Local History

Lately in class we’ve discussed how public historians are expected to take a topic, figure out the important bits to share to the public, and present it in an interesting way.  I’ve been wanting to practice this, and it occurred to me that I could do so while exploring a topic of local history. Or in this case, explore the local history of where I grew up in Invermere, B.C.  This will be a test for me; I’m familiar with the topic, so choosing what is relevant will be a challenge.  But here we go.  The history of the Windermere Valley in (slightly more than) five minutes.

Where is Invermere Anyways?

When I tell people I’m from Invermere I tend to get looks of confusion or polite interest (is that close to Vancouver?).   I try to help as best I can by saying it’s three hours from Calgary AB, or two hours from Banff, or near Radium Hot Springs, or smack dab in the middle of the Rocky Mountain Trench.  This works about 33% of the time, but because we’re dealing with a digital medium, I can make things easy.  This is Invermere:

Invermere, BC - Google MapsInvermere is located on the shores of Windermere Lake, which is really just a widening of the Columbia River (the headwaters of the Columbia River is just south in Canal Flats).  Invermere is the largest town in an area known alternatively as the Windermere Valley or the Columbia Valley (depending on who you ask).  Following the designation of the local museum, the Windermere Valley encompass the valley stretching from Canal Flats in the south to Spillimacheen in the north.  Or, here:


Looking at the same map with the geography:

Windermere Valley

There’s a reason why locals simply call the area “The Valley”.  Reportedly when the first astronauts went into space the region was so noticeable it drew their attention.  Why?  The headwaters of the Columbia River are at Canal Flats, after which the river flows north through the valley.  This early part of the Columbia before the dams start is one of the longest uninterrupted wetlands in North America.  On the ground it looks something like this:

For some it comes as a surprise that this particular area of British Columbia is technically a semi-desert.   I’ve pulled cactus’ out of my dog’s paw (only once though – she learned).  Why a desert?  Get ready for some Earth Sciences.  The Windermere Valley experiences what is known as the rain shadow effect.  Weather tends to come from the west, and as it does it has to cross the Purcell Mountains.  Any clouds coming over are likely to drop most of their moisture on the way, leaving the Windermere Valley hot and dry.  Winters can be anywhere from mild to cold, and snowfall in the valley varies year to year (there’s always more up in the mountains than the valley floor).

Although not directly by the ocean, the Windermere Valley experiences a similar rain shadow effect.  Expedition Earth: The Creation of Rain Shadow http://expeditieaarde.blogspot.ca/2011/11/creation-of-rain-shadow.html

The Original Residents

For thousands of years, the Windermere Valley was the territory of the Ktunaxa (k-too-nah-ha) First Nations, who would migrate seasonally for hunting and gathering.   The foot of present day Lake Windermere, near where Invermere is today, was a popular fishing area.  Huge sockeye salmon swam up from the Pacific Ocean to spawn, and were caught and dried by First Nations groups.  Much more recently (around a couple of centuries ago), another group came over the mountains from the area around Salmon Arm, eventually settling first in the area around Edgewater just to the north, and later on a plateau closer to Invermere.  These people are known as the Shuswap.

According to the Shuswap, French fur traders were not uncommon in the area, even before the traditional story of European contact when explorer David Thompson came over the mountains.  Thompson is the one who is remembered though.  He built a fur trading post known as Kootenae House in 1807, but it was abandoned within five years.

European Influence

A French fur trader named Baptiste Morigeau settled in the area shortly after, but for the next fifty years or so the European history in the area was limited to people passing through.  For example Jesuit missionary Father De Smet came through the area in the mid 1840s, and the British run Palliser Expedition went by in the late 1850s.  The discovery of gold at Wild Horse Creek to the south in the early 1860s was a turning point.  A rush of miners flowed north as prospectors combed the many creeks and tributaries in search of gold.  Success varied greatly, and few stayed for long, but miners did remained on Findlay Creek near Canal Flats for years after, including a number of Chinese men.

Cabins belonging to the Chinese at Wild Horse Creek, Item D-06562, BC Archives

Construction on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) just to the north in Kicking Horse Pass in the 1880s prompted further exploration of the area.  Whiskey traders came north from the American border to set up business, and engineers and workers went south to have a look around.  Some, like Francis Armstrong, saw an opportunity and started growing potatoes near present day Fairmont Hot Springs to feed CPR workers. His agricultural business turned into a transportation one as he cobbled together a steamboat to bring crops north; the first on this section of the Columbia River. Others, like Robert Randolph Bruce came back to the valley after the railway opened to settle down.

The Duchess Steamboat c. 1886, British Columbia Provincial Archives digital collections image B-06811

The Duchess Steamboat c. 1886, Built by Francis Armstrong for the transport of potatoes. British Columbia Provincial Archives digital collections image B-06811

Miners and Ranchers

Settlers trickled in from the 1890s.  Mining and prospecting were popular, but transportation costs meant that only the highest grade ores were worth the effort. Early efforts at Paradise Mine, a lead silver mine, were one of the few cases where ores were transported to an outside smelter with profit (although profits themselves were minimal).  It wasn’t until a railway branch came through in 1915 that smaller mines were able to sustain themselves.

Ranching was also widely undertaken, as well as small scale subsistence farming.  There were efforts to specialize crops.  An aggressive advertising campaign just before the First World War aimed to bring wealthy British settlers to the area to establish fruit farms, but a combination of unsuitable climate and the outbreak of the war meant that this was never very successful.  Instead the area continued to have small scale farming and resource extraction; notably mining, forestry, and harvesting Christmas Trees.

Tagging Christmas Trees in the 1950s. Photo A1040 from the Windermere District Historical Society

The Economy Today

Although logging continues to have economic importance, today the economic mainstay in the valley is tourism.  With a lake and only a three hour drive from Calgary, the valley has become a summer home for many Albertans; the population grows from between 3000 and 4000 permanent residents to over 40,000 in the summer months.  In addition to various lake activities the mountains provide hiking and biking opportunities, and there are a huge number of golf courses in the region.  In the winter nearby Panorama ski hill attracts guests, and there is skating, skiing, and even an open air curling bonspiel on the lake.


There are plenty more amazing stories of the area, like the Stolen Church, or hollowing out an entire mountain for a mine, or digging a canal to connect the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, but as an overview, that’s it!  Please feel free to give feedback.


Lake Windermere during the spring thaw. All unmarked photos in this post are by the author.


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