Updated: Oct 29
Between Kootenay Lake Hospital and Gyro Park in Nelson are decorative lights that are often seen but seldom remarked upon. They’re visible from Front Street, the lower end of Baker Street, and entering the city from the west.
Nelson Hydro sets them to different patterns depending on the time of year. Usually it’s a yellow crown in keeping with the city’s nickname of the Queen City of the Kootenays.
There is also a blue star for Christmas and a red heart for Valentine’s Day. The heart has been lit lately during the days of COVID, as seen below.
In January 2020, the crown and the heart were lit simultaneously for the first time that I can remember. The effect was a crown that sort of looked like this.
There also used to be a curling stone for the now-defunct Midsummer Bonspiel and a torch, which I think was only ever lit twice. But the history of these lights goes back much further than I imagined — to World War II, in fact.
The first set of lights was installed in 1941 in the shape of a V for victory.
The earliest indication the city was considering such a thing was in the Daily News of Sept. 10, 1941. Alderman (and future mayor) Thomas Waters suggested the idea, which was referred to the electric light committee. They must have eagerly embraced it, for on Oct. 15, the 16-foot sign was turned on for the first time.
“Travellers coming to the city from the west said the V was visible some miles away,” the News reported, adding that its location was near the spot where the city lit a large Christmas tree each year.
“Like a V in the sky” was the way the sign looked when first seen by passengers on incoming trains, said Mayor N.C. Stibbs, who first saw the sign … when coming in to Nelson on the Coast passenger. Train passengers, and motorists on the Government Road had commented considerably on the fine appearance of the sign.
It consisted of 61 bulbs of 15 watts apiece. The police department was asked to flip the switch to turn it on each evening and off each morning while on their regular patrol.
A week after the sign was first turned on, alderman Ross Fleming, who chaired the gas, light, and power committee (the same group as previously mentioned?) reported plans to install another electric sign immediately below, depicting three dots and a dash, the Morse signal for V. They also looked into installing another sign near the ferry landing, but it doesn’t appear to have come to fruition.
By December, the city’s electrical department had erected a second V sign, the same size as the first. But we don’t know exactly where it was placed, other than the fact that it faced east. The ambitious electricians also experimented with different lighting effects, and had the colours alternate between white, green, and red. At Christmas, the usual tree and the two V signs made quite a spectacle lighting up the mountainside.
Here it is as depicted in the Nelson Daily News of Jan. 1, 1942.
The image looks like it has been touched up with a grease pencil.
These were among many V signs that popped up after the V for Victory campaign spread through Europe. A similar one existed in Greeley, Colorado from 1942 to 1965. You can see a picture of it here. Grand Forks around the same time installed a large lighted V on top of the hose drying tower of its fire hall, 50 feet above street level.
According to the Grand Forks Gazette of Dec. 11, 1941: “Each arm of the V is about six feet long with globes extending along the full length. There is a red light on each end of the arm.”
In March 1946, it was reported the flashing dots and dashes below the Nelson V sign “may soon give way to a peacetime sign.” Alderman H.H. Hinitt suggested a new electric sign “perhaps Welcome to Nelson, or other appropriate wording, should replace the victory sign, which has served its purpose.” (As we will see, there had previously been other electric welcome signs.)
The matter was referred to the parks committee, but I don’t know what happened. The Daily News has been digitized to the end of 1947, but I could find no further mentions of the sign.
However, on May 19, 1953, Nelson city council voted to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation by renaming the Fairview playground Queen Elizabeth Park. It also resolved that “a crown in lights be erected on Gyro Park.” It was first illuminated a week later, but soon vandalized. The city replaced the smashed bulbs, but the replacement supply ran short and a few blank spots persisted for a while.
The Christmas star was added sometime before 1954, the same year the curling stone became part of the repertoire. Not sure when the heart was added.
But this one is my favourite, from the Daily News of May 27, 1955.
I sure wish we had a picture.
In March 1956, Nelson city council received a petition from the local branch of the Canadian Red Cross asking for the addition of a Geneva Cross (i.e. their emblem), but they turned it down.
Over the ensuing decades, Nelson Hydro looked after the lights and kept the trees near Gyro Park trimmed so that you could see the lights from downtown. However, by the mid-1980s, they had become “pretty ratty” according to retired Nelson Hydro employee Garth Georgetti. In 1987-88 a new metal standard was built in-house to replace the wooden poles the lights hung from.
