Wednesday 18 March 2020

Importing the Tourists: Canada's Banff National Park

If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists.
This simple and pragmatic quote, spoken by William Cornelius Van Horne, vice-president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, not only articulates something fundamental about the creation of Canada's first national park but also something fundamental about Canada itself.

Banff National Park at dusk. All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

Unlike its neighbour to the south, Canada was not founded on any high ideals about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." On the contrary, Canada's comparable motto has been "peace, order, and good government"... A much more prosaic ambition, though certainly no easier to achieve. Canada's history is largely economic instead of ideological, a larder of natural resources to be exploited by European industry rather than a new "Promised Land" of liberty.

The first of these industries was the fur trade. The lure of luxurious fur and an expanded French empire drove Samuel de Champlain to establish Quebec in 1608. "Canadien" coureur des bois did a brisk business in beaver fur, independently trading with local Indigenous peoples, until Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers ran afoul of Quebec's governor in 1659. Soured to France, the pair turned to England and King Charles II, who signed the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. That company, which still exists as Canada's iconic department store chain, followed waterways into the heart of the continent, expanding the British Empire as they went. 

The formation of the Dominion of Canada was also largely economic. In 1867, a quartet of independent British colonies joined together in "Confederation" to solidify trade and reinforce British sovereignty against a rapacious United States. Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were joined in 1871 by Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. Lying between Ontario and British Columbia was a fair bit of space, monopolized by the Hudson's Bay Company. Anticipating the integration of British Columbia, the government of Canada bought the Hudson's Bay Company's interests in 1870. According to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, full title to the land could only be obtained from their sovereign inhabitants, leading to a series of treaties from 1871 to 1921 between the Crown and the Indigenous peoples of what is now Western Canada. It was from these "North-West Territories" that the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and the territories of Yukon and Nunavut, were eventually carved out  (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949).      

British Columbia, isolated on the Pacific coast, only agreed to join Confederation on the promise that a railway would be built connecting them to the markets in the East. After various and sundry political scandals, the Canadian Pacific Railway finally began construction in 1880. Anticipating a decade-long project, it was actually completed in five years. The CPR still holds the record for the most amount of track laid by hand in a single day. As one can imagine, laying down that much track that quickly is very expensive. When the last spike was driven on November 7, 1885, in Craigellachie, British Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway slipped immediately into the tourism business.

Another view of twilight in Banff National Park.

Central to the CPR's strategy was the creation of a new national park. The world's first national park was Yellowstone in the United States, established on March 1, 1872. Within a decade Northern Pacific Railway laid tracks to park's northern gateway, and within the next two decades built up an infrastructure of luxurious lodges like Old Faithful Inn, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and Lake Hotel. This didn't escape the notice of Canadian Pacific, and in the course of building the railway through the Canadian Rocky Mountains they accidentally happened across exactly the attraction around which to build a national park.

For as long as Indigenous peoples have lived in Western Canada, they have known of the hot springs that bubble up from beneath the Canadian Rockies. One of the oldest settlements in the country was found by archaeological surveys on the shores of Vermillion Lakes. 10,700 years ago, Indigenous bighorn sheep hunters camped near hot springs that emptied into the lake, maintaining open waters even during the depth of winter. Early European explorers came across them through the 1850's and 1870's, but they were brought to public attention when railway workers Frank McCabe and William McCardell descended through the roof of a hot spring cave. They attempted to set up a spa by the cave and its nearby open-air hot spring pool, prompting a legal battle into which the Government of Canada (by the CPR's invitation) intervened to establish Banff Hot Springs Reserve in 1885. This was expanded to "Rocky Mountain Park" in 1887, and finally expanded and renamed to Banff National Park in 1930. Banff was Canada's first national park and the second oldest extant national park in the world after Yellowstone.

A panorama of Vermillion Lakes, with Sulphur Mountain to the centre
and the distinctive peak of Mount Rundle to the left.

Cave and Basin

The contentious hotspring was henceforth dubbed "Cave and Basin" and remains a pilgrimage site for Canada's system of national parks. A tunnel was drilled into the cave in 1887 and a log hewn bathhouse built beside the outdoor "basin" to improve the site for the "benefit, advantage and enjoyment of the people of Canada." In 1916, a new stone facility was built of local "Rundle Stone" with modern changing rooms, bathhouses, a public pool, and access to the cave. The structure was designed by architect Walter S. Painter in a weighty Gothic Revivalism popular throughout Canada.

