by Rachael Lesosky
A discovery during a Burton volunteer group’s annual clean-up day has set in motion a restoration project of historical significance.
Since noticing the overgrown site in 2021, the Friends of the Burton Walkway have been restoring the Burton Historical Cemetery and working to uncover its past.
“We want to build awareness about the cemetery and bring beauty and respect back to the space,” said Liz Gillis, a member of the group.
Along with maintaining the site, the group is now working on designing four signs: two to identify the burial mounds, one to list who is buried there, and one to share the history of the site.
“People just don’t know. Without proper signage, they have left their garbage and been disrespectful to the space,” said Gillis. “But since we’ve been bringing positive attention to it, we’ve already started to see less garbage left behind.”
Founded in 1923 by the Women’s Institute of Burton, the cemetery is one of 10 others that was affected by the flooding of the Arrow Lakes reservoir in 1967. Of the 10, it is the only one that remains accessible to visit. The others were lost to the forest and the water, when their communities fled from the flood.
“It is the last real piece of our community that wasn’t flooded,” said Gillis. “And we have a role with this cemetery to make people aware that it didn’t just happen here, but in 10 other communities.”
It all started when the Friends of the Burton Walkway stumbled upon the cemetery during a trail clean-up in 2021. The local seniors’ group established the one-kilometre Burton Walkway in 2003 to provide a safe place to be in nature.
“At the time, we didn’t have very many trails, and our community is right off the highway,” said Gillis.
The scenic walkway skirts along Arrow Lake and connects the Burton Historical Campground and the Burton Historical Cemetery.
In 2019, Gillis was asked by the seniors’ group to help with applying for funding for the trail. From there evolved the current volunteer group that manages the trail today, the Friends of the Burton Walkway.
During a trail clean-up in 2021, the Friends came upon the cemetery site. It was neglected and overgrown, with only a small sign identifying it.
The group got to work clearing away dead trees and garbage.
“At the end of the clean-up, we were admiring our work and someone said, ‘Did you realize that that’s also part of the cemetery?’”
There was a whole other section hidden by nature and debris. From that moment on, Gillis said the group was committed to restoring the historical space.
“We felt that researching the cemetery’s history was an important place to start because our end goal is to design signs about the site,” she said.
The group received support from Columbia Basin Trust. This funded mapping of the walkway and cemetery site.
It also allowed them to work with Kyle Kusch, who was the archivist with the Arrow Lakes Historical Society at the time.
During the winter of 2022/23, Kusch and volunteers at the archives created a report. It included the names and short bios of the 97 individuals buried there, including five Sinixt people.
“We couldn’t have done it without Kyle and the society,” Gillis said.
“Without them, we would still have a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the space.”
The project has received much positive support. On March 11, Kusch presented his findings to almost 100 community members. Some travelled from as far as Vernon to view photos and hear the stories.
The individuals laid to rest led adventurous lives, full of the joys and tragedies of settling in a remote and wild place. As Burton’s website puts it, the settlement is “on the way to exactly nowhere.” Yet, that hasn’t kept descendants from remaining in Burton to this day.
Though detailed, Gillis said the report is just the first layer of the onion, since it only made use of the local archives. What could BC Archives or BC Hydro reveal, she wonders. She hopes to one day find the resources to explore deeper.
“But the research we have done is very central to guiding the next part of the project – signage,” said Gillis.
The Friends received a Resident Directed (ReDi) grant from Columbia Basin Trust this year, and are now working with Heather Smith of Moraine Recreation Consulting. Smith completed the mapping portion of the project, and is now designing the signs.
It is looking for support, and will be approaching larger organizations to help with the cost of beautifying and restoring the cemetery.
“But I look back at what we’ve done, even in the last few years, it’s incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish,” she said. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
To view a map of the walkway and cemetery, and to read the research document, visit burtonbc.ca.