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

by DM Wilson
With thanks to Rita Dickson, Joyce and Peter McCart, Ross MacDonald, Elizabeth Browne Losey, Silvia Thrup, John Fahey, E.P. Jacox, J.C. Jackson, and J.A. Eagle.
revised 2007/10/15

Curzon and Yahk
The Spokane International Railway
Logging the Moyie
Yahk Develops
Running Rum
Yahk Later
Leaving Yahk northbound
David Thompson and the North West Company
Curzon and Yahk

        Immediately beyond the bridge, the Crowsnest Highway tees into highway No.95, the local successor of the Walla Walla Trail, which has made its way eleven kilometres up the Moyie’s valley from the Boundary at Kingsgate, about 5 miles west of Idaho’s border with Montana. Stopping at the Tee and turning left to join the 95, the Highway is immediately in Curzon (849m), 38 kilometres from Creston.
        Curzon may accurately be described as a “wide spot in the road.” On the east side of the Highway a MoTH weigh-scale monitors heavy traffic heading to and from the Boundary. Opposite, what was Ivies [sic] Restaurant and its little motel cabins are closed and for sale in 2002. The neighbouring gas station/convenience store sees a steady business.
        Heading north from Curzon, the Highway immediately recrosses the Moyie on the spindly orange web of a 1955 steel truss bridge and follows the curves of the River north-westward for a couple of pleasant kilometres. Camping options abound. Besides Hall’s Campground hard by the bridge, a Shell service station-cum-liquor store with a prominently displayed Greyhound sign serves as the office of the Riverside Campground where a shower adds a buck to the ten dollar fee for a shady campsite in a mixed grove of trembling aspen, Grand fir and cottonwood. Opting to pitch a tent on one of the 26 picturesque and tranquil riverside sites at the nearby Yahk Provincial Park, the soiled traveller can, for three bucks, shower the Riverside. In the 200 metres or so between the Shell station/Riverside and the Provincial Park nestles the Yahk Motel and RV Camp, and easterly from the Park is the unincorporated settlement of Yahk (861m).
        Ktunaxa for perhaps “caribou” or “arrow head,” Yahk is a community trisected. On the far side of the Moyie is the “flats,” a residential neighbourhood of three avenues and three streets, settled mainly by CPR-sponsored Norwegian and Swedish families who began arriving in the area in 1928. Between the River and the Railway runs the No.3 with its fringe of businesses. In days past this was called the “lower road” in that, the higher road being Railway Avenue which runs through the old “downtown” district, on the western side of the B.C. Southern mainline and its three or four sidings.
        These days Yahk is mighty quiet; a retirement community of economical land prices attracting folks who like peace and quiet, its coal-stained rail yards slowly being reclaimed by forest weeds. But, back when trees were giants and travelling by train was the only way to go, Yahk was hard at work.

        The CPR seeded the settlement when it laid a siding here in 1899 and built a section house. In 1905 the King Lumber Company set up a milling operation at Ryan, about 10 kilometres back up the Railway towards Cranbrook. King logged the Moyie valley—incidentally clearing the townsite of Yahk—and perhaps laid in a narrow gauge railroad to get at the timber up in the Hawkins Creek valley to the east. The year that King moved in, Mr. and Mrs. Gibbons either erected, or bought brand-new, the Yahk Hotel. That September 1st S.A. Speers set up a postal bureau in the Hotel, operated it until November 24th and left to open a wholesale store. On March 19th of 1906 S.J. (Samuel) McCartney arrived as post master and stayed on until March 31st, 1959, though he moved the Office into a succession of general stores he built near the Hotel in 1912 and 1921.
        If not the first farmer in the area, certainly among the earliest was J.T. (John) Tipper whose Certificate of Pre-emption dated 18 September, 1906, is one of the many documents and photos reproduced in Rita Dickson’s 1983 self-published work, The Unforgotten Memories of Yahk. Tipper was soon joined by his family and, before the year was out, Albert Barnhardt, who pre-empted an adjacent property. But it was not farming or lumbering which germinated Yahk. In 1906 another battle was joined in the war of the railroads, and Yahk was in the front line.
The Spokane International Railway