Electricians Bobby Anderson and Mel Johnson along with Curry Morton and Nick Maras built it at the power plant and Georgetti helped install it. The following year they added a torch pattern in time for the BC Winter Games, which Nelson hosted.
I believe the only other time the torch was lit was when the Olympic torch passed through Nelson in January 2010 — although amidst the rest of the commotion around the event, it didn’t get a lot of attention. By that time, the lights had otherwise been dark for probably a decade or more, although no one seemed to know why.
In December 2010, however, the lights were switched back on again and have been a permanent part of the nighttime view ever since. The torch pattern, which was on a separate standard (below left), has since been removed but I’m not sure when or why.
Although these lights have lasted in some form or another for nearly 80 years, they were not the only decorative ones of note in Nelson.
The Strathcona Hotel had an illuminated sign, which was fully lighted for the first time on Oct. 28, 1903. I don’t know what it said or looked like, but according to the Daily News the following day, it “caused considerable comment, electrician Ringrose who designed it receiving many compliments on his effective work.”
In August 1910, Nelson welcomed Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier with “illuminated signs of welcome” as he was driven up Baker Street. I don’t know what they said either, but doubts were expressed in the Daily News whether the lighting would be adequate.
That November, Nelson also welcomed Premier Richard McBride. City council decided the streets would be “specially illuminated for the occasion and will be decorated with three brilliant electric banners bearing the words ‘Welcome to Our Premier’ which will be placed at the three chief crossings on the main thoroughfare.”
I suspect at least one of those signs was redesigned to say Welcome to Our City because one with those words was suspended in the air near the old city hall at the bottom of Ward Street, as depicted on this 1920s postcard. The building was demolished in 1960, but I don’t now how long the sign lasted.
This mini-postcard from perhaps the 1930s shows a similar electric welcome sign in the Gyro Park lookout.
I have no idea how long it was there either, but I do know when it was placed there. The Nelson Daily News of May 11, 1926 explained that as soon as an automatic timer arrived, Gyro Park would “dazzle with lights.” About 30 globes were strung around the park, the pool, and lookout.
Those which will light Lookout point will be colored lights, while the others will be the ordinary color. The huge “welcome” sign has been erected at Lookout point and the lights are ready to be switched on. Five beacon lights have also been put up in the park.
In a letter to the Vancouver Province, published on Aug. 4, 1929, Elsie Corbie of Nelson wrote: “The Gyro Park is lovely with the word ‘Welcome’ in white lights which stands at Lookout Point … In July colored lights are arranged in rows on the main street, hanging from the buildings at the corners of the street.”
Soon after the prime minister and premier visited Nelson, there were suggestions a “monster illuminated sign” be installed over the city’s Bonnington Falls powerhouse, “advertising Nelson as a power city.” It didn’t happen, but here are the relevant stories from the Daily News of Nov. 24, 1910 and March 25, 1911.
Before a monument to founding mayor John Houston was placed on a Vernon Street boulevard, it was suggested for the Gyro Park lookout. (In those days, it was known as either City Park or Houston Park.)
The Daily News of May 1, 1911, said “a prominent citizen,” whom it did not identify, thought the funds raised for the monument should be spent on a marble block inscribed with Houston’s name and the dates he served as mayor.
Above this, he also suggested, should be placed a large electric light. This light could be seen by visitors to Nelson as they came down the West Arm or arrived by the train from the west. It is said that from the prominence overlooking the lake a view may be obtained for nine miles east and nine miles west, consequently visitors would notice this light from the same distance as they were approaching Nelson and would naturally have their interest aroused and in all probability visit the park and then obtain what has been described as “The grandest view in the Kootenays.”
Didn’t happen. Instead the monument, unlit, went between the Hume Hotel and courthouse in 1914.
This postcard of the entrance to Lakeside Park, from the 1920s or ’30s, appears to show an electric sign.
At least I think those are bulbs within the letters:
However, I don’t know when the sign was installed or removed.
The Tremont Hotel on Baker Street used to have a giant electric Corby’s Rye Whisky sign on its roof (seen below in a detail view from a postcard). The Poole’s Drug Co. sign also seen below appears to have been electric.
I don’t know which sign the Daily News of Jan. 5, 1910 was referring to:
A large electric sign for the Tremont Hotel has just arrived in Nelson from the works of the Holman Electric Sign Company, Toronto. The sign is heart shaped, its dimensions being 48 and 56 inches. It will be hung this week and will displace the present electric sign.
