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Historic Ainsworth, B.C.—The Oldest Village on Kootenay Lake

Athlyn Green hails from Nelson, B.C. and is a lover of clean air, pristine lakes, hot springs, and mountains.

Hotels, saloons and brothels served the public in Ainsworth, B.C.

Hotels, saloons and brothels served the public in Ainsworth, B.C.

Where Past and Present Meet

From its colorful past to its present-day status as a resort town, Ainsworth, in "Kootenay Country," British Columbia, bears distinction as being the oldest village on Kootenay Lake.

A remote location, transportation in and out only by way of pack horse or sternwheeler, plummeting silver prices and a devastating fire should have spelled the death knell for the small settlement. But Ainsworth did not meet the same fate as did other mining towns in the West Kootenay region. While places such as Cody, Sandon, Three Forks, and Retallack fizzled out and became ghost towns, Ainsworth hung on.

Today, visitors can experience how the past steps on the heels of the present, for the townsite is a blend of buildings, both old and new. A small graveyard just steps away in the forest bears weathered testimony of all those who came before.

Graveyard in the Forest

Graveyard in the Forest

Mining and Sternwheelers

When a steamboat captain by the name of George Ainsworth heard tell of silver-lead ore in the West Kootenay region, he traveled northward from the U.S. In the early 1880s, he received a land grant of 166 acres in an area known as Hot Springs Camp. By 1881-1883, the area boasted saloons, 2 general stores, 4 hotels, a post office, many homes, and a townsite was staked out.

By 1884, prospecting activity was at an all-time high and ground had been staked from the lakeshore to the summits. Mines such as as Krao, Keyline, and Gallager were in full-swing. At one point, one million tons of ore waited on the dock for shipment. {1}

Optimism knew no bounds. The local paper, Hot Spring News, reported: "John A. Retallack, late owner of the Kaslo-Slocan Railway, is firm in the belief that the future of Ainsworth is as bright as a new-minted 20-dollar piece." {2}

A Building Boom and Lusty Miners

Buildings sprang up quickly and Ainsworth, B.C. became a lively place with hotels, brothels and saloons serving the public, where miners worked hard and played hard.

Sternwheelers Plied Kootenay Lake Delivering Supplies and Passengers

Ainsworth was only accessible by pack horse and served by the sternwheelers SS Nelson and later, SS City of Ainsworth. These vessels traveled up and down Kootenay Lake, providing transportation to and from the isolated community, bringing in food and supplies, plus an influx of those seeking their fortunes or a new beginning.

It was a hustling and bustling community.

The SS Ainsworth was one of many sternwheelers that plied the waters of Kootenay Lake before modern roads were pushed through the rugged West Kootenay wilderness.

The SS Ainsworth was one of many sternwheelers that plied the waters of Kootenay Lake before modern roads were pushed through the rugged West Kootenay wilderness.

Boom to Bust

The boom did not last. The Payne claim at nearby Sandon in 1891 impacted Ainsworth and, after 1893, Ainsworth fell into a decline. A few short years later, in 1896, a fire razed the town, destroying thirteen hotels and most of the buildings.

The village struggled through the Great Depression and by the 1950s mining was once again in the forefront--until silver prices dropped.

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For every step forward, there were two steps back, but . . .

In the beginning, the Lower Kutenai First Nations people came to the area to enjoy the healing powers of the mineral waters. They would set up camp near to the lake and would go hunting, fishing, and huckleberry picking. These yearly trips continued until the 1900s.

Hot Springs Pool

Hot Springs Pool

"There's 'gold' in them thar hills."

While in the early years, prospectors scoured the hills around Ainsworth looking to make their fortunes, in the end, it was the natural mineral springs that would play a pivotal role in the survival of Ainsworth and set the stage for its future. The waters were an abundant geothermal resource and proved to be the real "mother lode."

Hot Springs Boon to Struggling Village

Ainsworth, it turned out, had more going for it than silver ore.

