The Nicola Ranch ~ Part 1 of 2



By Daryl Drew PH.D. 

The Nicola Valley, just north of Merritt B.C., has been integral to the Canadian ranching industry since the days of the Fraser River gold rush. Abundant grass and water made it home to some of the most famous ranches in the Canadian West. The Quilchena, the Guichon, the Douglas Lake, and the Nicola all trace their roots to this valley. Historic buildings of the Nicola Ranch dating back to the 1800s still stand and line both sides of Highway 5A like a Western movie set. 

The initial ranching activity in the Nicola Valley centred around the HBC trading posts. Cattlemen lived around the trading posts in what is now Oregon and Washington, but after the Oregon Treaty of 1846, they had to find new grazing lands north of the Washington border. 

The discovery of gold in the 1850s in what is now B.C. created a massive market for beef as towns like Victoria and Barkerville swelled overnight to rival San Francisco in size. Miners were followed by horse and mule packers bringing supplies and livestock. The grazing potential of the valley, with its fain ronde grass and fresh water, was evident to everyone. 

The two-story home of the Gold Commissioner, O’Reilly, in Nicola, B.C. 

In 1860 a Mexican packer named Jesus Garcia drove his mules, sheep and cattle through the rugged Coquihalla Pass and wintered at Spanish Springs, now known as Godfrey Creek, before heading north. In 1866 Edwin Dalley, a sheep rancher, built a homestead in the valley, and the Clapperton family followed two years later. John Clapperton opened the first post office in the valley in 1869, and George Clapperton cleared land on the south side of the Nicola River in 1870 to build his ranch. 

“The Nicola Valley seemed to be a cattleman’s paradise…” 

In 1882 William Pooley came to the valley and bought George Clapperton’s holdings to begin his ranching endeavours. His wife Jane had originally come to the valley as a schoolteacher. Years later, when William eventually passed away, she continued to run their 2,500-head beef operation, which she called Tamerton, until it was sold to the Nicola Ranch. 

In 1883 A.E. Howse hiked over the Coquihalla Pass and down into the Nicola Valley with only a pack on his back. He bought local cattle and opened a store hiring packers to supply him. After building up his herd, he drove them over the Coquihalla Pass through rugged terrain and unpredictable weather to Hope, B.C., loaded them on the steamer Reliance and shipped them to Victoria. When the cattle were off-loaded at Cattle Point near Victoria, he was paid $14 per head, which was a good price then. 

A.E. Howes home in late 1800s 

During the 1880s, the Nicola Ranch was the valley’s hub. George Fensome had built two sawmills. O’Reilly, the gold commissioner, had a fancy home built there. The Murray United Church, built in 1876, had a bell cast in England, and A. E. Howse made the windows from coloured glass and putty. The church had been the project of Reverend George Murray, a travelling minister who visited towns and communities all over B.C.’s interior. Sadly, on January 11, 2019, the Murray Church was destroyed by arson.

The Nicola Valley seemed to be a cattleman’s paradise, the land’s carrying capacity was high, and the winters were relatively mild with light snow accumulations. That illusion was shattered in 1886 when heavy snow and deep freeze temperatures came early and stayed long into the spring. What little hay there was ran out early, and the layers of crusted snow made getting to the grass below next to impossible for cattle. 

John Petersons Ranch Stage Station; Nicola Stage route 

Under grey, leaden skies, snowbound ranchers watched their stock decline from skinny to starving to dead in the snow. Some cattle, too weak to survive even after the snow melted, had to be shot. In the spring, the valley was littered with dead cattle, like casualties from some great war with nature. It was said that the magpies were plentiful, and the coyotes were fat that year. While some ranchers were wiped out, others learned a valuable lesson, and today, hay is a major crop in the Nicola Valley.

Times changed, and the old pioneer ranchers passed away or sold off their holdings to bigger ranches like Nicola. The Lakeview ranch owned by A.E. Howse became part of the Nicola this way, and the house he built in 1881 still stands. In the mid-1900s, it was slightly modified by cow boss Bob Hooper who added hardwood floors and indoor plumbing salvaged from the old Vancouver Hotel. 

In 1886 the Canadian Pacific Railway acquired the town of Nicola, and by 1910 there was a newspaper called the Nicola Herald, a courthouse, telephone service and even fresh milk delivery to homes in the valley.

The valley ranchers have known prosperity, hard times, a fair share of flamboyant characters, and mysteries. 

No mystery is more compelling, however than that which surrounds the disappearance and apparent homicide on January 26, 2019, of Nicola Ranch manager Ben Tyner. To his family and friends, his loss is both heart-wrenching and inexplicable. He was 32 years old when he disappeared. A 6 ‘3”, 230 lbs. and a quiet-spoken man, he was nicknamed “the gentle giant” by his friends.

Ben Tyner was born in Florida and grew up near Laramie, Wyoming. He was known to be reserved and very mannerly by those who knew him and for taking great pride in his work. Ben was a voracious reader and an excellent horseman, having worked around cattle and horses all his life. He studied livestock production and was an accomplished leather worker as well. He was interested in travel and having new experiences, and these interests took him as far afield as Russia and Australia.

His neighbours knew Ben as a dependable team player who was always there to lend a hand when needed and to keep working until the job was done. It was said that anytime you needed him to help gather cows, brand calves or show up with a horse trailer, Ben was there. He would drop what he was doing to help someone and was perceived as a strong solid cowboy in many ways. Always eager to learn, he jumped at the chance to manage Nicola as it was like a new horizon for him. 

Ben was hired on November 18th, 2018, and with his horse Gunny and his dog Sue, he was looking forward to managing a historic ranch like Nicola. Sadly, his opportunity was cut short. 

The valley holds its secrets close, and to this day, no trace of him has been found.