Canal Flats Village, South end of Columbia Lake
Other Names: ?akamukul, Yaqa•n Nukiy, McGillivray’s Crossing/McGillivray’s Portage, Grohman, Canal, Canal Flat
“We… coast[ed] along the low rush-grown shore [of Columbia Lake] towards the south-western corner … We soon became aware that this marshy waste of rushes, grass, willows, and water swarmed with every sort of moisture-loving bird, from geese down to sand-pipers. … we began to paddle up what we guessed to be the arm leading to the landing. More than a mile we followed this delusive stream, remarkable for the numerous springs which everywhere gushed up from crater-like basins at the bottom, while round them grew the most beautiful and luxuriant water-weeds ever seen, their delicate filigree-work of many-hued leaves and tendrils all clearly defined in the limpid water.” (Lees and Clutterbuck, B.C. 1887: A Ramble in British Columbia, p 178-179.)
The story of Canal Flats begins with a geographic anomaly. The village sits on a flat area that acts as a thin, two mile wide land bridge between the springs that source the Columbia River on one side and the fast flowing waters of the Kootenay River on the other. It is only after flowing another four hundred kilometers that the Kootenay River finally flows into the Columbia River.
The Creation Story
According to the Creation Story of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers were at one time joined. A huge water monster known as Yawu?nik’ lived in the Kootenay and Columbia River systems, but he killed many of the animals so it was decided that he had to be destroyed. Yawu?nik’ was chased from Yaqa•n Nu?kiy (rocks by Canal Flats) all the way down the Kootenay River and back up the Columbia River towards where they started. Once there, the water monster would escape again into the Kootenay River and the chase would go on and on.
One day, a wise old one observing the chase suggested that the Chief animal (Naⱡmuqȼin) use his size and strength and block the Kootenay River from flowing into the Columbia Lake. The next time the monster would enter the lake, he would be trapped. This was done, and Yawu?nik’ was trapped and killed.
When the water monster was slain, his remains formed the human race, with his blood forming the red people, the Ktunaxa. His body is cut up, and his bones were scattered through the region, some of which became the Hoodoos at Dutch Creek and at St Mary’s River. (There is some variation in the stories as to which bones created what, but they remain constant that the cliffs are the monster’s bones).1
The first white person to write about the flats between Kootenay River and the source of the Columbia was David Thompson in 1811. Thompson found the scenery at the source of the Columbia River, “romantically grand.”2 Writing on May 14th, Thompson remarks about the flats, “I could never pass this singular place without admiring it’s situation … other Rivers have their sources so ramified in Rills and Brooks that it is not easy to determine the parent stream, this is not the case with Columbia River, near the foot of a steep secondary mountain, surrounded by a fine grassy Plain, lies its source, in a fine Lake of about eleven square miles of area, from which issues its wild rapid Stream, yet navigable to the sea, its descent is great.”3
Thompson named this flat feature, “McGillivray’s Portage” or the portage to McGillivray’s River (in 1807 Thompson named the Kootenay River McGillivray’s River). Some decades later (1847), Jesuit priest Pierre-Jean De Smet traveled through the area. He wrote that at the source of the Columbia, “I contemplated with admiration those rugged and gigantic mountains where the Great River escapes – majestic, but impetuous even at its source…”4
A group of travellers in 1887 trying to find the trail across the flat got a little bit lost and instead found themselves in a marsh with a remarkable number of wild birds. Following a little stream for a mile, they found, “numerous springs which everywhere gushed up from crater-like basins at the bottom, while round them grew the most beautiful and luxuriant water-weeds ever seen, their delicate filigree-work of many-hued leaves and tendrils all clearly defined in the limpid [clear] water.”5
Travellers also took notice of the vegetation on the flat itself, described as “an open forest of the Pinus ponderosa… This was was my first introduction to these beautiful trees… nor was I the least disappointed in them ; they attain an enormous size … and are perfectly straight and uniform in their growth. The bark is curiously marked… and give the trunk the appearance of a scaly covering. The effect recalled strangely the alligator leather now in fashionable use.”6 On the Kootenay River, slightly south of the flats, David Thompson had marveled at the size of the ponderosa pines: hundreds of 150 foot (45.5 meter) high trees measuring somewhere around 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter.7
The geographic anomaly of the narrow flats between two large rivers was quickly exploited. In 1882, a gentleman with the illustrious name of William Adolph Baillie-Grohman saw an opportunity. If there was less water flooding down the Kootenay River in the spring, fertile land along Kootenay Lake could be available for agricultural use. A scheme was made to divert water from the Kootenay River through a ditch in the flat and into Columbia Lake.
The canal plan quickly got away from even the man who conceived it. In 1883 there were two seemingly disconnected decisions made: the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to use the Kicking Horse Pass on its transcontinental route; and the B.C. Provincial Government gave its approval for the canal scheme.
It was a case of the Dominion Government and the Provincial Government not speaking, as while the vast volumes of water to be diverted were considered by the powers that be to be of little threat to the lives of First Nations People living in the area, they were of great concern to interested parties who had invested in a railway that would pass closely alongside the banks of the Columbia River.
Settlers in Golden signed a petition opposing the scheme and the Dominion Government protested the plan. In response, the Provincial Government insisted that permission to build the canal would only remain if the Dominion Government consented to the canal. In return for getting permission from the higher ups, the builder of the canal would get 30,000 acres of very valuable land in the Upper Kootenay Valley once the project was completed.
In retelling the situation, Baillie-Grohman was remarkably candid.