        D.C. Corbin’s animosity towards J.J. Hill was bone-deep. By dint of more than a decade of unceasing work, by 1898 Corbin had built a very profitable little railroad and smelter operation in the West Kootenays. Late that spring, however, by subterfuge and shear purchasing power, J.J. Hill and his Great Northern Railway had gobbled up controlling interest in Corbin’s Spokane Falls and Northern and its subsidiaries branching up to Nelson and Rossland. In command, Hill had dispensed with Corbin’s services. It took Corbin four years, but in 1902 he finally found a way to regain his position in the Inland Empire’s railroad business; and hurt Hill while doing it. On December 24th of 1902, in partnership with the Spokane-based director of the Sullivan Group Mining Company, U.S. Senator George Turner, and J.H. McGraw, Jacob Furth and C.S. Bihler, Corbin incorporated the Spokane and Kootenai Railway Company (S&K) in the State of Washington. The scheme was to link Spokane with CP’s B.C. Southern at Yahk and to funnel Crowsnest Pass coal and coke and the Sullivan mine’s ore into the American Northwest via an interchange at Spokane with the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company’s line to Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. Seeking financial backing, the partners approached the CPR with the scheme.
        Again embroiled with the GN in the battle for southern B.C., the CPR was eager to engage its enemy on another front. In 1893 it had completed the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway—officially the “Soo Line” since 1961—from its Mainline at Pasqua in the District of Assiniboia (now part of the Province of Saskatchewan), down into Hill’s heartland in Minnesota. Appreciating that running rights on a Spokane-Yahk connection would allow them to connect Minnesota to the Northwest and steal traffic from the GN’s mainline, the CPR’s directors agreed to underwrite part of the S&K’s construction costs. Perceiving the danger, Hill hurried his lawyers into court to bury the scheme under an avalanche of legal argument. Still far from selling all of its authorized three million dollars’ worth of stock, the S&K watched investment dry up in the desert of litigation, and in March of 1904 Corbin et al dissolved the company. Claims John Fahey in Inland Empire: Daniel Corbin and Spokane and Shaping Spokane: Jay P. Graves and His Times, after re-affirming that the CPR was still interested in a Spokane connection, Corbin collected together some of his original investors in his Spokane Falls and Northern endeavour and incorporated the Spokane International Railway (SIR) on January 18th, 1905. The new outfit absorbed the assets of the S&K. Writes J.A. Eagle in The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Development of Western Canada, 1896-1914, the SIR was authorized to issue four million dollars of capital stock, 12.5% of which was immediately purchased on a three to two basis by the CPR and the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie. The Canadian companies further agreed to kick in one-eighth of the SIR’s construction costs for the option to buy a controlling 52% interest in the line by January, 1917.
        While CP was building its Kingsgate branch from Curzon down to the Boundary, Corbin took his own contract to construct the 140 miles of the SIR between Spokane and Kingsgate. On July 31st, 1906, CP finished its work, and that 1st of November the completed line was officially opened for business. With six train sets custom built by the Barney and Smith Car Company of Dayton, Ohio, and consisting of a mail and baggage car, a tourist sleeper, and sumptuously appointed first class coaches, first class sleepers, a dining car and observation car with three luxury suites, CP initiated its Soo-Pacific Train de Luxe1 passenger service on the new route on July 1st, 1907. Though Hill thought that “[a] passenger train is like the male teat—neither useful nor ornamental,” he was likely still chagrined when wealthier travellers began deserting his GN to ride instead with his detested competitor. In April of ‘07, upon discovering CP’s plot to capture GN’s fancy passenger trade, Hill had threatened to extend his Crows Nest Southern/Morrissey, Fernie & Michel Railway lines through the Crowsnest Pass and out onto the plains to attack the CPR’s on its home turf. That was but bluster, however, for the narrow Pass would have been hard-pressed to host another railroad right-of-way and the CPR already owned the best alignment. Instead, Hill concentrated his efforts on extending the VV&E westward to Vancouver to drink from the font of CP’s east-bound traffic. In 1908 CP managed to salt Hill’s wounds by winning from GN the U.S. Postal Service’s contract for transferring American mail between the Northwest and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
        In 1911 the SIR junction was moved back up the B.C. Southern line a couple of miles to Yahk where a 40,000 gallon octagonal water tank was being built that year to compliment the coaling tower that had been raised the previous year. Nineteen-12 saw a large depôt constructed. With Spokane International trains chuffing into town to exchange passengers and goods with the CPR, Yahk had become an international terminus. Low patronage, however, forced the discontinuance of the Train de Luxe “Spokane Flyer” on February 14th, 1914, and though the completion of the KVR in 1915 further reduced the SIR’s traffic, CP exercised its option to accumulate 52% of SIR’s stock in November of 1916 and assumed control of the line. On May 1st of 1917, one year from death, D.C. Corbin retired from the directorship of the line.
        Yahk continued to see trans-Boundary traffic as the CPR’s accountants yearly noted that the SIR was only marginally profitable. Unwilling to spend money on its maintenance, CP was happy to unload half of the decrepit little line on the Union Pacific in 1933. Reorganized out of receivership in 1941 as the Spokane International Railroad, the line began paying for itself and even began making money after passenger services were cancelled and low-cost diesel-electrics were adopted in the 1950s. In 1955, needing larger yards than were available at Yahk for their SIR operations, the partners built a new yards across the Boundary at Eastport and removed the line’s terminus thence. Three years later, Canadian Pacific relinquished its interests in the American portion of the line, but continue to send a daily freight down to Eastport.2
Logging the Moyie

