A Walk Through Banff History - Walking Points

1) Banff Springs Hotel (viewpoint)
Without a doubt, this CP Hotel exudes elegance and prestige... the epitome of decadence in this pristine park environment. An attraction for the rich, a place that seems rife with elitism and extravagance. Charlie had a 1920s promotional brochure from the hotel folded and tucked in her diary - a quote from it read: "Here only a generation ago, the red man danced around tribal campfires." Another quote, referring to the dining room stated: "Evening dress is optional, but for your protection, guests without jackets and ties - or wearing shorts - are not seated at any time." Such promotional material certainly makes me cringe.

There was no promotional material however, that indicated the way their staff was treated in the early days. Charlie learned soon after she arrived what a sticky situation she had got herself into, as had so many other young girls. First, the hotel would not send them back home on the train if they wanted to leave; they were stuck unless they paid their own way. And their pay was so minimal that it became difficult to try and save enough to pay their own fare without working for months. The working conditions were appalling. The meals the staff was served were dismal. The staff and crews were housed in ramshackle out-buildings. Men and women were placed in the same buildings with just thin board partitions between them. The male crew tended to harass the girls late at night and the hotel would not intervene or offer protection in anyway. The girls sought ways out to avoid the abuse and constant threat of rape. Some girls would to try to provoke a discharge so that the hotel would send them home, but with no success. Those that could, arranged to have money sent to them from home to cover their fare. Others simply left for different work if possible. Some girls ended up in brothels (although less active since the closure of the mine, prostitution was still a discreet service available for those who knew where to look). The girls who sought work in the brothels were treated better and with more respect than at the hotel, and there was certainly no misconception about their role or their own decisions in the choices they made. Charlie, however, had a different tactic. She left after 6 weeks at the hotel, in the disguise of a man. Charlie was an androgynous-looking, tall woman, and strong from her years growing up on the farm. As a part of housekeeping staff she had been able to secret away bits and pieces of men's clothing over time, and eventually she just walked away one day as a man, to go and find work elsewhere which was much easier as a man than as a woman. She ended up quite happily working in a series of labour jobs and sustained herself that way that way over the next several years.

2) Bow Falls / Fish Hatchery (viewpoint)
Within Charlie's diaries there were several mentions of the falls in relation to various things. Certainly it's a site of fascination for both locals and tourists. Above the falls on the other side of the river was the location of the fish hatchery. Charlie worked at the Fish hatchery as a miscellaneous labourer in 1931 and '32, shortly after the hatchery operations were turned over to the Department of the Interior so she performed her duties under the park superintendent. The hatchery provided fish stocks to supplement the various bodies of water in the park with assorted trout, and a large amount of salmon fry were bred for Lake Minnewanka tourist fishing.

In the late 1950s, Atlantic salmon were imported from eastern Canada and introduced to the Parks lakes and streams. There was a period of disruption to the hatchery in 1947 following the chlorination of the town's water supply. The waste-water, fed back into the Bow had a disastrous affect on the fish. Despite difficulties with the fish hatchery in relation to the water supply and other challenges, a Park Warden in 1946, J.E.Stenton, undertook an experiment to develop a hybrid fish utilizing lake trout and eastern brook trout. He succeeded the following year and later a variety of hybrid fish were developed through Banff and Jasper hatcheries. The original hatchery closed in 1956 and alternative fish culture operations were transferred to other locations. Incidentally, in the weeks leading up to this walk there were articles in the paper stating that Parks Canada wants to poison the non-native trout in the Devon Lakes in this park (which had been introduced by the hatcheries some 40 - 50 years ago) to try an encourage the 'restoration' of the native fish. How they can be sure that the chemicals don't do damage to the desired species down river is beyond me, but they do plan to post signs that warn hikers not to drink the water.

Given this early interest here in species hybridization and experimentation, one is led to wonder if perhaps the merman specimen on display at the Indian Trading Post might not be the result of some kind of early DNA interbreeding experiment.

3) Along the Bow River
Here, as we look out to the lovely Bow I want to offer some other insights into Banff's use of the river. There were several occasions within Charlie's diary that she would mention how her walks along the river were marred by unpleasant odors. Up until the 1970 construction of a sewage lagoon, the town-site's sewage wastes were pumped directly into the Bow River immediately above the falls. Sewage odor around the Bow Falls area have been a constant complaint for decades, as it seems that dealing with sewage was mostly an ad hoc process with little preplanning for the tremendous growth of Banff and the huge number of tourists visiting. Smells increase with high precipitation and snow melt as well as the increase in visitors. The park has literally millions of visitors each year and it's little wonder that the sewer system had trouble keeping up with the summer influx. As recently as the 80's the tourism facilities were so overburdened that raw sewage was being dumped into the Bow - people reported both visual as well as olfactory confirmation of that practice. When the town became semi-autonomous from the Park in 1990 it improved the sewage system considerably from Parks Canada's previous infrastructure. There are still gas venting pipes that pose odor problems; and sewage issues continue in other areas, such as the Tunnel Mountain Campground, but certainly within the town itself, the committees have sought ways to improve the previous situation.

