Crowsnest Highway
    Back to Top

Cranbrook, B.C. : History Printer Friendly Version

by DMWilson
With thanks to Garry Anderson, Don Bains, Gail Eyers, Greg Geddis, Bob Gilbert, John Morrison, Roger Burrows, Sylvia Thrup, Donald G. Wetherell and Irene R.A. Kmet, David Hoole, Naomi Miller and the East Kootenay Historical Society, and John Betenia and the Sand Creek Historical Book Committee .
posted 2002
revised 2010/02/16

North into Cranbrook
Colonel James Baker gets his Ranch
The Political James Baker
James Baker and the Development of south-eastern B.C.
The Creation of Cranbrook
Cranbrook, continued
Cranbrook’s Treasure
Lumbering in Cranbrook
North into Cranbrook

        Though the climb up the Fassiferne hill from Moyie Lake may merit the scorn of cyclists with well-toned leg muscles, at its crest travellers east-bound exit the Columbia Mountain region and begin their descent into what H.O. Slaymaker, in his chapter “Physiography and Hydrology of Six River Basins” in Studies in Canadian Geography; British Columbia, calls the “spectacular topographic feature” of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Until some seventy million years ago, coming easterly out of the Purcells like this, travellers would have had either a version of the Great Plains before them, or they would be on a beach. Æons past, the Purcells formed part of the eastern shore of what was essentially a mountainous island. Offshore, however, silt and calcium carbonate from degrading seashells was building up in layer upon tremendous layer, pressing the lower strata into the realm of rock. Ages passes and tectonic caprice raised the sea bed above the global sea level and held it to drain and dry in the sun. Far beneath the ancient shoreline, the limestones and shales of the Continental Plate, thin and friable and subject to intolerable pressure by the Plate’s relentless effort to over-ride its westward neighbour, bucked and fractured and heaved up the Rockies some 30 million years ago, dropping a 900-mile long strip of land between the new and the old mountains down a few metres to form a graben, the Rocky Mountain Trench. Scoured out by at least four glacial invasions and half filled with till and silt, the Trench today collects the run-off from the Rocky’s western slopes and what it doesn’t store in its lakes and its extensive aquifers, it channels off to the Pacific Ocean via the Fraser, the Thompson, the Columbia, and the Kootenay systems. The aquifers make the Trench an oasis, and waters pooling on the surface make it, like the Kootenay Trench west of the Purcells, a significant avian flyway. At Cranbrook the Rocky Mountain Trench is sixteen kilometres wide, and in the middle, hidden behind the hilly tail of the Purcell’s McGillivray Range that creeps up its right bank, the Kootenay River hurries southward to Libby, Montana and its “big bend” back towards Canada.

        Having rolled down the Fassiferne’s 5.5 mile long grade and broken out of the forest of Lodgepole pines and cottonwood which shelters Cranbrook (921m) from the south-west winds, travellers on the Crowsnest Highway are greeted by rush-fringed Elizabeth Lake straddling the City’s limits to the right. Since 1972, 113 hectares of the Lake and its wetlands have been preserved from development and enhanced by a partnership of the City, the province and Ducks Unlimited, and protected as a wildlife sanctuary. Somewhere to the east of the Lake, the over-grown and lost line of Dewdney’s trail wanders down out of the hills to enter the City along Fourteenth Avenue. On the Highway, a sign pointing left offers campers the option of heading south-westerly four paved kilometres down a little street built on the right-of-way of an old logging railroad to Jimsmith Lake Park, a showerless 28 site provincial effort.
        Changing to Van Horne Street, the Highway is into the biggest city by far on the B.C. section of the Crowsnest Highway. Nearly 20,000 people live in Cranbrook in the year 2000, twice as many as in Nelson. On The Highway, only Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are larger. To the left, the Yards of the CPR, with its old, brick roundhouse and wooden water tower, are still noisily active. A divisional point on the Crow’s Nest Line since the steel was laid, Cranbrook is now, since CP slashed regional services, the only divisional point in B.C. not on the Mainline.
        In the main, old Cranbrook is laid out cardinally, at approximately a 45 degree angle to the north-east/south-west running Van Horne which, itself, parallels the Railway. The downtown, commercial and most of the residential districts lie on the south-east side of the railroad, the industrial section across on the north-west. Van Horne and its northern extension, Cranbrook Street, is “the Strip,” populated by motels, fast-food joints and gas bars. Downtown is well populated by old hotels, but most, like the King Edward on 7th Avenue South, offer no overnight accommodation, having either been converted into residential flats or simply earning their keep from their bars. The exceptions are the well-kept Mount Baker, a substantial brick block raised at the corner of 11th Ave and Baker Street in 1925, and the declining Hotel Byng on Cranbrook Street near the Rotary Clock Tower. Parts of the Byng are rumoured to date to 1898, and look it. Across Van Horne and the tracks from Downtown, westward a block or so on King Street stood a great brick pile raised in stages between 1900 and 1912 as the St. Eugene’s Hospital. When the new hospital was opened in 1968 the old building was converted into the Tudor House Hotel. No longer: the high “Hotel” sign in carnelian neon that perched on its roof was taken down when it was rebuilt into a trendy apartment block. On Monday, August 12th of 2002 the structure was gutted by fire, and four years later still stands as a picturesque ruin.
        Tenters are advised to pass by the Ponderosa Motel’s eight exposed RV sites south on Van Horne. Proximity to the urbanized Crowsnest Highway augurs a restless night under fabric. With their full hook-ups and convenient location, the sites are designed for RVers sleeping behind sound-proofed walls. Avoid, as well, the crude BJ Camping set amid the industrial yards off Cranbrook Street at the very north end of the City, and head for the Mount Baker RV Park at First Street and Fourteenth Avenue. It could not be more convenient.
        Called the “Municipal Tourist Park” auto-court, then the apropos “Cranbrook City Centre Campground”, the Mount Baker shares its property with several ball diamonds and is boxed in by streets which do tend to get noisier as the evening matures, especially given some locals’ penchant for mounting rough-treaded tires on their SUVs and then howling around town. All of the campsites are squeezed into the Park’s south end, laid out under a sprinkling of mature evergreens on the same slope which requires some motorists on bordering Second Street South to press the heel to the steel to maintain uphill speed. Though level sand tent pads have been installed, the sites are bereft of bush to break the breeze and the neighbours’ line of sight. And securing bikes at night requires a bit of ingenuity with a picnic table or something; there are no poles or such. Showers are housed in two well maintained cindercrete block utility buildings and provide plenty of hot water. Well they should, for the registration fee is above the average, reflecting the hard fact that there are precious few other places to camp in Cranbrook.
        The Campground used to welcome visitors with a quaint, roofed-arch entrance-cum-office dating to the days of gravelled roads and running boards, but at 8:00 the morning of July 14th, 1995, a huge mechanical beast was unleashed upon the wood-framed structure. Every splinter was gone by the end of the day. Too bad, it added a touch of class to the Park, but the managers said that it was infested with carpenter ants and was in danger of imminent collapse.
        Located on the urban remains of Joseph’s Creek which led Dewdney’s trail out onto Joseph’s Prairie, the Campground is very near the site of the first permanent structures built on what is now the Cranbrook townsite. During the winter of 1872-’73, the former HBC man, Michael Phillipps, constructed a cabin for the Federal government near the Trail and the Creek somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1st Street South and 14th Avenue, the north-west corner of the Campsite. In the spring of 1873 H.E. Seelye1 arrived to occupy the cabin as a customs house. Nearby in 1874, John Thompson Galbraith, who had been resident here-abouts since 1865, built a store and began acquiring title to the Prairie. It was at this tiny settlement that Colonel J.A. (James) Baker built his home.
Colonel James Baker gets his Ranch

