Windermere Townsite, Windermere District, Windermere Lake
Windermere, “claims justly, that there is no more beautiful townsite on earth than her own. She is modest about it, is Windermere, and she never institutes comparisons which are invariably odious.”53
This is the second of two posts about the history of Windermere. For Part 1, see here.
As we left off, Lot 8, encompassing the townsite of Windermere, was owned by the “Parker Company” (Edmund Parker and likely Arthur W Vowell). The owners had the property surveyed in 1885 and sold 8.5 acres to the Provincial Government, on which construction began in 1886 on “Government House”. This coincided with a rapid growth of settler activity in the Valley, and the area around Government House – the Windermere Townsite – quickly became an economic hub.
This post will focus on the growth of the Windermere townsite, limits to that growth, and of course close with some descriptions.
A Nascent Townsite
In 1887 the lonely Government buildings were joined by a small, log hotel built by George Starke (the Windermere Hotel). At this time the hotel was little more than a house, with just two rooms, a kitchen, and a loft.1
There was also a two-roomed store, a somewhat ramshackle affair owned/operated by James Brady and George Goldie that would also become the location for the first Windermere post office, on 1 October 1887, under the operation of James Brady.2 This store was built quickly in response to need: in the summer of 1887 the kitchen for the store was outside, in a “picturesque open-air” structure.3
Growth and Changes
The Windermere townsite grew slowly. In mid 1890, the Windermere Hotel was taken over by George Geary and James Stoddart, and within a few years Stoddart took over the business entirely. Geary, however, stayed in town for a few more years in what became known as “Geary House”. By 1893 he was working as a mail carrier and the village blacksmith.
There were other changes in 1890 as well. The Brady/Goldie store was bought out by Rufus A. Kimpton and, beginning that October, was operated for a number of years by Rufus’ brother, Dan, who was joined in Windermere by their sister, Emma.4 There was also, in 1893, a harness maker (James Lambert), a carpenter and, most importantly, a “half mile kite-shaped race-track,” for horse racing – long a very popular pastime in the valley.5
Ownership of the Lot 8 townsite, meanwhile, is somewhat unclear during this period. At some point, R.L.T. Galbraith acquired the entire lot – recall that Galbraith purchased Government House and the 8.5 acres it stood on in 1890 – but the timeline for Galbraith’s acquisition of Lot 8 itself is uncertain. A newspaper article in 1893 states that Galbraith was the owner of the townsite,6 but documentation filed by subsequent owners to prove their title to the property notes that ownership of the lot didn’t officially transfer from Parker to Galbraith until 22 December 1897, when Galbraith purchased it.7
Meanwhile, by 1897, both Parker and Vowell had moved on. Arthur Vowell had taken a role with the Dominion Government as Indian Superintendent in British Columbia in 1889,8 and Edmund Parker had moved south to Fort Steele by spring 1891.9 In late 1899/early 1900 Parker was a recruiter for the South African War and also went overseas himself. He was killed there in 1900, either as the result of tragic heroism or extreme stupidity, depending on one’s opinion.10
Regardless of who owned the townsite, however, a hands off approach was taken towards development. The unexpected death in 1893 of rancher James Mahon Rogers saw the first burial to the Windermere Cemetery (the funeral became a double one when Robert Thornbury, on horseback on his way to dig the grave, died suddenly in the saddle).11 The cemetery itself, however, was not generally surveyed until 1900 (laying out separate burial sections for Protestant, Catholic, and Other Denominations), and individual plots were not surveyed until the mid 1920s (I have an entire booklet The Windermere Cemetery dedicated to determining who is buried in the cemetery and where – there remains much confusion).
Meanwhile, downtown Windermere continued to slowly expand through the 1890s, with the first dedicated built church, the Presbyterian Church, added in 1895.12 A couple of storehouses were also built,13 as was a second store in late 1896.14 These later additions marked a change that Windermere residents did not expect: the appearance of crowds of people.
Sleepy Windermere was “startled [out of its] … repose,” in 1897, as an unprecedented wave of mining prospectors descended on the district. As one newspaper commentator remarked, “There has been no such stir in this region since the old placer excitement. … Even the mining recorder looks alert and is hourly expecting a prospector to come in and record a claim.”15
This new prospecting activity was primarily centred up Toby and later Horsethief creeks but, as Windermere was the location of the Mining Recorder’s office, and as Windermere was then the nearest commercial centre from where one might purchase provisions and supplies, it became a happening place. At the Windermere Hotel in autumn 1897, “in order to accommodate the callers, the dining table was repeatedly filled, and at night the floors had to be littered with shakedowns, every bed in the house being occupied.”16 The following spring (1898), another hostelry was opened, the Lakeside Hotel, in buildings formerly occupied by George Geary,17 and an addition was made to the Windermere Hotel in the summer of 1899.
