Forster Creek, Mount Forster, Forster Pass
Forster certainly projected the air of a successful rancher.
It’s been a difficult task to research the life of Harold Ernest Forster, and I still have many unanswered questions, so this is by no means the final word on the topic. This is the first of two posts on Forster: there’s a surprising amount to be said about his death, so there will be a post dedicated to that in two weeks time.
Harold Ernest Forster
Harold Ernest Forster, the youngest of two sons, was born 16 February 1869 in Hamilton, Ontario to parents George James Forster and Jane Young.1 George was a merchant. Less than a year after Harold’s birth, on 27 December 1869, George passed away suddenly from “congestion of the brain.”2 His mother, Jane, also died soon after, although I have been unable to confirm the details of her death (online family trees suggest that she passed in September 1870 in Croyden, Surrey, England, but the birth date is about four years off.3 George had grown up in Cumberland, England,4 so it is possible that Jane had gone to England following his death.)
Now orphaned, two-year old Harold and his elder brother, John, are listed on the 1871 Canadian Census living with their maternal grandparents in St George’s Ward, Hamilton, Ontario.5 John passed away shortly after, although once again I was unable to find primary source data confirming the date or the circumstances.
In 1878, at the age of nine, Harold was enrolled at the Galt Grammar School in Galt, Ontario.6 His education continued at Eton in 1882,7 followed by Cambridge in September 1887 after being admitted the previous May. He was awarded a B.A. in 1892.8 Later accounts state both that Forster studied law, and that he returned to Cambridge to study mechanical engineering,9 but there is no mention of either in Cambridge alumni records.
It’s somewhat unclear how dedicated Harold was to his formal education. Forster later reported having first arrived in the Kootenays in 1889, and in the summer of 1890 he could be found mountain climbing in the Rogers Pass.10 He was still at Glacier House that October when he is mentioned as going out hunting.11 That year, 1890, was significant for Harold in another way as well: he turned twenty-one in February, at which time he was entitled to the inheritance left by his father (I couldn’t find probate records for George James Forster, but the suggestion is that Harold inherited a large sum).
Harold reappears back in England in April 1891 on the census as a student at Cambridge, then living with his aunt and uncle (Elizabeth and John Forster) in the village of Etherby in Cumberland.12
A Continued British Columbia Connection
Forster seems to have moved around somewhat after graduating from Cambridge in 1892. There is some suggestion that he spent time with his mother’s family in Ontario, with one source mentioning that his cousins owned a cotton mill in Hamilton.13 Indeed a James Mason Young did start a mill there in 1880,14 but I was unable to confirm a family connection.
Instead, Forster continues to be mentioned as being in south-eastern British Columbia through the early 1890s. In 1893, he was once again living at Glacier, in the Rogers Pass, where he gave a generous donation to the foundation of the Golden Hospital.15 He was in Glacier again the following summer, with plans to travel around the Big Bend to Revelstoke.16
These early records are interesting as Forster is described as “a young English sportsman”: although educated in England, Forster was Canadian. He is also mentioned in the newspaper with familiarity, as it is noted that he, “spends most of the summer season here.”17 The phrasing suggests that Forster’s presence in Glacier was not unusual (as we have records of his being there in 1890, 1893, and 1894 it would be unsurprising if he were present between these dates as well).
A Young, Wealthy Sportsman
Forster continues to bounce around British Columbia through 1895. That spring he is recorded as visiting one of the Bakers at Cranbrook,18 followed by a trip up to Canal Flats where he had an ice boat that gave, “rare sport.”19
A few months later Forster was in Golden en route (via bicycle) to some unspecified destination in the south.20 This trip may have been in association with some mining claims he had purchased in International basin, up the Spillimacheen River, in 1894.21
Earlier that summer, however, Forster’s permanent residence is noted as being in Kamloops. He settled down somewhat, having his own private stern-wheel steamboat, the Selkirk, constructed in 1895 for use along the Thompson River and Shuswap Lake.22 Forster must have liked the name “Selkirk”, possibly because to his time climbing in the Selkirk Mountains: there is at least one mention of his ranch in Kamloops also being named the “The Selkirk.”23
A Windermere Valley Property
In 1897, through his lawyer J.A. Bangs of Calgary, Forster acquired what was then known as the Gordon Ranch in the Windermere Valley.24 There’s some ambiguity as to the exact means of this acquisition: one source states that he “reluctantly foreclosed” on the ranch;25 other sources suggest that one of the owners, Captain Gordon, was drawn away by the South African War.26 The South African War didn’t begin until 1899, so although Gordon may have participated in that conflict, it is unlikely that the ranch was sold because of it.
