In the autumn of 1905 the province of Alberta was formed under the Canadian Confederation, the 11th out of an eventual 13 provinces and territories. By this time the Rocky Mountain Park had already been expanded twice, turning MacDonald’s original 26²km park into a whopping 11,400²km one. It would later be downsized and tweaked until 1949 when Banff National Park’s final and current size was set at 6,641²km.
The early inhabitants of Banff hit the ground running in order to make their new town the #1 place to visit for European and American elites. Explorers were hired by the railroad to map the mountains; Swiss guides were brought in to lead visitors; outfitters set up shop to provide horses. Land was cleared at the bottom of the valley where a small town quickly sprang up. Oriented along the 4 cardinal points of the compass, Banff is nestled between Cascade to the north, Sulfur to the south, Rundle to the east, and Norquay to the west.
Banff always was and probably always will be an extremely contradicting town. The appeal of the mineral springs flowing out of Sulfur Mountain, combined with a luxury resort, brought people looking for relaxation in the Canadian west. The access provided by the railroad and the abundance of natural resources and wilderness brought cowboy-types to the Rockies looking for adventure and fortune. Likewise today, some people come to relax, others come to explore; and always Banff remains a laid-back small mountain town in a province dominated by cowboys and oil barons.
By 1906 the Alpine Club of Canada was well established and provided a service to visitors looking to enjoy all of the attractions offered in Banff. In 1916 one of the oldest tour companies in Banff was up and running, banking in on a road built between Banff and Calgary in 1911. Brewster, founded by brothers Jim and Bill, offered motor coach tours of the area and, in fact, still do. Well, in spirit I’m sure.
But there was more to Banff than relaxing poolside or trekking through the mountains; before long a community of artists developed in the town, either working for the tourism industry or alongside scientists fascinated with the alpine flora and fauna. This is exactly what botanist Charles Schäffer and his wife Mary did until his death in 1903. As a widow Mary returned to the Rockies to finish her late husband’s botanical guide. She eventually enlisted the help of one Bill Warren, whom she would later marry. Her story in Banff, while begun in tragedy, turned into one of the juiciest scandals and most endearing love stories in the young town. With Billy, his friend Sid Unwin, and her friend Molly Adams, Mary became responsible for the first white settlers to lay eyes on Jasper’s Maligne Lake in 1908; a “string of pearls” tucked in the hills. As it would turn out, Sid would be among the handful of young men from Banff to fight and die in World War I.
Artists continued to flock to Banff, spurred on by the successes gained by the Group of Seven in the east. In 1933 the Banff School of Drama, now the Banff Centre, was founded as an arts college and continues to operate today under the banner “Inspiring Creativity.” Banff would also breed its own artists, like Peter Whyte (born in Banff in 1905), who alongside his wife Catharine would paint the Rockies and eventually found an institution committed to preserving and promoting Canadian art.
Despite the fact that Banff is tucked away high up in the Canadian Rockies, the town feels like an island beach where all manner of interesting things wash up on. People have been coming here for their own reasons for more than an century and with them come new stories to add to the history books. (Even if they don’t all make the official ones). This town has always had a way of getting beneath a person’s skin so that no matter how long they stay here, when they leave there is a part of them that always yearns to return. Looking around it is easy to spot the people who came and never left; to see families like the Brewsters and the Whytes still around; and to find the shine in a visitor’s eye that betrays their fate as a future Banffite.