Even as Windermere business boomed, however, the mining buzz also generated competition. Toby and Horsethief Creeks were located on the opposite side of the un-bridged Columbia River from Windermere, as well as an inconvenient distance away. Savvy land speculators and promoters noted the opportunity for a commercial centre more convenient to the mining activity itself, and very quickly a handful of new townsites were formed to compete for supremacy. The first of these to be announced was Copper City (later Canterbury then Invermere), at the end of August/beginning of September 1898, followed closely by Athalmer, and joined by Columbia City (later Peterborough then Wilmer) by the end of the year.
The emergence of these upstart townsites was a catalyst for some development in Windermere. By this time Galbraith had acquired the lot, but he did not immediately bother to promote it or to micromanage the goings of the townsite itself. As one prospector noted, in late 1898, “Windermere has all the features of a mining camp and the dwelling houses are dotted over the townsite with but little regard for the direction of the streets.”18
It is only in the spring of 1899, after the three competing townsites emerged as a threat, that Galbraith found other investors to form the Windermere Townsite Company. It was announced that the townsite would again be surveyed and lots placed on the market,19 with improvements required in order “to keep up with Copper.”20
The “new townsite” was laid out beginning that April,21 and lots were immediately placed on the market with H.F. Collett (who was also invested in the Red Line Mine) as agent.22 In a step more in keeping with active promotion of a town, Galbraith had an office constructed for the townsite company, across from the Mining Recorder’s office,23 and the sale of lots, once available and promoted, was reportedly brisk.24 It helped that Windermere had, “the prestige of being the oldest town in the region,” and was already home to hotels, stores, and the Government buildings.25
Windermere residents, too, further added to the townsite. In the summer of 1900 St Peter’s Anglican Church, brought south from Donald (just north of Golden), was re-erected in Windermere.26 The Kimpton family home (the White House) was also brought south from Donald that summer, and was re-erected on the main street. The presence now of both an Anglican and Presbyterian church prompted the sometimes used moniker of Windermere as, “the city of churches.”27 Both a town hall28 and a new school house 29 were also added, as were a number of “prettily designed homes surrounded by lawns and flower gardens.”30
A Losing Battle
But with competition, Windermere lost its de-facto supremacy, and it was Peterborough (Wilmer) that saw the first hospital in the district opened at the end of May 1900.31 Then, in June 1904, came the shocking news that the Mining Recording office was to be moved from Windermere to Wilmer at the beginning of July (although a secondary mining recorder was initially placed at Windermere).32
Windermere received a further blow as the survey route of the Kootenay Central Railway was laid out. The initial survey at the end of 1904 traced the east side of Lake Windermere,33 but this suddenly changed a few months later to follow the west side instead, a decision that “came as quite a surprise to people here.”34 That survey on the west side was done more thoroughly in 1907,35 and is where the line was ultimately constructed, by-passing the Windermere townsite entirely.
As the first decade of the century continued, quiet returned to life in Windermere.
The Orchard Craze
There was another stirring of excitement in the Windermere Valley when, beginning in about 1909, investors and promoters joined in marketing property for the purpose of fruit farming. This activity centred on the Toby Benches above Wilmer and around the newly formed town of Edgewater, but Windermere also took part. On 26 June 1911 the Windermere Orchards Company was incorporated, and the Windermere Townsite Company (under Galbraith) sold all of its assets to the new venture.
Despite its name, the goals of the new company were not focused entirely on orchards. In what seems to have been a typical pattern at the time, the Windermere Orchards Company wrote as its founding purpose not only fruit growing and canning, but also real estate, insurance, transportation (roads and water), building construction, electricity, water rights, and operating as merchants/hotel keepers.36
The signing members of the original memorandum to form the company included Hugh Macdonald (Golden barrister), W Heap Holland (then owner of Fairmont springs), Bernard Monk (Wilmer clerk), R Randolph Bruce (civil engineer, Wilmer), and Gerald Meyer (Clerk, Golden).37 Note that none of these individuals actually lived in Windermere: the head offices for the company were, perhaps ironically, located in Wilmer.
The new company promptly began yet another survey of Lot 8,38 laying out “a most charming and attractive subdivision,”39 with the property separated into what the company referred to as the Windermere Townsite and Windermere Heights. The orchard part of the name never really took off, although it’s also unclear how hard its directors promoted that part of the venture. Still, Windermere Orchards Ltd remained around until 1958, when it was finally struck of the Provincial register.40
Even through the fruit farming excitement, however, Windermere never quite showed the same booming bustle as its neighbours (or at least that’s the conclusion made by outsiders). In 1912, as the freshly renamed townsite of Invermere burst into being across the lake, the editor of the local newspaper writes:
And somehow the peace and quietness of the place brought to my mind the words of the twenty-third Psalm: “He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
At present Windermere is Arcadia, where all the women are beautiful and the men brave.
