The Doukhobor Community in Trail

by Jenny Cowell

Historically, Trail was an important centre of Doukhobor commercial activity. Beginning in 1910, the Doukhobors of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) supplied the Trail smelter with large quantities of workers, timber and brick. At Trail, the CCUB built a three-story brick communal home (1910),a shingle mill (1912) later converted to a rooming house (1918), three-story brick commercial block (1919), large market garden (1910-1927) and numerous outbuildings. From 1925 on, a number of Independent Doukhobors also established businesses, organizations and residences there. The following article by Jenny Cowell highlights the Doukhobor Community in Trail. Reproduced by permission from the Trail Journal of Local History (Spring 2001). Editorial comments by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff. Photos courtesy Trail Historical Society.

The Doukhobors, a deeply religious, agrarian people, were sporadically persecuted in their Russian homeland as a result of their rejection of the Orthodox Church, and their refusal to bear arms. In 1898, supported by Leo Tolstoy and British Quakers, and encouraged by the promise of free land and exemption fro military service, more than seven thousand Doukhobors emigrated to Saskatchewan.

Trail looking northwest. (r-l) Doukhobor communal house, bath and storage house, tennis courts, rooming houses, c. 1924. Trail Historical Society 3064.

In 1907 a change in Saskatchewan government policy, which would have resulted in the destruction of their communal way of life, induced five thousand Doukhobors to move to British Columbia. A [branch] known as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) came to the West Kootenay where, under the leadership of Peter “The Lordly” Verigin, forty-eight communal villages, eight sawmills and the K-C brand jam factory were established.

The community in Trail was established about 1910. That year the City signed a contract with the Doukhobors for 10,000 feet of cedar. The cedar, to be rafted down the Columbia River from Waterloo, was to be used for the cribbing of Trail Creek and other repair work around the City.

The Doukhobor communal house, Groutage Avenue, 1917. Trail Historical Society 0534.

In April 1910 Peter Verigin took possession of the disused Mac Machine Shop building [at 1724 Groutage Avenue] situated between Riverside Avenue and the Columbia River. Here Verigin built, probably on the machine shop foundation, the communal house which became the Doukhobors’ Trail headquarters. A large rectangular two-and-a-half-story building with dormer windows and an encircling veranda, it was characteristic of Doukhobor architecture. A communal house typically consisted of a combined kitchen-dining room, and a common room, on the main floor. Families slept in rooms on the second floor. Cooking and washing were shared tasks, with groups responsible for this work on a monthly basis. [After 1917, the Doukhobors made a number of repairs and improvements to the house, including the addition of double dormer windows.] Adjacent to the house in Trail was a small structure used as a bath house and for storage.

The vegetarian Doukhobors surrounded the communal house with extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. Many years the gardens were flooded when the Columbia River rose in the spring. The women cultivated the gardens, and sold the produce in the community.

Doukhobor communal house and garden, Groutage Avenue, 1926. Trail Historical Society 1006.

Elsie and Helen Wagner recalled the Doukhobors coming to their house. “Thank goodness for the Doukhobors who came around with fresh fruit and vegetables. Mom saved her pennies to buy fresh produce whenever they came around. One rainy day the poor lady’s tomatoes were falling all over the place because the paper bag was sopping wet. Mom had just taken some freshly baked bread out of the oven. She called the lady in, gave her bread and butter and a ten-pound sugar sack for the tomatoes. The lady gave us the most beautiful tomatoes we had ever seen! Mom kept one for Dad’s lunch bucket and the other two, with bread and butter, was our supper.” [Trail History and Heritage Committee, Trail of Memories 1895-1945. 1997]

In May 1912 Peter Verigin was granted permission by the City to erect a shingle mill on an old [BCS&R] sawmill site [at 1865 Riverside Avenue] adjacent to the Doukhobors’ settlement. Lumber and shingles from this mill were sold to local merchants and home builders. In 1918 the Doukhobors converted the out-of-use mill into a rooming house. Primarily a row of back-to-back single rooms, the rooming house was long and narrow, with a veranda along both sides. Built on piles to avoid flooding, the building was stepped down the sloping site toward the river. [Adjacent to the rooming house was a two-story structure with a gambrel roof which may have originally been used as a business office and/or manager’s residence, later as an addition to the rooming house.]