        The King Lumber Company, owned by Cranbrook entrepreneurs Dr. J.H. and his brother, M.B., and Robt. J. Taylor, continued to work into W.W.I, growing into a sizeable operation centred on its mill at Ryan. In 1917, the easy timber cut, it sold its remoter reserves to the Tie and Timber Branch of the CPR’s Department of Natural Resources. With its deeper pockets able to afford the infrastructure that was necessary to get at the distant stands, the T&T set up its mill on the left bank of the Moyie, east of the Yahk townsite, creating a mill pond by placing a weir across Hawkins Creek just above its mouth and flooding a saucer in the River’s flood plain. Heading for the big timber, CP laid a standard-gauge track up the Hawkins and on for about twenty miles eastward into the Yahk Range. Along the tracks the Company established main camps and from those snaked logging lines out into the woods to clusters of satellite camps. By the mid-’20s there were about thirty miles of these logging lines laid and about 40 camps large and small scattered throughout the region. Trees were felled and skidded by horse to the logging lines and loaded onto log bunks which were then collected by the two truck Shay engine “No.1,” or the little Climax engine “No.2,” for delivery to the main track. There old 3185, an oil-burning 2-8-0, hooked the bunks into trains, chuffed them down to the Yahk Lumber Mill and tipped their loads into the mill pond. Seeking to economize on transport, CP had the Hawkins dammed at Camp 3, about five miles from Yahk, to create another log pond. To it, from logging shows farther back in the woods, it built flumes to float logs to the pond. From the Camp 3 pond to the mill pond at Yahk another flume, a V-shaped effort five feet wide by five feet deep, was laid. During the winter, or when the feeder streams ran dry, logs, of course, moved by rail to the mill pond where Company men were busy cutting blocks of ice and storing them blanketed in sawdust in a rail-side warehouse.
        The big wild fire of 1921 ravaged much of the Yahk watershed and burned up 20,000 of CP’s stock-piled ties and one million feet of raw logs. In 1931, with “harvesting,” Nature and carelessness having consumed the big timber, CP shut down its Yahk operation and moved its equipment up to Canal Flats where it erected a new mill two years later. By the mid-’30s contracted crews had pulled the steel from the Yahk Range logging lines and stripped the old camps of everything salvageable. H.B. Murray, an ex-CP employee, bought some of the equipment and set up a operation near the old mill site. With a new planer he produced finished lumber from the smaller logs that his outfit continued to pull out of the woods. Over the years other outfits came and went, bidding on timber leases and setting up small ad hoc milling operations, or just selling their raw logs to one of the mills. Creston Sawmills, of course, trucked its logs to the old Rodgers mill in Creston. Destroying much of the profit left in the woods, Mountain pine beetle and Spruce bark beetles began infesting local forests around 1949.
Yahk Develops

        South Moyie valley kids finally got access to formal education when a school was built in 1913 at Glenlily, a few miles south of Curzon. By 1918 the CPR mill had attracted enough families to Yahk that a little one-room school was opened on Railway Street. This building was soon overwhelmed and in 1920 another school, Yahk Superior, was built on the “lower road,” the right-of-way of today’s Crowsnest Highway. Though larger, it soon proved not large enough and in 1922 it was expanded into a two-roomer, with still some kids attending classes uptown in the old school.
        On Railway Avenue Teddy Klausen had opened his Commercial Hotel in 1908. As Yahk boomed with the arrival of the CPR mill, the Commercial, the Yahk Hotel, the old school and McCartney’s General Store were joined by a Chinese-run restaurant and a laundry, a pool hall and a couple of dry goods stores. In 1920 a Provincial Police office was raised. By 1924 there were enough building to make a real nice blaze when much of the Avenue burned down on March 4th. New buildings were soon raised, including the New Hotel build on the ashes of the Commercial.
        The Depression actually rained some benefits upon Yahk. A government-sponsored Relief Camp operation was set up in the old CPR mill bunkhouses and the 300 or so denizens set to work building the Yahk Aerodrome whose 960 yard turf runway just north of the community was planned as an intermediate field on the Lethbridge-Vancouver airmail route of the Trans-Canada Airway. Operational in 1931, by the time Transport Canada closed it and declared it surplus on November 4th, 1988, it had declined to an emergency-only strip.
        Besides the big camp at Yahk, smaller relief camps of about 170 men each were set up in the neighbourhood; at Ryan, Goatfell, Glenlily. They were in the front lines of defence when wild fire swept down Hawkins Creek in the summer of 1934 to menace Yahk, and again two years later when the hillside west of downtown burned off. Working together, by 1937 the Camp crews had paved the highway from Kingsgate on the Boundary all the way up to Fairmont Hot Springs. Combined with the income from the Camps, the tourist dollars floated Yahk through the last bad years of the ‘30s.
Running Rum