        The morning sunshine glows on the plain “craftsman style” mansion in the Park’s north-east corner. This is the abode that Lieutenant-Colonel James Baker, Cranbrook’s founder, had built for himself during the years 1887 to 1889. It is one of the oldest surviving homes in south-eastern B.C., shared in 2006 by the association which exhibits the building, and Cranbrook Family Chiropractic.
        Like W.A. Baillie-Grohman, Edgar Dewdney, Colonel S.B. Steele, J.C. Haynes, and hundreds of others in the history of western Canada, Jas. Baker was an ex-pat Brit, a “pillar of the British Empire.” Educated and experienced, these men were God-sends to beleaguered administrations in the far corners of an Empire upon which the sun never set. Pressed into essential duties, privy to privileged information and lobbied for their support, many positioned themselves well to influence affairs to their advantage. With a likely prospect found and well in hand, they would hie themselves off Home to hobnob with their peers and the portfolio managers in the City to raise some venture capital to get their projects off the ground.
        In 1850, upon retiring from the Indian Navy as a lieutenant after six years’ service, Baker obtained a commission in the Royal Horse Guards, Blue, and served with the 8th Hussars in the Crimea. Discharged from Her Majesty’s Army in 1875, Baker set out to search the globe for investment opportunities. His quest brought him and two of his sons to Victoria not long before his elder brother, Valentine Aker Baker Pasha, was defeated in the Sudan by the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in February of 1884. Apprising himself of opportunities, Baker decided to give the East Kootenay a look-see. He liked Joseph’s Prairie, the large meadow created by Joseph Creek, surmising that it would make an ideal pasturage for cattle. Before 1884 was out Baker had bought 18,000 acres of it from the Galbraith family with $20,000 of the £55,000 that he had been able to raise through his development company at Home.

