Firlands Ranch, East Firlands (train station, 1914-1933), Firland Close (Radium Hot Springs)
The name “Firlands” first appears in print in early June 1899.51 The reason for choosing the name is unknown.
Writing a thorough history of a ranch that has been around for over 130 years requires more resources and attention that I can give at the moment, but as I wrote about Harold E Forster it became useful to consolidate information about the property he owned (Firlands) as well. So here is a consolidated and incomplete history of Firlands Ranch, focusing mostly through to the end of Forster’s ownership of it.
The roots of what became Firlands Ranch were in September 1890, when two groups of two relatives each applied to jointly pre-empt four lots, located towards the mouth of No 2 (Forster) Creek, and together encompassing some 1,120 acres. These four parties were brothers James Grant Gordon and Hugh Grant Gordon, and relatives Colin Campbell Mackay and Iderraway Mackay.1
One of these lots soon had to be abandoned as one of the applicants, Iderraway Mackay, was an unmarried woman and as such was deemed, “incapable of pre-empting land under the Land Act.”2 It’s unclear how long this particular rule was in place and enforced, but as there are other examples of women being able to pre-empt land from this time, it seems that the “unmarried” part was the sticking point.
The remaining three applicants, James Grant Gordon, Hugh Grant Gordon, Colin Campbell Mackay, were awarded Crown Grants for Lots 700, 701 and 702 (960 acres) in December 1894 (these original lots are coloured dark purple on the map at the top of the page).
The Gordon Family
Of the original pre-emptors of the property, James Grant and Hugh Grant Gordon were brothers, albeit somewhat separated in age. James (full name James Hugh Sibbald Grant Gordon) was born in September 1861 in Bengal, India,3 while Hugh was twelve years younger, born in May 1873 in Nairn, Scotland.4
There is limited information available about James Gordon’s life. He married Edith Fannie Whitehouse on 14 October 1890, at Knox Presbyterian Church in Calgary,5 at which time he is noted as being a Lieutenant of the 3rd Gordon Highlanders in Aberdeen, Scotland. When James is mentioned in passing it is consistently as “Captain Gordon”. James is further listed on census records as immigrating to Canada in 1890,6 the same year as the land pre-emption.
Not much can be said about Hugh’s early life, aside that he was born in Scotland. He seems to have come to Canada at the same time as his older brother.
The Mackay Family
Colin Campbell Mackay was, according to one of his obituaries, a cousin of James Grant Gordon (I wasn’t able to track the genealogy well enough to confirm this). Colin was born in Sydney, Australia on 3 April 1850,7 and had lived in India for some fifteen years where he was involved in tea and coffee plantations. He reportedly journeyed to Canada in 1885 where he raised sheep in the Qu’Appelle river valley and “took part in the activities necessitated by the Riel Rebellion.”8 (The timeline for this is a bit tight: the North West Rebellion began at the end of March 1885 and ended at the beginning of June, so if Mackay both arrived in Canada in 1885 and took part in the rebellion, the first six months of 1885 would have been a very busy time for him).
The same source claiming that Colin and James were cousins also states that Colin moved to the Windermere District to join James. Like James, Colin was married sometime in 1890 at Knox Presbyterian Church in Calgary, to Rosina Mary Berry (I was unable to find a date for this: I have considered, but have been unable to prove, a double wedding).9
I couldn’t find any further information about the identity of “Iderraway Mackay”, including in a genealogy book of Colin Campbell Mackay’s family.10 Colin did, however, later name his daughter “Mary Ideraway,” so it seems very likely that this was a family name.11 (To clarify things for valley locals: Colin Mackay is no relation to the family of James Lorenzo McKay)
The Gordon Ranch
The three original lots on No 2 Creek became known as the “Gordon Ranch”, specifically Captain Gordon’s (James’) Ranch, but Hugh also resided there and Colin was at least nearby.12 By about 1897, as recorded in that year’s British Columbia Directory, James and Hugh were joined by another brother, Patrick Grant Gordon.13 I could find no other information about Patrick, and it is unclear whether he had a direct financial interest in the property or was just helping out.
