In Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs, women helped build the foundation of their communities.
Some built up their communities as store owners, like Emma Menten, who purchased John Ashwell’s Harrison store in the 1890s. Marguerite de Gusseme also brought business acumen to the village, as she took over management of the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel during the early 20th century.
Others — like Dorothy Clark — brought their talents to the battlefield. Still more formed a foundation for the community in less conspicuous, but equally important ways: through women’s parish groups and daily household activities.
But few have had their names so steeped in the community, without ever having stepped foot there, than Alice Douglas.
The hot springs were named St. Alice’s Well by judge Matthew Begbie in 1858, when Alice Douglas was 15 years old. (Hudson Bay Company director Benjamin Harrison eventually won out in the name game for the hot springs.) Douglas also gave her name to the first hotel in the area, the St. Alice Hotel, which helped transform Harrison Hot Springs into a tourist destination.
But “St. Alice” was anything but a saint, according to letters from her father, Governor James Douglas, and others.
Called one of the “greatest flirts on this island” by a naval officer who met her at balls in her youth, the dark-haired, dark-eyed daughter of B.C.’s first governor could play both the lady and the truant.
“She has a strong will and is proud as Lucifer,” her father wrote in a letter, adding that she would “rather starve than submit.”
Her ancestry and father’s high position in colonial society did not always make life easy. James Douglas was born the illegitimate son of a Scottish sugar planter and free woman of colour. Her mother, Amelia, was a Metis woman from the Red River Colony in what is now Manitoba.
Douglas, her sisters and her mother were the subject of crude jokes and cruel statements about their race, with men of all classes commenting on their ability to feel at ease in European fashions, their social graces and their place in British Columbian society.
But, if Douglas’ actions are anything to go by, these remarks did little to curb her spirit.
At 17, Alice Douglas eloped with Charles Good, chief clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. The pair made their way to the United States aboard the British schooner Explorer and married in Port Townsend.
By one account, James Douglas sent a government agent after them, but wasn’t able to prevent them marrying. On the couple’s return to Victoria, he had them remarry to make sure it was valid.
Douglas’ marriage to Good wouldn’t last. Although Good’s professional life saw successes — he was appointed the first clerk of the B.C. Legislative Assembly in 1872 — his private finances spiralled out of control. In a letter to his half-sister, James Douglas called Good “an incurable idiot (who) ought to be interdicted.” Alice Douglas seemed to agree.
By 1896, her father said she had “taken her own income in hand” and a year later travelled to England with her three children to get away from Good. Good went the following year and brought them back to British Columbia, but Douglas refused to reconcile with him.
Eventually, Good himself moved to England and Douglas remained in British Columbia. By 1878 she had moved to California, divorced Good and married someone else. It was only five years after her second marriage that she found out American divorces had no legal effect in England; Good began divorce proceedings in England at that time.
The latter half of Alice Douglas’ life is less well-documented than her spirited British Columbian youth; she died in California in December 1913.
But as her story wound to a close, the activity around her namesake hotel grew. By the time of the 1920 fire, the hotel had brought more than just tourism to Harrison Hot Springs; the community now had its own postmaster, doctor, store and mill.
James Douglas described his daughter as having “the quiet easy manners of a woman of the world.” But like the community her name had helped create, “under that placid exterior (lay) a world of determination which nothing (could) move.”