        His money, however, did not buy Baker undisputed rights to Joseph’s Prairie.
        The rain that fell on Baker’s parade condensed around the philosophical legacy left to the province by J.W. Trutch, the Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works in Colonial times. Trutch embraced the contemporary American attitude that Indians were savage nuisances whose long occupation of a home territory had earned them absolutely no right to it whatsoever and that Whites, therefore, were under no obligation to compensate or accommodate the First Nations in any way. Under the Land Ordinance Act of 1866, if a White wanted a parcel of land and whatever was on it or in it, she or he merely registered a claim with the Government, paid any fees and, a few requirements aside, assumed ownership. In the nearly twenty years since the Ordinance had been enacted, there had been little friction between Natives and Whites simply because few Whites came to the Interior to homestead. By the early 1880s, however, increasing White activity in the Upper Kootenay valley was making the Ktunaxa apprehensive about their future.
        Probably the first legal alienation of Ktunaxa land had occurred in 1872 when the ferry operator, John Thompson Galbraith, pre-empted 320 acres on Joseph’s Prairie. Over the years he and his brothers had added to the holding but, being merchants and ranchers, they had not broken the land nor fenced it. They simply ploughed up enough earth to satisfy the requirements of the Land Ordinance Act and ran livestock in an amicable association with the Natives that saw no one inconvenienced.
        Times, however, change. Notes Sylvia L. Thrup in her 1929 master’s thesis for the University of British Columbia’s Department of History, A History of the Cranbrook District in East Kootenay, in 1883 several homesteaders, among them E.J. Johnston, surveyor F.W. Aylmer, Captain Francis Patrick Armstrong, and D. Bellhouse, recorded pre-emptions in the Trench, joining the Morigeau family who had lived for years on the shores of Upper Columbia Lake (now Lake Windermere). Naturally, they chose the best land and expected the exclusive use of it. Arthur Stanhope Farwell, who that year made a rough survey of the peoples and resources of the Kootenays for the provincial government – and had himself staked a pre-emption in the Upper Kootenay – reported that the homesteaders’ expectations distressed the Ktunaxa. Understandably, the Tribe was having difficulty appreciating the justice of a law, enacted without their knowledge or consent, that enabled aliens to exclude them from the choice tracts of their ancestral home-land.
        Like all independent peoples, the Ktunaxa were proud of their self-reliance and would have been happy to tread the path of their ancestors into the Future, but by 1880 they realized that change was upon them. Frequently they were encountering Whites nosing around the Kootenays, the bison which the Tribe had long hunted on the eastern slopes of the Rockies had disappeared, and Native nations on the Prairies and in the United States were agreeing to treaties that, though limiting their freedom to rove, guaranteed incomes and unalienable reserves of land. Accepting these changes as permanent, the Ktunaxa were anxious to adapt to the new ways and were, in one respect at least, already doing so. Since the mid-1860s the Tribe had been building up herds of cattle from the strays that the Wild Horse miners had lost or abandoned. With the scarcity of bison, the cattle were becoming the Ktunaxas’ primary source of meat. As well, since 1874 the Oblates of Mary Immaculate had run a mission in nearby St. Mary’s River valley and had been patiently exposing the Tribe to the benefits of agriculture. Eager to learn, by the early ’80s the Tribe was beginning to benefit from the advantages of regular, ensured harvests of interesting eatables. However, both ranching and farming required secured land, and secured land the Ktunaxa had none but for the tiny plots that Joe Trutch had spared them years before. To Farwell the Ktunaxas’ powerful Chief Isidore declared that all ranges should remain free, unfenced and unowned.
        To allay the Ktunaxas’ fears that they were slated for extinction, the provincial government sent its Indian Commissioner, Peter O’Reilly, into the East Kootenay in July of 1884 to lay out reserves for the Ktunaxa. Although the unnamed Chief Commissioner of Public Works, claims Thrup, protested that the Ktunaxa in no way needed all of the 42,000 acres that O’Reilly set aside for them, the size of the reserves remained unchanged, though some of the boundaries suffered some adjustment.
        The Chief Commissioner of Public Works was not the only one dissatisfied with the reserves that O’Reilly had laid out. Chief Isidore was incredulous that the government expected his people to make their living on lands so restricted when they were used to roaming the entire region at will. As well, a piece of property that Isidore particularly favoured and considered his by inheritance from his step-father, Chief Joseph, was not included in any of the reserves. Worse, that property fell within the bounds of the tract that James Baker had bought and was in the process of fencing. This Isidore could not stomach, and as unrest in the North-West Territories built towards open rebellion in the spring of 1885, Isidore demanded that his tribe’s reserves be increased and that Baker desist fencing. When these demands went unheeded, the Ktunaxa began laying plans to expel all Whites from the region.
        In 1886 Dr. Israel Wood Powell, the long-time federal superintendent of Indian Affairs for B.C., finally arrived in the Kootenays to try and mediate the dispute. He was unsuccessful. Baker was intent on fencing off all 28 square miles of his land to secure his cattle; Isidore was inflexible in his insistence that much more land be returned to his Tribe: something on the order of the nearly 200 million acres that American authorities had granted the Flatheads in Montana Territory would be acceptable. Further, the Government’s guarantee that the Ktunaxa would forever enjoy access to Crown lands, argued Isidore, was misleading: continuing pre-emptions would eventually place much of it in private hands exclusive of Indians’, for Joseph Trutch had years before ensured that Natives could not lay claim to property under the Land Act. Until a settlement was reached, Isidore vowed to recognize none of the Whites’ claims, and Baker and his ilk be damned.
        Not one to be thwarted by a band of unruly heathen, Baker sought the support of the Law. As he had been appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1885, that support was pretty well guaranteed. Baker’s legal possession of Joseph’s Prairie was duly confirmed and in 1887 a troop of North-West Mounted Police was sent into the district to, among other matters, enforce the court’s decision. Forming a commission, Powell, O’Reilly, and the commander of the Troop, Colonel S.B. Steele, moved to settle the land matter. With a force of well armed Police at their backs, the commissioners and Father Coccola of St. Eugene’s mission had little trouble impressing the Ktunaxas’ real position upon Isidore. Consenting to the Chief’s request that a local Indian Agent be appointed, the commissioners installed as such Michael Phillipps, the erstwhile factor of the HBC’s Tobacco Plains post and son-in-law of Chief David of the Tobacco Plains band. Accepting about 700 additional acres of land and some cash, the Ktunaxa promised to leave Baker unmolested on Joseph’s Prairie.
The Political James Baker

        Ranching on Joseph’s Prairie was only one of James Baker’s enterprises. When the Fifth General Election of B.C. was called in June of 1886, Baker submitted his name for the privilege of representing the Kootenay District’s twenty-two enfranchised voters. He won, and when the Constitution Amendment Act of 1890 divided the District into East and West Ridings on April 24th, 1890, Baker won the East in the subsequent Sixth General Election that June. On May 28th, 1892, Premier John Robson appointed Baker to the executive council as Minister of the newly created Department of Education and Immigration. In the reshuffle of the cabinet that followed Robson’s death a month later, Baker became Provincial Secretary and Minister of Mines in addition to his original portfolio. In the Seventh election on the 7th of July of 1894 Baker won a third term and continued carrying his double portfolio and Secretaryship. The Redistribution Act of 1898 split the East Kootenay Riding in two laterally, and in the Eighth General Election conducted that July Baker held East Kootenay South but declined to continue his ministerial and secretarial duties. Preparing to return to Great Britain, Baker didn’t run for a seat in the Ninth Parliament during the election of June, 1900, and was replaced by E.C. Smith.
James Baker and the Development of south-eastern B.C.

