Athalmer (Community), Athalmer Road
Other Names: Athalmere, Athelmar, Athelmer, Kwataq̓nuk, Salmon Beds
‘I like Athalmer. It has the air of a city, it carries itself well, with an assurance that sits well on it. … The town is planned on a generous scale, with wide streets and plenty of breathing space. … Who knows but some day the Canadian navy will ride at anchor in Lake Windermere.’
(The Columbia Valley Times, 7 December 1912)
I’m finding it challenging to write about the towns of the Windermere Valley because I keep coming across other fascinating information about the history of the area. I really want to share some of what I found, so this post is a bit longer. If you want to jump around: I’m going to start with some history of the place itself, then try to figure out where “Athalmer” came from, and end with a short history of the man who gave Athalmer its name (F.W. Aylmer). Check out the references list at the end as well: there’s some links to promotional pamphlets and such if you want to explore more.
The Salmon Beds
The central feature in early writings about Athalmer is the salmon. Huge numbers of salmon came up the Columbia River to spawn, and one of their spawning grounds was in the shallow waters where Windermere Lake emptied into the river. Hence the early settler name for Athalmer: the Salmon Beds.
This spawning didn’t occur over a short period of a few weeks: salmon reportedly kept arriving for months.1 Such a massive number of fish is almost impossible to imagine. First, they didn’t spawn only at the “Salmon Beds” at Athalmer: they went right up to the headwaters at Canal Flats, including in great numbers between Windermere and Columbia lakes. Second, if we go back to school biology classes, we know that once these fish are done spawning they don’t get to swim back down to the ocean to live a full and happy life. No: they die. As a consequence, “These two lakes form an immense tomb, for they die in such numbers as frequently to infect the whole surrounding atmosphere.”2
The area of Athalmer was important to this spawning cycle. The Kutenai (Kootenay) First Nations knew the area of Athalmer as “Kwataq̓nuk”, and a shallow place where the salmon spawned near to Athalmer as “roatqranur” (where lake empties into river). This was the last site where the Kutenai fished for salmon in October.3 Both the local (Ktunaxa) band, as well as other Kutenai groups came to the area for the salmon run, drying large amounts of salmon to eat over the winter.
The massive amount of food from countless very large fish was also central to the ecosystem of the area (each salmon might be upwards of 60 pounds (27 kg). Imagine how happy the bears would have been with a miles long platter of delicious salmon!
(Taking a second here: I’d like to point out that given the importance of the salmon to the lives of the Ktunaxa, it is extremely unlikely that they would have voluntarily given up control of this land. They didn’t. Like everywhere else in the Windermere Valley, this land was never subject to a formal treaty.)
The area that the Kutenai knew for spawning salmon has little resemblance to the Athalmer of today. The waters flowing out of Windermere Lake did not run in a single-channeled river, but rather across a wide plain of gravel. This was an area of shallow waters, slow currents, and a thick gravel bottom that stretched for about three to four miles below Windermere Lake before the waters combined into something closer to a “river.”4
Neither was this gravel region static. During the spawning season the ridges and pools on the gravel bottom could shift up to fourteen feet a day, pushed around by thousands of powerful salmon tails swimming and fertilizing eggs.
There were seasonal changes as well. During spring run off, there were years when the water flooding down Toby Creek was so great that it caused the current of the Columbia River to switch and flow in the opposite direction into Windermere Lake. During this period, the water in the Columbia below Toby Creek would fall suddenly, leaving anyone in the river stranded until the river resumed its normal course.5
Changes to the River
It did not take long after settlers arrived in British Columbia for the salmon run to diminish and the area of “Athalmer” to take on an entirely different character. Canneries were set up along the West Coast, and as early as 1890 a traveller through the Windermere Valley was informed that, “they [the salmon] never come here now.”6 The “never” is an exaggeration, as salmon continued to be caught in the Windermere Valley until dams started to be built on the Columbia (Rock Island Dam in Washington was the first in 1933). But in terms of numbers: the salmon run would have fallen dramatically as settlers arrived and the habitat changed.