        The rumours that Yahk has more to its economic history than railroading and lumbering are given some substantiation by the dilapidated provincial police barrack and gaol built in 1919 on Railway Avenue about a block north from the Hotel. On January 16th of 1919 the president of the United States, T.W. (Woodrow) Wilson, signed into law the Volsted Act which gave teeth to the Eighteenth Amendment of the American constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of potable spirits. Prohibition did not destroy America’s thirst, of course, and even though B.C. itself was legally “dry” from October 1st, 1917 through to June of 1921, it quickly became corruptingly profitable to distil booze in southern B.C. and run it south. Yahk, in such close proximity to the Boundary, was a handy location for stills, and numerous caches of liquor are said to have been secreted in the vicinity awaiting trans-shipment. On dark nights, powerful Oldsmobiles, souped-up and concealing tanks in their trunks and under their back seats, roared down proto-highway 95 into Idaho, while reliable Fords, similarly outfitted, stole quietly along back-woods trails to slip undetected across the Boundary. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands, much of it flowing through Yahk, and secret stashes are whispered to lie yet in these woods awaiting the return of long-gone smugglers. On December 5th, 1933, with organized crime now well heeled and firmly entrenched in his society, President F.D. Roosevelt signed the order repealing the misguided Act. Yahk overnight lost its illicit income, though the old trails are rumoured to be in use again to export bales of BC’s latest and most lucrative cash crop; “bud” marijuana.
Yahk Later

        When the CPR removed its mill’s generator in 1931 what few electric lights there were in Yahk went out until probably East Kootenay Power made an arrangement with Idaho Power in 1956 to get service into the area. By then most of Yahk’s businesses had moved over to the Highway. The community had build a hall in 1940 to replace the one the CPR had erected in 1918, but in 1969 it burned and five years elapsed before its replacement could be raised. By then Yahk Museum was in financial difficulty. It was privately-owned and had been the recipient of many artefacts donated by area pioneers. After some anxious moments when it looked as if new owners would auction the collection, most of the treasures, including old tank-engine “Number 30,” went to the Creston Museum in 1981.
        Yahk was never big on churches: in fact, the only building dedicated to religious use was the little church the region’s Roman Catholics raised in 1928. Other denominations just congregated in adherents’ houses or in a local hall. Ending an era, in 1980 the R.C. administration sold Yahk’s church.
        Beginning in the 1937 school year, students from Glenlily were bussed into Yahk for school. In 1953 the region’s high school kids began taking their classes in Creston, travelling by yellow bus through the Goatfell five days a week. Since then younger students have been included at Creston, and today Yahk’s little 1956 flat-roofed school building hosts only the very youngest scholars. The Superior School building serves now as the owner’s residence of the Cozy Quilt Motel.

