Burns Lake is situated in the south westerly part of Omineca District, the name O-min-eca being given by the natives to the whortleberry which grows in great abundance and forms a staple of food for them. Huge quantities were dried and stored for winter consumption.
The original name was "Burnt Lake", given by the Portland Expedition. A tremendous bush fire had blackened the whole country from the east end of what is now known as Burns Lake, to the westerly end of the present Decker Lake; which compelled the pack trains and drivers of cattle to make the long drive to Boo Flats, in order to camp on good feed.
The large areas of good lands lying south of Burns Lake were settled by the earliest land seekers in 1904. The first of them came in over the Bella Coola Trail. Early records state that Harry Morgan, Jim McDonald, Alan Goodwin and Divine cut the first pack trail through the Kemano Pass from Kitimat.
I first camped at Burns Lake when I was making a dog team trip from Hazelton to the Nass River and back to Quesnel with Inspector Ned Charleson. Natives here at that time were Tommy Michell, Plasway Michell, and Alex Michell, with their wives and families. They could speak very little English and only a smattering of Chinook, with which I was conversant, having spent a couple of seasons sealing out of West Coast harbors.
These natives were in a destitute condition, living on fish, meat and dried berries. They had a few horses and a little hay. One horse was on the verge of starvation, so I bought it for dog food.
During the later days of the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific (later changed to Canadian National) I was running a freight camp for the men at Houston. I met many of the settlers from this area there.
I then went to the dying town of Priestley. That night the poker game ran wild, and in the morning I found myself the owner of all the tents and their contents and equipment.
I returned to Burns Lake, and soon I was kept busy pitching tents for the transients. I took steps to try and have a townsite surveyed, but it wasn't until 1917 that the sale of lots was held at Burns Lake.
Up to this time there was only my tents and the C.N.R. station, on what became the present town-site. On the Island were all the business buildings. A store and hotel buildings owned by Jack Seeley, Bob Gerow and Howie Laidlaw. They also had a sawmill. Laidlaw had the first Post Office on the island and held it until Jim McKenna became the first Postmaster on the town-site.
After the sale, building began. I built the first hotel which was taken over by George McKenzie, who later disposed of it to Andy Ruddy in 1921. First known as the "Cheslatta" after Boss Carpenter, "Dad Ash" and his sons, who were the first settlers in the Cheslatta Valley. In 1917, Seeley and Gerow moved their hotel to where the Legion Hall now stands and built a store beside it. A log hall and house were built behind and a livery barn where Jim Lock lived. A store for the Sterns Hardware was built and this later became the Jewel Store and then the Burns Lake Cash & Delivery.
Fred Aslin built his store in 1920 on the lot between the Hub and the Igloo now stand. The Telegraph Office with H.D. McNeil in charge, and the drugstore of Gordon Wood, along with all these other buildings burned down on March 17, 1925.
Carl Ostberg built what is now one of the Forestry Buildings in 1919. Hank Raymo built a house on what is now the property of the Catholic Church.
At Francois Lake, the necessity of rafting was a great handicap and a ferry boat was in demand. The first Government ferry was a scow towed by a launch. Captain Wiggs O'Neil used all navigable waters en route and in the spring of 1915, it was pulled from Burns Lake to Francois Lake by three heavy teams with Blaney's four oxen hitched to the skids on which the boat was loaded.
And now a word or two of the well-known ones. As to Shorty Haven, he had an eventfu career. Trapper, prospector, and a farmer, the records show that he come to central B.C. with his partner Fullbrook in 1909. He took part in many of the strikes and worked at famous mines (Comstock) and then he went to Nome, Alaska in the days of the Gold rush.
Dunc McGibbon received his early training driving dog teams and canoeing the Skeena River with the Hazelton Mail. He then partnered with Roy McDonald and Bill Sweeny.
Among the earliest settlers from the south were Olaf Anderson, Harry and Jimmy Morgan, the three Bennett Bros., Harold, Cecil and Frank. Jim Newman, Bob and Jimmy Nelson, the Harrisons, John Michelson and Jack McCuish.
Better known to many in this area was Dave Wiggens. Cataline also packed but not so much around Burns Lake. Dave Wintered his pack horses at Old Fort on Babine Lake and also on the Cheslatta range. Finally in his declining years, he was frozen to death at Hazelton.
The late Robert R. Jeffery and Lewis Ogilby Forde came through with pack and saddle horses from Ashcoft by way of Fort Fraser, and taking the train from the east end of Francois Lake to the Tom Harris settlement. In 1912 Robert Jeffery, or the "Chief" as he had been known for many years, returned from a three-year stay on Cowichan Bay with his sons Jimmy, Wally, and Bobby. They left with two heavily loaded wagons, a saddle horse and two milk cows. Reaching the west end of Francois Lake, a huge raft was built. They waited for a favorable wind, and then they hoisted the big sail, and after an all night sail, they reached the Tom Harris ranch.
The names of the settlers who made Burns Lake their out-fitting point are legions. Mike Brennan will be forgotten by many. Warren Innes, was one of the earliest arrivials and located a lot of land for the Hunter interests, especially in the Colleymount area.
The Tom Harris Ranch was the early stopping place for all be-nighted travellers and the stories told of his practical jokes will fill volumes. He was certainly the most visited man in the interior.
