Grey Canal History

The Grey Canal was a former irrigation waterway that sustained over 20,000 acres of orchards and farmlands in the Greater Vernon area from 1906 until 1970.

At one time it was BC’s longest gravity-fed irrigation system from a single water source, spanning 50 km from Lavington to Okanagan Lake.

The Grey Canal had a tremendous impact on the development of Greater Vernon.


Built between 1906 and 1914, the canal was constructed using basic equipment of that time.

Two steam shovels were used to move the earth and excavate wide ditches. 

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22390 

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 9185 (Cropped) 

Drivers led a team of horses pulling slip scrapers to level the ground.

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 391 (Cropped)

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22404 

Construction workers along Grey Canal ditches, 1906-1909
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 8708 

Grey Canal construction, circa 1920
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 24494



The irrigation water flowed mainly in dug-out earth canals or ditches

These earth ditches measured up to 6 meters wide with a depth of 1 meter of water

Grey Canal earthen ditch, 1910
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 5648 

Water flowing in earth ditch of Grey Canal, 1910
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22425 


Where the terrain was rough or uneven, flumes were built to direct and contain the water flow

Up to three metres wide, flumes were constructed of wood or steel sheets.

The flumes were suspended above the uneven ground on wooden trestles.


Eighteen flumes were built along the Grey Canal.

Wooden flume, 1910
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22412 

#3 Flume of Grey Canal, 1935
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 17892 

The longest flume was on the east side of Swan Lake, above the hill where the waterslides are today.

This challenging terrain required a raised 750-metre-long flume to transport water along the steep rocky hillside.

You can still see pieces of this suspended flume along that section of Grey canal trail, north of McLennan Road.

Flume remnants on East  Swan Lake section of Grey Canal trail

The highest flume, #16 Flume, towered 12 metres above the ground. 
It was located in the Bella Vista area on the Davison Orchards property.

#16 Flume at Davison Orchards
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 17900 

# 16 Flume - Highest flume of Grey Canal
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 18056 

The wooden flumes were later replaced with galvanized steel sheeting to prevent seepage. (1950 photo)

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22644



Gravity was the only force used to move a staggering amount of water over a great distance.


Most of the Grey Canal was built on the hillsides, where gravity allowed the water to flow naturally downhill onto the fields below.


To move the water for 50 km, the canal route had a precise downhill slope that pushed the water forward.

The slope had to be at an exact grade that the water did not flow too slowly nor too quickly.

A skillful survey crew carefully plotted and measured the route prior to construction.

Grey Canal Survey Crew, circa 1910
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 2783 

Moving Water Uphill

The Grey Canal route did not always move water downhill.

When the irrigation water reached valleys, ravines and steep rock cliffs, a different method to raise the water was required.



In the days before water pumps, an inverted siphon was used to move the water uphill.


Water going into the siphon (inlet) was at a higher elevation than where the water came out (outlet).

The long siphons were hand-made from wooden planks wrapped with wire, similar to a wooden wine cask. 

BX Creek Siphon construction, 1910

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22417

When water entered the wooden pipe, pressure within the siphon, due to gravity, was enough to push the water up the opposite hillside.

The Lavington Siphon, 71 cm in diameter and 2 km long, crossed the Coldstream Valley and rose up the north side on Vernon Hill.

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 738

The BX Creek Siphon was 290 meters long and especially challenging as it dropped down into the deep narrow ravine and climbed up the other side. 

BX Creek wooden supports for siphon
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22416 

Releasing pressure from BX Creek siphon
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 22418 

The longest siphon was 3 km at the north end of Swan Lake.

It crossed the valley and lifted water up the hillside to Goose Lake on the west side of Swan Lake.

Swan Lake Siphon,
3 km long, 1964
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 19095

Knight Siphon remnants on Grey Canal trail on Turtle Mountain

Later the wooden siphons were replaced with sturdy steel pipe

On the Turtle Mountain section of the Grey Canal trail, you can see remnants of the Knight Siphon along the steep cliff side, a thick steel pipe measuring 720 metres long


The irrigation water passed through a rock tunnel on Turtle Mountain.

A 67-metre tunnel was built through a steep rock outcrop above the current SPCA buildings.


Grey Canal siphons and tunnel 


The Aberdeens

Lord and Lady Aberdeen from Scotland were important settlers who played a significant role in the creation, funding and maintenance of the Grey Canal.

Lord John Hamilton-Gordon,
7th Earl of Aberdeen,

and his wife, Lady Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks
with their four children, 1894

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 11049

The Coldstream Ranch

In 1891, Lord and Lady Aberdeen purchased the Coldstream Ranch from the Honourable Forbes George Vernon.

At the time of purchase, the Coldstream Ranch was a sprawling 13,261 acres

The Aberdeens had a grand vision for their massive property. 


Lord and Lady Aberdeen commissioned the planting of 25,000 apple, pear and cherry trees on 100 acres of their property, pioneering the commercial fruit growing industry in the Okanagan Valley.

Coldstream Ranch Orchard, 1910
Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 859

Coldstream Internal Irrigation System 

To water their extensive orchards, the Coldstream Internal System, an effective irrigation method was developed, which was the beginning of the Grey Canal.

Construction of Coldstream Internal Irrigation system, 1905 

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 2517

Built between 1892-1908, the Coldstream Internal System consisted of several human-built earth ditches.  

Drawing water mainly from Coldstream Creek, this system irrigated the agricultural lands towards Kalamalka Lake.

Coldstream Internal System was the beginning of the Grey Canal 

In 1892 the Aberdeens began subdividing their extensive ranch lands into smaller 10 to 40-acre orchard estates, complete with fruit trees and irrigation.


