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Historic Tourism

The Banff-Windermere Highway

The Columbia Valley remained a pristine jewel of nature far longer than most of East Kootenay. It was the area people passed through on their way south from the C.P.R. main line at Golden. Travelers’ destinations were usually the capital of East Kootenay, Fort Steele, or places in West Kootenay. Slowly, however, an appreciation of the mild weather and open ranch lands attracted settlers to the Windermere area. Promotional literature appeared in England likening the area to the Lake District and suggesting the region was ideal for fruit growing and dairying.

Earl Grey, Governor-General of Canada, visited the Kootenay-Columbia Valley in October, 1908. He was so impressed with the country that he had a permanent camp constructed up Toby Creek so that he and his family could enjoy an extended holiday during the summer of 1909. He fell in love with the country, and told people so through the public media.

“The road the whole way from Argenta to Windermere was a continuous and delightful surprise to me. I am convinced that if this route were made accessible to tourists and the steps taken to advertise its attractions, you would bring to this part of your province a steadily increasing stream of visitors and settlers.”
The Cranbrook Herald, June 22, 1911

He went on to urge Premier McBride of B.C. to work toward creating a national park for the area.

The Governor-General’s perceptions were echoed in the same issue by J. George Adami, a Professor of Pathology at McGill University, Montreal and a summer resident on Lake Windermere:

“It is, I confess, a matter of continuous surprise to me that the great vale between the Rockies and the Selkirks remains practically unknown to the travelling public. With each succeeding year an increasing stream of travel crosses it, either at Golden or at Cranbrook. Valleys far more remote and far less beautiful – in Mexico, in Peru, in the Himalayas and even in China – attract a steadily augmenting stream of visitors. But of the thousands who are attracted to British Columbia, less than a score a year …. arrest their journey to ascend or descend this, the noblest valley in the whole broad Dominion.”
The Cranbrook Herald, June 22, 1911

The means of transportation remained slow and costly, a combination of paddlewheeler and freight wagon. The automobile and Mr. Robert Randolph Bruce began to change that. Bruce had, by 1911, established a nursery designed to supply acclimatized fruit trees to settlers. European adventurers began to settle, such as a retired officer of the British army, Captain Thorold who wrote:

“I consider the country an ideal place for any Englishman with a small income who is fond of sport. There is capital bear hunting in the spring, and the season opens again on September 1st for deer, sheep, goats, etc. The only slack time is the summer months, and if we only had a few more men we could play polo, as here it would be quite an inexpensive game and well within the reach of those with only moderate means.”
F.J. Clarke, Bureau of Provincial Information

Change was on the horizon, perhaps echoed in the fact that Professor Adami of Montreal, while lamenting the fact that the Windermere was undiscovered, himself had secured property on Lake Windermere a virtual continent away. Provincial Minister of Works, the Hon. Thomas Taylor, in July of 1911, authorized an immediate survey of the Banff-Windermere scenic road. As well, the Kootenay Central Railway was building north from Cranbrook to the main line at Golden.

Nestled between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Selkirk Mountains on the west, the Windermere district offered nothing so much as promise. Riding in a ‘motor’ at forty miles an hour down from Golden, the few visitors all remarked that this calm would not last, that settlers would bring more tourists, and then summer residents. The Banff-Windermere Motor Highway would place Calgary’s 4,000 automobiles:

“within nine hours of the Windermere country…. This will provide a scenic route for automobile travel unsurpassed in the world and already several in Calgary are planning the construction of summer homes in the upper country in anticipation of the consummation of this motor road.”
The Cranbrook Prospector, May 18, 1912

No one counted on World War I intervening. By 1914 Alberta had built the road out from Calgary to the Great Divide and the Province of British Columbia had completed twelve miles on the western end. With the threat of hostilities in Europe all construction ceased. The vision of the most alluring tourist route in the world was put on hold indefinitely.

With constant lobbying from Robert Randolph Bruce of Windermere and Dr. J.H. King of Cranbrook, the Banff-Windermere route came alive again in 1919. R.R. Bruce was well enough connected that he became Lieutenant Governor of B.C. shortly after the road opened, while Dr. J.H. King became federal Minister of Public Works, in charge of roads. When an agreement was signed with the federal government to complete the outstanding 53 miles of road by January, 1924. Of real note to the future security of tourist interest in the area was the codicil to the agreement which had the Province of B.C. give over an area five miles deep on either side of the Tourist Highway (Some six hundred square miles) to the federal government for the purposes of Kootenay National Park.

This project is sponsored by:

Castle Mountain
Castle Mountain from the Banff-Windermere highway in 1924. The view offers just a glimpse of the natural beauty that almost…
The Banff Windermere Highway
Cover of a 35 page pamphlet which tells the history of the Banff-Windermere Highway and highlights the stunning natural features…
Sinclair Canyon on the Banff-Windermere Motor Highway
An early view of Sinclair Canyon on the Banff-Windermere Motor Highway. Although the inscription says the Canyon is near Fernie,…
The Iron Gates
Nature's entrance to Kootenay National Park on the western end, formed by towers of red rock several hundred feet high.…
Sketch Map of the Banff-Windermere Road
A detailed sketch map of the route of the Banff-Windermere Highway, Castle Mountain to Radium Hot Springs. Details the auto…