(read about Mount Swansea‘s history)
When Europeans and eastern North Americans began to find their way over the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia Valley, they found a place vastly different from today.
While the awe-inspiring peaks of the mountains remain similar, the benchlands above the Columbia River Wetlands were mostly grasslands, home to vast herds of elk, deer and even bison. And where those creatures roamed, so too hunted the great grizzly.
Pacific salmon concluded legendary spawning trips home to the headwaters of the 1,900-km long Columbia River. The teeming numbers of nutrient-rich salmon also inspired First Nations people, specifically the Kootenai and later the Shuswaps, to settle here. The location where the bridge crosses the Columbia River, entering Invermere, was once home to a seasonal fishing village.
Most of the current natural attractions, such as the hot springs, were well-used by First Nations people.
Legendary explorer, fur trader and cartographer David Thompson is considered the first white man in the region, crossing into the valley from the Blaeberry River drainage north of Golden in 1807. He and his bride Charlotte Small followed Metis guides along a route from Rocky Mountain House. Once in the valley they paddled upstream to Invermere and established Kootenae House close to where Toby Creek enters the Columbia. Thompson mapped, trapped and star-read in the region, making trips to the Kootenay River Valley and further south into the U.S.
While at Kootenae House, Thompson learned of the great naval battle of Trafalgar, in which victorious British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died. To honour him, Thompson named the dramatic Purcell Mountain peak that towers above Invermere Mt. Nelson.
After two years in the valley, Thompson returned to Rocky Mountain House, and later back east to Montreal.
2007 was Thompson‘s bicentennial and a great array of special celebrations were observed.
Word of the fur-rich valley became known among Hudson‘s Bay and Northwest Trading Company barons and whisperings of gold and riches began to lure settlers here. More than 30 years after Thompson departed, James Sinclair of the Hudson‘s Bay Company, left Fort Garry in the Red River territory (now Manitoba) with settlers bound for the Oregon Territory. Their trek through what is now Kootenay National Park brought them by the Radium Hot Springs and into the valley. A dip in the hot springs at Fairmont, was an expedition highlight for Sinclair.
The legendary missionary, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, whose exploits dot the histories of communities along the Missouri River basin and throughout the U.S. Rockies, also ventured into the valley in the early 1840s. Greeting DeSmet was the person considered the first white settler, Francois Morigeau, who in 1819, hung his hat along Windermere Creek.
In 1859, famous explorer Capt. John Palliser, brought an expedition through the valley and down the river that now bears his name.
Settlement remained sparse, with the only people making camp in the valley a hardy bunch – usually seeking gold and furs. The 1864/65 Wild Horse gold rush brought thousands of fortune seekers and settlers to what is now the Fort Steele area. Others ventured farther north to the Columbia Valley and began exploring the rugged drainages, hoping for the motherlodes that for the most part eluded them. Perhaps the greatest find was this sheltered, temperate area, with its lakes and wildlife-rich wetlands.
From 1865 to 1880, homesteaders slowly began to stake out a lasting presence - from Canal Flats to Spillimacheen and in select high country mine sites.
The first permanent settlement in the valley was Peterborough (now Wilmer) - a home for miners, prospectors, ranchers, cowboys, trappers, loggers and some of the first business people, such as George Starke, who opened the Delphine Lodge (pictured above) in the late 1880s. The settlement reached its peak in the late 1890s and soon the lakeside and lakeview communities of Athalmer and Invermere began to draw more interest.
Steamboats and sternwheelers plied the shallow Columbia, serving as the best way to get to the valley, with people taking the CPR to Golden, then catching lifts with Capt. Francis P. Armstrong, who launched the “Duchess” in 1886, and the “Gwendoline” on the Kootenay River in 1893.
Twenty years later the CPR chugged south from Golden and the valley‘s economic fortunes began to surge. Robert Randolph Bruce (1885), played a major role in the establishment of Peterborough, as well as Windermere and Fairmont. With the railway able to increase the amount of goods and services to and from the valley, he established the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruitlands Co. (CVIFC) in 1911. Bruce and business partner W.H. Cleland envisioned the area becoming a fruit growing haven. The Toby Benches are rife with old irrigation channels, trails and remnants of a flume. The CVIFC was responsible for bringing hundreds of immigrants from Great Britain, seeking rich, fertile farmland. However, many were disappointed and left for home between 1914-1918, but Bruce, Cleland and other valley builders such as B.G. Hamilton, Major T.C. Bell and A.E. Fisher remained.
The auto age was fast approaching and Bruce knew that for the valley to keep up, it needed a highway to connect it with the east. Years of intense lobbying with the provincial and federal governments finally paid off for Bruce and valley residents, when the Banff-Windermere Highway was finished in 1923.
Since then, business leaders such as the Wilder brothers, Bud Cleland, Chris Madson, Charlie Osterloh, Dunc McIntosh, and others, made the most of the valley‘s natural assets, beauty and a warmer, drier climate and began to fine-tune the area‘s economy toward tourism.
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