Radium Hot Springs (Village, attraction)
Other Names: Sinclair Hot Springs, Kootenay Mineral Springs, Radium Junction
Early settlers travelling through the area… make no reference at all to the springs… As the waters of Radium Hot Springs are odourless, it is reasonable to assume that groups could pass the springs without being aware of their presence.
This is the first of two posts on the history of Radium Hot Springs and how they got their name.
Part 1: Settler Years
The village of Radium Hot Springs takes its name, rather obviously, from the name given to the natural hot springs located nearby. The hot springs themselves were originally known by settlers as Sinclair Hot Springs, with the name “Sinclair” also being used to refer to the settlement in the vicinity of the springs. For more on the name Sinclair and other features with the same name, refer to last week’s post on James Sinclair.
The early history of the hot springs is somewhat difficult to pin down. Early settlers travelling through the area, including George Simpson (1841) and J.A. Lees and Walter Clutterbuck (1887) make no reference at all to the springs, despite both parties passing very close to them, and both also making particular note of the hot springs at Fairmont.1 Geologist George Dawson, in his thorough 1885 report on the geology of the Rocky Mountains, also notes the Fairmont Springs but not the springs in Sinclair Canyon.2 As the waters of Radium Hot Springs are odourless, it is reasonable to assume that groups could pass the springs without being aware of their presence.
We have to rely on second-hand accounts in order to determine how settlers learned about the presence of the hot springs. According to Hallie I Peake (née McKay), her father, John McKay, “had observed that the Indians who came by his place often had sick persons with them, and that when he asked them why, they told him about the Springs.”3 The obituary of John’s son, James Lorenzo McKay, dates this “discovery” as occurring in 1887.4 As the McKay ranch was located just a few miles from the hot springs site, this scenario makes sense.
The hot springs had verifiability come to the attention of settlers by July 1889, when Gilzean Roland Whateley Stuart (usually just Roland Stuart) made an application to purchase the land containing the springs (Lot 149, 160 acres). Notice of that purchase was lodged with the Lands and Works Department on 3 April 1890.5 Stuart later claimed to have applied to purchase the land in 1888, but no official record confirming that date has been found.6 It also seems that Stuart had a partner in the purchase (and at various times during the next decades), but to keep things simple I will keep Stuart as the principle owner.7
Although Stuart was the first owner of the Springs recognized by the British Columbia government the land, like all land in the Windermere Valley, was never formally ceded by the Ktunaxa or Shuswap First Nations.
The Early Development of the Hot Springs
The new owner of the springs, Roland Stuart, did very little to immediately develop the area, although sporadic rumours emerged. In 1894, Lady Adela Cochrane was said to have purchased the springs from Stuart and his partner with the intention of building a Sanitarium and making it a “fashionable health resort.”8 There is no evidence that this actually occurred (in 1899 Stuart was still the owner).9
In 1899 rumours emerged that Stuart intended to build a hotel on the site.10 Two years later and the hotel had not appeared, but Stuart again suggested that the hotel was imminent if only the government would help to build a road up to the hot springs.11 As noted in the post on Sinclair, access to the springs during these early settler years was via a trail from the McKay farm house up onto the bench and above Sinclair Canyon on the north side.7
In 1901 there was also a hope to put in a cement basin at the springs but, again, nothing came of it.12 The same line appeared again in 1903 with the same result.13 By 1905 the “hotel” was nothing more extensive than a cedar log house, and the bathing place a ten by five yard gravel bottomed basin.14
Appearance of the Springs
It is worth taking a moment to appreciate how the springs looked in these early years, particularly given the extensive development of the site since then.15 As described in 1905:
Development Begins in Earnest
Development of the hot springs began in earnest in 1911, when the government began construction on a road bypassing the springs.17 This road, the Banff-Windermere Highway, was not completed until 1923 but there was a lot of early enthusiasm for it, particularly by the owners of the springs. Access to the springs, after all, was initially limited to those who could walk or ride in – the trail over the top of Sinclair Canyon did not permit wagon travel. A road would greatly increase visitation.
The construction of the road jump-started development at the hot springs. In March 1912, Stuart made an application to divert water from the hot springs for “mineral water purposes.”18 Two years later, in June 1914, “The Radium Natural Springs Syndicate Ltd” was formed with a capital of £25,000 to obtain from Stuart the property and mineral rights to the springs, and to develop a “hotel, sanatorium, or buildings for the purpose of developing the property of the Syndicate as a health resort or townsite.”19 This is the first recorded instance I was able to find of the springs being referred to as “Radium”.
Among the investors in the new company were Roland Stuart as well as the Hon Dudley Carlton, Denys Stephenson, and Sir St John Harmsworth.20 The latter was the brother of Lord Northcliffe, and had been paralyzed in a car accident. He purportedly decided to invest in the springs after spending time bathing in them, after which he saw some improvement to his ability to move his feet.21 Harmsworth was a particularly influential investor as he had previously invested in the Perrier Springs in France, making those springs famous for their bottled water.22
It was through this investment of the Radium Natural Springs Syndicate that the first cement bathing pool was constructed in 1915, measuring 75×35 feet (23×11 metres), along with a log bath-house, a small store, and a caretakers cottage.23
After the cement pool had been built, development again stalled, due in no small part to the outbreak of the First World War. Work on the Banff-Windermere Highway also halted with the war due to lack of money.
We’ll pick up the rest of the story of Radium Hot Springs after the First World War, including more about how ‘radium’ came into the picture, in Part 2.