Crowsnest Highway
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Elko, B.C. : History Printer Friendly Version

by DM Wilson
With thanks to Marjorie Fitzpatrick and Glayda Wilkinson, Bob Gilbert, Roger Burrows, the Fernie and District Historical Society, and Naomi Miller and the East Kootenay Historical Society.
posted 2002
revised 2009/02/16

Power from the Falls

        Sheltering from the sun at a picnic table on the shady side of the “3 & 93 Dairy Bar1 near the intersection of highway 93 and the Crowsnest Highway, travellers can relax and enjoy an old-fashioned treat. A few miles eastward the ragged limestone and quartzite teeth of the formidable Macdonald Range chew at the firmament. Closer, the humbler Galtons end their northward run here with Mt. Broadleaf whose toes are tickled by the Elk River, hidden in its deeply benched valley, coyly concealing the local attraction, Elk Falls. To the west, the Lizards creep down to cut off retreat. These are the Rockies, North America’s newest mountain chain, a mere seventy million years old.
        On a corner of the Dairy Bar’s parking lot sits “Peanut,” a 1901 0-4-0 Porter fireless mining locomotive coupled to a pair of disintegrating wooden cars loaded with coal. The old 800 lbs.-per-square-inch “thermos bottle” worked underground in the Michel Creek valley into the 1960s, and now helps advertise that east-bound visitors are entering the realm of King Coal. Scooting away from the Dairy Bar down into the dry gulch of a vanished Elk River tributary, the Highway cranks up a stiff, short climb to hook right across a 1950 bridge over the B.C. Southern tracks. On the other side, gathered mostly along the Highway’s western shoulder, is all that remains of the business district of unincorporated Elko (941m), 65 kilometres from downtown Cranbrook.
        Elko’s central business district is not much, consisting in 2006 mainly of the “Hill Top Service Centre.” The South Country Café - Wendy’s - is closed. Nearby, the West Crow Motel offers accommodation either indoors or on its treeless, shower-equipped RV campground. Across The Highway the half hectare of levelled gravel where-upon drivers used to park their big rigs while dining sits empty, baking in the noon sun Along the back of the lot ran the tracks of the Great Northern’s Crows Nest Southern Railway (CNS), having over-flown the CPR’s B.C. Southern much as The Highway does today. The old CNS right-of-way is now a patchily paved road that ends at a thin screen of evergreens over-looking a wide dirt-cut through which the twinned tracks of the B.C. Southern curve up out of the Elk River’s valley to the left. Besides the rare freight and the occasional Sultran train of sulphur hoppers heading to the Coast, the average Elko day in 1999 saw three coal drags out-bound and three returning empties. Confined in the cut, three new 4400 horsepower General Electric AC4400CW’s turn the air blue with smoke and set diaphragms vibrating as they shoulder a 12,000-ton out-bound train up the grade out of the Elk’s valley on the first leg of the 82 hour long round-trip between Sparwood in the upper Elk valley, and Roberts Bank on salt water south of Vancouver. In 2006, its overseas customers quite sated with metallurgical coal, Fording, the biggest miner in The Pass, sends fewer trains to The Coast.
        Diverging southward from the B.C. Southern’s rails to trench itself through the cut’s far bank and tunnel beneath Main Street,2 a seldom-used spur follows the old roadbed of the Crowsnest Southern down a mile or two to the Crestbrook Forest Industries’ sawmill.
        Though the Ktunaxa had for generations mined argillite in the neighbourhood, there was nothing at Elko but a few survey stakes and a crude tote road before the Foley Brothers’ grading crews worked through here towards the end of May, 1898, building the roadbed of the B.C. Southern. When the steel went through in July, the CPR erected what it called a “Crowsnest Pass Branch Standard Second Class Station” and Elko began to grow as Charles E. Eyre’s North Star Lumber Company commenced operations in the woods. North Star3 soon built a 100,000 board foot-per-day planer mill on the BC Southern near the Elko station to finish the rough lumber coming out of their mill near Jaffray, while nearby the Leask and Johnson saw mill screamed out 60,000 per day. Eventually at least nine timbering outfits4 were at work along the Railway, on the delta of the Elk and the shores of the Kootenay River.
         The tiny community accreting around the mills chose the name “Elko,” perhaps named after the town in Nevada, or perhaps for the Cervus elaphus, the elk, which still populate the valley. The Holbrook family established a general store and a school of sorts was in operation by the time the Post Office designated Mrs. Holbrook as the post mistress, permitting her to open a bureau in her store on August 1, 1899. Come the autumn of 1901, write Glayda Wilkinson and Marjorie Fitzpatrick in A Century of Life in Elko – 1899-1999 (Elko Parks and Recreation, 1999), the Fort Steele Mercantile Company had built a store to compete with the Holbrooks, Geo. Hoggarth was running the Elk Hotel, Dr. J.W. Livers his drugstore and Constable D. McLean patrolled the streets, capturing truants in his spare time and delivering them to the new school near the river. There was even a CPR-sponsored hospital at which Dr. Keith attended.