The Gordon Ranch had briefly been a sheep ranch and, in the 1897 season, “turned off several flocks of prime mutton.”27 Under Forster’s ownership, however, J.A. Bangs almost immediately sold off the entire flock to a man in Fort Steele and brought in cattle instead,28 later joined by horses.29 Meanwhile, the residence on the Gordon Ranch was “considerably enlarged and improved,”30 and a manager appointed, with Alexander Hume and his family arriving from Galt, Ontario in late spring 1898 (see previous post about Frances Forster for more about the Humes).31
Even after his purchase of the Gordon Ranch, Forster continued to reside in Kamloops through much of 1898, where he was elected President of the Kamloops Football Club in August.32 By February 1899, however, Forster was residing at his new ranch,33 with his steamer the Selkirk being transported from Kamloops to Golden that April.34
During this period, the Gordon Ranch began to be widely known as “Firlands”, with the first mention of the new name being found in June 1899.35 The significance of the name is unknown, but I have a more detailed study of the development of Firlands lined up for an upcoming post.
In Forster’s personal life, meanwhile, in 1912 he married Medora (Meda) Hume, the twenty-seven year old daughter of his former manager and his current housekeeper.36 Together they had six children (one of whom died in infancy).
Diversity of Investments
A thorough biography about Harold Forster would ideally include a great deal of attention paid to his financial interests. Although I have been unable to uncover exactly how much money he had, there is strong evidence that he was independently wealthy, and other than four years as a politician, he never worked in a profession. One much later and unofficial source claims that he had an income of $40,000 per year37 (I don’t have an exact year to convert this from, but $40,000 in 1914 dollars is just under $1 million in 2021).
Forster used his wealth not only to purchase and furnish an elaborate home (Firlands Ranch), but also to invest in mining and the grocery business. He was particularly interested in mining. As already mentioned he had purchased claims in the International Basin on Spillimacheen River in 1894, “with a view to development,”38 and which he is reported to have sold in autumn 1897.39 In 1895, while living in Kamloops, Forster also co-founded the Kamloops Mining and Development Company,40 with unclear success. Across the border, Forster had a long lasting interest in a mine in Republic, Washington.41
Forster also invested in mining properties in the East and West Kootenays. In the West Kootenays, Forster was reportedly one of the investors in the Sunset No 2 at Rossland, which gave promising results in 1897/1898.42 He also incorporated the Millie Mack mine on Cariboo Creek in the Arrow Lake division,43 and organised something called “Blue Grouse Gold Mines Ltd” in Rossland.44 Forster’s interests in a mine in Burton City,45 meanwhile, saw Windermere Valley locals including Frank Stockdale and Robert Winfield taking positions there.
In the East Kootenays, Forster reportedly headed a company to do placer mining on Perry Creek (near Fort Steele) in 1898.46 In the Windermere Valley, Forster purchased the Tilbury up Delphine Creek,47 and the Isaac on No 3 (Frances) Creek, both in 1899.48
Forster invested in grocery and merchant companies as well, going into partnership with G.B. McDermot in Golden in 1895,49 a company that went on to open a branch store in Windermere.50 Forster also later headed the Peterborough Trading Company out of the township that became Wilmer, opening a store there in 1900.51 These grocery interests may have been influenced by Forster’s uncle, R.A. Lucas, who was one of the owners of the wholesale grocery company Lucas, Steele and Bristol based out of Hamilton, Ontario.52
The financial success of these various ventures remains unclear, and without looking at account books (which have not survived), putting together the pieces is all but impossible. On the whole, given Forster’s lack on money in later life, the majority of these investments do not seem to have paid out. At one time in possession of a fortune, he seems to have lost almost all of it.