The 1916 facade of Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

Architecture is the visual history of a society. "Thus, during the first six thousand years of the world," writes Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame des Paris, "from the most immemorial pagoda of Hindustan, to the cathedral of Cologne, architecture was the great handwriting of the human race. And this is so true, that not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its monument in that immense book." In the New World, architecture originally became less a testament to lived history than a symbol of historical and ideological aspiration.

The United States very quickly came to adopt Classical Revivalism as its national style, reflective of its aspirations as heir to the republicanism of Athens and Rome. In Canada, a Dominion of the British Empire with a rich French history and the Crown as its head of state, architects looked to the castles and cathedrals of Europe for inspiration. The United States was republican liberty transplanted through time, Canada was imperial tradition transplanted through space. Because Gothic Revivalism was so popular with the Canadian Pacific Railway for its stations and hotels, its distinctive fusing of English, Scottish, and French influences took on the nickname of "Railway Gothic."

Interior courtyard of Cave and Basin. The black brick outline
on the floor shows the perimeter of the old public swimming pool.

Today, as a national historic site, the swimming pool at Cave and Basin has long since closed down and the hot springs are being restored to their natural state to help preserve one of the world's most endangered animals. The Banff Springs snail (Physella johnsoni) was discovered in 1926 and is endemic to the nine hot springs pools on the flanks of Sulphur Mountain. Since its discovery, the range of this popcorn kernel-sized snail has been reduced to five of the nine pools. Those looking to take the waters can go to the Upper Hot Springs, administered by Parks Canada, which also offer historic one-piece bathing suit rentals.

Inside the cave.

Views of the basin below and above.

A trio of Banff Springs Snails scrounge atop to the floating leaf litter. 

The Upper Hot Springs are particularly novel in winter,
contrasting the 39 Celsius waters with the below freezing air.
The 1931 bathhouse and current entrance to the Upper Hot Springs.

The Banff Springs Hotel

The architectural showpiece of Banff National Park and the Railway Gothic style is the Banff Springs Hotel. To import the tourists, Canadian Pacific required a place for them to stay. In 1886, they built a rustic hotel on Sulphur Mountain, near the thermal springs, facing the picturesque valley of the Bow River. Or more accurately, the kitchen faced the picturesque view. When Sir William Cornelius Van Horne visited the site to inspect construction, he was mortified to discover that the crew had turned the blueprints around. Expansive guest verandas faced towards the side of Sulphur Mountain, giving the "million dollar view" to the staff quarters. A temporary solution was found in the construction of a gazebo, lasting until the reconstruction of the hotel in the 1910's and 1920's.

Historic photo of the original Banff Springs Hotel and its gazebo.

Canadian Pacific hired Walter S. Painter to apply the same Railway Gothic style to a new central tower that was completed in 1914. The 11-storey tower was flanked by the wings of the original wooden hotel until 1926 when they mysteriously burned to the ground. Stone replacements, designed by CPR engineer John Orrock to complement the Painter Tower, were added in 1927 and 1928. A matching convention centre was added in 1990 and a new lobby area in the early 2000's. In 2001, management of Canadian Pacific's chain of hotels fell to the Fairmont brand and the hotel's official name is the Fairmont Banff Springs, though few actually use it.

The Banff Springs Hotel as it stands today.

Various elevations of the Painter Tower.

The dominant inspiration for Painter and Orrock was Scottish baronialism. Scottish culture has exerted no mean influence on Canada from coast to coast. "Nova Scotia" literally means "New Scotland" and the Celtic music of the Cape Breton Highlands is a national treasure. Approximately 13% of Canada's population cites Scottish ancestry. Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was Scottish, as was the Canadian Pacific Railway's financial mastermind George Stephen. It was through Stephen that the name of Banffshire, his home county in Scotland, was bequeathed to the hot springs and Canada's first national park.

A piper plays on the terrace of the Banff Springs Hotel.

Within the hotel lies sumptuous Gothic luxury including arched passages, spiraling staircases, monumental fireplaces, rich oaken trim, and very expensive restaurants. The centerpiece of the Banff Springs Hotel is Mount Stephen Hall. Named for George Stephen's royal title, the 1st Baron Mount Stephen (which he himself had adopted from the mountain named after him in neighbouring Yoho National Park). The upper balcony of this expansive Mediaeval banquet hall is dubbed the "Spanish Walk" and leads to the Alhambra ballroom. The Banff Springs Hotel deliberately evokes Old World grandeur in the wilderness of the New World.