Miners had tried to create a tunnel but had abandoned it upon discovering hot water. Throughout this "hot zone," in the hillsides and below the pool, geothermally-heated water bubbled to the surface and wherever it did, it left colorful mineral deposits.

It became apparent that Ainsworth had a natural resource that might be worth far more than the what could have been extracted from the mines. Subsequent decades saw further development around what was known as hot springs pool and the tunnel was developed into a cave that went back into the mountain 70 feet and circled around. Hot water flowed into it and soon left mineral deposits that coated everything they came in contact with.

The following decades saw emergence of a modern resort offering more pools, plus lodgings and fine dining, and all with stupendous views overlooking Kootenay Lake and the towering mountains. This endeavor preserved Ainsworth and prevented it from fading into obscurity like so many of the abandoned mining towns in the region.

Hotsprings True Mother Lode

The hotsprings turned out to be the real "mother lode" and has put Ainsworth on the world map.

J. B. Fletcher Historical Store and Crafts: A Place for History Buffs

The Fletcher family has established the J.B. Fletcher Restoration Society (formally dedicated in 1988) to preserve the region's heritage. Visitors can learn more about the history of Ainsworth and find an assortment of local crafts, such as soap, pottery, jewellery, and cards. In tandem with that, a Facebook page, J. B. Fletcher Historical Store and Crafts offers a wealth of historical data and photos released from relevant archives.

J.B. Fletcher Store in Ainsworth, B.C.—the first and largest General Store and mining supply establishment on Kootenay Lake BC, built in the 1890's.

J.B. Fletcher Store in Ainsworth, B.C.—the first and largest General Store and mining supply establishment on Kootenay Lake BC, built in the 1890's.

Further Reading

  • Turnbull, Elsie G., Ghost Towns and Drowned Towns of the West Kootenay, Heritage House Pub Co Ltd (June 1989)
  • Carlyle, William A. B., Report on the Slocan, Nelson and Ainsworth Mining Districts in West Kootenay, British Columbia, Reproduction, Nabu Press, (August 17, 2011)

Ainsworth Today

Ainsworth, B.C., first town in the West Kootenays, has survived and earned its place on the map. Today the quaint village is a favorite spot for local and attracts visitors from around the world. The area is a get-away for camping, fishing, swimming, browsing the shops, hiking the trails through the forest, and for experiencing one of British Columbia's premier commercial hot springs.


  1. Basque, Garnet, West Kootenay The Pioneer Years, Heritage House Publishing Company, 2009
  2. "SS City of Ainsworth" Sternwheelers of Kootenay Lake, Touchstones Nelson, Museum of Art and History, 2009
  3. Barlee, N.L., West Kootenay: Ghost Town Country, Canada West Publications, 1984
  4. Downs, Art, Pioneer Days in British Columbia, Vol 4, Heritage House Publishing Company, 1979 {1} P. 119, {2} P. 117
  5. Mackie, Norm, "Ainsworth History," Travel British Columbia

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Athlyn Green


MJFenn on January 11, 2017:

Interesting hub. I have been to the Elk Valley in the Kootenay Rockies, which can't be to far from this place. The Kootenay Rockies are an area which deserves to be better known.

Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on January 17, 2016:

Thank you DDE, it's a special spot. People travel from different countries to experience it.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 19, 2013:

Incredible experiences in an old village, a well researched and explained hub on the Oldest Village on Kootenay Lake

Athlyn Green (author) from West Kootenays on March 18, 2013:

Hi Ivan, thank you! I love Ainsworth and have spent many happy hours in the springs and cave. Quite the experience.

We one time visited at Christmas and a choir was practicing carols inside the caves--singing in either Russian or Ukrainian--where the acoustics were good. What a wonderful experience: Christmas lights, warm waters, mist and snow coming down and people gathered in front of the caves listening to the choir and singing along with them in English.

Ivan Fraser from Glen Margaret, Nova Scotia on March 18, 2013:

Great Hub Athlyn!

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