Travellers along the Trans-Canada Highway west of Revelstoke, B.C., are often astonished to see a complex of red-roofed buildings appear like a scene from the Mediterranean.
The buildings are part of the Three Valley Lake Chateau, built by Gordon and Ethel Bell and still operated by the Bell family. With the highway on one side and the Canadian Pacific Railway on the other, the chateau neatly fills the narrow passage through the Monashee Mountains known as Eagle Pass.
The chateau is inviting enough for travellers. However, Three Valley Lake also holds a gem for history tourists — a genuine frontier village plucked right out of the nineteenth century and lovingly restored and preserved by the Bell family.
On a recent visit, we stopped to admire a newly wedded couple emerging from the weather-beaten St. Stephen’s Church, built in 1886, as a horse and buggy awaited their departure. The recessional boomed from a pump organ of 1800s vintage.
The church, along with several log buildings, a clapboard hotel, several steam trains, boardwalks, and even a magnificent roundhouse with white pillars, is part of the Bell family’s Heritage Ghost Town.
Heritage Ghost Town was born of necessity, Ethel Bell says. The couple married in 1953, and Ethel quickly tired of sharing a home with Gordon's overwhelming collection of antiques. She says with a laugh that she issued dire threats to Gordon if he didn't find a place to store his collection. In 1961, Gordon came up with the answer — create an antique town to host his antiques. Soon, he was scouring British Columbia for potential acquisitions.
To date, the Bells have rescued twenty-six historic buildings from potential oblivion. The preservation of B.C.'s history is part of their ongoing legacy. As Gordon once proudly declared, "We did this without asking for a single grant or dollar of public funds." Today, a modest admission fee aids recovery of costs.
Visitors to the ghost town are amazed at the diversity of the Bells’ collection. A trapper’s cabin, scarcely a metre-and-a-half-high, sets the stage. Fur trappers in the 1800s would construct these squat structures roughly every eight kilometres along traplines. Built half underground, the cabins provided welcome shelter from the elements.
Elsewhere in Heritage Ghost Town, the Bells have restored several old-fashioned commercial buildings, including C.B. Hume’s dry goods store, built in Revelstoke in 1892, and Ernile Colarch’s 1902 tobacco shop, which contains original fixtures donated by the family.
The town features a historic 1890s RCMP office retrieved from Vernon, B.C., as well as a sheriff’s office and a jail built by Finnish craftsmen at Cambie, B.C., forty kilometres west of Revelstoke. A recent acquisition is the Craigellachie School, built in 1902 — the only remaining building from the site of the famous "Last Spike."
Walking into the Golden Wheel Saloon one late afternoon, we found Sky Floyd Drew, a country musician, practising his numbers on guitar for an evening performance.
The Bells transported the 1865 saloon from French Creek, a Columbia River mining community that sported burlesque groups and a huge golden gambling wheel made — of all things — from an 1898 Revelstoke street sweeper.
Nearby sits the still-splendid Bellevue Hotel, built in 1898, which once graced the Narrows between Shuswap and Mara Lakes, in Sicamous, B.C.
The glorious hotel still evokes the ghosts of magnates making big deals, pioneer families enjoying gracious living for a rare weekend away from the wilderness, and miners cleaned up for a night of bellying up to the handsome bar. You can almost hear the sound of the dinner gong as you walk through the elegant dining room, where the tables are laden with silver and dishes from the original hotel.
Transporting the hotel to the ghost town was a Herculean feat; the three-story building was dismantled, numbered board by board, transported more than seventy kilometres to Revelstoke, and reconstructed at Three Valley Gap over a ten-year period.
The creation of Three Valley Lake Chateau and Heritage Ghost Town was a labour of love for the Bells. It began in 1956, when the couple purchased the land here. By 1960, the Bells had built a seven-seat coffee shop, seven-room motel, and museum. Today, the chateau boasts 200 rooms , a swimming pool and a theatre. It also offers boating and fishing opportunities for guests.
In 2007, Gordon Bell was working on the final touches of a railroad roundhouse and museum when he passed away. However, his love of antiques lives on through his wife and children, who continue to manage Three Valley Lake Chateau.