Baillie Grohman Avenue (Canal Flats)
After the canal flats project failed to succeed, the entire venture was titled as “The Grohman Canal Swindle” and Baillie Grohman himself was shouldered with much of the blame for it.
William Adolph Baillie Grohman was born in Gmunden, Austria on 1 April 1851. He came from a privileged family: his mother was a cousin of the Duke of Wellington, and his father (though English himself) inherited an estate in Austria known as “Schloss Wolfgang.”
Baillie Grohman was privately tutored until age 14, and after leaving school at age 18, he spent several years travelling, hunting, and mountain climbing in Europe. In 1878 he came to North America for the first time on a hunting trip to Wyoming and Idaho. Baillie Grohman would return repeatedly for further hunting trips, including some with his friend Theodore Roosevelt (later President of the United States).
An Idea is Formed
While planning an expedition in 1882 to hunt for mountain goat near Kootenay Lake, Baillie Grohman studied maps of the Kootenay River and took notice of the peculiar geography at the source of the Columbia River. He concluded that a canal was very feasible as a way to connect the two waterways. In 1883, before ever even visiting the area, Baillie Grohman proposed the construction of a “water ditch” to reduce flooding of the Kootenay River flatlands by diverting flood waters into the Columbia River.1
The Canal Project
The project proceeded to take up the next ten years of Baillie Grohman’s life as it became mired in bureaucracy and petitions.
There are reasons that the initial plan may not have been such a good idea. Baillie Grohman writes in defense of the plan that at the time, “there was not a habitation or a single white resident in the Columbia Valley between [Columbia Lake] and the American boundary line.”2 Whether this was true or not is entirely besides the point. There were several hundred First Nations Peoples relying on resources in the Windermere Valley, not to mention those depending on the ecosystem further down the Columbia River and on the Kootenay River. These people were completely disregarded by anyone who planned or approved the scheme.
By the time permission was granted in 1886 to start digging across the flats, the project had changed from a plan to divert the river for irrigation to a scheme for the construction of a small, navigable canal between the two lakes. Plans were developed by the Dominion Government and approved by the Provincial Government before being handed back to Baillie Grohman in the summer of 1887 for construction to proceed. Recalling the actual building of the canal, Baillie Grohman writes:
“It was a job I can honestly recommend to those desirous of committing suicide in a decent, gentlemanly manner. As a test of temper and of perseverance against the forces of nature, the malignity of man, and the cussedness of fate, there is, I can assure the reader, nothing like building in a wild uninhabited country, far removed from civilised means of transportation, a canal according to plans imposed upon you by people who have never been to the spot, and who have no conception of what is really required.”3
Life on the Canal
William Adolf was not the only Baillie Grohman to live on the work site. His wife, Florence (née Nickalls), joined her husband during the summer of 1888, leaving their young son in Victoria with a nurse, and living for three months in a small house with a wrap around verandah close to the work site.
She describes the Canal Flat [sic] site as, “about a mile square – besides ourselves, the saw mill, and 200 Chinese workers, there was a cook shack for the Chinamen, and tents and another cook shack for the white men, and a little wooden inn. Adjoining our house, one of the sub-engineers had put up two tents, and had installed his wife in them… I said if on a wet day she found it very disagreeable, she must come sit on our verandah… she accepted my invitation, and sat many a long afternoon on the verandah, far oftener than I really cared to have her there.”4
Return to Europe
After investing a great deal of time and money into the canal, Baillie Grohman finally abandoned the venture in 1893 and returned to Europe.5 The canal, which was viewed as a folly before it was even opened, failed to ever really be used. It will be covered more thoroughly in another post.
Back in Europe, Baillie Grohman was quick to leave his Canadian adventures behind. In 1893, he became one of the first to introduce skis to Tyrol (Austria), having been sent some pairs from Norway from his father-in-law.6 His wife, Florence, also joined the sport: a photo taken of her in 1894 is apparently the earliest known photograph of a woman on skis in the Alps. It is seems thanks in part to Baillie Grohman that skiing in the Alps became a phenomenon.
Baillie Grohman and his wife left their home in Austria (Schloss Matzen) in 1915 following the outbreak of the First World War, returning in 1919 to find the people in Tyrol starving due to the British blockade during the war. Baillie Grohman quickly became executive-treasurer of the Tyrolese Relief Fund, a difficult task that has been blamed in part for his death on 27 November 1921.7
During his life, Baillie Grohman published a number of books, including (but not limited to) Tyrol and the Tyrolese (1875), Camps in the Rockies (1882), Fifteen years’ sport and life in the hunting grounds of western America and British Columbia (1900), and an extensive modern second translation of the second oldest English book on hunting (from French, with a forward by Theodore Roosevelt) The Master of Game (1904) to modern English. His son, Vice Admiral Harold Tom Baillie Grohman (1887-1978) had a career in the Royal Navy, while his daughter Olga Florence Baillie Grohman (1889-1947) was the first female Member of the Kenya Legislative Council.
The legacy of Baillie Grohman in the Windermere Valley was strongly coloured by his involvement in the canal project. For a time, the town of Canal Flats was even known as Grohman. After the canal failed to succeed, however, the entire venture was titled as “The Grohman Canal Swindle” and Baillie Grohman himself was shouldered with much of the blame for it.8 This is, perhaps, overly simplistic. There were many different parties involved at all levels of government, and as each group invoked more demands on the project, it quickly devolved into something that no one much liked. Meanwhile, so much money had been invested in it that it seemed impossible to abandon.
For anyone at all interested in the canal and Baillie Grohman’s role in it, I would strongly recommend a perusal of his own account of the project: in hindsight, he writes about the whole debacle with a good sense of humour. There are also a number of other resources that can be found below under Other References.