I was standing in the searing sun at a major and tumultuous, though all but forgotten, crossroad of Canadian and Indigenous history. There was a notice with a phone number on a locked door.
“Can I help you with something?”
A man popped from a side door of The Inn at Spences Bridge. It was Michael Findlay, the proprietor. His inn is the only one remaining open since the Gold Rush. He invited me into the cool, dim lobby, awash in the elegance of another era, though much renovated since its opening in 1862. On the walls, photographs large and small, dark faces of Nlaka’pamux people and pale settlers, newspaper clippings and bits of history. A very antique upright piano drew me aside; I uncovered its keys to tap middle C.
“Nice,” I said. It was in tune.
He sat down on the piano bench and pumped two pedals with his feet, spontaneous ignition of a rollicking party set to begin 100 years ago. The sound was so good, so full, so alive that I laughed heartily. Beautiful. Findlay was proud of his restoration of this glorious piano, well over 100 years old and certified by the British crown. He also had a German pendulum clock, intricately inlaid, long ago the treasure of a woman from Sweden.
Outside, the mighty Thompson River rolled down its stunning valley, dividing The Inn and a stark, gently crumbling church from the very quiet town of Spences Bridge, BC (population 76, if one can believe the 2021 census).
It all held a peculiar allure for me. I had passed through since my boyhood; my grandmother taught Indigenous students from a community near Merritt, my grandfather their bus driver; my brother and I used to ride with him and the kids. In recent years on my travels, I saw the open Anglican church decay slowly, then a few years later found its doors locked. The whole place oozed with the feeling of something too momentous to slip away.
It was likely the bounty of the land that drew the Nlaka’pamux here, the whisper of great trees, the cool of the higher mountains, the game, the teeming salmon, and the convenience of two rivers soon to meet the Fraser where Lytton is today. At Spences Bridge, the Gold Rush Trail crossed the Thompson by ferry until a government-funded Thomas Spence delivered a minor engineering marvel in 1866 for the Cariboo Wagon Road. Only abutments remain in the river where his bridge and its successors opened a vast land to colonial settler commerce. Forty-thousand gold-seekers had already streamed through after a nearby find in 1857. Today, trains rumble regularly on both banks of the great river.
Flooding and landslides are a way of life, and death, in Spences Bridge; twice the bridges themselves have failed. On August 13, 1905, a landslide engulfed the Nlaka’pamux village along the Thompson shore and dammed the river itself for hours. Eighteen people died, including many women, children, and Chief Lillooet, who was visiting friends. Luckily, many people were just leaving the church, on higher ground, The Ashcroft Journal reported four days later.
By another fortunate coincidence, a doctor was in Spences Bridge who tended 11 injured people in an annex of The Nelson Hotel (now The Inn), owned by Archibald Clemes, who reportedly gave up land to relocate the village. He was also a fruit-grower and the first local car owner.
There is little about town to mark the tragedy beyond the simple graveyard next to St. Michael and All Saints church. There are many graves of unnamed Nlaka’pamux, but also many notables: Chief Luke Kieanemechja who died in 1884, Chief Johnny Whistemneetza (1916), Archibald and Dorothy Clemes and some descendants, and many others—but not James Teit, who managed the hotel from 1888 to ‘89. Teit had arrived from the Shetland Islands in 1884 to work for his uncle John Murray, who owned the hotel before Clemes.
In the Twaal Valley is a log cabin with sod roof still intact, according to Findlay; it was the home of Teit and his wife Lucy Antko, a local woman. Chief Whistemneetza was witness to their wedding. Teit lived and travelled with the Nlaka’pamux and other BC First Nations people, documenting their traditions, mythology, and recording songs, contributing mightily to the work of Franz Boas, widely considered the father of American anthropology. Teit was fluent in several Indigenous languages and worked with the alliances of BC Chiefs campaigning for recognition of their land and other rights. He travelled with them on lobbying missions to Ottawa as they laid foundations for work that carries on to this day. Haida leader Peter Kelly described Teit in 1923 as “not just a friend, he was a brother of the Indians of this Province.” Teit died in 1922 of a pelvic abscess misdiagnosed as cancer; he was only 58 years old. Many of his photographs among the Interior Salish remain in the Canadian Museum of History.
For a hundred years, Teit’s work went under-recognized beyond his First Nations partners, friends, and relations. Perhaps this slight can be laid at the feet of colonial officials who dubbed him a white agitator in his day. More recently, though, University of Victoria historian Wendy Wickwire has made a case for Teit’s legacy in her award-winning book, At The Bridge. Even so, references to him in Spences Bridge are few: at The Inn, a photo of Teit with Lucy Antko at their home, a sign on the fence of the house Teit built in town, and a Heritage Canada plaque where the Nicola River joins the Thompson. Many of his achievements are left unstated.
Vainglory was not in Teit’s nature, nor is it in the zeitgeist of Spences Bridge. It is a simple, friendly town where the waters run strong and deep. Those who would dip their toes into its history might book a stay at The Inn at Spences Bridge, while movie nuts and fishermen might choose to overnight at the Baits Motel. All will doubtless convene at The Packing House—the only restaurant—to eat well, talk, and wonder.
Lee Selleck is a journalist and author. He lives in Yellowknife, NT.