Radium Hot Springs (Village, attraction)
Other Names: Sinclair Hot Springs, Kootenay Mineral Springs
“If these Springs were properly developed they would be a great benefit to the public as well as an improvement and attraction to the Kootenay Park.”5
This is the second of two posts on the history of Radium Hot Springs and how they got their name. Read the previous post about the early settler years of the springs here.
Part Two: The National Park Years
As we left off in the last post, development at what was then known as Sinclair Hot Springs had stalled with the outbreak of the First World War. The war years themselves were not unimportant to the future of the springs. While not much was happening on the ground, in May 1916 the province of British Columbia passed Bill 98, the Banff-Windermere Road Act. This act was the first legislative step in an agreement to complete the stalled Banff-Windermere Highway project.
Under this Bill, the Province agreed in principle to give a strip of land five miles (eight kilometers) in width on either side of the completed Banff-Windermere Highway to the Dominion government in exchange for the Dominion Government completing construction of the road. This strip of land was intended as a new national park. It was not until March 1919 that all of the specifics were hammered out, and the Banff-Windermere Road Ratification Act (Bill No 83) was passed.1 In 1920 Kootenay Dominion Park (now Kootenay National Park) was officially formed as Canada’s tenth national park.
When Kootenay Park was created, the natural hot springs on the new park’s border were still under the private ownership of Roland Stuart. By this time, Stuart owned not only the lot with the natural hot springs, Lot 149, but also Lots 9011, 9565, 9565A, and 9566, together comprising an area of 615.97 acres (see map at top of post).2 Stuart and others later reported making some further attempt to develop the springs following the war, but no official record of these attempts has been found.3
For Want of a Hot Springs
The private ownership of the hot springs did not sit well with the Dominion Parks branch. The hot springs at Banff were a popular attraction, and it seemed likely that the springs at Kootenay might be as well. If the springs stayed in private hands, however, then Parks would have no say either in the development of the springs, or in the services provided to visitors of the park on the land adjacent to them.4 A report from the Minister of the Interior in January 1922 stated that it, “would be a great benefit to the public as well as an improvement and attraction to the Kootenay Park,” if what it called “The Kootenay Mineral Springs,” were acquired by and developed by the Dominion Parks branch.5
In line with the sentiments of this later report, the government set out to acquire the land and the springs, making an offer of $20,000 in February 1921 through a cable to Stuart through his land agent. Stuart did not respond, and later that month apparently placed a valuation on his holdings of $250,000.6 As the government was, “unable to arrange a satisfactory purchase of this property,” it instead took the steps necessary to expropriate (seize) the land.7 This seizure was entirely legal under the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act, and was registered in Nelson on 3 April 1922.8
It is at this point that a differing account emerges. Despite claims by the government that it had tried to contact Stuart, Stuart himself, then living in Cotes du Nord, France, stated that he had “never been approached by any member of the government of Canada with regard to parting with this property.”9 In fact, it seems that Stuart learned about the land being added to the park the same way most others did: in the newspapers. It remains unclear if Stuart received the 1921 offer and was now playing the injured party, or if he was genuinely unaware of the government’s efforts.
Regardless, Stuart was not willing to part with the springs without compensation. Litigation between him and the Dominion Government continued until 1928 over the exact financial settlement to be awarded for the loss of the property. Stuart claimed it to be worth $500,000, while the Dominion offered to pay $22,000. The subsequent trial centred around whether the springs might be a profitable business venture.10 In the end the government was ordered to pay Stuart $24,200 (later sums brought this to just over $46,00011), and title for the property was declared to the government from 4 April 1922.12
The Original Radium Hot Springs Townsite
Even as the case regarding financial compensation to Stuart made its way through the courts, Dominion Parks carried on with plans to develop the area around the springs in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Banff. In May 1923, the same year the Banff-Windermere Highway finally opened, the area around the hot springs was subdivided into ten lots for lease to private owners.13 This was the original Radium Hot Springs townsite.
The townsite adjacent the hot springs was the centre of tourist activity at Kootenay Park from 1923 until the 1960s. It would eventually include an electrical station, a sewage treatment plant, and a variety of hotels and stores. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) also constructed a bungalow camp on the hill overlooking the hot springs, which later became known as Radium Hot Springs Lodge.14
This original townsite obviously did not last. By 1970 only the hot springs development itself, Radium Lodge, three bungalow camps, and the original superintendent’s residence remained.15 All other residents and businesses had relocated two kilometres down the road to “Radium Junction,” located just outside of park boundaries. This move makes Kootenay National Park unique among Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks in that there is no longer a townsite within its borders.
There were a number of motivations for the shift from having commercial development concentrated in the immediate vicinity of the hot springs to moving it a couple of miles down the road. For one, a new Aquacourt complex had been built around the hot springs in 1950 at a cost of one million dollars. In 1968 a new hot pool was also opened, and although these expanded facilities allowed for greater visitation numbers to the hot pools, the townsite was seen as a hindrance to such growth. For example officials wanted to widen and straighten the road, which could not be done so long as the townsite buildings remained.16
Business owners at the townsite were also reasonably open to the idea of moving. There was more room to expand at Radium Junction, and as the new location was outside national park boundaries, land could be owned rather than leased. Beyond some accommodation facilities in the direct vicinity of the hot pools, everything else was relocated.
A Changing Approach
It is easy in hindsight to attribute this “undevelopment” of the area around the springs to environmental motives, but the initial impetus was entirely economical. Buildings had to be moved for the road to be straightened so more traffic could be brought into the park.