        Not one to let business opportunities escape while he served the public good, Baker took an interest in the coal measures in the nearby Elk River valley and the railroad proposed to tie the measures to market. When the CPR acquired the charter for that railroad, Baker, likely assured that the Company would build its regional headquarters and its attendant extensive plant on Joseph’s Prairie, in 1897 had surveyor F.W. Aylmer lay out a townsite on property that the Colonel had purchased from Robert Leslie Thomas Galbraith back in 1891. The Colonel named the townsite “Cranbrooke” after his ancestral home in Kent and, leaving his son, Valentine Hyde Baker, in charge of its day to day affairs, continued his career in Victoria where he wasted no opportunity to promote his property’s virtues.
The Creation of Cranbrook

        Squinting their eyes against the sting of salt and the burning summer sun in 1898, the navvies sweating the CPR’s steel onto the B.C. Southern’s roadbed as it curved out of the Elk Valley must have wondered how the Company was going to thread its rails through the indigo chain of the Purcells laying west beyond the Upper Kootenay River. The Company, of course, had long known that it had several options. Once across the River, the tracks could either attack the Purcells via the St. Mary’s valley and cross to Crawford Bay through the Rose or the Sphinx Mountain pass, or meander down the Moyie River and over the gentle Goatfell Pass to Kootenay Lake. Once the Moyie alignment had been accepted, the questions that excited speculation were where the Line would cross the Kootenay – at Wardner or at Fort Steele – and where CP would establish the B.C. Southern’s divisional headquarters.
        In 1898 Fort Steele was a vibrant, established settlement with a government presence where a decade earlier the provincial Department of Public Works had proved that a durable bridge could be emplaced across the Kootenay River. The old story has it that the Fort’s residents naturally presumed that the Railway would just have to build its divisional headquarters at their community, but that their confidence and investments were betrayed by the venality of the major land owners, the Galbraiths, who refused concessions to the Company. That refusal is supposed to have caused the Company to look to Joseph’s Prairie where Colonel Baker, knowing full well that any sacrifice in his initial profits would surely be made up for in subsequent sales of townsite lots, pulled the rug out from underneath the Fort by acquiescing to the Company’s demand that every second townsite lot, as well as an expensive level tract for a Yards, be offered gratis. Thus, it is said, Fort Steele was left to wither while upstart Cranbrook boomed into prosperity and prominence.2
        That’s the old story. But, in truth, Baker and the Galbraiths had set up a deal by which both parties would win no matter which location CP chose.
        Back in 1888, James Baker, with his partner William Fernie, had obtained a provincial charter for a railroad, the Crow’s Nest and Kootenay Lake Railway (CN&KL), as part of their scheme to develop coal properties in the Crowsnest Pass. A little later, Baker formed the Cranbrook and Fort Steele Estates and Townsite Company with such notable Victoria businessmen as J. Despard Pemberton, A.A. Green, CPR superintendent Henry Abbot, and coal baron James Dunsmuir. Also holding stock in the company was Robert Leslie Thomas Galbraith. Speculating that the Crow’s Nest Line would soon be built, the Townsite Company bought up 30,000 acres of land at Fort Steele and on the Prairie, much of it from Baker and the Galbraiths. When the CPR acquired the B.C. Southern it likely sweetened the deal for Baker, who was the Southern’s main stockholder, by guaranteeing to build its divisional headquarters at Cranbrook, accepting Baker’s offer of every second lot on the townsite. This was kept secret, and the only thing that folks knew was that the Company would build its local headquarters somewhere in the Trench, and as Fort Steele was the only established settlement, many bet that the Railway would settle there. The Townsite Company was only too pleased to make its principals a little wealthier by selling its Fort Steele property. When the CPR announced its intentions to build on the wide flats of Joseph’s Prairie, the Townsite Company set up a real estate office near Baker’s store and James Ryan’s hotel in what was becoming Cranbrook’s central business district, and raked in the bucks.
        Both Baker and the Galbraiths made out like bandits.

        On Tuesday, the 23rd of August, 1898, the tracklaying train commotioned its way onto Baker’s townsite. Notes the Annual Report of the Minister of Mines for that year, “Hotels, stores, bank agencies [were]... already in running order.” Present as well was the meat market of P. Burns and Company – exclusive supplier to the Railway, the small hospital of the Railway’s doctors, J.H King and F.W. Green, and the Archie Leitch’s Cranbrook Lumber sawmill. Also welcoming the CPR was Horace T. Brown’s Cranbrook Herald, which had begun publication in March, 1898, and which announced on Friday the 26th of August that regular train service had commenced. As a divisional point, Cranbrook’s name was printed boldly on the map and construction crews worked around the clock building up the town and raising the Railway’s plant.
        From the moment it lifted the first shovel full of dirt on its plant site, the CPR intended to make Cranbrook the business hub of the East Kootenay. To celebrate the completion of its B.C. Southern through to Kootenay Lake, on December 7th, 1898, the Company ushered a party of 105 entrepreneurs and politicians from Nelson, Spokane, Rossland, Trail, Revelstoke and Kaslo aboard the bright, new Moyie for a gala excursion to Kootenay Landing where they were ensconced in a special train which roared them to Cranbrook. The train arrived at ten o’clock in the evening and within minutes the riders were at a banquet hosted by their local counterparts. The wine flowed and bonhomie cemented many a commercial relationship before the travellers wove their way back to their train’s sleeping cars to be whisked on to the community of Fernie later in the morning.
        With the powerful promotion of the CPR’s publicity engine, Cranbrook was soon a magnate which drew movers and shakers from all over the West. One, Archibald Kenneth Leitch, established his Cranbrook Lumber Company and quickly built it into the area’s number one employer as he chopped and sawed the local forests of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine into building material. In 1903, with brother Malcolm’s3 help, Leitch would merge Cranbrook Lumber with McNab Lumber and Park Mitchell Lumber to form East Kootenay Lumber and continue amassing wealth on the strength of never-ending CPR timber orders to the company’s main mill in Jaffray. In the meantime, a brewery, drawing upon the Prairie’s thick, productive aquifer, had started serving up suds to the parched woodsmen and the Railway’s “Gandy dancers.”
        In the census of 1901, Cranbrook claimed 1,200 citizens and was well on the way to becoming the southern Trench’s main commercial node. In 1903 it gained the regional provincial offices at Fort Steele’s expense, and, with the Railway’s payroll secure in its bank, on November 1st of 1905 Cranbrook was incorporated as a city: G.T. Rogers, mayor.                
         By 1905 James Baker was five years gone from the city he had founded. After nearly fourteen years in government service, he had retired Home in 1900 to live in comfort on the proceeds of his speculations and manipulations until his death from heart failure on July 31st, 1906. His son “Hyde” stayed on, acquiring in 1904 the first automobile in Cranbrook, selling out the rest of the family holdings and retiring to England in 1915.
Cranbrook, continued