        Over the years since the end of the Soo-Pacific Train de Luxe passenger service in February of 1914 plenty of trains ran through Yahk on the CNL but fewer and fewer stopped, and those that did just exchanged freight and passengers, and took on coal and water from the Yard’s towers. With the loss of so much timber to beetles, fires and clear cutting, Yahk just plain ran out of work and people moved away. Today, the spur to Kingsgate usually sees a daily CP 979/980 freight train from and to Calgary, and every morning about three o’clock and returning in the evening about eight. On the B.C. Southern the Kootenay Valley Railway lash-up grumbles through west-bound sometime in mid-morning, returning some 12 hours later.
        But the bustling Yahk station is gone since 1982, and the Yards, formerly fogged in coal smoke and alive with wheezing locomotives shifting coaches and screeling flat cars piled with a bonanza of logs and lumber, now consist of three silent sidings where sometimes a few cars of Eastport overflow wait to be hauled away. Most of the site has been surrendered to the buzzing bugs who listen to the birds, swaying on the tips of the tangled tall weeds, defending their turf with song. Slashing through this wild garden, CP’s tracks seldom see more than four freight trains a day. They don’t stop.
        Economically priced real estate greyed Yahk. The “flats” is still the Yahk where the people live; a collection of old and new houses of varying size and repair, each with at least one dog whose job it is to greet evening strollers and keep them moving along with the growled promise of a nip or two if they break stride. For the old car restorer, this part of Yahk should be a gold mine. So many of the houses and vacant lots have wrecks rusting in their weeds that a visitor could not be faulted for presuming that every one of the vehicles purchased by the settlement’s residents over the last half century is still here somewhere.
        On the Highway, the “lower road” backing onto the River, a gap-toothed half-mile grin of trailer-houses and bungalows, the BCTel exchange and a couple of seasonal cafés sleepily offering services—or not—greet passers-by. Smack in the middle is the modest Cozy Quilt Motel and aviary run, with the minor assistance of his support staff, by a great grey cranky fuzz-ball cat named “Mookie.”
        Across the Highway from the Cozy Quilt, on the far side of the railyards, the Yahk Hotel, anchors the tiny scramble of fading frontier architecture that is “downtown.” Beside it the New Hotel is long-closed, as are most of the other structures scattered around. Built in 1912, the Yahk’s old clapboard looks good in a generous coat of bright white paint. In the mid-1990s, behind dainty lace and pink curtained windows, antique tables all linen’d and doily’d and weighted down with china and silver flatware were attended by old fashioned plush-cushioned, high-backed chairs replete with crocheted antimacassars. Experienced but still thick rugs overlapped, deadening footfalls and muting voices reflected from the high, tin-plated ceiling. Cleaned and polished, detritus of a century of pioneering dangled from the walls and perched in nooks. Hand-crafted meals came out of the kitchen. Happily, after a stint as a storage room, the area is again a café, but likely closed when the big room of the Hotel’s main floor begins trying to generate enthusiasm for another evening in the desperately named “Horny Owl Saloon” where anyone with valid identification can buy a “Kokanee” or some other beer-like concoction and strain their aural faculties trying to distinguish the words of a tablemate from the jeremiads yodelled by the injured jukebox in the corner. The rooms upstairs are likely closed.
Leaving Yahk northbound

        Leaving Yahk northbound, No.3/95 hard rights at the end of the commercial strip, steps over the two streams of the River on a deck cradled between twin bows of corn-yellow steel and a utilitarian concrete span, and passes the only vehicular entrance to the “flats.” On the left at the corner in 2001 is the remains of Judy’s River Bend Restaurant and gas station, burned on New Year’s Day, 2001. Northward, the Highway rolls itself out along the valley’s bottom, intent on tracking the Moyie to its source. A few kilometres beyond Yahk, in the middle of a huge meadow, the Hay U Country Kitchen beckons with its antique filled, woodstove heated dining room and, across the Highway, several little log-walled cabins for hire. Formerly Allen’s Auto Camp, this little enterprise got its start in the 1930s when Frank Allen and his family settled the site, built the cabins and began serving travellers.
        Nearing the end of the Meadow, the Highway edges towards the Moyie and finally crosses it on another delicate steel truss bridge painted an alarming orange and dated to 1954. Seen from the middle of the span, the River appears in no hurry to vacate B.C. Any excuse has it slowing and even stopping in places, widening out to accommodate a family of beavers, affording excellent forage for the valley’s numerous ungulates. It isn’t always so benign, this stream; David Thompson and his crew found it a trial as they worked their way up here against the floods during the last week of May in 1808.
David Thompson and the North West Company

