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Salmo Stories: Memories of a Place in the Kootenays

By Larry Jacobsen

The Green Necklace: The Vision Quest of Edward Mahon

By Walter O. Volovsek

Review By Takaia Larsen

October 7, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 171-73

The year 2012 saw the publication of two books dealing with aspects of the history of the West Kootenay. As with so many histories of this region, both are labours of love and represent the culmination of years of research and personal connection. While both books share a similar geographic focus, they are strikingly different in their approach, tone, and purpose. In the end, they both contribute greatly to our understanding of this region by adding voices (in Salmo Stories) and analysis (in The Green Necklace) to the somewhat limited history of settlement and development in the West Kootenays.

Walter Volovsek’s The Green Necklace: The Vision Quest of Edward Mahon is a thoughtful and lovingly written biography of an important British Columbian entrepreneur, businessman, and developer who played an important part in the settlement and growth of what became (urban) North Vancouver and (rural) Castlegar. While the book provides a detailed account of the life and work of one man, whose career Volovsek conveys with great respect and admiration, it also contributes much to our understanding of the development of both North Vancouver and Castlegar. Mahon’s work is perpetuated in North Vancouver’s “Green Necklace,” a string of green spaces that still forms an important part of the community; and in Castlegar itself, which was named after the Mahon family estate in Ireland. The Green Necklace provides a rare opportunity to speak to both rural and urban development through the story of one promoter who had high hopes for both areas. Volovsek provides a historical narrative of both urban and rural development in British Columbia, something that few works of BC history can claim. So often, local histories ignore the broader context in their aim to give voice to rural areas, and urban histories neglect to mention their rural hinterlands. Volovsek shows that in the late nineteenth century, when mining was booming and hopes for British Columbia were at their highest, Mahon saw the potential for growth both in the West Kootenays and on Burrard Inlet. Through an exploration of Mahon’s life and times, the broader impact of the CPR’s monopoly, the Great Depression, and the Lower Mainland’s long-term prosperity and growth, Volovsek explains how North Vancouver came to grow and develop while Castlegar’s growth was stagnant. In doing so, Volovsek has written an intriguing book that, while somewhat romanticized, provides an important history of North Vancouver and a clear account of the development of the Castlegar town site, a story hitherto completely unknown.

In contrast to The Green Necklace (which focuses on just one family), Larry Jacobsen’s Salmo Stories is a collection of stories (both of individuals and families) drawn from over 100 interviews conducted by the author. While Jacobsen includes several short chapters of broader historical context — e.g., “The Birth of a Mining Region” (13-17) and “The Doukhobors (Spirit Wrestlers) in Canada” (128-131) — those chapters lack footnotes and referencing and therefore scholarly credibility. The interviews, by contrast, which make up the bulk of this book, provide us with a close and valuable look at the early settlers of Salmo and their varied experiences. Jacobsen has done a commendable job of collecting, recording, and preserving these stories. My only concern is that while Jacobsen acknowledges that he has “adjusted” and “shortened” interview materials, he provides no indication of where he did so; and while he claims he tried to maintain the “colour” (11) of the narratives, the reader has no idea how extensive his intervention was. As such, oral historians might question the authenticity of some of the interview materials. While the book does not intend to be analytical, the interviews themselves will stand as an important primary source for future historians as they study the development of this region and prepare their own arguments. Usefully, Jacobsen includes several previously unpublished memoirs of former Salmo residents as appendices (311-70) and makes them accessible. In the end, Salmo Stories stands as a solid collection of stories from those who experienced life in early Salmo. Its testimonies and photographs will serve as important sources for local studies for years to come.

Taken together, The Green Necklace and Salmo Stories are welcome additions to the history of the West Kootenay, a region that warrants further historical research and analysis. The Green Necklace explores historical connections between Vancouver and the interior when most works consider one or the other; it also shows the interconnections of development in late nineteenth century British Columbia and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few prominent families and their companies. For its part, Salmo Stories is less progressive. It follows a long tradition of local histories that record the lives of rural residents and present them without interpretation, analysis, or connection. Having said that, such histories require time and dedication to prepare and remain an important source of material for future analysis and interpretation. Salmo Stories will undoubtedly be mined for source materials for years to come by historians of the West Kootenay, while The Green Necklace will stand as notable biography of a forgotten promoter and financier.

Salmo Stories: Memories of a Place in the Kootenays
Larry Jacobsen
Port Coquitlam: Larry Jacobsen, 2012. 377 pp. $35.00 paper

The Green Necklace: The Vision Quest of Edward Mahon
Walter O. Volovsek
Castlegar: Otmar Publishing, 2012. 284 pp. $25.00 paper