The greatest effect on the Salmon Beds themselves came attempts to improve navigation. Starting in 1886, steamboats were the principal form of freight transportation connecting the Windermere Valley to Golden and Fort Steele. Boats that cheerfully chugged down from Golden met a barrier in the Salmon Beds, particularly as the water level dropped later in the season. As one traveller c.1890 recounts:
“About midday we got to “Salmon Beds,” … below [Windermere] Lake. Passing these, we struggled on till quite 6 p.m., passing across shallows, then getting on a bit with steam, then poling, getting ashore and off again. It was very difficult navigation, but the captain [F.P. Armstrong], who was a very jolly fellow, kept telling us it was all right, so none of us were very much alarmed at the many strange operations carried on. But soon after six [p.m.] there was nothing for it but to unload the boat… and so, by and by … they hauled “her grace” [The Duchess] over some shallows and we got into the lake.”7
Such difficulties with navigation, namely taking around six hours to travel a few miles, were a significant problem for settlers who relied on steamboats for economic growth. Steamboats moved passengers, freight, and, most importantly, ore from the mines. The shorter the steamboat season, the less that could be transported.
Over the years the Government (and private citizens) used dredges to clear the Columbia River of snags, deepen the main channel, funnel water through that channel, and most importantly: make the Salmon Beds navigable. By the end of the 1890s, settlers viewing the Salmon Beds were less likely to see a plain of water as they were an inconvenient river to get across. The rest of the beds looked relatively dry, covered in gravel, and very flat: the perfect area for a townsite.
In September 1898 Frederick Whitworth Aylmer (see below) purchased land at the Salmon Beds from James Lorenzo McKay with the intention of creating a town.8 The move coincided with a prospective boom in mining and prospecting in the Valley, and Athalmer was not the only town surveyed in the next few months. Both Copper City (Invermere) and Columbia (Wilmer) were also laid out, and competition was fierce between the three locations as to which would become the economic centre of the region.9
At the time, Athalmer seemed like the safe bet. As it does today, the “road” came down the Valley on the east side of the Columbia River, so any miners or prospectors wanting to get to the western (Purcell) mountains had to cross the river. One of the few places to do so was at Athalmer.10 Travellers going over to the West Kootenays also had to cross the river to take the well-worn trail going up Toby Creek and over the divide.11
The flat gravel bed at Athalmer already had at least one building before the townsite was even surveyed. The year before, in July 1898, W.G. Mitchell-Innes built a warehouse at the Salmon Beds to supply his mining properties up Horsethief and Toby Creeks.12
The mining boom of the following year brought a rush of development. One of the first merchants to get into Athalmer, Carlin and Lake, ran their store out of a large tent as they waited for their building to be constructed.13 Meanwhile, a tally made of traffic crossing the river (before any bridge was built) counted over one hundred on a single day. A hotel, blacksmith’s shop, and sawmill were soon added, and a post office was opened in October 1899.14
Life in Athalmer
Descriptions of life in Athalmer are not always glamorous. One traveller passing through commented in 1899 that, “The [Salmon] ‘Beds’ are not literally where salmon used to rest. Only men, prospectors, etc. could have so little sense as to do that. But men did sleep on these flats. The water was still high and the Beds were yet nearly a swamp.”15 The tendency for Athalmer to flood is not well known, even in more recent years. Only an aggressive amount of back filling has prevented such flooding from happening more frequently.