Mount Stephen Hall.

The Spanish Walk.

Alhambara ballroom.

The Riverview Lounge.

Eponymous panorama from the Riverview Lounge.

Riverview Lounge's grand fireplace,
constructed of a famous Canadian building rock
from Manitoba called "Tyndall Stone".
Dramatic stairs in the former hotel lobby,
now called the Rundle Lounge.

A comfortable nook for cocktails in the Rundle Lounge.

A sequestered meeting room.

Lovely Gothic details are found throughout the hotel.

The "million dollar view" for which the well-heeled pay top dollar is a perfect framing of the Bow River as it cuts between Mount Rundle and Tunnel Mountain. The diminutive peak of Tunnel Mountain is one of Banff's most accessible afternoon hikes and offers excellent views down into the glacially hollowed valley and up to the higher peaks of Rundle and Sulphur. At the base of Tunnel Mountain, beneath the Banff Springs Hotel, lies Bow Falls, a stretch of rapids cut by the Bow River through softer layers of tilted Triassic shale.

A guest admires the "million dollar view" from the terrace of the Banff Springs Hotel.

Tunnel Mountain above the townsite.

View from the top of Tunnel Mountain.

Mount Rundle from Tunnel Mountain.

Bow Falls.

Tunnel Mountain's name comes not from a tunnel running through it, but from a tunnel that was planned by CPR surveyors. When Van Horne heard of the plan to blast a tunnel instead of simply lay track along the broad, flat Bow Valley, he recognized it as completely insane and put an immediate stop to it. The name of "Tunnel Mountain" stuck, though regional Indigenous peoples have petitioned for the mountain to be renamed to reflect its traditional name of "Sleeping Buffalo" or "Sacred Buffalo Guardian."

A panoramic view shows Tunnel Mountain (centre) with Mount Rundle to the
east and the Bow River running between them. The Banff Springs Hotel lies south
of Tunnel Mountain. West of Tunnel Mountain is the Town of Banff.

The Town of Banff

The decision to reroute the railway was the making of the Town of Banff. Whereas national parks in the United States have historically limited development within their borders, for obvious reasons, Canada has allowed the construction of fully-fledged towns. In their early years, Canada's national parks were perceived more in an economic light as places of public recreation and resource extraction. Hunting, forestry, and mining were all permitted within the parks. Not far from the Town of Banff lies the ruins of an old mining operation named "Bankhead." Tourist guides listed Bankhead, the nearby hydroelectric dam, and Lake Minnewanka reservoir as tourist attractions in their own right. They were the spectacle of British civilization putting wild nature to productive use. While this view no longer prevails in Canada's national parks system, thankfully, managers must still contend with the historic legacy of Banff National Park's two major settlements, hydroelectric dam, three ski resorts, and both the major national railway and highway routes running straight through the middle of it. Today, the Town of Banff boasts a permanent population of 7,900 people.

Mount Rundle viewed from within the townsite.

The bandstand in the town park.

An uncharacteristically low-traffic day on Banff Avenue, the town's main street.

The historic visitor centre on Banff Ave.

In past days, the railway would deposit guests at Banff's train station, from which horse-drawn carriages, tally-ho's, and eventually automobiles would ferry them to the Banff Springs Hotel. Eventually, entrepreneurs started to build up along the route, creating a now historic main street. At one end of Banff Avenue stands mighty Cascade Mountain. At the other lies the Banff National Park Administration Building, a Tudor-style masterpiece completed in 1936. Surrounding the building are the Cascades of Time Gardens, balancing the romance of rustic wilderness with the appeal of the English country garden. In many ways, it is emblematic of Canada itself as a British society eked out in the wilds of the northwoods.

Banff Avenue and Cascade Mountain from Cascades of Time Gardens.

The Banff town bridge leading to the administration building.

Rear of the Administration Building with a Blackfoot Indigenous tipi and
Cascade Mountain, a fascinating study in the contrasts of Canadian society.

Cascades of Time Gardens.

The gardens and building are a popular backdrop
for wedding photos, including my own.

