“The Railroad” was the name used on the earliest colonial maps, before the settlement in Lake Country, to refer to the isthmus at Oyama. The term certainly did not refer to any European-made feature; it had to refer to either a natural or an Okanagan Indian structure. What was it?

Until the late eighteenth century the Okanagan Indian people maintained winter villages on Okanagan Lake, the major one being Penticton. Okanagan hunting, fishing and gathering activities occurred over a wide territory, including the littoral of Okanagan Lake and Long Lake (a former name for the combined Kalamalka and Wood lakes). The Okanagan people transported the surplus animal and vegetable products that they had gathered and processed during the summer and fall to Penticton where they were used for winter consumption. Heavy goods such as loads of dried venison, fish and berries were transported there from as far away as the Coldstream valley and Silver Star mountain. Water transport, using dugout canoes or rafts, was the most efficient means of conducting this long distance transport of bulk goods.

Oyama isthmus

Oyama isthmus, looking south (Click to enlarge)

In a pre-horse economy, what was the most efficient route over which to transport heavy goods?  Water transport from the Coldstream to the Oyama isthmus was straight forward, but then the canoes and their loads had to be hiked over the isthmus and up four feet in elevation to refloat on Wood (formerly Pelmewash) Lake. We know that the Okanagan people used corduroy or logs to bring canoes over the mud on to land at Okanagan Landing.1 It seems likely that they used a “rail road” as a slip to pass between the lakes. The Syilx name for the Oyama isthmus was acyuʔc̕us (Ac yutz oos) meaning a narrow crossing with thickly entwined willows (or anything closely intertwined).  “The Railroad” likely referred to a rail (corduroy) road made by the Okanagan people by cutting and laying down closely intertwined poles or willows to facilitate their crossing of the isthmus.

The easiest connection between Wood and Okanagan lakes was over the saddle in the mountain range at the south end of Wood Lake. Last year an archeological team found evidence of a small Okanagan village located at the south west corner of Wood Lake, just where the goods would have been loaded on the backs of Okanagan people and packed over to Okanagan Lake.  Undoubtedly the early settlers also used this well-trodden Okanagan Indian trail and later widened it to become Oceola Road.

The Railroad was an important link in this transport route connecting the North Okanagan to Penticton.

  1. H. B. Kennard. “Indian Place Names.” Third Annual Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1929, p. 16.