        In the central business district of the “sunniest spot in B.C.,” the generously-proportioned streets adhere to the Victorian dictate that a merciless right-angled grid is the proper manner of apportioning land. Barren of mature trees, the downtown streets suffer the unsettling propensity to exude a feeling of emptiness rather than openness. Reflecting the sun’s glare down onto the shadeless sidewalks of downtown Baker Street, the sterile monolith of concrete and metal-tinted glass in which the province shelters the nerve centre of its local bureaucracy looks like a transplant from Calgary or Edmonton, enhancing the impression that Cranbrook longs to be an Albertan city. Only in the alleys is it easy to find the old town.
        Joining the City Centre Campground’s entry way in oblivion, several of Cranbrook’s historical buildings have been sacrificed to make room for a few new expressionless edifices surrounded by deserts of asphalt. The old YMCA down by the railyards is gone, as is the original city hall. Most regretted of all, however, is the Post Office which was completed in 1912 on the south-west corner of Baker Street and 10th Avenue. Old fashioned and in need of upgrading, it was targeted by redevelopers in the late ’60s and demolition began in April of 1971. When the tower came down on June 29th, many in Cranbrook immediately and keenly felt the loss of part of their heritage, especially when they saw the nondescript Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building which took the old P.O.’s place. Cranbrookians so missed the venerable landmark that in 1983 they had that replica of its tower built on Baker opposite the bank. On the shady side of Baker, facing the tower, two surviving veteran buildings, the 1906 Fink Mercantile Building, and the Raworth Building, have had the brick and mock-stone concrete-block facades cleansed of the thick coats of garish paint with which their owners rocketed them squarely into the era of Haight-Ashbury funk, 25 years late. Preserved in its original Edwardian glory, the 1909 Imperial Bank Building squats on prime real estate at the corner of Baker and Van Horne. Fire, though, has claimed a couple of the historic wooden structures which kept the masonry buildings company on Baker since la belle époque. In September of 2002, only weeks after fire took the old Tudor House across the tracks, the Windsor Arms at the corner of Baker and 9th went up in flames, and in July of 2003 what was latterly known as the Ranch Bar and Grill, facing the Imperial Bank Building across Baker, burned. Misfortune piled upon disaster in the months of the “mad cow” scare and the softwood lumber dispute has Cranbrook tightening its belt.
Cranbrook’s Treasure