As Banff's population and tourist industry grew, an apparent need grew for a natural history museum in the townsite, both as an attraction and a venue for educating tourists on Banff's wilderness. A rustic building was completed in 1903 to house dozens of taxidermy specimens and other natural oddities collected by Banff's citizens. The Banff Park Museum's original curator was Norman Sanson, who also maintained the weather station high on Sulphur Mountain. Daily he would hike up the mountain, sometimes staying overnight in the station, to take readings. Both the Banff Park Museum and the Sulphur Mountain Weather Station are maintained as national historic sites by Parks Canada, though visitors can take a much easier route to the top of Sulphur Mountain by way of a gondola service started in 1959. 

Exterior of the Banff Park Museum, the oldest remaining log-hewn museum in Canada.

Large windows and an airy interior were required
to shed light in the age before electricity.

Reading room of the Banff Park Museum.

The Maple Leaf flies over the Sulphur Mountain Weather Station.

Boardwalk atop Sulphur Mountain.

Across the river from the Banff Park Museum is the Indian Trading Post. Opened in 1903 by local pioneer Norman Luxton, it sold the wares of regional Indigenous peoples and displayed his own taxidermy work. Its most unique piece is the mysterious merman kept in a display case in a rear room. The desiccated mummy arrived in 1915 with a bill of sale straight from Java, though it's anyone's guess whether the bill of sale is authentic, let alone the merman. Luxton went on to operate the King Edward Hotel, Lux Theatre, and Crag and Canyon newspaper in Banff, as well as open a neighbouring museum of Indigenous culture in 1960. The museum is known today as the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum.

The merman in the Indian Trading Post.

The mass of people thronging Banff Avenue can be the diametric opposite of one's expectations for a national park. A short walk along the river and a stone's throw from the heritage railway station is the Fenlands Trail. Winding through dense forest and wetland meadow, one can appreciate the solemnity of Canada's raw natural landscape. They might also come across the many elk who find a safe haven from predators within the Town of Banff.

The "fen" (low, marshy area) after which the Fenlands Trail is named.

Johnston Canyon

Banff National Park encompasses over 6,600 square kilometres, but most of the visitor activity is concentrated in the 81 km of the Trans-Canada Highway that run along the floor of the Bow Valley. Prior to its completion in 1960, the only way to traverse the park was by the Bow Valley Parkway, a winding route through dense forest. Along the way north from the Town of Banff along the Bow Valley Parkway is Johnston Canyon. A series of trails and catwalks usher travellers through a narrow gorge to the Lower and Upper Falls.

A line of visitors spy the Lower Falls.

A lower view of the Lower Falls

Upper Falls.

A higher view of the Upper Falls.

About halfway between the Town of Banff and the park's other major settlement lies the landmark Castle Mountain. For about 30 years following World War II, it was renamed Mount Eisenhower in honour of the general. However, public pressure in 1979 reverted its name back to that bestowed by European explorers in 1858. In the language of the Blackfoot Indigenous peoples, it is known as Miistukskoowa.

Castle Mountain.

Lake Louise

The end of the Bow Valley Parkway brings the visitor to Banff's crowning jewel: Lake Louise. On the very slope of the Continental Divide is a sight of unparalleled beauty. Named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the emerald green waters reflect the mountain named for her mother, Queen Victoria, symmetrically framed by Fairview Mountain and Mt. Whyte. Tom Wilson, the guide and outfitter who became the first person of European ethnicity to see the lake, was compelled to declare that "As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene."

Lake Louise, cradled by Mount Victoria to the rear,
Fairview Mountain to the left and Mt. Whyte to the right.

Fewer visitors go further than the lakefront, and Canadian Pacific could not resist building another hotel to capitalize on the aesthetically perfect view. The original "Chalet Lake Louise" of 1890 was a simple log construction, replaced by a larger, Tudor-style "Chateau Lake Louise" in 1900. This wooden structure was added to by Walter S. Painter in 1912 before burning down in 1924. A new tower was erected on their ashes, based on Painter's designs. Unlike the Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise is nothing much to look at. Its stylish but unassuming simplicity recognizes that it cannot compete with the natural beauty to which most eyes are directed.

The Chateau Lake Louise and throngs of tourists
along the lakeshore, seeking that perfect photograph.

Lobby of the Chateau Lake Louise.

The Chateau Lake Louise's interior promenade,
with large windows to look out at the amazing vista.

A beautiful view with a meal.