4) Royal Canadian Legion, Colonel Moore Branch # 26
This site had the first legion built on it in 1923, after previously having had a club-room on the second floor of the Dave White store building across the street. In 1960 a fire destroyed the original building and they rebuilt this structure on the site in 1962.

During WW II there were 411 enlistments from Banff, 25 of whom were women. And of course Charlie knew some of the enlisted, in fact a couple of her friends encouraged her to sign up too, but she new she'd never be able to successfully continue her disguise as a man if she joined the army and she was not prepared to reveal her true identity. So on the home front she participated in any way she could and helped out with the 4 English children that came to stay in Banff for the duration of the war. The town of Banff had offered places for 50 children to come from England. Charlie spoke of the rations and the fact that there was no sliced bread available during the war.

The newspaper journalists in 1943 were anticipating that the national park would attract a larger tourist crowd after the end of the war than ever before. The military were getting glimpses of Canada that they would recommend to their friends and family once vacation travel became part of their lives once again. A quote from one of the Crag & Canyon articles at that time states: "Canada's principal attractions - scenery and climate - constitute a resource of almost infinite expansion... the beauty of mountain and spring, the solace of quietness, the invigoration of cool fresh air, are literally everlasting. Canada is fortunate in possessing these vacation assets on an almost unlimited scale and in having assured their preservation for the use of the public by setting the best of them aside as national parks. Not only have they been set aside, they have been made accessible. Almost every year new areas designed by nature to delight the soul of the vacationist are being opened up to the motorist. The national parks will play a role in bridging the gap between war and the economy as lives evolve when the war is over." That notion of everlasting unlimited scale and accessibility seems like an oxymoron when speaking about preservation in the same sentence, yet it addresses the perspective at the time.

Also, the Banff Springs Hotel was packed up and closed for the duration of the war. The few staff left to do the final cleaning found it disheartening to close down such a majestic structure but with wartime travel restrictions it could not remain open. The windows were shuttered and 'No Trespassing' signs blocked the entrances to the grounds. The golf course remained open during the summers.

5) Banff Museum / Banff Central Park Zoo site
The Banff Zoo was built by the Banff Museum in 1905 on the grounds behind, and it included a large aviary for birds. Clearly the zoo was not a conservation project as many of the animals were exotic or non-native species as well as a variety of local animals. It was at its peak around 1914 when it contained 50 mammals and 36 birds. Although the zoo was gradually re-housing some of its animals at other zoos in the 1920s, in 1937 the National Park administration decided that a zoo was not a desirable feature. Certainly the local animals could be seen more appropriately in the wild, and the spectacle of any animals and birds being maintained in captivity in a national park was inconsistent and disconcerting. The zoo closed at the end of the 1937 season and all remaining animals were either liberated or sent to other zoos. The cages, ponds, and dens were dismantled and in 1939 the area became a picnic site and playground for day visitors. The buffalo paddock at the base of Cascade Mountain continued to be maintained.

Charlie had an interest in the zoo and actually had worked there for a couple of years cleaning cages and feeding the animals. She was however fully supportive of it being dismantled because it always perplexed her and she was concerned for the animals. She did indicate within her diaries sadness at learning that one of the feature animals, Buddy the polar bear who was moved to the Calgary zoo in April, 1938, died of pneumonia in 1939, a little over a year after he'd been moved.

Incidentally, the Buffalo paddock at the base of Cascade was the topic of a later controversy in the 1970s when it was determined that the buffalo should be moved because the paddock was situated in an area identified as critical to wildlife movement. The buffalo, all pure wood bison unaffected by the more prevalent prairie bison, were moved to areas with other wood bison, but the local commercial enterprises complained because they promoted the buffalo as an attraction to draw the tourists. So Parks Canada relented and arranged to bring in some Prairie Bison for a year to appease the businesses before they could get rid of the fence and allow that area to be a wildlife corridor once again.

6) Cascade No. 5 Masonic Lodge

In 1933, Charlie was well ensconced in her identity as a man, and feeling a bit cheeky and daring in her alternative life. So she decided to infiltrate the male bastion of the Freemason's and commenced with her apprenticeship into the society. Essentially freemasonry consists of a system of morality that is veiled in allegory, story and symbols; as well as moral and ethical values, and truth in knowledge. You can begin to see the irony in her joining up with such a society... But they were a welcoming group of members, under the leadership that year of Worshipful Master Chadwick. And Charlie did indeed enjoy her growing rapport and friendship with these men. While she was delighted with the idea of being able to penetrate this secretive historical society, eventually her own sense of morality in relation to deception of these individuals got the better of her and she withdrew her membership, although she never revealed her true gender to them.