        Deluding Elko into believing that it was destined to become the metropolis of south-eastern B.C., on Saturday, July 10th of 1902, the steel of GN’s Crows Nest Southern arrived roughly along the line of the extant Crestbrook spur. A bridge carried the rails over the B.C. Southern’s right-of-way, across the flat and on up the Elk’s valley. A bungalow-type depot was constructed well south of the BC Southern5 and, reports R.G. Burrows in his Railway Mileposts: British Columbia, Volume II, a 44 car siding was laid in. By then the Hoffman House was in operation, George Griffiths, proprietor.
        As logging began to open spaces in the forest primæval on the Elk’s delta, land speculators moved in to enrich themselves and diversify the local economy. An outfit called B.C. Fruit Farms bought extensive tracts on the Delta from the CPR6, subdivided them into five-acre plots and in 1912 began marketing them mainly in Great Britain and eastern Canada as prime orchard-growing lands, trading on the excitement of the “fruit boom” in the Okanagan valley. For a mere $50 per acre cash on the barrel head, or $25 down and an interest-free $12.50 per month until the entire $250 was laid off, a pioneering-spirited family could own a piece of the cornucopia that the Kootenay valley would most certainly become. It is not known how many buyers actually plunked down their money, but only 21 families ever moved to the tract which became known as “South Fork District.” Most of these were burned out by the big fire of August, 1931.
        Elko itself likely enjoyed a more-or-less organic growth pattern until promoters unknown submitted a plan for a townsite to the CPR’s British Columbia Land Department on December 29th, 1910. John Stoughton Dennis, jr., the Company’s manager of irrigation projects, signed the plan on March 6th of 1911, presumably releasing the land to the promoters for development as “East Elko.”
        The community soon dispensed with the “East,” and by the beginning of World War One, report Wilkinson and Fitzpatrick, Elko’s Main Street was a vibrant central business district. The block north from Bate Avenue ended at the BC Southern mainline and the CP station where day-trippers to Cranbrook or Lethbridge boarded the mixed-service “Ding Bat.” Along Main stood the community’s hostelries; the posh Columbia Hotel, the Elk Hotel, and the “old hotel,” Melbourne House. Sharing that block were a Chinese café, Pake and Mowry’s drugstore, Millet’s pool hall, the telephone exchange, Klingensmith’s store, and Holbrook’s store wherein still sheltered the post office. Perhaps Hirtz’s store with its upper floor opera house was on this block, as well. On the south-west corner of Main and Bate stood the Merchants’ Bank beside Birnie’s Livery Stable faced Agnew’s Hardware and Thos. Robert’s Meat Market across main. Farther south was Geo. Ross’s blacksmithy, the school and Dr. Hugh Watt’s little hospital. Down on “the Flats,” the inmates of the “sporting houses” provided feminine diversion for the scores of loggers and navvies and assorted labourers that commerce required to profit in the region’s frontier economy.
        The boosters on the Board of Trade didn’t know it, but the settlement had pretty much reached both its economic acme by 1914. As the last of the easy timber was cut or burned away in the several fires which ravaged the area between 1904 and 1910, the smaller lumber companies began to shut down. Though ranching and orchard industries sprung up on the deforested acres, they did not employ nearly the numbers that logging had and the pace of commerce in Elko slowed. The recession following the Great War diminished coal exports from the mines farther up the Elk and the railroads scaled back their operations. Especially affected was the Great Northern, which abandoned its line up the Elk from Elko in 1926, leasing running rights from CP to run its Rexford, Montana-based “Galloping Goose” self-propelled passenger car the last few miles on up to Fernie.
        Sometime shortly after the end of the Great War, probably with the intention of using the nearby Elk River Falls to generate electricity, entrepreneurs formed the Elko Water, Light and Power Company. First things first, the company laid a stave-built pipeline from an intake on nearby Silver Springs Lake and dug in a distribution system in the community. It was not dug deep enough, however, and an unusually cold night in 1920 froze to piping, rupturing them, never to be repaired, write Wilkinson and Fitzpatrick. From then until the Regional District of East Kootenay drilled a 250-foot deep well in 1983 and laid in its own piping system, the handiest source of water for the residents of Elko was the CPR standpipe which the Company used for watering its steam locomotives.7
Power from the Falls