The holdings of the Gordon brothers, specifically, were also not limited to their original pre-emption. In October 1894 James Gordon acquired, by auction, another lot located on the east side of the Columbia River along Sinclair Creek (Lot 486).14 The property had previously been purchased by John McKay in 1891.15
Hugh Gordon also acquired an additional lot to the north of Firlands along the banks of the Columbia River (Lot 2577). He pre-empted the property in September 1896 and obtained a Crown Grant for it in August 1899.16 (Both of these additional Gordon lots are coloured blue on the map at the top of the page)
In 1893 the Gordon Ranch is described by a reporter passing through as, “a very fine sheep ranch. He [Captain Gordon] imported a few car loads of sheep last fall as an experiment. They have done remarkably well… It is, I believe, his intention to import a large band this season.”17
This intention was followed through on and, in October 1894, the Gordon Ranch imported 907 sheep “from the prairie” with the intention of, “going extensively into sheep ranching.”18 Another rancher up in Galena at the time, Daniel Campbell, reported that same year to the B.C. Department of Agriculture that, “the mutton produced by Capt Gordon… beats anything in the meat line I have ever tried, unless it be the wild mountain sheep.”19
This acquisition of sheep by the Gordon Ranch, however, may have been slightly more complicated than it first appears. When Crown Grants for the property were awarded in the names of James, Hugh and Colin, in December 1894, the receipt of the grants lists them as being “in favour of” an R.L. Cawston and Ella Lowe.20 Richard Lowe Cawston and his aunt, Ella Lowe, owned a ranch down by Keremeos (south of Penticton) where they ran cattle.21 It is possible that the Gordon Ranch (including its acquisition of a large number of sheep) received some kind of financing from Cawston and Lowe, possibly with the ranch itself as collateral.
The Gordon Ranch is mentioned, amusingly, directly in another traveller’s account sometime before 1894. Douglas Sladen recalls travelling down the valley via steamboat, when he mentions coming, “to a ranch, a fine, park-like looking piece of country taken up by a captain in the Gordon Highlanders and two other young Englishmen gentlemen. There was a telegram for them, which had probably been waiting in Golden about a week, the boat being only a weekly one. No one was at the point. It was thrown ashore, letter fashion, tied to a stick. It overshot the mark, and fell into a tributary the other side. The steamer blew her whistle and passed serenely on.”22
Perhaps in part due to frustration with this practice of mail delivery, on 1 December 1895 James Gordon became postmaster of the Gordon Ranch post office, a position he held until the office closed on 1 May 1897 (the Sinclair Post office, in the same general area, was opened 1 April 1898 with John McKay as postmaster).23
The Dissolution of the Gordon Ranch
There is some confusion and many unanswered questions as to the fate of the Gordon Ranch. In simplistic terms, sometime in 1897 some of the lots were acquired by Harold Ernest Forster, then of Kamloops. A much later source relating a version of Forster’s life states that he “reluctantly foreclosed” on the property,24 although with so many separate pieces of property in play, it doesn’t seem quite so simple as that. For example, Lot 702 (encompassing much of the lowlands along Forster Creek) was still owned by Colin C Mackay through until at least the 1921 census, when he and his family were living on there.25
It could be that Forster only acquired land from the Gordon brothers, but even that is tricky. The Crown Grant to Hugh Gordon’s lot to the north, Lot 2577, was awarded to Gordon in August 1899, about two years after Forster’s acquisition of the Gordon Ranch itself. That being said this lot, as well as James’ Sinclair Creek lot, both do seem to have been acquired by Forster at some unknown date.
A Tangent: What Happened to the Original Owners?
After the transfer of the ranch, Captain James Gordon didn’t stick around, having moved out of the valley by March 1898.26 A part of the reason for this move may have been the health of his wife, who had undergone a surgery of a “serious nature” in Calgary in January 1897.27
The couple reappear in Strathmore, near Calgary, where James took up another ranch.28 It is later suggested that James went overseas in 1899 to fight in the Boer War,29 but no confirmation could be found of this. So, too, do records of James Gordon quickly dry up. He was still living in Strathmore in 1906,30 but not in 1911. A newspaper article in 1916 suggests that a Colonel James Grant Gordon “formerly of Calgary” was “wounded at Loos with the Sherwoods and also on the Somme and the West Yorks.”31 No further record or confirmation of a First World War military record could be found, however, nor any information relating to his death.
