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Ymir’s pronunciation still baffles newcomers

PLACE NAMES Ymir: In Norse mythology, Ymir is pronounced ee-mer. So why do we say why-mer instead?
Signs found around Ymir. (Greg Nesteroff photos)

A series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names

By Greg Nesteroff

Special to Black Press

Ymir was formerly known as Quartz Creek and Wild Horse.

In Norse mythology, Ymir was father of the giants and grandfather of Odin, king of the gods.

Geologist George Dawson is believed to have named Ymir Mountain, first mentioned in his 1889 Report on a Portion of the West Kootanie [sic] District: “The Ymir mountains, to the south of the West Arm of Kootanie Lake … attain heights of about 8,000 feet …” (Dawson also chose Norse names for the Valhalla mountains in the Slocan Valley.)

Wild Horse or Wildhorse Creek — not to be confused with the stream in the East Kootenay — was first mentioned in the Nelson Miner of July 20, 1895 as the location of the Rockland and Ymir mining claims, both staked by Joseph Pitre. (Wildhorse Creek is officially known as Ymir Creek, but the sign says Wildhorse.)

Quartz Creek was first mentioned in the Miner of Aug. 31, 1895 as the location of the Arcadia mining claim. By the following year, a settlement began where Quartz Creek entered the Salmo River, as noted in the Miner of Oct. 31, 1896: “Lorne Beecher has returned from a trip to Wild Horse and Salmo river district. He says that a new hotel is going up at Quartz Creek …”

The Miner quoted S.S. Fowler on March 20, 1897: “The new town of Quartz Creek is building up rapidly and has about 40 buildings now.”

However, the Trail Creek News of March 26 gave an alternate name: “Ralph White, the well known mining man, will soon make his headquarters at Wild Horse, the promising new town in the Salmon.” The next day, the Miner added: “A newspaper is to be published at Wild Horse, the new town between Nelson and Waneta on the Fort Sheppard railway.”

A post office application filed on March 11 suggested either Wild Horse or Ymir would do. It transcribed an undated letter from Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway president D.C. Corbin:

“I have just returned from Quartz Creek … and am now having a townsite subdivided there … I understand from parties there that they have applied for a post office to be called Wild Horse, but that the PO department declined to accept that name, which I think is quite right. Quartz Creek is about as objectionable and in casting about for what local name that would be easy to speak, I find that professor Dawson, dominion geologist, named the range of mountains just east of there Ymir range and it occurs to me that the it would be an appropriate name for the town and have decided to give the new townsite at Quartz Creek (Wild Horse) that name. I think it appropriate as designating a local mountain range and cannot see that the PO department can make any objection to it, as it is euphonious, short, and unlike the name of any other town in the province …”

Oddly, Corbin wasn’t concerned about how Ymir might be pronounced.

Donovan Clemson observed in the Victoria Daily Colonist of Jan. 17, 1971: “No great events took place there, so even the correct pronunciation of the name has bothered very few people. To the inhabitants it is Wimer, to rhyme with oldtimer, but the Dictionary of Canadian English offers emir, to rhyme with dreamer.”

Newcomers might guess it’s yimmer or why-MEER. How did early residents say it? We can’t be sure, but the present pronunciation took hold no later than the 1920s. E.A. Harris wrote in the Winter 1992-93 edition of the BC Historical News about his arrival in January 1927: “[W]hen the conductor called out ‘Wy-mer, Wy-mer next,’ I knew how to pronounce Ymir.”

The first mention of the town’s new name was in the Miner of May 15, 1897: “At Ymir, the new townsite at Quartz Creek, the lots were put on sale and in two days all the choice business locations were sold at prices ranging from $250 to $400.”

F.A. Wilkin completed the townsite survey on June 23 of that year, after Corbin got an injunction against three men who tried to jump his claim. Original streets that survive in whole or in part are Tamarac, Cedar, Fir, Birch, and Balsam, plus 1st through 5th avenues. The original plan had more tree-themed streets: Spruce, Hemlock, Maple, Poplar, Cherry, Willow, Alder, and Pine. Across the Salmo River were Ash, Hill, Oak, Beech, and Elm.

The Ymir post office opened on Aug. 1, 1897. (Its only closure was between Oct. 2 and Dec. 7, 2015.)

A fanciful but false alternate explanation for Ymir’s name apppeared in the Nelson Daily News of Jan. 10, 1951. Pioneer John Price told R.G. Joy: “Ymir was originally spelled Ymier, the name of the claim originally located by Jack Philbert, Joe Petrie and Oliver Blair. Petrie, a Frenchman, stated that he had chosen the name Ymier, after a range of mountains in northern France. When the Nelson-Fort Sheppard Railway built the new station they dropped a letter, and the sign read Ymir. A prospector who was walking the ties stopped at the station, and with a piece of chalk wrote beneath the name Ymir ‘Why’m I here? Dead broke.’”