        David Thompson was born restless. A poor orphan brought up in the Grey Coats School in London, he came out to North America with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1780s and learned cartography under the tutelage of the Company’s surveyor, Philip Turnor. The knowledge spoiled his usefulness to the Coy. Ever after, all he really wanted to do was to explore and map the wilderness. The more mundane business of his employ; the collecting, grading, bundling and shipping of furs, bored him, and the Coy’s hierarchy and regimentation tried his patience.
        Seeing little chance of improving his fortunes with the HBC, on May 23rd, 1797, he quit the Coy to join the renegade Montréal outfit, the North West Company of Merchants from Canada, and was sent by them to his old Coy stomping grounds on the Rockies’ Eastern Slopes to trade with the Piikani and Kainaa of the “Blackfoot Confederacy”. Thompson took up residence on the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River at the NWC’s recently-established Rocky Mountain House, and opened competition with his former compatriots. This undertaking, like so many of the NWC’s activities, was illegal under British law, for, by its royal charter of 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company held the exclusive rights to the bounty of Rupert’s Land, the watershed of the Hudson Bay. Not really giving a fig for British law, into this preserve the NWC advanced, giving the Natives a choice of trading partners, much to the detriment of the HBC’s bottom line. When confronted by Bay men, the Nor’Westers fought rather than retreated.
        As animosities deepened the NWC Partners resolved to expand their operations beyond Rupert’s Land, over the Mountains and into the continent’s western watershed. In July of 1793, one of the Partners, Alexander Mackenzie, had succeeded in reaching the Pacific over land, and his journey had given the fur trade community some sense of the depth of the cordillera between the plains and the Pacific. When reports reached Montréal that the Boston trader, Robert Gray, had discovered and named for his ship, the Columbia Redidiva, a huge river outflowing from North America into the northern Pacific, the NWC resolved to find its headwaters and claim its watershed as their own preserve. In 1800 they assigned Thompson that task. He had, for the first time, that year met his first Ktunaxa—Kootenay—at Rocky Mountain House when a few had come furtively to trade and perhaps hunt bison on the Plains that year. Thompson’s first step was to send two of his men, Le Blanc and Legacé, back with the party to winter in the Ktunaxa homeland west of the Great Divide. Thompson organized an expedition to follow the next year, but when reports were received that Legacé and his partner had been killed by their hosts when suspected of treachery, the project was shelved and Thompson was re-assigned to duties in what is now the central borderland of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and then into what is now northern Alberta.
        In 1803, the United States purchased “Louisiana,” the drainage basin of the Mississippi River, from Napoléon. From that moment the NWC was legally excluded from the entire heart of North America. Louisiana’s trade was essential to the NWC’s profitability, and appreciating that the Americans would soon curtail foreign, and especially British, businesses in their new acquisition, the Partners focused their attentions on the only part of North America not yet claimed; the northern Pacific watershed. When American army captains William Clark and Meriwether Lewis in 1804/’05 led their Corps of Discovery across Louisiana and on to the mouth of the Columbia to build Fort Clatsop and overwinter, the Partners were galvanized into action. Anxious that American traders would gain the upper hand in the cordillera, they sent Simon Fraser and David Stuart to follow Mackenzie’s lead into the upper Fraser system, and urged Thompson to cross the Divide, find the headwaters of the Columbia River and claim its basin for the Nor’Westers.
        Hindering the plan were the Piikani (Peigan) and Kainaa (Blood) tribes of the Niitsi-tapi peoples (Blackfoot) who were intent on maintaining their profitable station as intermediaries between the tool-rich Whites and the horse-rich Ktunaxa. For a few worn guns, bits of cloth, battered kettles, bent knives and other useful metalware, the Piikani and Kainaa were able to acquire excellent horses from the Ktunaxa, and bundles of rich beaver pelts to pass on to the White traders. To maintain their economic advantage, the Piikani patrolled the passes. Unfortunately, returning via Maria’s Pass from his party’s winter sojourn at the mouth of the Columbia, one of Meriwether Lewis’s men, Reuban Fields, killed a Piikani in June of 1806. Alarmed, so one theory goes, the Piikani moved down to their southern marches to meet the new challenge, and their absence from the Rocky Mountain House region gave Thompson his chance. Other researchers, represented by John C. Jackson, author of The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Siege, maintain that the altercation between the Corps of Discovery and the Piikani was to the Natives just another death on the Prairies, of which there were many. It was mainly, Jackson suggests, coincidence that the Blackfoot were absent from Rocky Mountain House in the spring of 1907 when, reports S.L. Thrup in her History of the Cranbrook District in East Kootenay, Thompson, having sent Jacques Raphael (Jacco/Jaco) Finlay (Findley, among other variants) and Nicholas Montour ahead to blaze a trail the previous summer, began his journey over the Divide on May 10th. Consisting of he and his half-breed wife, Charlotte née Small,3 their three young children and seven company engagés, the party struggled to the head of the North Saskatchewan River to cross the Rockies via what is now the Howse Pass. Coming laboriously down the western slopes along the treacherous gash of the Blaeberry River, report Joyce and Peter McCart in their excellent On the Road with David Thompson (Fifth House Ltd, Calgary, 2000), they reached a substantial torrent that Thompson did not realize was the Columbia. He called it the “Kootenay” and noted the date as the 30th of June, 1807. Uneasy at the prospect of being discovered by a war party of Piikani, Thompson’s band quickly built a canoe better than the rickety efforts that Finlay and Montour had made and stashed for them, and hurried away upstream to the shores of today’s Windermere Lake. There, whilst fending off the acquisitive attentions of a party of Piikani and after one false start due to Thompson’s dissatisfaction with the first site he chose, the men threw up a warehouse probably on Canterbury Point to shelter the trade goods, a barracks to shelter themselves, and an abode/trading house into which the Thompson family moved on August 15th. He called it “Kootanae House” and directed his men to begin raising a stockade. Ready to trade, all Thompson needed were customers.
        According to Jackson, at the time most of the Ktunaxa were away south attending a peace pow-wow with the Salish and Piikani. Those Ktunaxa who remained in the valley were reticent to come in to trade pelts and fresh meat for Thompson’s goods with the larcenous Piikani hanging around. When the Tribe finally returned in strength and encouraged the Piikani warriors to lift their siege, they presented Thompson with a letter written by one Captain Zachary Perch, who had evidently attended the pow-wow. The letter claimed the entire Columbia River watershed for the United States and outlined “...regulations for governing and taxing British operations...” therein. Too late in the season to explore further, Thompson heeded the advice of his friend, “Kootenae Appee,” and settled in for a winter of trading. The stockade was completed on October 27th.
