Strathcona Centennial

It is an unfortunate truth that whenever the subject of the environment and conservation arises, much shaking of heads and lamenting ensues. In general I would count myself among those who believe that not enough is being done to conserve healthy, intact ecosystems for the future. But I am happy to suddenly find myself amidst plans to celebrate a landmark success for conservation in British Columbia, the creation of Strathcona Park.

I say suddenly, but there’s nothing sudden about it as Strathcona is about to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary, and many of those involved in organizing events around the occasion have had their eye on that date for some time. If you’ll cast your memory back, way back, further than most of us really can, and stop some time around 1910, this is when Strathcona Park’s story begins.

Buttle Lake
Buttle Lake

The land within Strathcona has been around infinitely longer than the place has been called a park. Continental plates have swam across seas, ice ages have glazed and thawed and First Nations have travelled across Vancouver Island through the area for as long as it matters. So it is with due respect that the tale of the colonial idea of a ‘park’ is told. In 1910 the Dominion of Canada was barely fifty years old and the trans-continental railway, linking the east and west coast of the young country, had only just been completed in 1885.

It seems a variety of initiatives, expedition reports, government ambitions and priorities of the day led to a large tract of land in central Vancouver Island being set aside for parkland. Not the least of these defining enterprises was the demarcation of the Esquimalt-Nanaimo Railway land grant. In1882 its western boundary ran as far north as the summit of Crown Mountain, which is just to the west of Campbell River. 

Crown Mountain plays an important role in defining Vancouver Island’s most significant land boundary. So it would be no surprise that when Okanagan representative and Commissioner of Lands, the Hon. Price Ellison departed Victoria in July 1910 to explore the area reserved for a new park, it was the Island’s crown that he had his eyes firmly fixed on.

Ellison was perhaps an unlikely mountaineer. He was a horseman, a rancher from the Interior, and certainly from appearances in photographs from the time, doesn’t seem to have been in the best of shape. But he brought a determined attitude to a bold undertaking when he heeded Premier Sir Richard McBride’s request that he explore and report back on the suitability of Strathcona as a park.

Ellison and his entourage arrived in Campbell River at the Willows Hotel just before noon on July 7, 1910 by steamship. At that time the hotel was about all there was to Campbell River but it had already made a name for itself for the salmon fishing and scenery. Tourists from Europe and America rubbed shoulders with loggers and fishermen and they all must have marvelled at Ellison and his crew as final preparations were made for their journey up the Campbell River to the fearsome summit of Crown Mountain, and further by way of  Buttle Lake to Port Alberni.


Party Leaving Northern End of Buttle Lake (Archives)
Party Leaving Northern End of Buttle Lake (Archives)

Twenty-three people made up the Strathcona Discovery Expedition, including Ellison’s daughter Myra and nephew Harry McLure Johnson who kept a beautifully scripted journal of the adventure. The party was guided for much of the way by the Reverend William W. Bolton who was among the first Europeans to see and travel on Buttle Lake during one of two epic expeditions he made transiting Vancouver Island in 1894 and 1896. Colonel W.J.H. Holmes was the scientific head of the group and led the Crown Mountain climbing party. There were an assortment of foresters, woodsmen, a photographer, a cook, packers and First Nations canoe men, in all, an eclectic bunch.


Travelling up the Campbell River to reach Upper Campbell Lake took over a week, , a journey we now drive in a scant half an hour. They were aided greatly by local aristocracy in the shape of Lord Nathan Bacon of the Barony of Vancouver. Bacon was trapping and prospecting around Upper Campbell Lake and knew the region as well as anyone. But he was of little use when Ellison pressed his intent to climb Crown Mountain. Johnson recorded a telling exchange between Ellison (‘the Chief’) and Col. Holmes. Johnson wrote “Chief asks the Colonel if he can get us to Crown Mountain by compass. The Colonel answers that he can take us any place by his compass but we must remember that the trail of the compass might not be one that we would want to follow.”!

Group on Crown Mtn (Archives)
Group on Crown Mtn (Archives)

It was on a rugged route indeed that Holmes successfully led a group of nine from the main party to the summit of Crown Mountain on July 29, 1910. The sight of the high peaks of the Elk River, their sheer north faces and glaciers, is as impressive an alpine view as anywhere in British Columbia. Doubtless that experience and the image of that view remained with Ellison and inspired his glowing report to cabinet upon his return to Victoria. It took another two weeks for the Ellison expedition party to make their way down from Crown Mountain to Buttle Lake, then overland to Great Central Lake and on to Port Alberni. It was an undertaking that British Columbians can be forever grateful for, as it led directly to the legislation that enacted Strathcona Park on March 1, 1911, formalizing BC’s first Provincial Park and initiating BC Parks.

Skipping the checkered ninety-nine year history of Strathcona to date, we find ourselves on the doorstep of celebrating the park’s one-hundredth anniversary.  Plans are underway to re-enact Ellison’s landmark journey from Campbell River to Port Alberni this coming summer. The Strathcona Centennial Expedition aims to follow the route of the 1910 party as closely as possible in July and August 2010, including a climb to the summit of Crown Mountain one hundred years to the day that Commissioner Ellison stood there.

Following tradition, BC’s Lieutenant Governor has issued a proclamation marking the Strathcona Centennial Expedition as the official re-enactment. The organizers are a collaborative group of: members of the Strathcona Park Public Advisory Committee and local BC Parks personnel. They are working to plan and carry out the expedition, associated community events and tie-in with BC Parks 100, which follows throughout 2011. 

Crown Mtn Camp (photo by Paul Agnew)
Crown Mtn Camp (photo by Paul Agnew)

There is a lot of potential for the core expedition undertaking to spin-off events in Vancouver Island communities as they make their way along the route. First Nations, local governments, museums, historical societies, cultural committees, outdoor clubs, conservation groups, media and anyone with a connection to Strathcona’s past, present and future can find an angle to pin an event or initiative on. 

The Strathcona Centennial Expedition will begin its trek by gathering in Campbell River on July 21. The modern day party will find the early going considerably easier now that hydro-dams have calmed the once turbulent river into placid lakes. But once beyond the end of the road things will be much as it was in Ellison’s day as they make their way toward Crown Mountain. There will be plenty of adventure awaiting, although equipment may be lighter than the rubber tarps and heavy blankets of a century ago.

There are many ways to become involved with the Strathcona Centennial Expedition. The project needs sponsors, donations, volunteers and participants. There’s lots of information with details online on the expedition web site There will be community events in Campbell River, Port Alberni, Qualicum Beach and perhaps other island communities so keep an eye out for news in your local media during the spring and summer, and all through next year as BC celebrates BC Parks 100 during 2011.


Philip Stone is a writer and publisher on Quadra Island. He is currently a candidate for the BC Greens in the North Island and is the greens’ energy spokesperson.

Published by Philip Stone

Philip Stone is a writer and publisher on Quadra Island. He is currently a candidate for the BC Greens in the North Island and is the greens' energy spokesperson.