British and Canadian upper-class aristocracy were invited to purchase these plots of land and immigrate to the Okanagan Valley. A selling feature was irrigated lands at a guaranteed set water rate, a rare proposition at the time.

Aberdeen’s Promotion Advertisement for Coldstream Ranch orchards, circa 1895

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 2497

Lord Aberdeen was appointed as the 7th Governor General of Canada in 1893. 

During his five-year duty he and Lady Aberdeen travelled extensively across Canada and in Great Britain, promoting the Okanagan Valley as a desirable place to live, with fruit farming as a choice way of life.

William Crawley Ricardo 

In 1895, W.C. Ricardo was hired as the Coldstream Ranch manager which he diligently served until 1914.


Ricardo, was instrumental in the ranch’s flourishing agricultural and irrigation accomplishments and proved to be a remarkable visionary, changing the future of Coldstream and Vernon.

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 24426 (Cropped)   

Born in England, Ricardo had extensive farming and ranching experience when he became the ranch manager. 

He expanded and improved the Coldstream Internal Irrigation System, which increased the ranch’s agricultural production tremendously.


Ricardo was the driving force to create a larger irrigation system that would provide water to more land around Greater Vernon.


Heavily involved with the community, Ricardo became the first Reeve (Mayor) of the District of Coldstream in 1907.

As more settlers arrived in the valley, Ricardo and the Aberdeens began plans for a longer, more complex irrigation system.

William Crawley Ricardo, Coldstream Ranch manager,
and family Coldstream Ranch, circa 1905

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 4719   

Albert Edward Ashcroft

Civil engineer and land surveyor, Albert Ashcroft, was hired to implement Ricardo’s vision, which would become the Grey Canal.

Albert Edward Ashcroft,

formulated Grey Canal Irrigation System plan

Image G-07975 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum 

Ashcroft planned and created an elaborate gravity-fed system that carried water a distance of 65 km from Aberdeen Lake, southeast of Lavington, to Okanagan Lake.

Ashcroft chose the Okanagan Highland as the water source. This expansive forested watershed, south of Lavington, situated at a much higher elevation, offered numerous mountain lakes which were replenished mainly from melted snow.


The abundant lakes, when dammed, served as water storage facilities which could be run off gradually throughout the growing season, thereby providing a steady source of water.

Lakes Aberdeen and Haddo were dammed, as per Albert Ashcroft’s plan, and the released water entered Duteau Creek.

Dam and Spillway at Aberdeen Lake 

Image courtesy: Vernon Museum and Archives – Photo 5305   

From the dam, water 15 km north, flowed downhill through the rugged canyons to the headgates, near Lavington. (green line on map)


From Lavington, Duteau Creek flows naturally northeast towards Lumby and enters Shuswap Lake and into the Fraser River watershed.


Ashcroft’s plan redirected the water in the opposite direction, heading northwest into the Okanagan Lake and Columbia River watershed.

Beyond the headgates, water was divided into two directions:

- A smaller diversion augmented the Coldstream Internal System and irrigated agricultural lands towards Kalamalka Lake. (red lines on map)

- The main Grey Canal transported irrigation water along a circuitous 50 km route up the north side of Coldstream Valley and along bench lands around Coldstream, Vernon, BX, Swan Lake, Bella Vista and terminated near Kin Beach on Okanagan Lake. (blue line on map)

Aberdeen Lake was dammed and the released water flowed into Duteau Creek.

From headgates near Lavington, water flowed to Kalamalka Lake or Okanagan Lake.

In recognition of Albert Ashcroft’s remarkable work, an 8-foot monument stands at the Kalamalka Lake Lookout on Highway 97.

Bishop Sovereign, who attended the formal unveiling of the monument in 1958 stated: 

The true monument to Mr. Ashcroft lies around us. 

The Vernon Irrigation District has transformed parched lands into fertile and fruitful fields, the product of Mr. Ashcroft’s mind and hand.”

Earl Grey

The Grey Canal is named after Albert Henry George, the fourth Earl Grey and Canada's 9th Governor General.


Earl Grey owned the Learmouth Ranch near the canal headgates by Lavington.  His lands would greatly benefit from the irrigation system.


Earl and Lady Grey officiated at the opening of the headgates on October 6, 1906.


As Governor General, Earl Grey encouraged farming in the Okanagan and praised the fruit farmer as “the most desirable of all citizens”.


Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier at the time, commented that Lord Grey: “Gave his whole heart, his whole soul, and his whole life to Canada”.


You may recognize Earl Grey’s name on the Canadian football trophy which he donated in 1909 – The Grey Cup.

Albert Henry George
fourth Earl Grey
Canada's 9th Governor General

It’s interesting to note that two ambitious Canadian Governor Generals owned substantial agricultural lands in the Coldstream Valley, and were both instrumental in promoting settlers and fruit growing to the North Okanagan.



As the Grey Canal irrigation waters arrived along bench lands around Greater Vernon, the landscape, settlement, economy and farming were transformed.

The land below the canal changed from dry hillsides to productive farmlands.
Settlers from around the globe arrived.
The local economy was stimulated providing employment.
Agriculture was transformed from ranching and dry land farming to growing vegetables and fruits.

The Ribbons of Green Trails Society collaborated with the Museum & Archives of Vernon to create a series of filmed interviews about the historic Grey Canal. 

Peter Tassie, Bob Davison, Tom Ouchi and Mas Sakakibara, share their knowledge and recollections.  

Each interview tells a different part of the story of this feat of engineering, and how it changed life in the North Okanagan.

To view these three Grey Canal interview films on the Museum & Archives of Vernon website, click here or here

For information on the Grey Canal hiking trails, click here

For an interactive map of the Grey Canal trails, click here

For a Grey Canal Scavenger Hunt to explore trail and signs, click here