        Early in the next spring, 1808, “The Star Man,” as the Ktunaxa called Thompson for his constant celestial observations, left his family in the care of his lieutenant, Finan McDonald, at Kootenae House and set off southward down the Trench, his sights set on the big south-flowing river which a Ktunaxa chieftain, “Ugly Head,” had told him lay to the west beyond the Ktunaxa’s big lake. Up into Columbia Lake his party paddled, portaged Canal Flats where William Adolph Baillie-Grohman would be hard at work digging his diversion ditch eighty years later, and drifted down the River he named in honour of Duncan McGillivray, his supporter and chief director of the NWC. It is today’s Kootenay. The party followed the “McGillivray” southward to the bottom of the Purcell Mountains where the River breaks free of the Trench to hook back north-westward to empty into Kootenay—Thompson’s “Flat Bow”—Lake which the party reached on May 14th.4 After meeting and trading briefly with members of the Lower Ktunaxa nation, Thompson turned around a retraced his course to the mouth of a river he called McDonald’s, today’s Moyie. Convincing Kootenay Ugly Head to leave the comfort of his village and guide them, the party struggled up the flooding McDonald’s towards Kootenae House, mapping the valley which 60 years later would carry the last leg of both the Walla Walla and the Dewdney Trails. That summer of 1808, while Simon Fraser was adventuring down to salt water on the river eventually named for him, Thompson returned across the Rockies to exchange his furs for supplies at Rainy Lake House near what is now Fort Frances in northern Ontario before returning, without Charlotte and the children,5 to Kootenai House in the autumn. Upon his return he sent Finan McDonald down the McGillivray/Kootenay River to the neighbourhood of the mouth of the Fisher where in November, writes Elizabeth Browne Losey in Let Them Be Remembered: The Story of the Fur Trade Forts (Vantage Press, New York, 1999), he hastily raised his tents and constructed a temporary “hangard”—a supplies storage shed. Thompson called the place “Kootenae Falls House.” Between them the following winter they acquired 2.5 tons of fine furs, inspiring the cupidity of the HBC.
        Over the next three years, unaware that the river he called the Kootenae was in fact the Columbia which he had been instructed to find and follow to its mouth, Thompson explored what is now north-eastern Washington State, northern Idaho, north-western Montana and south-eastern B.C.6 The area was rich in beaver, and not only were the local tribes eager to supply furs, but American “mountian men,” led into the region by Charles Courtin of Detroit, frequently came to Thompson’s posts to swap pelts for supplies and trade goods.7
        In early September of 1809 Thompson and a crew ventured up what he called “The Great Road of the Flatheads” to the eastern shores of Pend Oreille Lake. On September 10th, 1809, his men cut the first logs for the construction of what he would call “Kullyspell House.” Leaving the construction likely in charge of McDonald, Thompson trekked up Clark Fork River and built “Saleesh House” at what is now Thompson Falls, Montana, moving in on December 1st and staying the winter. On May 9th of the next year, 1810, Thompson again headed over the mountains, leaving McDonald to operate Saleesh House, James McMillan at Kullyspell, and sending Jaco Fin[d]lay to build a post at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers to trade with the “Flathead” Se’lish Tribe, long-time allies of the Ktunaxa. This was named “Spokane House.”
        These three “houses” gave the Flatheads direct access to iron for the first time, and guns. In perpetual conflict with the Piikani as were their cousins, the Ktunaxa, the Se’lish involved Finan McDonald and Baptiste Buche as advisers in a skirmish with their enemy in July of 1810. Losing 16 fighters mainly to the Traders’ accurate musket fire, the Piikani marked the White friends of their foes for death.
        Returning from his visit to Rainy River House8 in the summer of 1810, Thompson was accosted by the Piikani at Rocky Mountain House and told that he would surely die violently should he attempt to cross the Mountains again. He decided to heed the warning. However, with rumours that American capitalist J.J. Astor was planning to fortify the Columbia River’s mouth and dispatch his Pacific Fur Company crews up into the cordillera, the NWC partners convinced Thompson to climb once more over the Rockies and find his way to the Columbia’s estuary.9 With his traditional route over the Howse Pass blockaded by the Piikani, Thompson and his large expedition set out from Boggy Hall on the North Saskatchewan and crossed into the Arctic watershed to the Athabaska River, Struggling up to the River’s headwaters, they crossed the mountains by Thompson’s “Great Pass”—the Athabaska—and descended the Canoe River to his misnamed Kootenay River’s “big bend” at what the HBC later named Boat Encampment. He wintered there and the next spring, travelling cross-country via his chain of posts, came down to the Columbia River at what were the Kettle Falls in what is now north-western Washington State. By the time, however, that Thompson found the Columbia and succeeded in reaching its mouth in mid-July of 1811, PFC men had been there for a couple of months, had built Fort Astoria and were already establishing their trading network. Thompson shook hands, turned around and paddled back up the Columbia intending to follow it to its source. Only when he reached the familiar site of the boat encampment did he realize that his “Kootenay” was indeed the Columbia. In the spring of 1812, Thompson brought his last haul of furs to the Rainy River post for, in that year, he retired from active duty with the NWC.
        Like so many of the Québec-based fur traders, Thompson had taken a Native woman to wife à la façon du pays. Indian women were essential partners to the White men in the business of collecting furs in the wilds of North America. To the union, the woman brought her People’s alliance, her linguistic talents and her hard labour and skill in keeping her family alive and in relative comfort. For most of the White men, however, Native women were merely fleeting comforts, temporary conveniences,10 and when the traders retired Home, they usually forsook their frontier families without much thought. The marriage was, of course, rarely sanctified and the traders felt, therefore, little commitment to their Indian spouses. Thompson was different; he took Charlotte and the children back East with him, and was ostracized by Society Proper because of this.
        To blame Thompson’s familial loyalty for his lack of welcome into Upper Canadian society is perhaps unjust. Some people found him an arrogant, difficult man. With the coalition of the NWC and the HBC in 1821 Thompson was castigated as a turn-coat by the new HBC. His advice was spurned by his former colleagues, his writings were ignored, he was seldom hired to survey anything and his greatest work, his map of the West which he finally completed in 1817, hung for half a century in obscurity at the NWC’s headquarters at Fort William at Lake Superior’s head before being rolled up and stuffed into a dark corner of the HBC archives for another fifty years. On February 10th, 1857, David Thompson, the Canada West’s greatest geographer, unhonoured, unacknowledged, died in poverty. His belovèd Charlotte followed him within three months.