As environmentalism became a priority in the park planning strategy, however, a new focus on “rehabilitating” the land around the springs emerged. A plan was formulated in 1999 and begun in 2003 that aimed to improve wildlife movement and restore grasslands for a winter range for bighorn sheep.17 All remaining buildings and amenities in the immediate vicinity of the pools, besides the pool complex itself, were removed.
All of this construction, demolition, and rehabilitation over the last century follows a larger trend in the management of Canada’s National Parks. All national parks have to walk a tightrope between development and preservation, and priorities between these two goals are constantly shifting.
Around the hot pools themselves, designated a “high use” area in the parks planning strategy, visitor numbers and ease of access remain a priority. Recall from last week’s post that the hot springs before 1887 were completely unknown even to travellers who went through the canyon and past the Iron Gates. Today, the pool complex (with parking lots) has almost entirely engulfed Sinclair Canyon. The original springs has been sealed into the hillside with concrete and masonry,18 and Sinclair Creek, running alongside the pool, has been largely hidden from view. No matter that the grasslands above the pool have been opened up for sheep grazing, preservation of the ecology in the canyon as a whole is secondary to the hot springs development.
Legacy: Why Radium?
The name “Radium Hot Springs”, named after the radioactive element radium, might seem to be an odd choice today. Radioactivity, after all, is not good for the human body (there’s a reason it’s used to kill cancer cells), but this understanding of the effects of unregulated exposure to elements like radium is relatively new. When first discovered, and for decades following, radium was considered to have amazing health benefits and curative properties. Radioactive radium was included in everything from pillows to toothpaste, and bathing in hot waters purported to contain radium was thought to be beneficial.
The earliest record I was able to find of the waters at Sinclair Hot Springs being tested for radium was in 1913. This test was somewhat less assertive than might be expected. In a litre of water only “trace” amounts of radium were found, along with 4 millionths of a milligram of what scientists at the time called “radium emanations” (now known as radon gas).20
Although these numbers were slight, the presence of radium and “radium emanations” in the hot waters of Sinclair Springs was cause for excitement. At natural hot springs around the world scientists believed that the presence of these emanations explained the supposed therapeutic effects that came from bathing in the waters.21 Following this logic, the more radium and radium emanations a hot springs had the greater benefit visitors would enjoy by bathing in it. The waters of Sinclair Hot Springs had long been touted for their “wonderful medicinal properties,”22 and this water analysis, which suggested the springs had more radium emanations than “the famous waters of good old Bath in England,” seemed to give a firm scientific reason for these supposed effects.23
A Multitude of Radiums
It was the following year, 1914, that the Radium Natural Springs Syndicate was formed to promote and develop the hot springs, using the name “Radium” for the first time in connection to the springs, and likely choosing the name to capitalize on the 1913 test results.24 The syndicate was not the only property-owner in the valley influenced by the so-called “radium craze”. The same 1913 test of the Sinclair Hot Springs waters also tested the waters at Fairmont, showing higher levels of radium and slightly less radon gas (radium emanations). In response, the train station at Fairmont Hot Springs was officially named ‘Radium,’ and the hot springs there began slowly to be referred to as Radium Hot Springs.25
Meanwhile, up alongside Sinclair Creek, the name “radium” also spread. In 1915 the post office name was officially changed from Sinclair to Radium Hot Springs.26 The springs themselves were still referred to as Sinclair Hot Springs, though, meaning that there was an amazing period when a traveler who wanted to swim in the Sinclair Hot Springs would send a postcard home via the Radium Hot Springs post office and stay at the Radium Hot Springs Bungalow Camp.27 That traveler had to be careful, however, in booking their train ticket that they did not get off at the Radium train station and visit the Radium Hot Springs in the settlement of Fairmont as this was not the hot springs they were looking for.
This all got even more confusing (or less confusing, depending on your opinion) after 1925, when the name “Sinclair Hot Springs” seems to have been dropped entirely in advertising material for the National Parks in favour of referring to both the springs and the location as Radium Hot Springs.28 On one hand, the hot springs name now matched the post office name. On the other, there were now two Radium Hot Springs being advertised within a day’s drive of each other. Newspapers referred to Sinclair Hot Springs and Radium Hot Springs, or Fairmont Hot Springs and Radium Hot Springs in a way that suggested even the writers were confused. You can still find postcards for “Radium Hot Springs”, clearly picturing the hot springs at Fairmont, geotagged to the village of Radium Hot Springs.
All of this confusion was mostly resolved in 1933 when the Canadian Pacific Railway announced that the name of the train station at Fairmont would be Fairmont (not Radium), and that the train station at Radium Hot Springs would be Radium (replacing East Firlands).29 The owners of Fairmont Springs quietly returned to promoting the springs as Fairmont Hot Springs. By the 1930s information was emerging that radium was not so good for humans as initially thought, and using ‘radium’ as a marketing strategy made somewhat less sense. At Radium Hot Springs, however, the name was entrenched. Initially chosen to capitalize on a health fad, it had fully replaced Sinclair Hot Springs.
To my knowledge there has never been a survey done as to whether the name “Radium Hot Springs” makes visitors less likely to want to swim in the waters (or visit the town). The village of Radium Hot Springs, usually just called Radium, was incorporated in 1991. Although the hot springs themselves and the associated tourist industry remain an attraction, the sawmill has also become a notable employer. If it’s any comfort, the amount of radium in the hot springs is quite minimal. As a judge stated in the 1925 trial over how much compensation should be awarded for the hot springs, “any connection between the therapeutic properties of the spring, and the radio activity of the water,” was “purely psychological.”30
For those wanting to know more about the history of Fairmont, mentioned in this post, I’ll have a post going into more detail up two weeks from now. Going into the new year I’ve decided to post every two weeks rather than every week – these are taking a lot more research and time than originally anticipated!