Armstrong Bay, Columbia Lake
Armstrong quickly developed a reputation in the valley as, “one of the most energetic little men I ever met.” Described as, “Short, compactly but cleanly built, with iron-grey hair, square, determined jaw and piercing black eyes,” Armstrong was also described as “the biggest little man on the Upper Columbia.”
Francis Patrick Armstrong
- Born: 14 March 1861 in Sorel, Quebec
- Died: 16 January 1923 in Vancouver B.C.
- Married Minnie Howden Barber in 1890, Montreal
- Children: Charlotte (4 November 1891 – 16 February 1983), Ruth Mary (7 March 1894 – 4 June 1987)
Francis Patrick Armstrong was born in Sorel, Quebec on 14th March 1861. Both his father, the Honourable James Armstrong (Chief Justice of St Lucia and Tobago), and his grandfather, Captain Charles Logie Armstrong, were harbour masters.1 Francis was educated in Montreal, and after leaving school worked for the harbour commissioners.2
Francis Armstrong first came to the valley in 1882 through the Kicking Horse Pass as part of an engineering party for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). That party, under Major Rogers, was charged with doing a survey to determine the best route for the Canadian Pacific Railway line. The group wintered over at what is now Golden, during which time Armstrong ventured down into the Columbia Valley.
The following spring/summer, a number of those who were part of the CPR surveying party pre-empted land in the Windermere Valley, including Armstrong who on 9 July 1883 took 320 acres of land on the east side of Columbia Lake. Armstrong’s claim was not popular among those living in the area: it took over a long used and favourite cattle run belonging to the local Ktunaxa.3
From Ranching to Steamboats
Armstrong developed a ranch alongside Columbia Lake starting with a crop of potatoes in 1884.4 By September 1886, the property was, “Well fenced and in the best order, with a good log house and large outbuildings,” however Armstrong himself had moved onto other endeavors.5 Sometime in 1886/1887 Armstrong sold his ranch to an Englishman, Mr Vernon, to concentrate on his other business: running steamboats on the Columbia River.
What began as an effort to transport potatoes north to feed workers on the CPR turned into an idea for a paddle wheeler running on the Columbia River south of Golden.6 In 1886, backed financially by T.B.H. Cochrane, Armstrong built the first steamboat in the Valley, the Duchess. Armstrong would continue to run a variety of steamboats on the Columbia River until the Kootenay Central Railway arrived in 1915.
Armstrong quickly developed a reputation in the valley as, “one of the most energetic little men I ever met.”7 Described as, “Short, compactly but cleanly built, with iron-grey hair, square, determined jaw and piercing black eyes,” Armstrong was also described as “the biggest little man on the Upper Columbia.”8
Armstrong and Cochrane operated steamboats on the Columbia River for a number of years before an official Company was formed to take over the business. With Cochrane as president and Armstrong as manager, the Upper Columbia Navigation and Tramway Company was incorporated in 1891 for the purpose of transporting passengers and freight on the Columbia River, including the operation of steamboats, a tramway (across the flats near Dutch Creek), and stage lines. The Company also operated special trips for hunting and tourist parties.9
The Gold Rush
In addition to operating steamboats on the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, Armstrong joined the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1898, Armstrong and various associates from Golden went north to build a steamboat to operate along the Stikine Gold Rush route along Teslin Lake and the Hootalinqua and Yukon rivers.10
The enterprise didn’t get off to a great start. The group built a boat, but after only a few trips it got caught in a storm, drifted onto the rocks and became a complete wreck.11 Ever determined, Armstrong repaired the boat and returned to the business.12 In 1899 his name was also on an application for a charter to build a railway in the Atlin District.13
Mining and Logging
Back in the Windermere Valley, Armstrong had a variety of interests. He was involved in developing a couple of mineral properties, including the Delos of Horsethief Creek and the Ruth (named after Armstrong’s daughter) at the head of Vermont Creek.14 Armstrong was also one of the first and most adamant in cultivating the beginnings of the tourist trade in the valley, marketing the scenery along the river between Golden and Windermere from as early as 1887.15
Eager to monopolize on other natural resources in the valley, Armstrong also began supplying railway ties to the CPR. A number of ties were taken out on Dutch Creek, possibly with the help of a flume.16 Armstrong installed a larger sawmill plant up Salter Creek on the west side of Lake Windermere (the Diamond A Lumber Camp). The operation involved two dams on the creek, one to generate power for the sawmill and the other to hold logs before they were cut and dropped into another flume leading down to the lake.17 There are some remnants of this operation still visible on Salter Creek, including the remnants of a boiler (if you know where to look) and some parts of the two and a half mile long flume down to the lake. Armstrong also did similar work up at Toby Creek Lake (possibly Lake Lillian).18
He Dammed the Lake
As part of these logging operations, the ties being cut had to be brought down to Golden. In the spring following the Salter Creek operation, Armstrong’s various enterprises collided. One of his steamboats, the Ptarmigan, had been pushed up on the shore by the ice, and a boom of railway ties was floating in the lake waiting to be delivered to Golden.