        Southward down Van Horne from the now-blocked mouth of Baker Street is Cranbrook’s treasure; the Museum of Rail Travel. Hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars have gone into the restoration of some of the CPR’s most sumptuous passenger cars from the great days of stylish travel, when getting there was half of the fun. In 1929, supposing that the good times would roar right through the 1930s and beyond, CP commissioned the creation of twelve complete train sets – dining car, parlour car with ladies and gents smoking rooms and a solarium, and luxurious sleeping cars with full hotel facilities – for their new Trans-Canada Limited service. The timing could not have been worse. Just as the Company began taking delivery of the cars the Depression forced the cancellation of the new service. The cars were reassigned and many eventually wound up as work cars, stripped of their furnishings, slathered inside with cheap paint and filled with ranks of bunk-beds and tool bays. Their life wasted in hard, menial work, come the 1970s many of the cars were slated for the scrap yard and would have vanished had it not been for the foresight of an architect resident in Cranbrook, Garry W. Anderson. Beginning with the arrival of the dining car Argyle in May of 1977, his efforts collected several of the cars on a bit of Railway property near Cranbrook’s station and got restoration underway. On July 1st of that year, the provincial Minister of Tourism of the time, “Amazin’” Grace McCarthy, arrived in Cranbrook to formally open the Museum. While streams of visitors monitored progress, decades of collection and refurbishment followed. Within a decade, two trains of waxed and polished railroad carriages, inlaid mahogany and black walnut glowing, original fixtures gleaming, thick carpeting muffling the noise from a yard engine shunting box cars on a nearby siding. On a parallel track, for contrast, trains of less sumptuous cars new and older were assembled.
        This is a static exhibit. The trains are parked on parallel tracks with an elevated, covered viewing corridor built between the rows of cars. Visitors view a brief video history of the cars and their restoration, and are then conducted through the carriages by guides conversant with every detail of the project. Furniture, bedding, fixtures; all original, all pains-takingly refinished, or in the process of being so. Anderson, the Museum’s director, has tasks enough to keep half of Cranbrook’s kids busy for years fixing things and stripping hospital-green paint from mahogany and walnut panelling. And more donations come in all the time. Eager to preserve some of its romance, the Railway continually gifts the Museum with ancient equipment which it has rescued from the distant sidings of its system. One of the latest, and hopefully the first of many, is the magnificent Omemee which the famed coach-builders Barney and Smith created in 1906 for the CPR’s Soo-Pacific Train de Luxe.
        So successful has the Museum become that in the late 1980s the City and the Landmark Foundation began laying plans to move it a few metres southward to a much larger site. Land was slowly acquired, infrastructure built and in the year 2002 the move began. The new site, carefully landscaped out of yard-side wastelands, is anchored on the south by the new Prestige Rocky Mountain Resort and centred on a striking reception in which has been resurrected the grand Selkirk Dining Room from CP’s long-demolished Winnipeg hotel,4 the Royal Alexandra. The Grand Opening was held on September 4th, 2004.
        Gaining a new lease on life, too, is the large, 1898 freight shed to which the reception hall has been attached. The Shed will be renovated as an art and exhibition gallery, restaurant and demonstration venue. The ground floor of the restored 1901 Elko town station which formerly served as a gift shop and ticket wicket has been surrendered to the Cranbrook Archives, Museum and Landmark Foundation, which used to be crowded into the building’s second floor. With the completion of a facsimile of the original CPR gardens, the new layout will be a train-buff’s nirvana. Nearby, sprayed with oxide-red primer is a Montreal Locomotive Works FA-2/FB-2 combination of 1953 vintage, and an FP9A/F9B pair which General Motors Diesel manufactured in 1954.
        Near the old Elko station but still within the Museum’s fencing, the eleven metre high wooden, octagonal water tower is a relocated relic of the glory days of railroading. Built in 1946 in the Cranbrook yards, it once held a 40,000 imperial gallon tank. Gutted, its lower level has been adapted to display some of the Museum’s photos of railroading around Cranbrook in the early days.
        A bold buff has little trouble skirting the Museum’s fence to trespass onto CP’s working Yards and risk injury or arrest inspecting the oddments of machinery that the Railway can’t bear to part with. In the heart of the Yards, reminding interlopers that Cranbrook used to be the main shops for the Kimberley, Cranbrook and Nelson Subdivisions, the old soot-smudged brick roundhouse still resonates with the smash and grind of heavy metalwork. The six core stalls date from 1907 and were joined by ten more in 1920. Only ten remained in 1999, and only four of them were in use. In front of them, the hundred foot long turntable awaits assignments. In a separate Frost-fenced enclosure on the Yards is the Museum’s collection of old coaches and specialized work and goods cars awaiting the restorers’ hands.
        Sharing, yet separate from, the Museum’s expanded compound, Cranbrook’s working depot arrests the eye. Art deco architecture, all slab-roofed white and boxy with bold horizontal carmine trim, is almost the last thing with which one would expect the CPR to grace a minor divisional headquarters. Neither would one would ever guess that beneath the make-up hides the original 1898 station. Seven years after it was completed as a plain old two-storey gable-roofed work-a-day station-house, the Company decided it should be enlarged by inserting a level between the main and upper floor. As reported in the Cranbrook Herald of May 25th, 1905, midway through the process the supports snapped and the upper floor and roof crashed back down to their original position, briefly trapping eleven startled workmen. Modifications finally finished, the station served well for 40 years, but in the dying days of World War Two CP decided to celebrate the imminent end of hostilities with a complete renovation of the structure and commissioned, claims D.M. Bain in the seventh volume of his Canadian Pacific in the Rockies (British Railway Modellers of North America, Calgary, 1981), the famous Swiss architect, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris – known professionally as “Le Corbusier” – to accomplish the task in his “International” style. I don’t know. Perhaps one of Le Corbusier’s lesser apprentices pencilled up plans which the great master might have run his eye over for 30 seconds and maybe dripped a drop of his café noir upon before returning to his main project of the day, the Unitè d’ Habitation in Marseilles. Whatever; the reconstruction was finished to mixed reviews in 1945.
        Their tour of the Royal Alexandra Hall, the Museum, Yards and the Water Tower complete, visitors may, in the future, relax over a meal in the freight shed restaurant or again snack in the meticulously re-appointed Argyle dining car with its linen’d tables laid with the CPR’s elaborately monogrammed porcelain and silver service. For the real “foamer,” by prior arrangement, a pricy night might be spent in the sumptuous Glen Cassie sleeping car, snuggled under authentic Company wool blankets, transported to dreamland by the rhythms of the Railyard outside the window.
        Departing the Museum property and not yet sated on Railway sites, the visitor might walk down 1st Street South to 12th Avenue and close by find 117 12th, the grand house that the CPR built for its regional superintendents. It is one of the gems of the “ Baker Hill” residential area of the City, studded with fine old homes, a key to which, the Cranbrook Heritage Walking Tour Map, are available at the Museum and the Chamber of Commerce tourist info kiosks.
Lumbering in Cranbrook