According to the Nelson Daily News of July 9, 1930, George Benwell of the Hume Hotel erected an airplane beacon on the hotel roof: “It was his opinion that since this light could be seen for 80 miles that it was a great advertisement for the city and would attract and guide both tourist and airplane traffic to Nelson.” Benwell asked the city for free or cheaper power as a result. Council said no, noting that he had not approached them before installing the beacon. I don’t know how long it lasted.
By the 1950s the Hume had a terrific neon sign on the corner of Ward and Vernon, which you can just barely see on this postcard.
Within a few years it was replaced by a giant rooftop sign that said HOTEL HUME/PARKING/TV. There’s a picture of it on the hotel’s website here: https://www.humehotel.com/our-hotel/our-history/
It was still there as of July 16, 1961, when a “pint sized tornado” swept Nelson. According to the Daily News the following day:
The greatest damage appears to have been done at the Hume Hotel where the sign on the top of the building was twisted and torn from its supports and fell to the roof.
Flying debris and pieces of board from the sign structure landed over a wide area near the courthouse and in front of the hotel. Miraculously no one was hurt.
T.S. Maber, owner of the hotel, described the damage as “minor.”
The sign was eventually replaced with the much more stylish double-sided neon sign that is there today. It’s visible throughout the city and it’s the first thing you see on the hotel’s website.
The Hume Hotel’s rooftop sign is the only one remaining in Nelson. In the background, notice the lights outlining the KWC block turret, added in late 2019.
The Silver King Hotel on Baker Street apparently had a huge gas sign above its front entrance, although I don’t know exactly what it said — I’ve never seen a picture of it, but it was installed in September 1905. The Nelson Daily News said the sign was “a brilliantly attractive advertising device” and “attracting much attention from visitors who have flocked to Nelson for the Fall Fair.”
It was also described in the Daily News of Aug. 14, 1930:
Though hundreds and thousands of people have passed by it few have noticed in the last few years the antiquated 30-foot gas sign that once [guided] the weary traveller through the front entrance of the Silver King hotel. It is the oldest of all Nelson’s signs.
The sign is still there in plan glass and black letters, as it was erected some 25 years ago by W.E. McCandlish who owned the hotel at that time. His son, J.W. McCandlish, who is well known in Nelson states with little sentiment that the sign in question “never was any good” so far as illumination was concerned …
Another interesting point about this old sign is the fact that it is the pioneer type in sign advertising and is situated within a few feet of a neon sigh which is the latest development in the illuminated sign business. Also an the front of the building adjoining the old Silver King is an ordinary electric sign that completes a valuable group so far as the history of sign advertising in Nelson is concerned.
I don’t know if the sign survived until the hotel was demolished in the mid-1940s, but I don’t think so — it doesn’t appear in a brief surviving video clip of the street from that decade.
I’ve written before about two other noteworthy rooftop signs.
One was on the LD Cafe (now the Broken Hill pub) at 479 Baker and said “Use Nabob” in giant neon letters. I don’t know when it was installed or removed, but it was there from at least 1945 to 1970, which are the dates of the photos immediately below followed by one from 1968 showing it lit up at night.
The other was a three-sided flashing sign on the roof of the Nelson Daily News from 1935 to 1968 that within a few months of its installation played a role in a very strange incident.
A Northwest Airlines plane bound from Helena to Spokane with five passengers on board got lost in foggy weather and ended up over Nelson. A passenger spotted the Daily News sign in the dark and speculation began about their whereabouts. They thought of Tacoma and Ellensburg, Wash., which also had papers called the Daily News, but didn’t find out they were in Nelson until the plane safely landed in Rosemont.
The deteriorating sign was replaced with a projecting sign which was not illuminated but became iconic in its own right. It in turn was removed after the paper folded and the building was sold in 2011. It’s now in the Nelson museum collection and was the centrepiece (seen below) of the Kootenay News exhibit.
Updated on Feb. 5, 2020 to add the parts about the Houston monument and the Grand Forks V. Further updated on Aug. 19, 2020 to add details about the installation of the welcome sign in the Gyro Park lookout, on Aug. 20, 2020 to add details about the airplane beacon on top of the Hume Hotel, on Sept. 10, 2020 to add a photo of the heart-shaped light pattern in action, on Oct. 13, 2020 to add the Lakeside Park photo, on April 1, 2021 to add the quote from Elsie Corbie’s letter, on Sept. 19, 2022 to add more details about the origins of the V sign; on May 8, 2023 to add details about the trout pattern in the Gyro lights; and on Oct. 29, 2023 to add the bit about the Geneva Cross.