In an effort to both re-float the boat and float the ties downriver, Armstrong decided to dam the Columbia River. He blocked the river’s exit from Lake Windermere at Athalmer, stopping the flow of water and raising the level of the lake by two feet. The measure was apparently quite effective, as the boat was safely re-floated, and it was reportedly possibly to walk across the river at Athalmer in places without getting wet.
For good measure, Armstrong made use of the opportunity afforded by low water in the Columbia River to take a canoe down river and mark out all of the snags on the trip to Golden.19 When the dam was finally opened it was a widely attended event, with a large crowd gathered to witness the rush of 22,000 railway ties turned loose into the current.20
The steamboat trade was made nearly obsolete in 1915 with the arrival of the Kootenay Central Railway through the Windermere Valley, although Armstrong was not one to slow down. During the First World War he served for a time as a boat skipper on the Nile. After the war in 1920, he took the final steamboat trip on the Columbia River, going from Golden down to Brisco to drive piles for a new bridge over the river. Knowing it might be his last opportunity to do so, Armstrong took advantage of the trip by loading a barge with ore he had left on the river-bank twenty-four years earlier, commenting, “It was the last chance and I took it.”21
Armstrong also worked for a time for the Federal Department of Public Works. In 1920 at sixty years old, Armstrong remained spry, having, “as much reserve energy at the end of a long day’s paddling as another man I could mention who is rather loathe to admit forty.”22
That energy ended abruptly after an injury sustained while working for the Department of Public Works in Kaslo in October 1922. Armstrong broke through a plank and fell fifteen feet from a pile driver, fracturing his right leg near the thigh bone and receiving internal injuries. He seemed to be recovering, but complications had him sent to Vancouver for an operation. He passed away on 16 January 1923.23
In His Own Words
In addition to Armstrong’s energy and interest in the valley, there is evidence that he was easy going with a good sense of humour. Here are a couple of exerts from a very entertaining captain’s log kept during Armstrong’s Maiden Voyage of the Gwendoline, as he was bringing her south to go through the canal at Canal Flats:
Tuesday, May 22nd: 11 a.m. Man overboard, intense excitement. Board of Trade regulations strictly adhered to. Life buoy in attendance. Saved. Satisfaction of all on board. Glass of beer. Tied up to regulate injectors. Kodak on scene, great success, sun on object glass.
Friday 25th: We now neared the Upper Lake [Columbia Lake] rapidly where a rock is known to exist in about midchannel, so a careful look out was kept and every endeavour made to go safely around or through it. However, notwithstanding all our nautical skill it nearly went through us, and the shock of discovery shot our energetic chief far through space ahead of the boat and he disappeared from view.24
Francis Armstrong was something of a change-maker in the Windermere Valley, known for his determination to solve problems. According to Robert Randolph Bruce, “He was the sort of man who never got stuck whatever the obstacles.”25 When bringing his steamboat the North Star north from Kootenay River through the canal to Columbia Lake in 1902, he found the canal to be in horrible shape and the canal lock to be not wide enough or long enough to accommodate the vessel. Undeterred, Armstrong cut off the guard rails of the boat and ended up burning the lock gates to make room. Two weeks later, what was left of the canal was pretty much destroyed, but the North Star had squeezed through, much battered, into Columbia Lake.26
Today, Armstrong’s name is attached to a bay on the east side of Columbia Lake, likely in association with his original land pre-emption in 1883. In addition, the entire mountain range to the east side of the lake is often referred to (in historical sources) as the Armstrong Range, however I’m unsure how common that is today as it is now officially part of the Stanford Range.