        Many of the 42 sites listed in the Cranbrook Heritage Tour are private abodes built within a decade either side of the Great War. Like the enormous Victoria-colonial style temple on 11th Avenue South behind the Mount Baker Hotel that Sedgar and Pownall designed for the Masons in 1909, they are of frame construction, built of wood. Timber was plentiful around Cranbrook for years after the settlement’s founding, and several mills arose to whine logs into lumber for the settlers who were flooding the prairies. Among the earliest were the King brothers, Dr. J.H. and M.B., who, with Robert J. Taylor, founded the King Lumber Company. Though the main focus of their enterprise was at Ryan near Yahk on the BC Southern, the outfit erected a mill in Cranbrook, as well, one of the many that came and went over the years.
        Cranbrook’s sole surviving lumber miller, the Tembec-owned Crestbrook Forest Industries – its headquarters now in the 1909 Central School building which it refurbished for the purpose in the mid-1980s – has its roots sunk deep into the City’s historical economy.
        Among the first entrepreneurs who settled in “Cranbrooke” soon after the Railway arrived in 1898 were Tom Leask and James Slater. Teaming up, they quickly had a busy saw mill in operation. In 1902 they sold their enterprise to Harry A. McKowan, Edwd. Slater, Charles Gaskill and Michael Johnson. Two years later, according to Our First Hundred Years, published in 1998 by Crestbrook Forest Industries, Limited, McKowan was partnering with Albert and William Slater, Allan Nickolson and Bill Spence. In 1905 they registered their outfit as “Cranbrook Sash and Door Company, Limited,” and in their shops on 3rd Street North near the St. Eugene’s Hospital west of the Railway, they had the latest in equipment to add value to the logs that their fallers cut. With a variety of planers, lathes and specialty saws powered by a 30 horse-power steam engine fed on saw dust and shavings, CS&D manufacturing fancy mouldings and frames, doors and windows, as well as rough and finished lumber. Major customers included the community’s biggest employer, the CPR, and the house-hungry families who were overwhelming available housing in Calgary and other prairie communities as the federal Liberal’s initiatives in settling The West began to take effect in the mid-19-aughts. Settlers who were filling the Cranbrook environs with ranches and farms constituted a large market, as well. Because it developed a solid business base making specialized items, when the easy timber ran out come the end of the 19-aughts and the cruder mills were forced to close or move on, CS&D was able to survive and prosper. When the mill burned in 1917, McKowan and his partners immediately leased the idle King Lumber Company mill nearby and worked there until they could raise new shops in Cranbrook in 1921, equipping them with next-to-new machinery acquired from the bankrupt Henderson Sash and Door Company at Golden. By then CS&D had opened a little sawmill in Kitchener, as well.
        CS&D survived the Depression on contracts from the CPR for ties, cattle-guards and grain-doors for boxcars. To get to the big timber, the company worked with the Cranbrook Foundry to develop mobile sawmills which could be skidded by a tracked tractor up into the stands on leases it had acquired from B.C. Spruce Mills and the Crow’s Nest Pass Lumber Company. Employing up to 24 men, these outfits could cut some 18,000 board feet of lumber per day. Eventually CS&D operated six of these mills and made enough cash that come the end of 1940 it was able to buy up B.C. Spruce Mills at Lumberton and its remote reserves back up in the Purcells around Mineral Lake. Having created a subsidiary called Kootenay Spruce Mills to absorb B.C Spruce into the company fabric, CS&D had it build a saw mill at Mineral Lake and send cutting crews up into the untouched Lamb Creek watershed to truck out logs.
        Cranbrook Sash and Door was now firmly in the hands of Harry McKowan. With the acquisition of B.C. Spruce, McKowan had doubled his workforce to some 250 employees. In 1941 he hired V.C. (Victor) Brown to help him run the outfit. Negotiations with the radical leaders of the Strike of 1946 seriously strained the health of the 69 year old McKowan, and on September the 26th of 1947, having that year bought the last 7,400 acres of the defunct King Lumber Company’s timber limits adjacent Lamb Creek, he died. Evah May Cartwright McKowan took over the presidency of her husband’s company and with Brown’s assistance as V.P. continued expanding the business by purchasing the Columbia Contracting Company in March of 1950 and the George McInnes Lumber Company in 1955. CS&D now employed some 350 workers at two stationary mill sites and three portables.
        In March of 1956 American Northwest money convinced the McKowan family and Farstad & Burns of Creston to sell CS&D and Cranbrook Sawmills, respectively. The new outfit, headed by J.M. Brown of Idaho, incorporated itself as the Crestbrook Timber Company, retaining Vic Brown as vice president and Alf Farstad as a business advisor. With the cash that from the sale of shares when the company went “public” in April of 1956, Crestbrook consolidated its operations and bought Crow’s Nest Pass Lumber’s planer mill at Wardner. The fire that destroyed the new company’s large Parson mill on June 4th of 1956 derailed plans to integrate the Wardner operation into its corporate structure and in May of 1958 it was sold to the Graf brothers. The fiscal losses inflicted by the Wardner failure, the reconstruction of the Parson plant, the wildfires in the company’s timber limits in 1957, the beetle infestations in the same, and the operation of the inefficient St. Mary’s sawmill drove the company to the financial wall towards the close of the 1950s.
        Adding complications, the CPR was pressing Crestbrook to move its big sawmill elsewhere. At that time Cranbrook’s airport was located on the edge of the Prairie north and west of the B.C. Southern mainline, where the industrial park is now. The little strip dated from the late 1920s when it had been laid out as a regular stopping place on the trans-Canada Airway. The Air Services Branch of the Department of Transport had up-graded the port in 1939, adding servicing facilities and navigational aids, but come the ‘50s Canadian Pacific Airlines, the only major passenger carrier flying into the City, wished to land larger aircraft and needed a longer runway to accomplish this. If Cranbrook wouldn’t accommodate the Airline, suggested CP, Creston would. Because the runway’s length was limited by the Railway’s Kimberley branch on its north-eastern end, the only direction it could be extended was south-westward onto property belonging to Crestbrook. Negotiations amongst the City, CP and Crestbrook to effect a land swap dragged on until they became moot in the mid-1960s when the governments decided to build a new regional airport on property halfway between Cranbrook and Kimberley.
        A corporate restructuring in 1958 saw Vic Brown released and that August the Kootenay Spruce mill at Mineral Lake burned. Unable to cope, the American management team withdrew in 1960 leaving Alf Farstad as GM and a returned Vic Brown as his Assistant. They merged Cranbrook Sawmills fully into Crestbrook and raised sufficient capital to set up a full sawmill beside the planer mill at Cranbrook. Winning a contract to supply the Celgar pulp mill at Castlegar with wood chips, Brown and Farstad, who had by then switched roles, instituted a sawdust and wood chip recovery program at their mills.
        With Vic Brown now as president, Crestbrook began investigating the possibilities of getting into the pulp and paper end of the forestry business. Meanwhile, during the tough times of 1963, the company bought Colin Cameron Sawmills of Wasa, B.C., and Joyce, Sparks and Barrett Sawmills of Cranbrook. The following year Farstad and Burns sold the company a substantial share of Creston Sawmills Limited. In June of 1965 Brown and Farstad amalgamated Crestbrook Timber, Creston Sawmills and Pawluk Brothers’ Lumber Company under the Crestbrook Timber banner. The outfit now ran four sawmills, a veneer plant, and a plywood plant at Fort Macleod, Alberta.
        In August of 1966, report the writers of Our First Hundred Years, several years of negotiations finally paid off when Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha Limited and its associate, Honshu Paper Manufacturing Company, Limited, agreed to partner with Crestbrook to build a bleached kraft pulp mill at Skookumchuck up on the Kootenay River some 30 miles north of Cranbrook. To reflect the extent of its interests, the company changed its name to Crestbrook Forest Industries, Limited, (CFI) on May 1st, 1967.
        While it modernizing its Canal Flats sawmill and buying the timber sale contracts of Kennelly Lumber Limited and Grey Forest Products Limited to ensure that its rising Skookumchuck pulp mill would have sufficient fibre to process, CFI acquired its present Cranbrook 85 acre mill site at the far north end of the former airport property. Upon it the company began to build its present mill, scheduled for completion at the same time as the other two projects in the autumn of 1969. A fire on the construction site delayed the Cranbrook mill, but the pulp mill and the Canal Flats upgrade were finished that October. Almost overwhelmed by debt, CFI sold a large share of itself to its Japanese partners in 1972 and so was able to implement the many environmental impact controls demanded by governments over the succeeding years. Having just ensured a continuing supply of fibre by negotiating a 25 year long renewal of CFI’s Tree-Farm Licence #14, Vic Brown retired in September, 1979, and was replaced as president by Stuart A. Lang. Lang’s first 10 years were bedevilled by labour unrest, the extensive forest fires of 1985 and shrinking markets as tropical rainforests began to be felled to satisfy world demands for wood. The sole bright spot seems to have been the rescue of the 1909 Central School building which had been abandoned by the school board in 1983. Needing to expand its office space, Crestbrook took over the heritage site and refurbished it, officially moving in on May 11, 1985.
        In 1978 Shell Canada Limited had purchased the remains of Crow’s Nest Industries which included its subsidiaries, Crows [sic] Nest Plywood Limited and Crows Nest Forest Products Company, Limited, the Elko sawmill, the timber rights to the 264,000 acre Tree Farm 27 and some Crown timber rights. CFI bought the last four assets listed in 1983 and most of the rest of Shell’s local holdings in 1994.
        After converting it to manufacture finish-quality plywood made from exotic materials when the sheathing-grade plywood market succumbed to new products in the 1980s, CFI shut down its Fort Macleod Plywood Lumber operation in July of 1991 when it continued to lose money. However, the company continued to be active in Alberta, having partnered with Mitsubishi Trading Corporation and Kanzaki Paper Canada Limited in building the state of the art Al-Pac pulp mill on the Athabaska River. Stuart Lang retired in 1994, the year of the big East Kootenay fires, and was replaced by Jim Shepherd who continued the company’s policy of reducing its impact on the environment by upgrading the Skookumchuck pulp mill and shutting down the conical incinerators at Cranbrook and Canal Flats. In April of 1999, Quebec-based Tembec Inc. bought Crestbrook.
        Crestbrook/Tembec has long ago displaced the CPR as Cranbrook’s biggest corporate citizen.