The fortunes of the town were closely tied with the economy of the area, and as the economy stagnated so too did the town. In 1908 there were thirty people from Athalmer who voted in the Federal Election (note that these were only men as women did not yet have the vote).16 Numbers boomed again in the years leading up to the First World War as Athalmer provided goods for families coming to the valley for the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruitlands scheme (I will get to this in at least one post in the future). In 1913, about 100 people lived in Athalmer.17
The enthusiasm and optimism of people in the valley before the First World War is amazing. In 1912, a local newspaper reporter commented, “I like Athalmer. It has the air of a city, it carries itself well, with an assurance that sits well on it. … The town is planned on a generous scale, with wide streets and plenty of breathing space. … Who knows but some day the Canadian navy will ride at anchor in Lake Windermere.”18
That last little detail, regarding the navy sailing in Windermere Lake, may have even been taken seriously. In a Letter to the Editor two months later, J.C. Donald of Vancouver remarked, “I hear on the highest authority that your suggestion that Athalmer would be a suitable spot for a new Naval base, has received serious attention in Naval circles at Ottawa, so that there is little doubt but that preliminary surveys will be made in the Spring. There is no reason why this should not be brought about.”19 Any such notion was quietly dropped once the depth of Windermere Lake was accounted for (the lake is notoriously shallow).
Competition between Athalmer and the surrounding region remained intense. As the Kootenay Central Railway was opened through the Valley on 1 January 1915, there was a fierce debate as to where the local railway station would be and, more importantly, what it would be called. The location chosen was in Athalmer, and for a time it seems to have been called Athalmer Station, although eventually the name was changed to Lake Windermere Station (presumably to try to be impartial to any one town).20
I haven’t come across anything yet describing when Athalmer became firmly tied to Invermere to the extent that the two are, today, rarely recognized as different places by most people. If it’s any consolation, according to the Geographic Board of Canada, Athalmer remains a separate community and can still be found on maps.
Athalmer: the origins of the name
There’s no small amount of confusion about what the name “Athalmer” actually means. There are two options. I lean towards one of them, but they both kind of work.
Option 1: Noble Lake. This is the most widely quoted translation. According to this interpretation, “Athol” (or athel) is the Saxon word for “noble”, and “mere” is the Saxon word for a lake, sea, pond or ocean. Following this etymology, “Athalmer” means “noble lake”, which works well as it is located on the shores of a lake.
Option 2: Most Noble. This interpretation acknowledges that Athalmer was named by F.W. Aylmer (see below) as a form of his family name, Athelmer or Athalmer, meaning “most noble.” Again the Athol (or athel) is the Saxon word for “noble”, however in this interpretation it is important to note that the name is “Athalmer” not “Athalmere.” Not to get too deep into the etymology weeds, but “mere” definitely refers to a body of water in the Saxon language, while “mer” is likely a form of “mære”, which means “famous, great, excellent, sublime, splendid.”21 So “most noble” is entirely likely.
So which it is? A “noble lake” or “most noble”? Originally it was probably closer to the second. For a long time I’ve had a hard time conceptualizing how a man named “Aylmer” could claim the family name of “Athalmer” as the two words seemed too different. A closer look suggests some truth to the claim.
Family lore traces the Aylmer family to before the Norman Conquest of 1066. With the admission that I am not an Old English scholar, it is possible that the old spelling of “Athalmer” would have used the letter “thorn” (which looks like this: þ) for the “th” sound (Aþlmer). That same character (the þ) was written in Early Modern English as a “y” even as it continued to represent the “th” sound. Following this sequence of events, the old English name “Aþlmer” may have been written in Early Modern English as “Aylmer” which sounds exactly the same as “Athalmer.” So there you go.
There is further evidence in favour of the Aylmer family. For F.W. Aylmer, the name “Athalmer” was not some abstract historical concept: the name was still being used. Frederick’s grandfather was named John Athalmer Aylmer, and his nephew was named Kenneth Athalmer Aylmer (1883-1974).
Conclusions? The original intentions of the name were in honour of an Anglo Saxon family name meaning something along the lines of “most noble,” however it’s also lovely that the name neatly fits into the “mere” trend of the Windermere Valley (Windermere, Invermere, Athalmer all rhyme to the locals). That being said, I have no idea how the Aylmer family pronounced the name “Athalmer”: whether it was “mer” or “mere”. It could be that the “Athalmeer” as we know it in the Windermere Valley has more in common (in its pronunciation) to the lake than to the family.
