Steam shovel and men with horse-drawn scrapers digging the Grey Canal around 1910. (Greater Vernon Museum and Archives photo)

Steam shovel and men with horse-drawn scrapers digging the Grey Canal around 1910. (Greater Vernon Museum and Archives photo)

Get Outdoors! And explore the historical Grey Canal Trails

Outdoors enthusiast turns the clock back on the popular trail surrounding Vernon, Coldstream

Every day hundreds of people walk, jog or cycle sections of the Grey Canal’s scenic trails that surround Vernon and the Coldstream Valley.

But who remembers when water flowed from the hills through the Grey Canal’s gravity-fed open ditches, wooden flumes and pipes to supply farms and orchards with irrigation up until 50 years ago? How many marvel at the incredible engineering feat of its day?

Let’s look back into the history of this area.

For thousands of years, the original Okanagan First Nations people always chose areas near creeks, lakes or other water sources for their seasonal encampments. By the 1860s, Cornelius O’Keefe, Francis Barnard (BX Ranch) and a few other enterprising young men from Eastern Canada, Britain and Europe, acquired land in the North Okanagan and grew rich by ranching to feed the hungry Cariboo gold rush miners around Barkerville.

Thousands of cattle free-ranged the tall, lush bunchgrasses of the dry hillsides. These ranchers also settled by good water sources.

Once the goldfields dwindled away by the 1890s, new settlers were attracted to the warm, scenic Okanagan Valley. Land developers, inspired by Lord and Lady Aberdeen’s Coldstream orchards and ranch, subdivided the large ranchlands into orchard estates complete with fruit trees. But the new settlers, mostly British and Belgian aristocracy, were unfamiliar with orchards. They soon realized that more water was required for the fruit trees and demanded an irrigation system.

So in 1906, the land developers began an incredibly extensive engineering feat – an irrigation canal system that would encircle 30 miles (50 km) around Coldstream and the North Okanagan’s growing new city of Vernon. It ran from the hills above Lavington to Okanagan Lake encircling the BX, Swan Lake and Bella Vista and took until 1914 to complete. It was the largest single irrigation system in B.C.’s history. Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada 1904-11, visited the newly constructed headgates and intake of the Lavington section in 1907 and named it the Grey Canal.

Dozens of men with horse-drawn slip scrapers ploughed the extensive wide open ditch canal.

Later a steam shovel and then another was added to speed up the process. Parts of the canal were reinforced with wood stave flumes and wire-wrapped wood siphon pipes were added to flow water through draws.

Technology for the wooden flumes and siphons came from European wine-barrels.

Irrigation water usually ran from June to October. But water loss through continual seepage, evaporation, breaks, droughts and even floods created havoc.

The canal’s expensive construction, along with ongoing repair and maintenance costs, pushed the land developers into bankruptcy. A public utility was formed – the Vernon Irrigation District (VID) in 1920 to take over.

VID kept maintaining, repairing and running the canal until metal water pipes were invented and a buried pipe system replaced the canal by 1970. Once the canal dried up, it became a natural, level walking path with spectacular valley views.

Vernon’s Ribbons of Green Trail Society has been lobbying and advocating to acquire the whole Grey Canal system for a continual trail. Check out their website ribbonsofgreen.ca for the best directions and information on the Grey Canal Trail sections.

You can see the impressive last remaining flumes and trestles on the Swan Lake East section near Glen Hayes Road. And interesting interpretive signs on the Foothills trail section and north of McLennan Road have wonderful historic photos.

Water From The Hills by Peter Tassie is an amazingly detailed history of the Grey Canal with fabulous historic photos and maps. It’s available from the museum and library.

Roseanne enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Discover exciting and adventurous natural events, best trails, and wild places. Follow her on Facebook for more.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Roxy Cafe has extended its patio into its parking spaces in order to keep dining options open during the latest pandemic health restrictions. (Downtown Vernon Association photo)
Consultation curbs downtown Vernon road closure

Closing ‘Main Street’ may not happen this summer

Kelowna Rockets forward Steel Quiring plays the puck against Kamloops Blazers forward Matthew Seminoff at Kelowna’s Prospera Place on Monday, May 11. (Contributed)
Kelowna Rockets burned in 10-2 loss to Kamloop Blazers

The Rockets gave up five power-play goals and were unsuccessful in their two power-play attempts

The administrative headquarters for Central Okanagan Public Schools in Kelowna. (File photo)
COVID-19 exposure confirmed at Rutland Elementary

Five other Central Okanagan Schools have been identified as sites of exposure to the virus since April 27

National Police Week runs May 9-15, 2021, and Vernon North Okanagan RCMP will be highlighting some of its great work on its social media platforms to celebrate its relationships with community groups and stakeholders. (Contribtued)
Collaboration crucial in police work: Vernon Mounties

National Police Week is a public awareness campaign encouraging new and strengthened connections

(Pixabay photo)
Morning Start: Sharks have been around longer than trees

Your morning start for Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

Cloe Afton Papworth performs before a video camera to make her vocal entry for the First Virtual Shuswap Music Festival, held in April 2021. (R. Papworth photo)
Young Shuswap musicians hit record for virtual festival

Seven Shuswap Music Festival participants to compete at provincial level

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Penticton Search and Rescue had to deploy its helicopter and high angle rescue team to evacuate an injured climber out of Skaha Bluffs Monday. (Mike Biden photo)
Injured climber helicoptered to rescue at Penticton’s Skaha Bluffs

This is the 7th rescue in a week for Penticton’s Search and Rescue

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains in the B.C. legislature, May 13, 2019. (Hansard TV)
B.C. to provide three days of sick pay for COVID-19 absences

Province will support employers on cost, labour minister says

(Pixabay)
B.C. doctors could face consequences for spreading COVID misinformation: college

College says doctors have a higher level of responsibility to not spread incorrect information

Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about phase two in B.C.’s COVID-19 immunization plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
All of B.C. will eventually ease out of COVID-19 restrictions at same time: Henry

People who have received two doses of a vaccine can’t yet return to post-pandemic activities with each other, she says

Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Copp (9) and Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) watch an incoming shot during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, April 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
‘Very jealous’: Canadian teams can’t take advantage of NHL’s relaxed COVID-19 rules

League eased some tight COVID-19 health and safety protocols over the weekend for fully vaccinated clubs

Most Read