This building was constructed in 1924 and for many years was a hub of social activity in Banff. Besides being the meeting space for the Masons, Shriners, and the Order of the Eastern Star, it offered a year-round community space as it was one of the largest buildings in Banff that remained open throughout the winter. It survived a fire in 1949, and as an ongoing active Masonic lodge it is now one of the oldest in Canada.

7) Fenlands at creek access to Vermillion Lakes
One of Charlie's short term seasonal jobs was as part of the Mosquito extermination gang. This was a gang of men who with fruit sprayers filled with a coal oil mixture would spray the swamp near the Banff Springs, the Vermillion Lakes area, and essentially any standing water, lakes, puddles, and tall wet grasses within a 4 square mile radius, with a film of oil. There was great concern that the summer tourists not have to endure the irritation of mosquitoes as they enjoyed nature. The basic premise was that the oil essentially suffocated the larvae by sealing the surface of the bodies of water. I have spoken with an environmentalist and learned that when small ponds etc were oiled to kill mosquito larvae by eliminating the oxygen supply it would also kill other invertebrates, and potentially fish too. Although hydrocarbons break down over time, and are likely not affecting the water in a long-term way, at the time it would have been doing way more damage to pond life than the original intended demise of mosquitoes.

Mosquito control was an issue very early in the history of this tourist destination, and a variety of methods were tried prior to the oiling. Prior to the coal oil mixture, kerosene was used less effectively. A test was made with dynamite to see if concussion would kill the mosquito larvae, but that had no adverse effect. They found that predators such as salamanders, certain beetles, fish, minnows, etc. would provide the desired benefit of reduced mosquito population and in fact they brought in a special mosquito-eating minnow from Florida for its efficiency in eliminating mosquitoes. While that minnow was unable to sustain itself in cold waters, it has survived in the marshes below the Cave and Basin that get the hot springs run-off and is now the most abundant fish species in that marsh. Banff was the first area in the National parks system to attempt mosquito control. We touch on this topic again a bit later in the tour.

8) Bankhead Houses - 332 ½ Beaver Street
These two duplexes are some of the few remaining buildings that were brought here from the Bankhead coal mining community 4 miles from Banff. Charlie lived at 332 ½ for a period of time in the 1940s. Between Canmore and Banff there are major deposits of high-grade coal ore. Within the park two major mining communities, Anthracite and Bankhead, emerged around 1900. At that time, mining and associated development was accepted as a desirable enterprise within park boundaries. Both of these settlements have since disappeared, but a bit farther east, mining provided the main industry and employment for the town of Canmore. Canmore was excluded from the Banff National Park boundaries in 1930, which enabled it to carry on mining. Bankhead operated from 1903 - 1922; it's population primarily miners and mining administration. Over time, as with all mining towns of that era, there were occasions of rowdiness and excessive consumption of liquor, miners were known to come into the town of Banff and behave in obnoxious and rambunctious ways, disrupting the picture of idyllic peace of the tourist mountain town. As you can well imagine, this practice was seriously frowned upon.

Although the coal seams in the area contained enormous reserves of coal there were problems with extraction due to a number of technical factors. As well, labour struggles emerged in the form of strikes on several different occasions. All this, combined with economic challenges at the time led to the closure of the mine. The mining leases were kept open but gradually the buildings from the town were sold off at a cost of $50. per room and relocated in the town of Banff, the smaller ones to the outlying parts of the townsite. 35 buildings in total were moved, including the Bankhead train station (which is out by the hostel at the end of town). The last one was moved in 1930 and Charlie commented in her diary about the strange vision of a house being moved along the road, and oddly enough ended up living in one of them some 10 years later.

9) Banff School Auditorium (now Parks Information)
This building was the early home of the Banff School of Fine Arts, following its origins in Bretton Hall on the Sanitarium grounds across the bridge. It began as a summer extension program for the University of Alberta who at that time were demonstrating successes offering adult learning opportunities through radio delivery - bringing university to the people, a sophisticated concept for the time. The Banff school started as a school of drama in 1933; its first dean was a woman, Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, from 1932-36. It expanded to the School of Fine Arts in 1935. Bretton Hall was torn down to make way for the Administration Buillding in 1939 and following an exhaustive fundraising campaign Donald Cameron opened the school in this building in 1940. At the end of WWII the Canadian army posted 25 women to temporary duty in Banff to learn handicrafts - that was the year leathercraft was introduced. Also in the 1940s French language training was offered through a New York language professor teaching what was then called the "direct method", now known as immersion. Some of the notable art faculty in the early days included: A.C. Leighton, H.G. Glyde, Walter Phillips, A.Y. Jackson, Marion Nicholl, and J.W.G. Macdonald. We'll address a bit more about the Banff School later in the tour. Charlie mentioned her pleasure in attending theatre, music, and exhibition events that occurred during the summer programs here.

