Canada's Tiniest City

By Rick Neal

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I approach Greenwood on a glorious fall afternoon, near the end of a road trip through British Columbia's spectacular southern Kootenay region. Mountain goats meander along the highway, and bald eagles float above churning rivers and placid lakes; stunning green forests with splashes of crimson and gold billow in every direction.

As I enter Greenwood, it's apparent that the Kootenays offer more than astonishing natural attractions. Lovingly restored colonial-style buildings line the streets; I've driven into a time tunnel and emerged in Canada's version of Brigadoon. On the outskirts of town, I pull an abrupt U-turn. If any place warrants an unscheduled stopover, this is it.

Determined to unravel this yarn, I pay a visit to the Greenwood Museum. The museum's first-rate collection of artifacts, historical photographs, and archives tell the saga of a community that is itself a living museum. The tale begins in the 1890s, when prospectors discovered rich lodes of nearby copper-gold ore. In 1895, Robert Wood bought the land where I now stand and used his own money to build roads that connected nearby mining camps to the new settlement, which he named Greenwood. Almost overnight, the former wilderness area became the nucleus of one of the world's largest copper-producing regions.

Greenwood was incorporated as a city in 1897, and within two years, the population rose to 3,000 people. Grainy museum photos convey the swagger of a brash new hub that boasted 20 hotels, abundant bars, a newspaper, and even an opera house. In 1901, the British Columbia Copper Company built a smelter with a 121-foot (37-metre) brick smokestack to process copper-gold ore from their Motherlode Mine. That smokestack is all that remains. A Vancouver Province newspaper article on display from that period describes the smelter as "one of the most complete and modern in the world today," an assertion confirmed by an impressive scale model and panoramic photo.

The smelter prospered for a decade, until copper prices plummeted and caused it to operate only sporadically. In 1918, the plant shut down for good. Its lifeblood gone, the once booming city shrank to only 200 inhabitants. Despite the population implosion, Greenwood maintained its city council, and thereby its city status.

Ironically, one of Canadian history's darkest chapters helped to spearhead Greenwood's renaissance. When the federal government forcibly relocated 22,000 Japanese-Canadians from the Pacific coast in 1942, Greenwood mayor W.E. McArthur requested that 1,200 of them be interned there to help resuscitate the local economy.

Museum documents and photos detail the injustices inflicted on the internees, many of who were born in Canada. I'm moved by a display that recreates how entire families were made to live in single, cramped, unheated rooms within previously abandoned buildings. They prepared their meals in communal kitchens and used segregated communal baths. In spite of their hardships, the transplanted Japanese-Canadians seldom complained.

Locals were initially resentful of the internees, but the hard-working new residents were instrumental in saving Greenwood from the ghost town status that befell most other mining settlements in the area. Gradually, the long-time inhabitants came to accept their new neighbours. When the war ended in 1945, many city councils supported the deportation of Japanese-Canadians, but Greenwood's council drafted a letter to the federal government asking that the Japanese be allowed to remain. That letter is prominently on display in the museum today. According to a volunteer, about half of the internees did stay on. Many still reside in the area today, as do their descendants.

In 1997, Greenwood residents were unexpectedly reminded of the Japanese incarceration when Universal Studios chose the city as a film location for the movie Snow Falling on Cedars, starring Ethan Hawke. The plot centres on the Japanese internment in the United States, so Greenwood was transformed into a fictional fishing village in Washington's San Juan Islands. The production company hired locals to give Greenwood's heritage buildings a much-needed facelift. Many of the local Japanese-Canadians, some who were actually interned during the war, appear as extras in the film. Photographs of locally filmed scenes in the museum convey the excitement generated by the Hollywood production, but I can't help but wonder about emotions that must have re-surfaced.

It's now late afternoon, and I decide to leave the museum and check out some of those intriguing historical buildings that caused me to alter my travel plans. I don't have to walk far. According to a guidebook I picked up in the museum, there are 31 heritage buildings within strolling distance.

Just down the road on Copper Street is the landmark Hotel Block. Decorative cornices and a striking blue and purple paint job make this the most ornate of Greenwood's colonial structures. Three different Windsor Hotels have occupied this site; the first two burned down before 1899. The current building was renamed the Greenwood Inn Hotel. The upper floors served as Ethan Hawke's apartment in Snow Falling on Cedars. Since the Motherlode mine is gone, I console myself with a tasty Motherlode burger in the hotel's atmospheric pub, which my server informs me is one of the oldest in British Columbia.

The beige-coloured Pacific Hotel, located next door, is more subdued than its majestic neighbour. It's hard to believe that this modest, three-story structure once housed over 200 Japanese-Canadian internees. This served as the Harbor Hotel in the movie. Today, it houses the upscale-looking Pacific Grill restaurant.