The interior of the Chateau Lake Louise reflects a Swiss influence, which came to the region by way of profesional mountaineering guides hired by Canadian Pacific in 1899. Three years prior, in 1896, the free-for-all that was Canadian alpinism resulted in the accidental death of Phillip Abbot, the first recorded mountaineering death in the country. To stave off a public relations disaster, the CPR hired professional guides from the Swiss Alps. It was fitting after all, as the CPR advertized the Canadian Rocky Mountains as "50 Switzerlands in one!"

The 2816 Empress steam engine at Lake Louise. This preserved
Canadian Pacific 1930 4-6-4 Hudson engine and historic cars were
taken on nationwide charity excursion in 2010 to celebrate the
125th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railway.

Lake Louise's historic railway station.

Guests venturing beyond the lakeshore will regularly ascend to Lake Agnes. Hidden in a glacial cirque, this alpine lake hosts a tea room on its own shores. Tea must be earned, however, by a steep series of switchbacks. The Lake Agnes Teahouse was built by Canadian Pacific in 1901 and began serving tea in 1905.

The cirque which hides Lake Agnes. The beehive-shaped hill
in the foreground is aptly named "The Beehive".

Lake Agnes, under the changeable weather at the Continental Divide.

The teahouse at Lake Agnes.

The more adventurous take the hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers at the foot of Mount Victoria. Lake Louise's circular appearance is a deceptive optical illusion. Lake Louise is a sinuous 2 km long, and the trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers is over 5 km. To quench one's thirst and fill one's stomach along the way is the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. Also built by Canadian Pacific, opening in 1927, the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse remains an isolate respite with no electricity, screens, or wifi. In the past, supplies had to be brought in on horseback, whereas today the teahouse is supplied by helicopter drop at the beginning of the season.

Looking back across Lake Louise at the chateau.

High cliffs of 500 million year old quartzite loom over the trail.

Mount Victoria and the Plain of Six Glaciers always looks
far away no matter how close you get to them.

Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.

Golden mantled ground squirrels are always keen on handouts.

View from the terrace of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse.

Further beyond the teahouse, the trail ascends a glacial moraine for views to the eponymous six glaciers above and below. Few sights in the Canadian Rockies, or in the world, are as inspiring and invigorating as the Plain of Six Glaciers.

The Plain of Six Glaciers.
Till darkens the floor of the glacier, riven with crevasses.

Looking further back at Lake Louise from the hike's end.

Mount Victoria and Abbott Pass, named for
Philip Abbot who died scaling the mountain to the left.
A hiker's hut is barely visible as a speck at the top of the pass. 

Not far from Lake Louise is Moraine Lake, another of the Canadian Rocky Mountains' most iconic bodies of water. Nestled into the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the sight was so picturesque that it spent many years on the Canadian $20 bill.

Moraine Lake.

Banff National Park is as popular a winter destination as a summer one. Multiple ski hills are found throughout the park, and areas like Lake Louise are equally picturesque when draped in snow. Sleigh rides and ice skating are offered for hotel guests and those braving winter road conditions for the opportunity to enjoy the brisk Yuletide air.

To the North

Just past Lake Louise, the Trans-Canada Highway turns west over the Kicking Horse Pass into the province of British Columbia and Yoho National Park. The Icefields Parkway continues northwards, carrying visitors to Jasper National Park and its famed Columbia Icefields. Along the way are more turquoise lakes and towering peaks, like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and Mount Athabasca, the northernmost point of the park.   

Bow Lake and Bow Glacier, source of the Bow River that flows through
Banff, out onto the Canadian prairies, and eventually to Hudson's Bay.

Peyto Lake and the broad, glacial valley beyond.

Peyto Glacier, source of Peyto Lake.

Mount Athabasca, on the border between Banff National Park
and Jasper National Park to the north. 

Just the word "Canada" conjures images of the far north... Arctic wastes and boreal northwoods, desolate frontiers sparsely populated by loggers and Mounties with universal healthcare. Tourists imported to the ostensible wilderness of our first national park might be surprised to find a bustling urban setting amidst the mountains, where shopping is more avid an activity than hiking. It is emblematic of the contrasts and tensions of Canada itself, a practical and economic arm of European colonialism nested into one of the most rugged and challenging landscapes on Earth. Yet those contrasts lead to something intriguing and beautiful in its own right.

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