If I had visited Windermere on a week day instead of on a Sunday, probably I should have written something quite different from what I am writing now.
I should have written of its trade which I know is considerable and of the very excellent farming carried on in its neighbourhood and of its bright future.
But I was there on a Sunday and my recollection of Windermere are peace and quietness, green pastures and still waters.41
The valley quieted again with the outbreak of the First World War, as many residents of the area left to fight overseas. After the war, the town of Windermere carried quietly on. In 1923 J.C. Pitts sold his general store business to David Larmour (Pitts had bought out Rufus Kimpton in spring 1904),42 and the following year the Windermere Cemetery Company was formed to take over management of the oft-neglected site (this is when a survey of plots was carried out).43
In an exciting development for Windermere, in 1924-25 the Government of Canada prepared to move its local Experimental Farm (an agricultural research station) from its original location at Invermere to a new location behind Windermere (including Lot 108, directly adjacent to Lot 8).44 The Experimental Farm stayed in Windermere for a decade, closing in 1936.
In addition to its agricultural mainstay Windermere also began, over time, to more fully embrace its potential as a travel destination. In 1923 yet another addition was made to the Windermere Hotel to accommodate for tourist traffic along the newly opened Banff-Windermere Highway. As the decades went on, Windermere’s lakefront location also made it an ideal location to host a growing number of summer homes.
This was not exactly a new idea. Back in the summer of 1906 the writer of the local newspaper suggested that, “A number of cottages should be built along the shore of Windermere lake for tourists. Already we hear of tourists wanting such places, and some have turned away this year simply because they could not get such accommodation.”45
The idea proceeded forward on “valley time” and, beginning in 1939, Walter Stoddart developed a beach front subdivision of around fifty summer homes that became known as Calberly (a combination of “Calgary” and “Kimberley” as it was popular with those residents).46 It was a small first step that, today, sees much of Lot 8 criss-crossed with roads and various subdivisions, with many houses being holiday homes.
Further Descriptions of Windermere
There is a certain breathless quality to early descriptions of Windermere. As early as January 1885 Parker’s Lot 8 is described as, “one of the most desirable [tracts] in that country,”47 and just over two years later as, “a fine site for a town.”48
Further high praise is later offered that the town of Windermere is, “not unworthy of the name,”49 and, “is the prettiest site on the Columbia.”50 This praise was not unique, as another description expands this comparison with Windermere being, “the most beautiful location in all of the Kootenays.”51
The scenery remained a powerful attractant, and various writers attempted to suitably describe its appeal. As one prospector notes, “The surroundings are Alpine: the town is located as it were on a high bank overlooking a lovely sheet of water. Away to the north and south extends a beautiful valley dotted here and there with flourishing ranches and farm houses, and to the east and west rise the towering craggy peaks of the two great chains of mountains.”52
There is slightly more colourful language used in a later newspaper article which notes that Windermere, “claims justly, that there is no more beautiful townsite on earth than her own. She is modest about it, is Windermere, and she never institutes comparisons which are invariably odious…. Let us rhapsodize a few rhaps. Picture to yourself a little town on broad bench lands. Before it a gem of a lake with the slow white mists rising from it beneath the morning sun, as the breath fades from a mirror; or at evening, after a summer shower, its surface glowing in crimson and rose, afire with the westing sun, twin rainbows looped against the foot of the Rockies, a landscape drenched in lights of green and gold. Beyond the lake, as you look westwards, lie the Selkirks, the foothills stopping at timber line clothes in the dark garments of fir and spruce and tamarac and the lighter green of cottonwoods.”53
This juxtaposition of the townsite and the lake was frequently highlighted. One viewer in 1899 states that, “Nothing could exceed the beauty of the lake, which nestles and shimmers before it [Windermere]. Seen as the writer once saw it, in the glow of an autumn sunlight, its unruffled surface mirroring ten thousand feet deep the glorious peaks, of the adjacent Rocky mountains on whose tips and flanks the sun was shining with a glow and brilliancy of varying color, it is matchless and indescribable!”54
A more clinical description, from H.W. Gleason in 1919, notes that, “Both lakes [Columbia and Windermere] are charming in outline, and present, under varying conditions of storm and calm, sunlight and shadow, a never-ending succession of pleasing effects. Seldom does one find a combination of mountain, lake and open woodland so profoundly appealing and so commandingly beautiful. Especially noteworthy are those days when there is a gathering of clouds, now on one range and now on the other.”55
And on that note, while acknowledging that we can always “rhapsodize a few [more] rhaps” about Windermere, we’ll leave the story there for now.
Oh, and the Windermere Valley Museum has a historical walking tour of Windermere, which you can find here.