Okanagan Explosion

Paul Whitlock

History of cattle ranching in the Okanagan valley


Cattle began overwintering on the abundant bunch grass ranges along the Thompson river in 1860, when a man named Cornelius O'Keefe realized he could make more money raising cattle then driving them up from Oregon. in the winter of 1880 thousands of cattle starved, which made ranchers and farmers realize that they needed to grow more hay. As the winter passed , fields were covered in hay and the Canadian Pacific Railway construction started. Five thousand men constructed the line from Yale to Savona, which was 175 miles long and the demand for beef was so great that even the large syndicates like the Douglas Lake Cattle company or BC cattle company couldn't meet the demand. Cattle provided ranchers with the cash needed to buy land, the large O'Keefe ranch in the north Okanagan grew to many acres. The huge amount of cattle sales also provided ranchers with the opportunity closer to home and opened butcher shops in the lower mainland.


Cattle ranching was very important to the valley because it was the main food source for the workers building the pacific railway which also led to the first local butcher shops. Lots of cash came out of the cattle business which attracted more permanent settlers to the valley.

Role of the Brigade Trail

The fur brigade trail was a vital link between South and North British Colombia. Used by the aboriginals until 1825 when the Hudsons Bay Company started using it as a transport route became the key to the development of cattle ranching. It was used by cattle drivers to bring cattle to and from the valley. Many other groups of people used the trail but without it, the valley would be very different.

Early European Profile: Cornelius O'Keefe

Early History

In 1866 Cornelius met Thomas Wood, who became a partner of his, driving cattle to the big bend gold area and the Kamploops area from Oregon where they bought a herd of 180 head. They met Thomas Greenhow who also became a partner and returned to the North head of Okanagan lake and they bought 16o acres of land. Thomas Wood relocated his ranch in 1871 but O'Keefe and Greenhow opened up the first general store in the Okanagan valley. In 1872 his general store became a post office, which was also the valleys first, and became a postmaster until 1912 where he died shortly after

Reasons for Settlement

Heard of the gold in the valley and just after a failed gold rush attempt in the Cariboo he saw a better opportunity. When he and his partner arrived at the head of the lake they saw amazing fertile soil and rich grass full of nutrients perfect for raising cattle and growing crops.

Early Accomplishments

O'Keefe didn't really have any accomplishments prior to moving to the valley which was one of the reasons he came to the valley. He had a failed gold rush attempt in the Cariboo and got into a low paying construction job until he heard of gold in the Okanagan.

Accomplishments in the Valley

The O'Keefe ranch became the entry point into the Okanagan valley, people started to call it the Okanagan. First rancher to open a general store and become a postmaster in the whole valley. After 1907 O’Keefe invested in town lots in Vernon and constructed theatres there and in Kamloops. He also served as director of the British Columbia Cattle Association, director of the Okanagan and Spallumcheen Agricultural Society, and president of the Vernon Jockey Club.

Legacy Today

The O'Keefe ranch is now a historical site that is still lived in by the original family 100 years later. In 1977 Tierney O'Keefe and his wife Betty sold the ranch to the Devonian Foundation which gave it to the City of Vernon to preserve and operate. It is now a major heritage tourism destination in the North Okanagan operated on behalf of the City.

The Impact Cornelius had on the Valley

The impact Cornelious O'Keefe had on the growth and development of the Okanagan valley was that he and his partner, Thomas Greenhow, had the first general store and post office in the north Okanagan. He had a large peice of land which attracted lots of visitors, he also donated a lot of his land to the Agricultural Society which helped make Vernon a better place aswell.

Interesting Facts

  • The town was founded in 1867 by Cornelius O'Keefe. Cornelius was a cattleman who became known as "the O'Keefe of Okanagan."
  • The O'Keefe ranch is now used for many student field trips and has lots of different possible activities.