Doukhobor rooming house on Groutage Avenue. The building was originally a shingle mill. Trail Historical Society 1557.

[In 1919, the CCUB built a three-story brick commercial block, four blocks away from its main settlement, at 1298 Bay Avenue and Eldorado Street. This large, imposing structure was known as the “Doukhobor Block”. The ground floor was let out to the CM&S Company Store from 1919 to 1925. Rooms on the upper stories were let out as apartments.]

Shortly after the death of Peter Verigin in 1924, the CCUB encountered financial difficulties. Many Doukhobors found more rewarding work, in both money and prestige, outside of their community. In addition the special skills necessary to run the sawmills and jam factory had not been fostered within their own communities.

CM&S Co. store frontage at the Doukhobor Block, Bay Avenue, 1920. Trail Historical Society 0077.

[In 1925, the directors of the CCUB subdivided the 7.7 acre parcel of land on which the communal house, market gardens and rooming house were situated into 29 lots. It was named Verigin Subdivision after the recently-deceased Doukhobor leader. Over the next several years, many of the lots were sold to raise capital for the ailing CCUB. The remaining lots were sold following the CCUB’s demise in 1937]

After 1928 John Lazereff, a former member of the CCUB, purchased the Doukhobors’ [communal house] property. He converted the communal house into apartments, removed the verandas, along with other alterations. This building is still in use, the form of the original communal house very evident. The original bath house and storage building also survives.

Tennis court at the Doukhobor rooming house, Groutage Avenue, 1924. Trail Historical Society 0734.

The [rooming house] apartments, owned by the Knights of Columbus [after 1931], were in use until 1945. That year the Knights sold the building to the Navy League of Canada for use as a Sea Cadet hall. The cadets renovated and adapted the building, which became known as HMCS Fort Shepherd. In 1966, after more than fifty years of varied use, the building was demolished.

[The Doukhobor block was purchased by Alex Reibin, a former member of the CCUB, in 1937 who in 1946 sold it to Annuziato Lerose and Al Merlo. The rooms on the upper stories were let out as apartments. Over the years, the ground floor housed the government liquor store, CJAT radio station, a coffee bar, jewellery store, delicatessen, Laundromat, music shop, Safety Supply Ltd. store, Household Finance business, Trail Office Products business, miniature golf, Trail Athletic and Pastime Club, and Vance Brothers Wholesale business. In 1978, the structure was demolished and the Bank of Commerce built on the site in 1979.]

The Doukhobor Block on Eldorado Street, 1975. Trail Historical Society 4110.

This interesting area of Trail has undergone several changes. By 1896 a machine shop and a sawmill were in operation. Next came the Doukhobors’ shingle mill, stables, communal house with its extensive gardens, and rooming house. Following the opening of the Columbia River bridge in 1912 many houses were built along Riverside Avenue. In the 1920’s a popular tennis court was located between the communal house and the rooming house. With the threat of flooding reduced by the building of the river wall in the 1930’s, family homes and an apartment building were constructed on the once productive Doukhobor gardens.

Now the rooming house, tennis court, apartment building, [Doukhobor Block] and many of the family homes have gone, and an extensive river walk and park are under development. All that remains of Trail’s Doukhobor community by the river is their communal house, and memories of tasty tomatoes.

For More Information

For more information about the history of the City of Trail, British Columbia, visit the¬†Trail Historical Society¬†website. Established in 1953, the Trail Historical Society’s mandate is to collect, preserve and make available to the public articles, photos, documents, film, and published materials relating to the history and development of Trail. To accomplish this the Society operates three facilities: the Trail Museum; the Trail City Archives; and the Trail Sports Hall of Memories.

Postcard of the Doukhobor Community house and Riverside tennis courts, Trail BC. c. 1924. Photo courtesy Greg Nesteroff.