Hugh Gordon is somewhat easier to track. Following the loss of the ranch he moved to Windermere where, in 1898, he and William Walter Taynton opened the Lakeside Hotel at the previous Geary Ranch.32
Hugh went on to have a respectable career as a hotelkeeper, becoming the proprietor of the newly built Hotel Canterbury (later the Hotel Invermere) in the summer of 1900.33 He held that position for almost exactly two years,34 then closed up and purchased Kootenay House (another hotel) up in Golden.35 He stayed in Golden for a time, then spent a period in Calgary at the Victoria Hotel before moving to Banff in the spring of 1911 to manage the King Edward Hotel. He remained in Banff, in a number of professions, for the rest of his life, and is buried at the Banff cemetery.36
The third partner, Colin Campbell Mackay, stayed in the Windermere Valley. As mentioned, he held onto ownership of Lot 702 but he also acquired, in 1896, a ranch in Windermere formerly owned by James Rogers. Mackay re-named the property the “Bighouse Ranch” (often seen as Big House Ranch) 37 a moniker I had assumed was due to a large house on the property but, looking at Colin’s genealogy, seems to have instead come from the ancestral name for his family home (the Bighouse estate) in Scotland.38 Bighouse was auctioned off in May 1901 as a result of a Supreme Court decision tied to finances, with an additional auction of chattel from Bighouse taking place the following year after the Mackays defaulted on a mortgage given to them by Forster.39
Mackay kept ownership, however, of Lot 702, and in 1905 he also preempted another property directly to the south (Lot 11032).40 Colin and his family (there were three children) were still living on Lot 702 in 1921,41 and also held onto Lot 11032 into the 1920s.42
Colin Mackay passed away in June 1926, and is buried at the Windermere Cemetery.43
The Birth of Firlands
Having acquired the Gordon Ranch Harold E. Forster, along with his solicitor J.A. Bangs of Calgary, set about to making some changes. Although it was reported that the ranch was, “doing well with sheep, and last season turned off several flocks of prime mutton,”44 the whole of the sheep flock was promptly sold to a man out of Fort Steele to be replaced with cattle.45 As a result of the sale, Fort Steele residents anticipated “no scarcity of prime mutton,”46 and a newspaper story reports at one time there being some 137 sheep en route south between decks on the steamboat Duchess.47
Before moving permanently to the ranch, Forster had the homestead itself, “considerably enlarged and improved,”48 adding a two story wing to the existing structure, as well as wide verandahs, balconies, and bathrooms. The fourteen room house was “lavishly furnished”, and outside were extensive gardens, a tennis court, and a croquet lawn.49 Forster finally moved onto the ranch in winter 1898/99, by which time an improved wharf (Gordon’s Landing then Forster’s Landing) had been constructed on the Columbia River, and a temporary winter bridge crossed the river itself.50
The name “Firlands” first appears in print in early June 1899, in a record of passengers travelling to and from Golden.51 The reason for choosing the name is unknown.
Although Firlands remained Forster’s permanent home until his death, other occupants of the ranch varied. Staff included, in 1901, a manager (Alexander Hume and family), a carpenter, a couple of general labourers, a teamster, a cook, and a general domestic servant. There were also living at Firlands an engineer and fireman for the operation of Forster’s steamboat, the Selkirk.52
The ranks had shrunk in variety by 1911 when Firlands housed a housekeeper, two domestic servants, and eighteen labourers, all likely working on an irrigation project Forster was then having installed.53 A decade later there were Forster, his wife and three children, and a cook (see post on Frances Forster for more about his family).54
The last evidence we have of the occupants of Firlands is upon Forster’s death, in 1940, when he and his friend, John Lundy, were living together. At that time they spent most of their time in the kitchen, having “closed off” the rest of the house.55
For about a decade after his original purchase, Forster continued to consolidate land. In March 1899 he is reported to have taken up the pre-emption of F Morris, “thus increasing the area of the Gordon Ranch to 2,500 acres.”56 Unfortunately the location of Morris’ pre-emption is unknown.
Just a month later, in April 1899, Forster pre-empted Lot 3947,57 located on the east side of the Columbia River where the “suburbs” of Radium Hot Springs are now built. It is possible that Forster’s original 1897 purchase included the Sinclair Creek lot that James Gordon had acquired by auction, and that this latter pre-emption was made to augment Forster’s holdings on the east side of the river. Forster pre-empted one further east side lot in 1904 (Lot 5111),58 and is also reported to have acquired the adjacent property (Lot 272).59 Together these eastern land holdings (about 1,000 acres) became known as “East Firlands.”