It would have been far better had I abandoned the whole scheme at this stage, but as I had already expended some thousands of pounds, and others were also pecuniarily interested in carrying out the works, I was loth to make this sacrifice.8
After much lobbying and negotiating, the plan to divert the river for irrigation was gone, and in its place was a new scheme for the construction of a small, navigable canal between the two lakes.
Construction on the canal itself took about two years, and it was dug entirely by hand. The canal was 45 feet (13.7 meters) wide and 6,700 feet (2040 meters) long with a single, solid wooden lock built in the middle (to control water flow and prevent flooding).
The lock was 100 feet (30.5 meters) long, and as the ground was gravel, its foundations had to be sunk quite deep using steam-pumps; pumps which themselves took a great deal of effort to get to a remote part of the province, miles away from any railroad.9 An entire community grew up around the construction, with a diverse crowd including about 200 Chinese workers doing the digging.10
The canal was opened on 29 July 1889.11 According to later writings, it was E.M. Sandilands (later Mining Recorder at Wilmer) who broke through the temporary dam holding the Kootenay River back, becoming in that moment, “the person who made the Selkirk Mountains an Island by connecting the Columbia and Kootenay rivers.”12
The Demise of the Canal
Even as the canal was being built it was recognized as being something of a folly. If the canal was to be used as a navigable waterway, then the approaches on both sides of the structure also had to be navigable and, by and large, they were not. It was next to impossible to get boats from Windermere Lake into Columbia Lake: for most of the year it was fortunate to get a steamboat as far as Windermere, and during low water not even that. Meanwhile, on the Kootenay River, there were rough waters and waterfalls that made the river unsuitable to navigation. In 1889 the Kootenay was judged to be, “scarcely safe, even for canoes, until it reached within a short distance of the international boundary.”13
When the canal site was visited during its construction by Algernon St Maur, Duke of Somerset, he remarked that, “One can hardly believe that men would undertake such an enormous expenditure of money without first ascertaining [whether the river was unnavigable] which, if true, would render the canal practically useless.”14 Another traveller commented that until the surrounding waterways were made suitable for navigation, “Mr Grohman’s canal is utterly useless and likely to remain so.”15 They weren’t wrong, and yet enormous sums of money were nonetheless spent on a canal that, for all intents and purposes, saw very little use.
There were contradictory messages regarding the purpose of the canal. When the project was first proposed, a petition was raised in Golden objecting to the scheme. Years later, after the canal was completed, another petition was made by residents of the Windermere Valley for water to be diverted to raise the level of the Columbia River to aid in navigation. This second petition seems to have been ignored.
The canal was used, after a fashion, however orders were soon given for the lock of the canal to be closed to prevent unwanted water from entering into the Columbia River system. That effort was of little use in 1893, when spring run-off caused water levels in the Kootenay to rise so rapidly that the foreman in charge of the property was forced to blast open the gates of the locks to save the sawmill and hotel from flooding.16 The head of the Upper Columbia Navigation and Tramway Company, Captain Armstrong, petitioned the Provincial Government the following winter to repair the locks, which was done at a cost of $2,500.17
The following spring, in 1894, Captain Armstrong took the steamboat Gwendoline on her native voyage from Golden down to Fort Steele. Massive flooding occurred in the valley the day after she got through the canal, with the highest waters since 1871.18 In Canal Flats, high waters meant that a bridge was washed out, 17,000 feet of lumber were lost, and the canal was badly washed out.19
In 1902 a second steamboat passed through the canal in the opposite direction (south going north). The North Star was brought through to the Columbia River from her previous route on the Kootenay. During this passage, the indefatigable Captain Armstrong forced the 130 foot (40 meter) long steamship through the 100 foot (30.5 meter) long lock by trying to hack down the lock gates. When that didn’t work, he burned them.20 The operation of getting the boat through took two weeks, and the canal would never be the same.
After the Canal
For some time, little else could be found at Canal Flats besides, well, a canal. A hotel was again opened at the site in June 1893, as well as a small sawmill.21 For many of these early years, the population remained dwarfed by the slightly larger population up on Thunder Hill (up on the hill towards Fairmont). Even the hotel disappeared by 1901. The idea of a town site was tossed around in 1906 but didn’t amount to much.22 Even before the lock had been destroyed, the canal left much to be desired, and it soon filled up with silt.23
Sometime during the 1910s, Canal Flats experienced a population boom. By 1918 there were 19 people in residence involved in mixed economies of stock raising, mining, and timber.24 This climbed slightly to 40 in 1927, then suddenly jumped to 250 in 1929 as the CPR became the main employer.25 The population again leaped in 1934 to 400, again with the CPR as a major employer but with the help of supporting industries such as logging and millwork. There was even a pool room for entertainment.26 The population plummeted to 175 in 1939 just before the Second World War before climbing again slowly through the war until it hovered again around 400. Following the war, other industries (mainly logging) took over from the railway in importance.
There is very little remaining of the canal that gave Canal Flats its name. Remains of the settlement of houses and other buildings around the old lock site were reportedly destroyed by a forest fire in the region c1930s. Then, in an echo of the 1894 floods, high water in 1948 again burst through the blockades in the old canal and washed out the highway bridge.27
In a curious twist in the fate, the canal was almost resurrected with the proposal and eventual construction of the Mica Dam on the Columbia River just north of Revelstoke. Even before the dam was built, an idea was proposed in the 1970s to reopen the old canal to divert excess Kootenay River flood waters into the Columbia to be stored by the dam.28 The proposal was controversial, but BC Hydro was given until 1984 to study the scheme, which was ultimately turned down.29