Arrival of the First Group of Doukhobors in Ootischenia, British Columbia, 1908

by William A. Fominoff

In 1908, the Doukhobor Community purchased vast tracts of land in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. They first settled at Waterloo, an abandoned mining camp on the Columbia River, which Doukhobor leader Peter “Lordly” Verigin renamed Dolina Ootischenia meaning “Valley of Consolation”. There, an advance party of 100 men and women arrived from Saskatchewan to prepare the area for future settlement. Among them was William A. Fominoff (1874-1967). The following is his account of their historic arrival. Reproduced by permission from “Castlegar, a Confluence” (Karen W. Farrer (ed), Castlegar: Castlegar & District Heritage Society, 2000).

On May 11, 1908, a party of 100 men and a few women arrived at the CPR whistle stop in Kinnaird. This was a vanguard to pave the way for their wives, children and other Doukhobor families who were compelled to move out from Saskatchewan. Their destination: Ootischenia. Amongst them was a husky young man, William A. Fomenoff, born in Russia September 1, 1874.

Kinnaird’s surrounding area was little more than a wilderness at that time. “There were no accommodations as hotels or motel units as we see them today, so we enjoyed our first night in B.C. under the bright stars, grouped around the once-important whistle stop. Sleeping bags were non-existent at that time, but we covered ourselves with what little belongings we owned,” says Mr. Fomenoff.

“Early the next morning we trekked down to the Columbia River close to the home of Mr. Landis who lived on the east side which is now known as Ootischenia. By previous arrangements Mr. Landis was expecting us. After a whistle and a shout Mr. Landis was up in a jiffy and rowed his boat across the river to pick us up. This was the only means of crossing both the Columbia and Kootenay rivers; there were no bridges nor ferries at that time. The boat could only carry five to six persons at one time including baggage,” says Mr. Fomenoff.

Group of Doukhobor Settlers at Ootischenia, British Columbia, c. 1908. British Columbia Archives A-02072.

“Nick Zeboroff, the man in charge of the party immediately guided us to a campsite left empty by previous logging operations. The camp existed out of one cook house and a large outside dining table which was hand-hewed out of one enormous tree in one solid piece, large enough to seat all the new arrivals (100 men and a few women) at one setting. The seats were made of short stumps for legs with long thin logs rolled on top of them to serve as benches.

“Alex Chernoff, the cook of this camp, had already prepared breakfast and set the plates and dishes on the table and asked everyone to be seated. After saying the Lord’s Prayer, which is a must amongst the Doukhobors, we began our meal.

“After breakfast Nick Zeboroff prepared to dispatch the new arrivals to clear the land of the majestic forest that one adorned Ootischenia. He handed out cross-cut saws, grub hoes, shovels, and other necessary tools and led the group to a designated spot approximately where the future cut off begins to Salmo. Here we proceeded to clear land of timber which was two arm spans in circumference.”

“After clearing a sizeable patch of ground we immediately cultivated it with our grub-hoes and began planting spuds and other vegetables; amongst them watermelons which were noted to be a luxury at the time. In the same months I also helped clear land at the spot where I live now,” notes Mr. Fomenoff.

“Soon after several pairs of horses and less than a dozen head of milk cows arrived from the prairie provinces. This was a great boost to our simple farm life. I helped to transport them from Kinnaird to Ootischenia with a row boat. The first animal (which incidentally was a bull) we tried to lead into the boat and row him across. The attempt failed on the spot. The next thing we did was to try and pull him by the halter with the boat. We kept his head above water with a tow line and he swam across himself. Cows were herded across in the same manner, two at a time, two men holding them by the halters while four men were rowing the boat.

View of Ootischenia from across the Kootenay River in Brilliant, British Columbia, circa 1912. British Columbia Archives A-08737.

“Next followed the horses in the same fashion, but they were not as easy to handle as the cattle were. Thanks to Mr. Dumont, the original settler of Dumont’s subdivision, who permitted us to use his property as a loading point. On his land we dismantled wagons, ploughs and all the farm equipment that was bulky and rowed it across piece by piece. With the help of horses the clearing of land had become more simplified.

“Soon after, a sawmill was constructed and lumber had become an industry apart from farming. Boards were cut in all dimensions and used to construct houses that are still in existence at Ootischenia. George Kanigan and Walter Fofonoff were sawyers on the new sawmill.

“To have a more practical way of crossing the Columbia River from one side to the other, this same year we started to build a ferry. Anchor cables were drug down deep into the ground. We hired a skilled man to supervise the basic construction of this ferry. I believe he was of French origin. He started to build it out of hand-hewed timber and the same men who were clearing the land were also helping to build the ferry.”

Doukhobor communal workers at mealtime in the Kootenays, British Columbia, c. 1912. British Columbia Archives C-01490.

Incomplete Interview Notes

“Land to him most … made by Peter Lordly Verigin his wisdom and admire that he made in development of the land. Peter Vergin lived nearby at Landis’s house which was soon bought out and Landis moved away. … more so. The logs were hewed with a broad axe used to … railroad ties and dragged down the … to the river anchor cables could still be seen which guided the ferry.

“A road was built to Dumont’s … across to … still used as a fishing trail for fisherman. “Before this and … happened where the … rope was tore off from the anchor.

“Before this Peter Lordly Verigin sent delegates to … the ferry which apparently was in good condition. Families of the men arrived and the last of the families and children got across 23rd of June safe and sound. This same day the guide cable on the ferry broke … sill and the cable … on the ferry swing across the river to the west side. … to its original spot and was repaired up again.”

After one year and one month he and his family moved to Grand Forks where he was a fruit farmer for 14 years. After that he moved to Brilliant where he resided for six years before moving back to his original place at Ootischenia where 20 years before he first started to clear land for development, and still lives there.