Firlands continued to expand on the west side of the Columbia River as well. In 1899 Forster published his intention to purchase two further lots (Lots 2578 and 2579),60 although he cancelled both applications, and only reapplied for them in 1902.61 In the spring of 1900 Forster also published his intention to purchase Lot 3955,62 but did not make the application until 1909,63 continuing with his common practice of applying to purchase land only to delay the actual transaction. Forster also at one time applied to purchase or is listed as the owner of at least two additional lots (Lot 7763 and 7764).64 (Lots that Forster is known to have acquired directly from the province are coloured red on the map above; those that he acquired in some other way are orange)
These land acquisitions, totalling almost 3,000 acres of property, were only a part of Forster’s eventual holdings. Back in March 1899 a newspaper note mentions his holdings already at 2,500 acres,65 and I have been unable to account for that much property at that time. Then, when just the West Firlands property was sold in 1945 (not counting the 1,000 acres of East Firlands), it was said to contain 4,300 acres. Safe to say that this part of the story is very much incomplete.66
As the new century began, development at Firlands also began in earnest, and in spring 1900 Forster began a project to build a dam on No 2 (Forster) Creek in order to aid in irrigation of the ranch.67
The plan for the dam remains somewhat obscure, as all in depth descriptions of the structure come much later. According to two newspaper articles written in 1945, the structure was, “a log dam eighty feet high,” that was apparently planned by Forster with Frederick Whitworth Aylmer as engineer and local David Bales in charge of the construction.68
Behind the dam a 400 foot (120 metre) rock tunnel was built, reportedly to divert water to the property, with the presumption that the dam was intended to raise the water level enough to reach the mouth of the tunnel, and then for gravity to distribute water down to the ranch property.69 Forster applied for 5000 inches of water to be used on Firlands Ranch in January 1900, presumably for this project.70
The dam project was unsuccessful. According to one of these sources, the dam had been completed and “water started through the tunnel,” when the structure collapsed.71 A brief contemporary source paints a dramatic picture, with the dam having broken away at the bottom and the resulting rush of water carrying away all of the bridges on the creek below it.72
The failure of the irrigation project was a blow, and might in part explain the delay in land acquisition at Firlands. Although hopes were expressed that the dam might be re-built, it wasn’t, and it was about a decade before another irrigation project of any description was begun on Firlands.
This second attempt at irrigation was solidified in spring 1912 with the incorporation of “The Firlands Irrigation and Power Company Limited.” With a capital of $10,000, the company’s aims were varied, including not just activity to do with water (and power) but also a tramway, telegraph, telephone systems, and lines.73 The company applied for a license to take and use 150 cubic feet of water per second out of No 2 (Forster) Creek, diverting the water above the falls “about 200 yards west of the southwest corner of Lot 700,” to be used for “power purposes” on Lot 700.74 That autumn, an application was also filed to divert water for irrigation on Lots 700 and 701.75
According to a contemporary reported, the irrigation system was to be mainly through open ditches, save for occasional flumes or syphons, with the main ditch being over 6.5 miles (10 km) in length. By this point (January 1913) the irrigation system was “among the largest private works of this character in the province,” and was to be completed in July.76
It’s unclear how much of the irrigation project was actually brought into operation, but as a general statement it was a failure,77 (frustratingly, I have been unable to find any source explaining how it failed). The Firlands Irrigation and Power Company was struck off the Provincial Register of Companies on 23 April 1919.78 Some of the wooden flumes used on Firlands, possibly as part of this irrigation system, were purchased in the mid 1930s by the Harry Sykes family and transported down river to be used on their farm at Spillimacheen.79
There were other engineering and development projects begun around Firlands as well. In 1901 a government wagon road was surveyed between Peterborough (Wilmer) and Firlands,80 with construction taking place in 1902-1904.81 The road was built for settlers, there being “about 12” of them on the route, although it is likely that the size of Firlands and Forster’s personal wealth also had a good deal to do with this allocation of provincial funding.82
As another road construction project, Forster also proposed in 1903 a route change of the main government road on the east side of the Columbia River to avoid the “Sinclair grade”. This grade had “always been the dread of teamsters hauling freight.”83
As context, the original government road approached what is now the town of Radium Hot Springs from the north by going down into the Sinclair Creek valley (along what later became the access road to Canyon Campground). After crossing Sinclair creek, the road switch-backed directly back up the face of the hill, past the now Radium Chalet, to narrowly bypass the current location of Redstreak Campground before carrying south towards Dry Gulch through the present Radium Golf Course. This route totalled about 140 meters of steep elevation gain out of the Sinclair Creek Valley – not nothing for a full load pulled by horses (in comparison, you will gain about 40 meters elevation if you climb up from Canyon Campground to Highway 93).