        The one bright spot in the ‘20s that the boosters could point to was the construction of the dam in the nearby gorge of the Elk called by William Baillie-Grohman “the Grand Canyon of Canada.” He was perhaps being a little facetious, but it was a lovely spot, a site of natural beauty featured on the CNL’s early promotional material. Beautiful of not, the Falls that dropped the Elk into its gorge had obvious power-generating potential, a fact appreciated by Thomas Crahan and H.L. Stevens who bought the site around the turn of the twentieth century. In the spring of 1904, visiting B.C. to locate such sites, J.M. Zeller and George Henderson inspected the Falls before deciding to invest in the Bull River dream of Joe Hooker. In 1906, write Marjorie Fitzpatrick and Glayda Wilkinson in “Elko: Gateway to the South” (The Forgotten Side of the Border, Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds. Plateau Press, Kamloops, B.C., 1998), the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (CNPC) decided the Falls might suit its needs and had its Crow’s Nest Pass Electric Light and Power Company buy the property. CNP Electric opted to generate electricity with coal-fired steam plants and so the Falls remained an untouched beauty spot until an association of Montréal-based developers became interested in the site in the dreary months following the Great War. After some preliminary assessment done in 1920, the associates made arrangements to acquire the water rights from CNPC and federally incorporated the East Kootenay Power and Light Company on March 28, 1922. A dam across the River to impound a reservoir of its water and a power generating house were soon under construction. To supply electricity for the project the company installed a small “run of the river” generating plant. Local labourers and imported specialists worked on the dam and ancillary infrastructure through 1923 and on March 10th8 of 1924 the switches in the power house were snapped closed and the plant’s two 12 megawatt Francis generators came “on stream.” Those residents of Elko who expected the imminent arrival of electricity were to be disappointed, for all of the 73 gigaWatt hours that the generators produced in an average year went to the metal mines at Kimberley on the west side of the Trench, and, later, to the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company’s mines further up the Elk’s valley. Elko remained unwired and continued to banish darkness with kerosene well into the ’30s, except at the Elk Hotel where proprietor W.J. Kerr, having moved the structure from Main over on to Bate Avenue, built a concrete bunker and installed his own engine and generator set. The tiny subdivision that EKP built to house its maintenance personnel was removed after BC Hydro acquired the little power company in September of 1966 and changed the plant over to remote operation.

        As it was in so many pioneer settlements built mostly from wood, fire was Elko’s nemesis. A blaze in 1914 gave a foretaste of the conflagration of Monday the 8th of September, 1919, which consumed the old Melbourne House9, Fred Roo’s general store and post office, the telephone exchange, and the pool hall. In 1924 a “hurricane” ripped through the valley damaging the town, and a fire in early December of 1925 wiped out more of the central business district. It was nothing, however, compared to the inferno that blew into the community from the delta on Tuesday, August 18th, 1931. That wild fire had already incinerated the orchards of the “South Fork District” and terrified the residents of Baynes Lake and Waldo, and it was in a rage by the time it leapt over the River and pounced on Elko’s residential district. Gone in explosions of flame were 19 houses and the Presbyterian and the Anglican churches. Downtown, the combined effort of personnel from the East Kootenay Power Company, the Great Northern, the B.C. Forest Branch, and CP with 5,000 gallons of water in a tank car saved everything but the Columbia Hotel. The Fire was a blow from which Elko never really recovered.
        In February of 1936 the Crows Nest Southern, having steadily decreased its presence over the previous twelve years, applied for permission to cease operations altogether and remove its infrastructure. This was duly granted and within two years the only steel left was the trackage from the B.C. Southern to the lumber mill south of town. In the 1950s, after it dieselized the Crowsnest Pass Line, CP removed its servicing facilities from Elko, further crippling the community’s economy.
        From the span carrying the Highway over the tracks, a visitor can see eastward a couple of hundred metres the last of CP’s rail-side buildings, the site upon which stood the Company’s only surviving Crow’s Nest Style “B” station until it was delivered onto the property of the Cranbrook’s Museum of Rail Travel on July 10th, 1987, after a three-day journey down the No.3.