Not All Work
In the years before such financial decline, however, as an investor with means and influence Forster had the ability to pursue various technological developments. He sat on a committee in 1899 appointed to look into the formation of a company to establish a telephone line between Golden and the Windermere District,53 and in 1903 connected Firlands directly by telephone to the Peterborough Trading Company store in Wilmer.54 Firlands was also reportedly the first house in the valley lighted with electricity, with a Pelton wheel on No 2 (Forster) Creek used to drive a generator.55 In 1906 Forster also purchased a new threshing machine run by a gasoline engine.56
Life at Firlands itself was later described idyllically by Forster’s wife, Meda, who in 1967 recalled, “On the ranch we raised our beef and lamb; chickens, ducks and geese. Throughout the summer we enjoyed strawberries, raspberries and currants; vegetables of all kinds, sweet and fresh of a quality that you, my reader, have never known unless you have grown your own. Milk, butter and cream came from our cows. There were trout in the creeks; deer and grouse in the hills; ducks and geese along the river and at Mud Lake and a much longer season to hunt them. For amusement we had horses to ride, we fished, we hunted, we walked, snowshoed, skied and sailed at breathless speed on Lake Windermere on my husband’s ice yacht.”57
Forster certainly projected the air of a successful rancher. In 1900 he donated the “Forster Trophy” to be competed for by curlers in the valley,58 and in the winters he ran an ice boat on Lake Windermere, much to the excitement of the locals.59 Possibly thanks to his influence, ice boating became a popular winter pastime.60 During the warmer months, visitors to Firlands were often taken out on the Selkirk for duck hunting.61
Forster’s interests pivoted somewhat in 1912 when he was elected to the Provincial Legislature as an Independent Conservative, a position that he held until the next election in 1916. Forster’s political career might best be described as contentious. He won the seat over the Conservative candidate for the position, H.G. Parson, by a margin of just nineteen votes,62 seeming to run his campaign, “more in the nature of a trial for Mr Parson than anything else.” 63
Although Forster proclaimed his support for the ruling Conservative government under Premier McBride, he also maintained his position as an Independent. At first received “cordially” by the ruling government,64 within the year he was being “left in the lobby” at a caucus meeting, the other members having “absolutely refused to enter if Mr Forster was admitted, and consequently the member was left to cool his heels in the passage while the deliberations were continued inside.”65
Forster’s combative stance continued, particularly in early 1916, in criticizing both the sitting Conservative government and the Liberal opposition. His complaints were varied, seeming to to centre around what he saw as unnecessary spending by the government and the high taxation of industries. He also criticized the provincial police system, urging for a mounted police to replace them,66 and stated his support for reinstating a poll tax, “in order to tax the thousands of those, particularly foreigners, who at present pay nothing to the upkeep of the administration.”67
In all of this Forster declared that he was, “in the fortunate position at the present time of being not tied down to support the policies of either the government or opposition, and am, therefore, able to view things from the standpoint of the man in the street – so to speak – who wishes to consider both sides of any question and form his own judgment.”68 Forster did not run again in the 1916 election, and the seat was won by Liberal John Andrew Buckham.69
It’s difficult to formulate an opinion about Forster and his time in the Windermere Valley. In general, as a wealthy landowner and investor, writings about him are favourable, but one also gets the sense that there are details being left unsaid.
For example in 1912 he was judged to be “uncommonly successful,”70 in his mining ventures, but it seems that the majority of his mining claims were anything but successful in the long term. It’s unlikely that he even broke even.
In terms of his political career, Forster’s being elected into office is later reported as, “indicat[ing] the esteem in which he had been held throughout the valley,”73 and yet other members of the legislative assembly refused to even be in the same room with him.
His wife, Meda, is later quoted as looking back on “the delightful years spent at the ranch, first as a girl and then as a wife,”74 but she took her children and left both Forster and the Windermere Valley in 1926, never to return (see post on Frances Forster for more).
By the late 1920s, Forster’s failing finances had caught up with him. He had sunk a great deal of money into what were ultimately unsuccessful mining ventures, as well as into various infrastructure improvements on Firlands (such as an irrigation system) that did not pay off.75 In spring 1927 Forster sold the approximately 960 acres of East Firlands, encompassing parts of what is today the village of Radium Hot Springs, to Mr Tretheway of Vancouver.76
Forster died violently at Firlands on 26 September 1940, along with retiree John Lundy, who was living with Forster at the time, and the house at Firlands was burned down. There are many outstanding questions about this incident, and the more I looked into it the more questions I had, so that whole story will be covered in a separate post (even readers who think they know the story of Forster’s death will probably be surprised).
The name Forster Creek was officially given in April 1915 to the waterway previously known widely as No 2 Creek.77 As mentioned in the post on Frances Creek, before it was renamed Forster, No 2 Creek was also referred to locally as Frances Creek. The name “Frances Creek” first appears on survey documents of lots surveyed in 1894,78 as well as on a dated pre-emption record from 1896.79
It is unknown where the name “Frances” came from for No 2 Creek, or why the name did not catch on broadly, particularly as it continues to be noted for almost two decades, including on a survey for land purchased by Forster himself. It also remains unclear why the official name for the creek was ultimately chosen to be “Forster”.
The name Mount Forster was given in June 1915, just months after Forster Creek was named.80 The name “Forster Pass,” meanwhile, was officially adopted in 1974 after having been informally identified by the Canadian Alpine Club in 1953.81