Canada’s first national park was the outcome of an accidental discovery: three railway workers who stumbled across a natural hot spring in the Rocky Mountains.
The Rocky Mountains region is one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations, featuring snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, rolling alpine meadows, and much uncommon wildlife. Skiers come in winter, hikers in summer; year round tourists of all types come to enjoy the scenery.
One of the main visitor hubs is Banff, located within the National Park of the same name. This pleasant village has a modern veneer, while still only a few minutes from its pristine natural surroundings.
Banff National Park was Canada’s first, established in 1885. Its creation was the accidental outcome of a chance discovery by three railway workers.
A key moment in Canada’s history came with the building of the Transcontinental railway. This was more than just a project that brought economic benefits, it helped shape the country.
Canada had been a territory of France, and then England. But in 1867, four British colonies were granted self-government and unified under the label, ‘The Dominion of Canada’.
Full independence from Britain was the long term aspiration, in the short term the new Canadian government sought to consolidate and expand their territory.
British Columbia, a colony on the west coast, had not originally joined with the others. But the first Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was determined to entice them in.
One of MacDonald’s bargaining chips was a national coast-to-coast railway, which his government proposed. British Columbia at this time was only reachable by boat; in 1871 they agreed to join the Dominion, as long as the railway went ahead, linking them to the rest of the country.
MacDonald set an ambitious timeframe of ten years for the line’s completion, a deadline that would be missed.
The Transcontinental railway was an enormously difficult project, beset with cost blowouts and delays. Much of the required territory, particularly in the west, was uninhabited by Europeans and consisted of old growth forests, mountains ranges and untamed rivers.
Different contractors came and went; MacDonald himself was voted out of office and then returned. But progress was made, and by the early 1880s the line was advancing towards the Rocky Mountains.
The latest contractor, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), had selected the Bow River Valley for the route in this section. The Bow River ran from glaciers in the Rockies, through an alpine valley, and then on to the Great Lakes.
While First Nations people had lived in the valley for thousands of years, there were no permanent European settlements.
Although it was not entirely unknown to westerners: prospectors and explorers had passed through earlier in the century.
A small army of rail corps employees began arriving in 1881, and set to work felling trees and laying track.
Among their number were Frank McCabe and Tom McCardell, adventurous, knockabout types who joined the railroad in 1882. The pair became friends while working a variety of construction jobs together.
By 1883, McCabe had been made a supervisor, and brought McCardell, and his brother William, on as his assistants. The trio formed a small advance party ahead of the main rail group, scouting locations for the line to enter the mountains.
In their own time they hunted, explored, and did a little prospecting.
On August 7, 1883, the group were exploring an unnamed mountain near the Bow River. They were surprised to discover a small stream of warm water at the base of the mountain; flowing gently, the water steamed, and gave off a pungent odour like sulphur.
Tracing the stream uphill, they found it disappeared into a hole in the ground, about the size of a man’s torso.
‘Out of a circular basin, jammed full of logs, seeped this warm water. After de-limbing a pine to use as a makeshift ladder, Billy (William McCardell) lit a candle and descended the tree, to view one of the grandest sights men had ever beheld.’
– Tom McCardell, recounting the discovery
This opening would subsequently be called, ‘The Basin’.
All three men descended the tree-ladder, and found that The Basin was connected to a much larger cave, about thirty or forty feet high. Here the warm water flowing out of the ground had pooled, deep enough to bathe in.
McCabe and the McCardells had discovered a natural mineral spring. Almost immediately, the three men sensed a business opportunity.
By the late 19th century, soaking in mineral springs had become a well-established activity, both for leisure and health reasons. McCabe judged that people would be willing to pay to bathe in the waters he had helped discover.
He stayed on at the site after his friends departed, and erected a wooden shack near the entrance to the cave, which he optimistically labelled a ‘hotel’. He also filed a claim with the Dominion of Canada, asserting ownership of the land.
Word of the discovery quickly got out.
David Keefe, another railway construction worker, heard about the mineral spring and made his way to the location in October 1884. Shooed away from the cave by McCabe, he found another outpouring of water from the same spring further up the mountain, and built his own shack nearby.
At least two other railway employees did the same. Lacking a natural pool to collect water for bathing, these later arrivals built their own artificial pools out of logs.
They also began exploring ways to assert a legal hold on the land. One option was to file a claim for mining rights, and all of the men on ‘Sulphur Mountain’, as it came to be known, did some prospecting and submitted their paperwork.
By 1885, the railway had started operating in the valley and the hot springs found a wider audience: the plumes of steam could be seen from the train line, and generated much discussion.
