Walking through the easterly end of downtown Kamloops can feel a bit like stepping back in time. In the spring, lilac blooms in the alleyways and, come autumn, doorways and porch steps are festooned with foliage and grinning jack-o-lanterns. It’s an area of tree-lined streets and picket fences. Modest wartime bungalows neighbour stately heritage homes—relics with wavy glass windows and wide verandahs. There are parks and elementary schools and post that is still delivered door-to-door.
At its edge is a greenbelt. A lush expanse bordered by chainlink and dotted with copses of bush and hardwood trees. It’s easy to miss and often is, set just above the street. But looking closer, one might spot the nearly overgrown plaques set in the ground; the handful of blackened headstones facing the road. For here, in the centre of the city, alongside cheerful houses and flower gardens, is the site of the Old Men’s Provincial Cemetery.
It’s been said that unknowing visitors have pitched tents on the plot, believing it to be a beautiful, if oddly quiet park. Some residents walk the grounds, but nearby trails are much more popular. Though many of the burial plaques have sunk into the earth, a sign at the site’s entrance explains its significance, including the fact that it is a resting place to over 1,000 people.
Only a year after the incorporation of the city of Kamloops in 1893, the doors to the Provincial Home for Old Men would open. The impressive structure, complete with spires and decorative wood framework, was built on the land of John Ussher. Ussher was an important figure in Fort Kamloops, acting as lawman, sheriff and jailer, among other roles. Though he died years before—he would be murdered in 1879 by the notorious “Wild McLeans”, an outlaw gang responsible for a spree of crime in the interior—his farmland would house the building and, ultimately, in the bench-land above, its cemetery.
The promise of gold had brought scores of men to B.C., both from closer and more far-flung locales. By the end of the nineteenth century, men outnumbered women by a great degree and many of them were single, elderly and ailing. The Provincial Home for Old Men was devised by the British Columbia government as a way to house these often penniless prospectors and fur trappers who had helped to settle the land. Of course, with the influx of residents came the eventual need for a space to bury them.
The Home’s first death occurred not long after its opening and, over the years, the cemetery hemming present day’s Sixth Avenue has become a gravesite to an astounding number of individuals. But along with the lonesome former gold seekers and trappers are the remains of the city’s impoverished and destitute. The final burial took place in 1974 and while the majority of the graves are unmarked, some records do exist that list information on the deceased.
Most recently, the City of Kamloops, in conjunction with the Sagebrush Neighbourhood Association, has decided to further honour the site by creating an arboretum, planting trees from the various countries the deceased were originally from. A tasteful iron gate will be erected and ground-penetrating radar employed to ready the cemetery as a memorial tree museum. It is a stunning spot, even with its somber and somewhat eerie history.
46 years have passed since the Provincial Home for Old Men closed and it has since been replaced with an updated senior’s residence, surrounded by businesses and busy streets. The cemetery is all that remains of the men who lived below and the people who rest there. The quiet, unassuming expanse, juxtaposed against the colourful window boxes and chalk-drawn sidewalks of the neighbourhood it borders is a reminder that every place, if you look a little bit closer, has a story worth telling.