The Victorian Guess Block dates back to 1899. Originally an assay office, this was the Greenwood Grocery for over 30 years. This distinguished, brick red building has since undergone extensive renovations and is now home to Copper Eagle Cappuccino & Bakery, which is buzzing with locals today. It can be seen in the film as the Island Café. The aroma of coffee and freshly baked pastries entices me inside.

Just down the road, the Gulley Block & McArthur Centre, built in 1902, has a diverse history. It started out as a dry goods shop, a furniture store, and a mortician's office. The elegant brick building then stood empty for years until it was used to house Japanese-Canadians during the internment. After the war, the Gulley Block was renamed after long-time mayor W.E. McArthur. Today, it contains the Greenwood Community Association, the public library, the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, and the Kettle River Arts Club. If that's not enough, it also served as the Amity Harbor Library in Snow Falling on Cedars.

One block over from Copper Street, I come upon Greenwood City Hall. For 50 years this graceful, wood-frame edifice was home to the Gold Commissioner's Office, the chief constable, and the mining recorder. The top floor was the Supreme Court for the county of Yale. The courtroom's seven-metre ceilings are constructed from lustrous red cedar. In 1953, the City of Greenwood purchased the building for use as the city hall. Once common throughout British Columbia's interior, this is unfortunately one of the few surviving large frame courthouses. According to a museum volunteer, this building was the clincher in Universal Studios decision to use Greenwood as a filming location.

By now, it's nearly dark. Laid bare by the last rays of the afternoon sun, this peaceful city and its surrounding green-gold forest now resemble an impressionist painting. Many more intriguing colonial buildings beg for scrutiny but they will have to wait until my next visit. In a few hours, I've acquired a deep respect for Greenwood. Over the course of its history, Canada's smallest city has assumed many guises: booming mining centre, near ghost town, internment centre, Hollywood set and through it all, a survivor.





Greenwood is located on Highway 3 in the Kootenay boundary region of southern B.C., approximately halfway between Osoyoos and Trail. It’s about a six-hour drive from Vancouver.


There are three reasonably priced motels within the Greenwood city limits: The Greenwood Motel, The Evening Star Motel, and The Boundary Creek Motel. All have kitchenettes available. The Greenwood Motel and The Boundary Creek Motel also contain RV Parks.

The dazzling old architecture of Greenwood is a must, but the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding Monashee Mountain range offers a wide range of activities to entertain the most jaded outdoor enthusiast. Hike among the ruins of an abandoned gold mine, cycle along the remnants of an historic railway, angle for a gigantic rainbow trout, or just kick back and soak up the ambience of one of Canada’s most spectacular wilderness destinations.

Located on Highway 33, a few kilometres north of nearby Rock Creek, The Kettle River Recreation Area offers access to one of British Columbia’s most historic and scenic areas. The Kettle Valley Railway discontinued service in 1973, and when the track was removed a few years later, the abandoned right-of-way became The Kettle Valley Railway Trail. Today, it offers dramatic views for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders alike. Keep an eye out for abandoned mine shafts while traversing sparkling mountain streams. The grade is moderate along the trail, which can also be entered near Greenwood along Highway 3. The park offers 87 vehicle/tent campsites and a picnic area.

There are also several access points to the stunning Trans-Canada Trail on Highway 3 near Greenwood. One is just east of the city beside the Tunnel of Flags, a 1913 railway tunnel decked out in over 200 world flags. Pack a lunch and cycle or wander among majestic Douglas firs for a few hours or a few days. Mountain goats, caribou, moose, cougars and bears are abundant in this area.

Serene Boundary Creek Provincial Park, located three kilometres west of Greenwood on Highway 3, offers 18 basic tent and vehicle sites. The remnants of the BC Copper Company smelter are found nearby on the shores of Boundary Creek, which is also an excellent spot to indulge in birdwatching or angle for trout. The park is open from May to October only.

Accessible via a gravel road 10 km north of Greenwood, Jewel Lake Provincial Park is an angler’s paradise. A 23 kg rainbow trout reportedly pulled from Jewel Lake in the 1930s still holds the British Columbia record. The 26 campsites offer only basic amenities such as pit toilets, but the lush forest setting is incomparable.

During the winter months, hit the slopes at Phoenix Mountain, located just 15 km east of Greenwood. The mountain offers a range of winter activities, including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, and snowmobiling. Local skiers claim it is the best-kept secret in B.C.

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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

As an owner of a property and year round visitor, the road to Jewel Lake is NOT gravel during the winter.

Posted by Linda | November 25, 2014 Report Violation

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