Frederick Whitworth Aylmer (1850-1920)
The man who named Athalmer was Frederick Whitworth Aylmer, born 1850 in Melbourne, Quebec.22 Frederick Aylmer was an interesting figure, which is why I’m stretching out this post a bit longer to talk about him.
When he was ten years old, Frederick’s father was granted the title Baron, making him the seventh Baron of Aylmer, a title in the Peerage of Ireland. That title came to Canada by chance and misfortune: the sixth baron died without any direct heirs, so the title passed to his second cousin, Udolphus (Frederick’s father), who was descended from the fourth son of the second Baron (If that seems like a mess: hello British peerage).
Frederick was the second son, so it was his elder brother (Matthew) who inherited the baronetcy in 1901. Frederick, meanwhile, became involved with surveying the route for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1882 the CPR sent out a number of surveying parties in order to determine which pass they should use to cross the Rockies, and Aylmer was on one of those teams.23 He spent the winter of 1882/83 in the area of present day Golden, along with Francis Patrick Armstrong and Charles Bellhouse. That spring, all three of them staked land in the Kootenay territory along the Columbia Lakes, with Aylmer choosing 320 acres on the right side of the Columbia River a few miles below the lakes at the base of the Rocky Mountains.24 That ranch was later sold to A.W. Tegart.25
Aylmer brushed alongside a number of notable events in the early settler years of the Windermere Valley. In the fall of 1883, he was part of a group that captured two horse thieves along Number One Creek, which was promptly renamed in honour of the event (Horsethief Creek: more on this story in a later post).26 Aylmer was also listed in a group along with William Fernie in 1887 declaring their intention to prospect for coal on the southwest fork of Marten Creek.27 Out of this prospecting trip the Fernie Brothers formed a company that in 1897 became the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company.28
That same year, in 1887, tension emerged between settlers and the Kootenay First Nation. Back in 1885, two miners had been found murdered on the trail between Wild Horse and Golden, and although there was no evidence or reason to suspect them, blame shifted towards two members of the Upper Kootenay band. When one of those men was arrested a full two years after the event, tensions quickly arose between the two groups. Settlers became very nervous indeed, and although no significant violence happened, the First Nations men involved “advised” two particular men that they should leave the area. Those two men were the local constable and F.W. Aylmer.29 Unfortunately these historical sources rarely take into account the perspective of the First Nations people, and I was unable to determine why these two men were singled out.
Aylmer didn’t stay away from the Windermere Valley. In 1894 he was a Justice of the Peace in Golden, and he was later involved in mining along Bugaboo Creek.30 Then, in September 1898, Aylmer purchased a piece of land then known as the Salmon Beds in order to create a townsite.31
In 1899, while living in Golden, Aylmer married Edith Meredith Lang, sister to the mining recorder in Golden, F.C. Lang. It does not appear that the two ever had children. That same year, Aylmer supervised the construction of the first 5.5 miles of a wagon road from Athalmer up Toby Creek.32
In 1903 Aylmer sold the Athalmer townsite back to J.L. McKay,33, and in 1907 the couple moved from Golden to Revelstoke and later to Kamloops before settling in Chase in 1912.34 During this time, Aylmer worked as an engineer for the federal government.35 Aylmer passed away in Chase in 1920.36
In my time working in the service industry in Invermere, one of my favourite interactions with a visitor was in describing where the car wash was. My description prompted the incredulous reply, “Athal-what?” Athalmer is hard for newcomers to get their heads around: it seems like it should be a part of Invermere, but somehow it’s not. Reading through historical descriptions though, Athalmer is very much a distinct and separate place. It’s been a gathering place, a flooding place, a crossing place, and an overlooked place. I add to that: an interesting place.