliest people lived here some 10,000 years ago shortly after the retreat of the last ice age. Again, while there remains significant debate it seems most likely that these earliest people came from the Asian continent. While little remains from this early period of prehistory we do know that these were the predecessors of the Stò:lo people.           According to Stò:lo oral history they have lived in this area since the beginning of time and have many wonderful stories describing the creation of their world. The Stò:lo are one of the cultural groups that form the people known as “Coast Salish.” The Coast Salish people represent a number of different cultural groups that inhabited most of southwestern B.C. and western Washington. While there are many differences between the groups that form the Coast Salish what they have in common are languages that are historically connected. The word Stò:lo translates to “river” or “river people” and in particular referred to the people that lived in the lower Fraser River valley. For more information on the Stò:lo and their rich history visit the Wikipedia web site.

As best as can be determined there were no Stò:lo people living in what is now Harrison Hot Springs. Before Europeans came along it was simply an area of cranberry marshes with magical hot springs. According to Belle Rendall in her “History of Harrison Hot Springs and Port Douglas Area” “The Indians of course had always known about the springs and they knew also of the “Keekwully Tybee” who sent up the medicine waters all hot from below. We are told they believed the springs of boiling water – Warum Chuck – were of supernatural origin, and regarded the hot water in the lake with reverence and awe and that those who drank the water were given mystic powers of endurance over their fellow men. According to some of the stories they believe the waters will boil as long as there is sickness in the land.” Three bands lived in Stò:lo territory relatively close to what is now Harrison Hot Springs and would likely have visited it regularly. One band was the Scowlitz, which translates to “turn at bottom” who lived near the mouth of the Harrison River and Harrison Bay. A second band was the Chehalis, which translates to “laying on the chest” who occupied land farther up the Harrison River by the Chehalis tributary. A third group that now live on Seabird Island Reserve were known in the Halq’eméylem language as Sq’éwqel or “turn in the river”. Interested in whats happening with the Sto:lo check out their website.


    The first Europeans: European exploration of British Columbia’s coast began in 1741, when the Danish explorer Vitus Bering first sailed along the BC coast. Some 30 year later in 1774 the coast was again visited this time by the Spanish explorer Juan Perez. However real surveying of British Columbia didn’t start until Captain James Cook, charted Nootka Sound in 1778. A Spanish expedition and a British expedition lead by Captain George Vancouver followed in 1792. These two groups cooperated together and charted much of Georgia Strait and Puget Sound. Still it was another 16 years before a European got anywhere near Harrison.

In 1808 Simon Fraser in his famous expedition canoed past the Harrison area including the mouth of the Harrison river. At that time Fraser made no mention of the Harrison River let alone the Harrison Lake. Initial exploration of the Harrison river began in 1827 by Hudson Bay Company fur traders. In fact Sir George Simpson, Governor in British Columbia of the Hudson Bay Company was so convinced of the possible value of this river that he wrote in a 1829 dispatch to Hudson Bay Company headquarters. “As it promises to become important to our interests in this quarter, not only as a practicable route to and form the interior but as opening to us a new tract of country, which the Natives say is Rich in Beaver, I have taken the liberty of naming it after one the Members of Your Honble. Board ‘Harrisons River’. It became known as Harrison River and Harrison Lake. This name was in respect of Benjamin Harrison an important shareholder and Committee member of the Hudson Bay Company. Interestingly enough Mr. Harrison was particularly concerned for the welfare of the Indian peoples of the area and did not want to see them exploited although he did want them converted to Christianity. His personal philosophy was deeply religious and he was of the belief that the Hudson Bay Company should reflect humanitarianism in its trading operations. However, it was not until 1846 that the full Harrison River and Harrison Lake were explored by Alexander Anderson who at the request of Governor Simpson investigated this possible route to the interior. Unfortunately, it was too difficult and dangerous for the time and the entire area remained relatively unexplored by Europeans other than fur traders for some time.

It was the Caribou Gold rush of 1858 that brought the Europeans back to the Harrison River route to the interior. However instead of a few fur traders it was now tens of thousands of gold miners. Sir James Douglas then Governor realized he needed a viable route to the interior for all these miners. He rediscovered the difficult Harrison-Lillooet route and set about putting the necessary roads and waterways in place. To review the route and assess it an expedition lead by Judge Matthew Begbie set out in 1859. Although he did not visit the springs at the south end of the lake he did name them after Governor Douglas’s daughter Alice and so by became know as Alice Springs. While there was some initial interest in Alice Springs as the gold rush ended in the early 1860’s so did any real interest in the location. It would be another 15 years before interest would return and the real history of Harrison Hot Springs would start.


The more recent History of Harrison Hot Springs  The location of Harrison Hot Springs appears on a map as early as 1846, although the springs themselves were not discovered till late in the 1850’s during the Caribou gold rush. The traditional story of the spring’s discovery talks about one member of a nearly frozen group of miners who were returning down the lake from Port Douglas, falling into the water from either being over anxious to reach the shore or from weakness. In any event he was so happy with the warmth, that his companions soon joined him. A year later Judge Matthew Begbie named the springs Alice Springs after the daughter of then Governor Douglas. However, nothing much happened in the years following its discovery and naming. The end of the gold rush meant the end of people coming to the area and the temporary end of interest in the springs. In 1873 Joseph Armstrong pre-empted 40 acres of land by the lake including the springs for the grand sum of $40. Several years later he received the Crown grant to the property. In 1886 he opened the St. Alice Hotel and the history of the village has been pretty much driven by this hotel ever since. The hotel was of course an enthusiastic promoter of the springs. Initial advertising claimed that the hot springs provided: “a sure cure for paralysis, rheumatism, syphilis, diabetes, neuralgia, skin diseases, mercurial poisoning, dipsomania, and all diseases of the womb, liver, and kidneys, besides many other maladies to which human flesh is heir.” What made the location viable was the newly completed transcontinental railway line that included a stop at Agassiz. The Hotel was successful and dominated life in the area. Owning 1400 acres along the lake it was able to pretty much dictate who and what came to the area. In 1920 the Hotel burnt down and had to be rebuilt. It reopened in 1926 under the new name Harrison Hot Springs Hotel. Now with the advent of the automobile the village was more accessible a number of auto camps with cabins were established and the village began to grow. In 1949 the Village of Harrison Hot Springs was incorporated. It had an area of just over 2000 acres and 476 inhabitants. The man who led and managed this process was Colonel Andrew McCormack Naismith who was also elected the first Chairman of the Harrison village commissioners.   

BibliographyDaphne Sleigh, “The People of the Harrison”, Abbotsford Printing, 1990 Belle Rendall,

“Healing Waters – History of Harrison Hot Springs and Port Douglas Area”, Harrison Lake Historical Society, 1981 Kieth Thor Carlson (editor), “

You are asked to Witness: The Sto:lo in Canada’s Pacific Coast History”, Sto:lo Heritage Trust, 1996 Arnold M. McCombs, Wilfrid W. Chittenden,


“The Harrison – Chehalis Challenge”, Treeline Publishing, 1988 To top of page