  1. A few cars of which have been corralled by The Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, and are in the process of being restored. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  2. Their mutual interest in the SIR has led to a long-term business alliance between Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific which often sees and exchange of motive power, UP locomotives not being an uncommon sight running up the old Soo-Pacific route as far as CP’s Kipp/Coalhurst yards outside of Lethbridge, and then up to Calgary. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  3. According to Ross MacDonald, Charlotte was born at Ile-à-la-Crosse on September 1st, 1785, to NWC trader Patrick Small and his Cree wife. Charlotte married David Thompson on June 10, 1799, a union that lasted until his death on February 10th, 1857. She bore him 13 children, and herself died May 4th, 1857. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  4. May 9th, according to some readers of Thompson’s notes, the discrepancy explained by the fact that the valley was in full flood at that time, and the Lake formerly backed up the River’s valley quite some ways, drowning Duck Lake and inundating most of Creston Flats. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  5. Indeed, according to the McCarts in On the Road with David Thompson (op cit), Charlotte never ventured into the field with Thompson again, preferring to lodge initially at the NWC’s Fort Augustus where she had relatives and where her children could gain at least a modicum of education. Fanny, the eldest, was sent to school in Montréal in 1808. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  6. What are now called the “Selkirks” Thompson named the “Nelson Mountains” in honour of the hero of Trafalgar. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  7. One trade good that was unavailable from Thompson’s stores was liquor: the man outright refused the demands of his partners that he offer spirits as part of his stock in trade. In fact, according to Losey, the one time they prevailed upon him to take some kegs he lashed them on the pack animal in such a way as to assure their quick destruction. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  8. Fort Lac La Pluie. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  9. In the meantime, the NWC partners opened negotiations with Astor to buy a one-third share of his venture. The deal never matured. !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

  10. “A bit of brown” as the HBC’s most famous governor, Geo. Simpson, dismissively termed Native “wives,” mere relief until the man should acquire a proper White woman upon his retirement “Home.” !NB: To return to this end-note’s origin in the main text, left-click your browser’s “Back” arrow

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