On March 1 of that year, a reporter from the Calgary ‘Herald’ investigated.
Leaving the train in the valley, the reporter’s small party crossed the Bow River and followed a trail to the hot spring. There they met McCabe, who showed off his ‘hotel’ and helped the group descend into the cave.
‘I found myself in a vault-like dome where crystals glittered in every direction, and threw a thousand lights about. (There was) a pool about 10 feet square, and 4 to 8 feet deep, a sulphur spring of undoubted quality. The water was so hot I could boil an egg in it.’
– Calgary ‘Herald’, March 16, 1885
The article went on to detail a restorative soak and ended by calling the springs, ‘the district’s most wonderful natural curiosity’.
Interest in the hot springs surged.
Despite its still remote location, and primitive facilities on site, visitor numbers increased rapidly. Sightseers, or invalids seeking treatment, made their way to Sulphur Mountain by train, or multi-day horseback ride.
Visitors also came in an official capacity.
Among these was the General Manager of the CPR syndicate, William Cornelius Van Horne. A portly man, Van Horne inspected the springs in mid 1885 and was lowered into the cave by McCabe and McArdell, via a rope tied around his waist.
He would later say, the springs were ‘worth a million dollars.’
This headline making statement hid a deeper meaning: CPR had been granted substantial rights to the land adjacent to the railway, to help offset costs of construction, and Van Horne meant to claim the site for the company.
Other claimants continued to make their case.
In March 1885, McCabe wrote to the Minister of the Interior, asserting that he and his business partners had sole ownership of the springs. David Keefe and another frontiersman-cum-entrepreneur, Theodore Sebring, followed with their own letters.
Thomas Healy and Pete Younge, both among the original European explorers of the valley, both informed the press that they had actually discovered the springs a decade before McCabe. Neither had formally claimed the land at the time, but wished to do so now.
They offered diaries, sketches, and hand drawn maps as proof.
Complicating the matter further, some of the aspiring rights holders attempted to sell their claims on to other parties, before their validity had been determined. Even McCabe was tempted by an offer of $1500 cash to surrender his claim, before he backed out of the deal.
Lawyers were engaged and the matter appeared headed for the courts.
In this escalating situation, the government decided to intervene. The authorities were also concerned about potential damage to the springs themselves, if development of the area remained unregulated.
In June 1885, J.M.Gordon, of the Dominion Lands Department, visited the springs to provide an initial assessment. A larger party containing several members of Parliament came the following month.
Gordon’s report indicated that most of the people in the area acknowledged McCabe as the hot springs’ discoverer. But analysis by the Interior Ministry advised his claim likely had no legal basis: rights on unclaimed land were only provided for in the case of a mineral discovery.
None of the prospecting on Sulphur Mountain had found gold or anything else that would fit that category.
The Ministry then offered an alternative: the springs could be preserved as a ‘public park’, and taken under government ownership.
National Parks were still a new idea at the time. The world’s first, at Yellowstone in northwest Wyoming, had only been proclaimed a decade beforehand, in 1872.
The Minister for the Interior, Thomas White, visited the springs in August and subsequently declared this was his favoured plan for the area. The Prime Minister, a re-elected MacDonald, accepted this proposal.
William Cornelius Van Horne was also a vocal supporter.
On November 25, 1885, the Canadian Parliament approved their first National Park, setting aside 26 square kilometres on Sulphur Mountain for public use.
This thwarted the ambitions of McCabe, McArdle, Keefe and the other claimants, who now pressed the government for compensation. A subsequent enquiry affirmed that none of the springs’ many discoverers had any legal claim to the land, but some small settlements were paid to resolve the issue.
McCabe was given $675 for his efforts in developing the spring, and told he had to dismantle his hotel. The other makeshift properties and pools were also cleared away.
The new National Park, and an adjacent small town, were both named Banff; this was after Banffshire, Scotland, birthplace of two directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The company now exerted their influence over the region.
To service tourists visiting the hot springs, a large, luxury hotel was built a short distance away. Named the ‘Banff Springs Hotel’, this was the brainchild of Van Horne; with the other claimants to the spring out of the way, he was now free to use railway land to corner the fledgling tourist market.
The springs proved immediately popular. Within two years, annual visitors to this remote location numbered 5 000 per year; by 1905, it was 30 000.
The Banff Hot Springs today are accessed via a modern building on the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain, roughly where David Keefe situated his claim. The Banff Springs Hotel still stands nearby and is a striking sight: a gothic, turreted structure, towering over the rapids of the Bow River below.
The Cave and Basin can still be seen in their original condition, a few kilometres away. No swimming is allowed at this location.