        Heading out of downtown Cranbrook northward, Van Horne quickly tires of carrying 3/95 and, near the famous Kootenay Knitting Company factory on the north-west side of the road, heaves the Highway over a block to use Cranbrook Street North to channel its traffic directly out of town. Running a two mile-long gauntlet of ’burger joints, car lots and mid-priced motels, past the shopping centre and its Overwaitea store, travellers arrive on the fringes of the City where a 1956 burnt-orange-beamed overpass creates No. 95A and sends it north-westward to the “Bavarian” City of Kimberley.
        Away eastbound on the No.3/95 from the Overpass, travellers are accompanied by the original railbed of the B.C. Southern, on the right. Abandoned by the Railway in 1970, it is now part of the Trans-Canada Trail, making its way through picturesque Isidore Canyon in the trees out of sight of the Highway. This alignment was Colonel Baker’s triumph; it cut off Fort Steele and carried the Railway to Cranbrook, making Baker rich enough so that he could abandon the “colonies” and comfortably retire home to England within two years of the Railway’s completion in the autumn of 1898. Some six kilometres beyond the Overpass, the Highway cuts through a crest of saffron-yellow siltstone and comes to the lip of the Kootenay River’s valley. Here it is unravelled by a Los Angelesque high speed interchange built in 1972 to shoot the 93/95 north-east across the Kootenay River past Fort Steele, and bend the Crowsnest Highway, now numbered 3/93, south-easterly down the River’s valley. Historically-minded travellers won’t think twice before straying the eight kilometres from the Crowsnest Highway to visit the Fort.
Next: WARDNER or, on 95A, KIMBERLEY or, on 93/95, FORT STEELE


  1. Also referred to as “Thomas” Seelye, he was the first Whiteman to be buried in what is now Cranbrook. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  2. The the final coffin nail being driven when provincial functionaries and their support staff deserted the Fort in 1906 for quarters in the brand-new fancy courthouse which until the demolition frenzy of the ‘60s and ‘70s occupied a prominent location athwart the eastern end of Baker Street in downtown Cranbrook. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  3. Archibald and Malcolm were two of four brothers who emigrated initially to Oak Lake, Manitoba, from the Québec side of the Ottawa valley. After a stint in the flour milling business in Manitoba the brothers came farther west. Alexander set up a store in Frank, N-WT, and was killed in the Slide there in 1903. A.J. (Angus?) Leitch interested himself in the development of a coal show at Passburg in the eastern Crowsnest Pass, but died. His interests were taken over by Archibald and Malcolm, the latter moving to Winnipeg to manage Leitch Collieries, Ltd., while Archibald remained for a few years in Jaffray managing the sawmill. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  4. 1971. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

Designed by No.3 Development Inc. Website by NuTok Interactive

Copyright © Donald Malcolm Wilson. All Rights Reserved.