Trail is seen in a ca. 1908 postcard image. (Greg Nesteroff collection)

PLACE NAMES: Trail

The Dewdney Trail gave the City of Trail its name

A series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names

Trail takes its name from Trail Creek, in turn named after the Dewdney Trail, which followed the creek down to the Columbia River. The trail, built in the 1860s from Hope to Fort Steele, was named after Edgar Dewdney, who oversaw its construction and went on to become BC’s lieutenant-governor.

The earliest mention of Trail Creek is the Revelstoke Kootenay Star of June 28, 1890, in a dispatch from Sproat’s Landing (near present-day Raspberry): “Mining matters are quiet, no news having been received from the latest find on Trail Creek, 20 miles south of here, but we are looking for the return of some of the men every day …”

From the context, it seems like the creek may have been mentioned before in the same paper, but only three earlier issues survive. Trail Creek didn’t appear on George Dawson’s 1889 map of the area, although he admitted he didn’t venture further south on the Columbia River than Sproat’s.

After the Centre Star and War Eagle claims were staked at present-day Rossland, that area became known as Trail Creek Camp, first mentioned in the Nelson Miner on Aug. 16, 1890. (Attempts to rename it Robson or Oklahoma failed, so Trail Creek Camp it remained for several years.)

The Revelstoke Kootenay Mail of Nov. 24, 1894 explained: “The Trail Creek mining camp … is reached by wagon road following Trail Creek, which gives the name to the district … The mines are said to have been discovered back in the ‘70s [sic] when the Dewdney trail was being opened over the Gold Range, starting from this point on the Columbia …”

(While this may be inaccurate, Dewdney boasted that he recognized the area’s mineral potential during the trail’s construction “and advised men to go there.”)

Many sources state Trail was originally called Trail Creek Landing, and while that’s true, it didn’t last long. The Kootenay Star of Sept. 13, 1890 reported: “Ore is being packed to Trail creek landing for shipment to Little Dalles, thence to Colville and Spokane.”

Other than that single reference, it was called Trail Creek or simply Trail.

The Nelson Miner of May 23, 1891 carried an ad for Eugene Topping and Frank Hanna’s hotel, the Trail House, at “Trail, BC.” Elsewhere the same issue stated that “The town of Trail has a corner on twins. It is the only town in the lake country that can boast of twin babies.” (Mollie and Lydia, born to Frank and Mary Jane Hanna on March 5, 1891.)

The post office, authorized on May 14, 1891, opened on July 1 of that year as Trail Creek.

Also in 1891, Arthur S. Farwell surveyed the Trail townsite on Topping’s behalf — and named a street after himself. (A street was named for Topping in the Columbia Heights addition, but the Hanna family was overlooked. The Hannas did, however, have a creek named after them, as did Topping.)

Beginning in 1895, Trail Creek Landing appeared on the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Co.’s timetables, and the old name was in vogue again for a couple of years.

Trail’s first newspaper, the Trail Creek News, launched in October 1895. The post office was renamed Trail on Jan. 1, 1897, but the newspaper didn’t follow suit to become the Trail News until 1906. (After several more name changes, it became the Trail Times.)

Much later, two longtime Trail Times reporters expressed dismay at the city’s name.

“I’ve always been puzzled by the naming of our fair city,” Lana Rodlie wrote on Aug. 19, 1994. “Supposedly it came from the Dewdney Trail that wafted through the hills of Rossland. A creek that ran alongside or crossed the Dewdney Trail was then called the Trail Creek. From Trail Creek came the development at the bottom … Again instead of giving it a decent name our forefathers opted for Trail Creek Landing. After that the name was shortened to Trail. So why didn’t they call the creek Dewdney Creek? Then today, maybe Trail would be called Dewdney, certainly a better name than Trail. At least it would have been named after a person.”

(Some of Dewdney’s descendants who still live in the West Kootenay might wish the same thing. However, Dewdney isn’t wanting for BC geographic features: there are eight named after him, including a community, creek, flats, island, and peak.)

Raymond Masleck wryly commented on Oct. 21, 2012: “Warfield and Trail residents wish they had a nickel for all the times they have had to struggle to explain to someone at the other end of the telephone line that Trail is a town not a street. But at least the early burghers of the Silver City did not have a high-priced branding expert advising them when they set out to shorten the name of Trail Creek Landing. If they had, we would be living in TCL, Tracreelia or some other even more blandly and forgettably named burg.”

A Sinixt name has been recorded for Trail, tsagwlxilhts’a, translated as “wash body.” In their Lakes Indian Ethnography and History, Dorothy Kennedy and Randy Bouchard wrote that “Our informants knew tsagwlxilhts’a as the name for Trail but do not know about the Lakes people’s utilization of this place.”

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