Sour Dough Alley in Rossland, looking east, 1895. City of Vancouver Archives/Major Matthews collection/AM54-S4

Rossland’s earliest thoroughfare once derided as a ‘muddy collection of shacks’

Place Names: Sourdough alley

Three hundred thirteenth in a series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names

Our recent look at Rossland neighbourhoods neglected to include the most colourful one of all. Sour Dough Alley (later Sourdough Alley) existed for a few years in the 1890s as a haphazard business district.

In Rossland: The Golden City, Lance Whittaker described the alley as a widening of the trail to the Le Roi mine with a “jerrybuilt, muddy collection of shacks,” and “everlasting welter of mud with planks thrown loosely about.”

The alley ran approximately north of and parallel to Columbia Avenue, beginning (or ending) at what is now Esling Park, crossed Washington Street, and continued a little ways east.

It was home to a drug store, bottling works, auction house, undertaker, milliner, boot store, blacksmith, restaurants, stables, and other shops, plus a red light district — all squatting on land granted to D.C. Corbin’s Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway.

It was first mentioned in the New Denver Ledge of March 28, 1895: “Sour Dough Alley is the name of a street on the government portion of the town.”

The Spokane Spokesman Review added soon afterward: “The name implies evanescence, in contradistinction to permanence. Sour dough bread is the staple food of the sheep herder and the bachelor rancher, as well as the prospector.”

The Rossland Mining Review of April 17, 1897 credited the name to Rossland Record publisher Harold Kingsmill, and explained “The idea in the name is that the people who lived there ‘batched’ and presumably used sour dough to make bread.”

Other explanations exist, but this seems to be the nub of it.

Sourdough became a nickname for experienced prospectors, especially those in Alaska or the Yukon, but hadn’t yet achieved that status when Sour Dough Alley was born.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of sourdough meaning prospector is from 1898. (Conversely, an inexperienced prospector was called a tenderfoot or cheecako, a Chinook jargon word.)

Sour Dough Alley was never an official name but it was widely used. Later in 1895, efforts were made to rename it — or at least a portion of it — Reserve Street, which referred to Corbin’s railway grant, on which much of the town would eventually be built. A narrow passageway that crossed Reserve Street became Independent Street.

While no businesses advertised themselves as located on Sour Dough Alley, several declared they were on Reserve Street. However, the new name didn’t stick. Sour Dough Alley appeared on the 1897 voters lists as the address of several residents and businesses.

When Rossland incorporated as a city in 1897, newly-elected mayor Robert Scott pledged to clean up the streets — and do away with Sour Dough Alley, which he called a “small, dirty and crooked lane” that is “rapidly becoming a thing of the past [and] will soon be a first class street.”

Shops on both sides of the alley were turned around, so those on the north side faced First Avenue and those on the south faced a new, presumably straighter alley north of Columbia.

Many squatters’ shacks and stores were moved higher up the hill. The red light district was also relocated to upper Lincoln (now Queen) street.

During this great shuffle, the Spokesman Review said it was “no uncommon thing to see houses dragged through the principal streets by a double string of horses.”

While a couple of classic photos of Sour Dough Alley have been reprinted endlessly, several lesser-known but equally impressive images exist, further demonstrating the street’s desultory design.

The name, now usually written as one word, lives on in a few ways. Sourdough Alley Holdings proposes to build Sourdough Row, a mix-use collection of commercial and residential units on part of the former Sourdough Alley site.

Red Mountain Resort is home to the Sourdough cafeteria, Sourdough Alley banquet room, and Sourdough Patio. Golden City Days has a Sour Dough Alley Stage.

The name was also exported to Seward, Alaska, which had its own Sourdough Alley.

— With thanks to Ron Shearer

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This is the most frequently reproduced photo of Sour Dough Alley in Rossland, but it’st not the only one. City of Vancouver Archives/S.J. Thompson photo/AM1376

Sour Dough Alley in Rossland. City of Vancouver Archives/Edwards Bros. photo/AM7353-S1-F2

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