        Bate Avenue tees into the Highway immediately south of the Overpass, trapping the cottages of the Elko Auto Camp on a little peninsula bounded by The Highway, Main, and the Railway’s tracks. Branching from Bate, a dusty haul-road protected by “No Trespassing” signs parallels the old rail spur down to the lumber mill. Along here somewhere stood the old Great Northern Crows Nest Southern station and the community’s first school. The lumber mill, sitting on a yard that is actually bigger than Elko, was built by Crow’s Nest Industries and began operations on December 21st, 1968. It was bought out by Shell Canada Resources Limited on October 1st, 1978, and renamed Crowsnest Forest Products Limited. Five years later, in 1983, Crestbrook Forest Industries of Cranbrook (owned by Tembec of Temiscaming, P.Q., since April 2nd, 1999) took it over, modernized the saw mill, the planer mill and the drying kilns. The plant remains Elko’s main employer. As well as the site of one of the last operating conical incinerators in southern B.C., the plant was home to an odd little 44 ton Canadian Locomotive Company diesel-hydraulic of 1958 vintage which had been in retirement for some years and seems to be kept as a company mascot until 2004 when it, and its sister from the Canal Flats operation, were donated to Fort Steele Heritage Town. Leaving the mill’s parking lot by the main, paved road, one comes back into Elko along the river and can catch glimpses of the gorge beyond the yellow warning-sign decorated chain-link fence that B.C. Hydro has raised to keep the adventurous away from its dam and generating station.
        Residential Elko is a mix of trailer houses, modest bungalows, and a scattering of substantial homes widely dispersed on a simple maze of quiet, right-angled lanes. Wendy’s little Elkridge Motel is located here, away from the Highway. The school, the fifth such edifice dedicated to the education of Elko’s scholars, was completed in 1955, replacing one that was built in 1954 and mysteriously could fire just as the workers were finishing it up. The parking lot hosted the community’s third school, built in 1907, to replace the one which had been built by the River around the turn-of-the-century. The latest school building hasn’t functioned as such since 1987 when the Government thought it more cost-effective to bus the younger Elko’s students some 30 Kay down the Highway to Jaffray, the 11th and 12th graders to Fernie.
        Besides the railroading, logging, orchardry, and power generating, Elko occupied itself with other enterprises. On the river some men cut ice for the community’s iceboxes and perhaps sold some to the CPR until the adoption of mechanical refrigeration in the ‘20s made the business redundant. Christmas tree growing and cutting10 returned some income from the ‘30s into the ‘60s. On October 17th, 1942, the Waldo Stockbreeders Livestock Association held its first auction in the loading chute-equipped South Country Cattle Auctions’ corrals that its members had built on CPR property at Elko that year. Nearly 1,000 head of cattle and sheep changed hands that day, an auspicious inauguration to what became an annual event until 1953, drawing stock buyers from western Canada and beyond on most years. The B.C. Forest Branch built a ranger station in Elko in the mid-1940s to replace the Baynes Lake post. It remained for nearly 40 years, the staff not being moved to Cranbrook until 1980.
        Elko built itself a community hall sometime in the ‘50s, and eagerly anticipated a new age of convenience when the Alberta Natural Gas Company, Limited, finished a compressor station on its trans-mountain, California-bound pipeline just south of the settlement in December of 1961. No gas for Elko, though, until 1994.
        Around 1971 Don Mazur formed his self-named lumber company to acquire the rights to log beetle-killed timber on nearby lands. He built his saw and planer mills on the site of the old brothels, on “the flats” west of town, and worked into 1976. The Flats are now home to the rodeo grounds and baseball diamonds.
        Elko’s last hotel, the Elk, burned in 1956. Carter’s Tourist Cabins sprung up to serve the over-night needs of the travellers on the new Crowsnest Highway. Hubberty’s rustic, log-built Elko Auto Camp was soon in business, both benefiting from increased traffic brought by the extension of highway 93 down to the Boundary at Grasmere in 1960.11 The Ingram family eventually bought our Carter’s, renaming it the Hill Top Auto Camp and Service Garage for its location on the bench above the BC Southern’s tracks, and for the fact that they added a service station. The service station still remains, but the auto camp has been replaced by the West Crow Motel.
        Postmaster Marg Fitzpatrick locked up the Elko’s post office for good on January 12th, 1991. It has been replaced by a bank of what the Post Office is pleased to call “super boxes,” these mercifully huddled under a shelter which almost keeps out the worst of the weather. Best bet to send a package from Elko these days is to send it to Jaffray in care of one of the kids on the school bus and hope she has time after classes to walk it over to the bureau there in the old store. Of the former downtown, nothing but the concrete bunker of the Elk Hotel behind the modern community hall.