Forster’s proposal was to extend the Wilmer wagon road past Firlands and on towards Sinclair, branching “from the new road along the bottoms to where Mr Forster has built a substantial floating bridge, where Columbia River would be crossed and thence along the east side of the river to below Sinclair pass and up to the main road.”84 The route would be shorter and have fewer hills, but unfortunately would only be a winter road (the floating bridge across the Columbia had to be removed during steamboat season). The spirit of this proposal, at least, can now be found in the Westside road between Wilmer and Radium, but it was not immediately adopted in 1903.
In other, more practical developments, in spring 1902 steps were taken to construct a phone line from Forster’s Peterborough Trading Co store in Wilmer to Firlands.85 The line was completed in early 1903.86
Dissolution of Forster’s Ranch
There are many questions remaining as to the sale of various pieces of land at Firlands. In 1927, facing financial difficulties thanks to investing in a good number of unsuccessful mining ventures, Forster sold East Firlands to E.E. Tretheway of Vancouver. The property was then around 960 acres and encompassed the road (Forster’s Landing Road) from the railway depot (East Firlands) leading up to the Banff-Windermere Highway (Hwy 93). Tretheway reportedly aimed to put up new buildings and to run milk cows on the property.87
Tretheway owned the ranch until 1947, when it was purchased by Mr and Mrs Edward Thouret, who in turn sold it to Kirk Ltd in 1958. A far step from cattle ranching, Kirk Ltd intended to use the ranch as a Christmas tree yard.88 It’s unknown what the borders of the ranch were at this time.
Forster died in 1940, and his house at Firlands was burnt down in the aftermath (there’s a whole post on this). In the years immediately following, through the end of the Second World War, the ranch at West Firlands lay abandoned. It was finally sold in December 1945 to T.W. Appleby for the purpose of running livestock and opening a dude ranch. The ranch was then reportedly 4,300 acres and had “as colorful a history as any in British Columbia.”89
The ranch was sold again (with an unknown size) in 1954 to Stanley and Phyllis Gibb, who held it until 1989. In that time it was a mixed farming enterprise known as “The Gibb Ranch”, and had a large garden, saddle horses, and 130 head of cattle. The Gibbs sold it to Gene Garbowski, in 1989, who re-named it the Double G Ranch, and ran about 150 head of cattle.90
Ownership of the ranch gets a bit hazy after Garbowski sold it in 1998. In January 1999 the company Firlands Ranch Ltd was registered in Vancouver with is directors living in Calgary and North Vancouver. By this time it reportedly encompassed five property titles and totalled 846 acres, selling for $1.5 million.91
The property was again put up for sale, by auction, in the spring of 2002, with its owners hoping for something closer to $4 million. By this time the property included a five bedroom $1 million log house (built c.1999) that overlooked the wetlands and included a hearth made from salvaged brick from the original house (interestingly: this could be part of a brick fireplace mentioned as being built in 1900 by John Hopkins Taynton, possibly from brick made at his Canterbury brick yard92). One of the original barns also stood, and there was a manager’s house, a cookhouse, swimming pool, sauna, volleyball court, and blacksmith shop.93). Only one formal bid was registered, although with newspaper publicity directly before the sale, two further parties were reported as being “prepared to bid.”94
None of these offers seem to have gone through, however, as the property was again advertised (this time with mention of an airstrip) in the spring of 2003 for close to $4 million,95 and again in February 2004 “with all the amens & toys.”96 When Firlands did finally sell, its new owners once again combined its operations as both a working cattle ranch and a luxury accommodation option.
As I said at the top, this is not a complete history of Firlands (that would probably require a book), but hopefully it gives a taste! And the next post will be completely unrelated to Harold Forster because, let’s face it, it’s time to move on.
Harold E. Forster 1 (his life)
Harold E. Forster 2 (his death)
The Taynton Brothers
Frederick Whitworth Aylmer
Hi, as the ‘Croughly’ Gordon family archivist by default, I can provide you with much more details about each of the three Gordon brothers mentioned above if you’re interested to know more. Regards, Alistair Gordon
Hi Alistair, I’m very interested in learning more! Can you send me an email at email@example.com ?