Like so many others who have lived in the same place all their life, I have always had a soft spot for the history of my town. As a student of the subject, reading these histories helped establish a familiarity with the people who had lived in Banff before me. I have my experiences here; I have the stories and the photos that my parents and their friends have collected and shared; and through my passion for Canadian history I can pretend that all these areas overlap. This has helped make my days more interesting as well as create a more unique and interesting experience for the people that come and talk to me.
These are stories I have been learning since I was a little kid, and now I would like to share them with you.
In the early 1880s the Canadian Pacific Railway made it to the mountain range that would eventually hide the border between British Columbia and Alberta: The Rocky Mountains. They could have gone further north, and taken the obvious easier route closer to Jasper, but instead they chose this one. One overly ambitious man, keen to leave his mark on the route to the west, even decided to drill a tunnel through one of the smaller mountains on the valley floor. Thankfully, his comrades talked sense into him and laid the track around the hill. Now, give or take 130 years later, that mountain still bears the name Tunnel Mountain, even though there never was a tunnel.
While on a break one day, 3 railroad workers were out exploring the area when they found a column of steam rising out of a hole in the ground. One stripped Lodge Pole Pine and a makeshift ladder later, these chaps found themselves in a cave where a natural mineral hot spring had collected in a pool. Realizing immediately that they had struck gold, they quickly built a structure over the opening and started charging their friends to swim in it, which they (and many others) believed to have healing properties.
The men applied for a land grant from the Canadian government; but being less than forthcoming in the application, combined with increasing disputes between them, led to the government buying the land outright. The Feds decided that a site like this needed to be preserved for future generations to enjoy, so Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald created a 26-square kilometer area around the cave that became a national park. Nameless until 1885, it became the Rocky Mountain Park and eventually the Banff National Park when the small town that had cropped up between the railroad track and the pool (née-Siding 29) was named Banff.
So there was a mineral spring people were interested in visiting, a federally-protected wildlife park surrounding it, and a railroad to get people there; now all they needed was a place for the people to stay. In 1887 the president of of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, William Cornelius Van Horne, declared “build it here!” and initiated construction on a luxury hotel to house guests.
“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the visitors.”
Construction was completed a bare year later, and with the help of commissioned artists, he was able to draw wealthy visitors from across Europe to come to the area.
A town cropped up. Explorers and mountaineers came to trek the wilderness. They led the more adventurous tourists on horseback into the mountains. They discovered lakes and glaciers and even built a menagerie in town to show off the native wildlife! In 1905 Banff had 2 reasons to celebrate: the town’s 10 year anniversary, and the establishment of the province of Alberta, in which it resides.
Since then Banff as a town, a national park, and a community has flourished. But that is a chapter for another day…