        Northward from Elko, Ministry of Highways engineers in 1958 appropriated the alignment of the old Crows Nest Southern Railway to cut the Crowsnest Highway through the purple and green limestones of the Lizard’s toe-nails. It’s a lovely ride on a bicycle. The languid Elk River, dawdling southward to drown in the Kootenay some 20 miles away, is on the right, its bottom-land flats a pasture for great, cylindrical bales of hay curing in the summer sun. Below the Highway the CPR’s tracks sneak from shadow to woodsy shadow having just come off the four spans of the 150 metre long Elk River Crossing where the crews of McGilvary and Leeson began in May of 1898 to drive the piles that carried the original timber bridge. Its steel replacement was compromised by the raging floods of the spring of 1948. Not two miles from Elko, nestled into shallow cleft to the left of the Highway, the Sieders’ Mountain Tracks Wilderness Campground tempts the weary sundown cyclist with a hot shower and a peaceful mountain air slumber. Gone, regretfully, is the Haren Down ice cream stand, but the Sieders still serve dairy treats. Farther on, like the brawny shoulder of a zealous doorman assigned to scrutinize invitations and impede entry to a black-tie social, a large limestone outcrop crowds the Highway, dramatically constricting the valley. This, many geographers agree, is the western portal of the Crowsnest Pass.


  1. Built in 1966 by the Jack Crabb family. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  2. Now called Neame Street. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  3. Misidentified by Roger G. Burrows in his Railway Mileposts: British Columbia – Volume II: The Southern Routes: From the Crowsnest to the Coquihalla (Railway Milepost Books, N. Vancouver, 1984) as the Hanbury Lumber Company. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  4. Including, note Glayda Wilkinson and Marjorie Fitzpatrick in their A Century of Life in Elko (Elko Parks and Recreation, 1999), the Rock Creek Lumber Company, Crow’s Nest Pass Lumber Company, Baker’s Lumber Co., and Ross-Saskatoon Lumber Co. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  5. In fact, aver Wilkinson and Fitzpatrick, it was built on the site of the original school house. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  6. In partial payment for building the BC Southern, the CPR earned 20,000 acres of its choosing per mile of track laid. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  7. Note Wilkinson and Fitzpatrick, the CPR at first used a pump on the river to feed the stand pipe, but fluctuations in the water level proved problematical, so the Company dammed a mountain rill and piped the water down to a tank connected to the standpipe. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  8. March 14th is also recorded as the significant date. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  9. Glayda Wilkinson assumes that the “old hotel” was destroyed in this blaze. It may have succumbed to its own exclusive fire sometime around the end of the Great War. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  10. Cutters obtained provincial permits to harvest trees from crown lands, while some land owners in the “South Fork District” and elsewhere on the Delta planted their old orchards to conifers to cash in on the fad. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  11. Appropriating part of the old Crow’s Nest Southern right-of-way for the first few miles south from the junction of Highway 3 and 93, then strikes off on its own right-of-way to drop down the exhilarating 8% grades to bridge the Elk near Grasmere/Tobacco Plains. Until then the old Route, which accompanied the CPR’s trackage south from Fernie along the left bank of the Elk, had extended down to Grasmere, bridging the Elk’s canyon at Elko on a 1930s-vintage structure that was demolished by the army in 1991. The present wood-built structure looks to have been built by Crestbrook Forest Industries. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

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