One peaceful Sabbath two gentlemen from Alberta came in to look over the ranch with the intentions of buying it. They had written to Tom that they were on the way so he had baked a huge batch of bread, prepared a great roast for the oven, and told Harry McKean and I to have dinner at two p.m. "Just in case them prairie chickens should come along, treat 'em white." Just at noon Jimmy Jeffrey, who was driving the Francois Lake Mail Stage drove in and unloaded the two passengers. Harry McKean tried to entertain them as they looked over everything. They were greatly impressed by the neatness of the cabin and more especially by the dinner preparations. Opening a small table drawer, they were surprised to see it full of small change and, quite a few bills. Much of it had been left by the frequent guests who never dared to offer Tom Harris payment. One remarked, "Mr. Harris must be a very honest man." "Sure he is," replied McKean, "You see, he is the local church warden and takes up the collection when the Preacher isn't around and keeps it for him." Harry was an apt pupil of Tom's. Just then Tom rode in, driving a bunch of cattle, and his language was that of the Chilcotin Trail. Harry rushed out and closed the door behind him. The sale did not go through.
On another occasion Tom had gathered a big pan full of his choicest spuds. Looking out of the window, as he heard a team driven by Walter Williscroft and his wife coming through the gate and followed by a bunch of hogs. Tom threw the spuds to the hogs.
"Oh, Mr. Harris, do you feed those beautiful potatoes to your hogs?"
"Yes Mum", he replied, "I've just been hunting out some small ones for them."
Mrs. Williscroft was astounded, but Walter knew Tom and just grinned.
Prospectors made their headquarters at Burns Lake, but spentt most of their time in the hills.
John Michelson, one of the toughest prospectors in the hills, used to walk out to Bella Coola or Ocean Falls on snowshoes from Wistaria.
The first white woman to settle down close to Burns Lake was Mrs. George Wallace. She and her husband settled on the Gowan Ranch. He was locally known as the "Boer" and the adjacent mountain still holds his name.
The McKenna family came in during 1910 and homesteaded immediately.
One of the first mail carriers was Johnny McCammis known as "Hudson Bay Jack", who with Dick Carrol knocked down and packed on their horses the first automobile to reach Hazelton.
Bobby Allen will be remembered as the first forest ranger at the old forestry cabin. This site was historic, as Cataline and all the old mule train packers make it a favorite camp. Bill Richmond and his family now live there.
The trails and road houses from the Bulkley Summit to Endako were under the eagle eye of Constable Andy Fairburn. The trails were the least of his troubles, but the boot-leggers the greatest.
Once, while the constable was away on patrol, a twenty gallon keg of the most vindictive alcohol arrived at the village in some mysterious way. It was shepherded by a character who called himself "the Dude Cowboy". He was dressed in flashy riding boots, fifteen dollar shirt, and tailored buck-skin coat, heavily beaded and was crowned by a big fawn colored Stetson. "The Dude" partnered up with the stout dishwasher at the local restaurant. She wore a huge apron and from her belt hung an Imperial quart of well-watered alcohol, with convenient glasses in her apron pockets. The "Dude" kept her well supplied until Harry McLean put a smart young Indian named Adnas on his tracks. Adnas had been known to track a deer for two days and come back with fresh meat. He tracked the riding boots to a bush where the big keg was cached. From then on it changed hands frequently, finally landing in the cellar of Harry Johnson's cabin, without his knowledge. When he discovered it, he divided it among his many friends and the town really celebrated. "The Dude" and his assistant moved on to Freeport, from whence Andy Fairburn speeded them on their way.
The first garage was operated by Bruce Kerr and Perry Beckstead. In 1922, it added an addition by Andy Anderson. Ira Short bought in the first carload of Fords which was sold by Fay Short, Johnny Short and Beckstead. The first Model "T" was bought by Don Gerrow and named the "Mayflower."
Sid Goodwin who edited and printed the first newspaper, THE OBSERVER, was famed as a horticulturist and had a beautiful garden at his summer home near Imeasons Beach.
The "Bun" Smith Store was occupied by the Lowe and Brown Hardware Store, managed by Jack Brown. Jack, among his many other activities, has developed the Burns Lake Hardware and Garage.
George McKenzie built the first store in the town-site on the lot where the old Burns Lake Drugs stands. The upper floor was used as a dance hall and on nights when the crowd became boisterous and the dancers were stamping out the Red River Jig or the Kalispel Hop, Gordy Wilson organized a crew to brace the walls and ceiling to prevent them from collapsing.
On one occasion of the sale of Ladies Lunch Basket, the bidding ran high, for the town was full of trappers and fur buyers. Some bids went as high as seventy-five dollars, to the disgust of the local Romeos.
The ladies had all gathered on the dance floor, but the men, after the sale had adjourned to the "Snake room", taking all the baskets with them. The usual aggregatic of fiddlers were strumming away, and Frank Eckert, who was in great demand because of his ability with his accordion, called for a waltz. But the men were conspicuous by their absence. Sizing up the situation, the Auctioneer of the baskets went over to the snake room and addressed the gathering as follows:
"Here, you guys, what kind of sports do you think you are? Don't you know you only bought half interest in those baskets? Take your basket back to the girl who made it up. She is supposed to be your partner, and you are responsible for her entertainment. Come on now and help get this dance going."
There was little argument. They gathered up the baskets and invaded the hall. The dance was a howling success and a new school was along the way. The little log cabin school for which they had to borrow children from Burns to go to Ootsa Lake, was soon a thing of the past.
Mrs. Frank Keefe was the first teacher of the old school. Today, the need of more rooms is evident and the present schools are proving inadequate.
Burns Lake has really grown from the days of horse and buggy. There are stores of every kind to serve the community and many say that Burns Lake is "The Village of Churches". There are three doctors and a dentist besides a fine hospital. There are many different active clubs for the people to join.
In closing, I would like to state that it has been very gratifying to me to see the Burns Lake that I first saw at the turn of the century, develop into the splendid little town it is today.