10) Norman Sanson House (house at 110 Muskrat Street)
This was the home of Norman Sanson, known as a naturalist and local meteorologist who made 100s of ascents up Sulfur Mountain to undertake his weather observations. Apart from being the curator for the Banff Park Museum, it was Sanson who originally initiated and directed the mosquito extermination program, which Charlie participated in during the 30s. Sanson loaned the pony, named Heinie, from one of the zoo exhibits as a kind of pack horse for the cause. Heinie, stubborn and reluctant to move without strong encouragement, was equipped with a pack carrying cans of coal oil from which the crew replenished their sprayers. Over a season the crew would spread 1000s of gallons of coal oil on swamp areas and lakes in the vicinity.

The oil process was used from the early 20s to the late 40s, when DDT was introduced as the pesticide of choice and used here at the Park until the 1960s. It was distributed through fogging and spraying processes around the recreation grounds, the Cave and Basin area, etc. In the late 80s seven drums of DDT mixture were found inside an old power station at Lake Minnewanka, having been forgotten for about 25 years. Along with these were several other drums of PCBs used in wood preservative. This instigated an inventory of hazardous wastes and the drums were all transported for disposal at the Alberta Special Waste Treatment Centre in Swan Hills. Possibly these barrels were warehoused as a result of the 1960's publication of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which alerted the masses to the dangers of DDT. The chemicals were likely banned at this time and subsequently stored and forgotten.

In 1941 crews of men were cutting down trees in and around Banff, under the supervision of an entomologist in an attempt to control an infection of bark beetles. Although there are several different species, one type was named after Mr. Sanson and became known as Sanson's Bark Beetles. Many trees were cut between the Administration Building and the Cave and Basin.

11) Transformer Station
This building symbolizes the development of electricity in the area and allows me to segue to issues surrounding the Minnewanka Dam. Although a wood dam had been created in 1895 to control the water level of the lake, it was dammed again with a concrete structure in 1912 as part of plan by Calgary Power to generate energy. That dam resulted in a water-level rise of 12 feet and in nearly 1000 acres being flooded, including the wee resort community that had grown up along the shores. In order to provide power to the area a turbine and generating plant was located downstream on the Cascade River (incidentally caused harm to fish... anglers often complaining about chopped up fish downstream from turbine)

A much larger dam was built in 1941 that changed the shape and nature of the entire Minnewanka basin. The level of the lake was raised another 80 feet, to supply backup energy for Calgary and other areas. The surface area of the lake increased by 50%, artificially making it the largest body of water in the park. The Minnewanka watershed was dramatically changed, altering the direction and volume of water flow through the entire area. Even at that time there was considerable controversy regarding the idea of damming in a National Park. But the concerns about providing ample hydro-electric power for war purposes, led the government to approve the creation of the dam project. The dam had more environmental impact that any other public-works project permitted in a Canadian national park up until that time.

One effect, perhaps considered insignificant to some, was the end of business for a small dairy farmer in the Bankhead area. Mr. Pedersen no longer had water on his property because of the dam and the redirection of Cascade Creek. One of Charlie's jobs had been as a farm hand at that dairy and she was very upset to see the large Calgary Power Company essentially limit the enterprises of others.

12) Banff Centre (Vinci, Smith, and Farrally Halls)
The current site of the Banff Centre was acquired in 1946. Students and faculty from the Banff school down below attended a picnic up here on the undeveloped site to discuss plans and dreams for the new facility in August of '46. The evening became known as the "birthnight of the Banff School"; a student played the bagpipes in honor of the occasion. Vinci Hall was the first structure built, in 1947. In 1948 Farrally Hall and Smith Hall were built; Smith Hall was the dining room.

And so it went on, new buildings being added, programs and faculty evolving. (Incidentally in the late 60s when the grounds were being excavated for the theatres and Lloyd Hall, the displaced earth was taken down to the location of the recreation grounds to fill in the wet lands - a practice now looked upon as a serious violation of the natural areas).

In any event, it was through the Banff School that Charlie ended up leaving Banff. She was fascinated by the events she had attended over the years, and decided that she too would take programs through the school. She reverted to her female identity and registered in the drama program, leaving behind her life as a laborer and the friends she had made as a man. She was a natural; after all she had been enacting the life of a man for many, many years. She excelled in her program and at the end of the summer in 1950, she boarded a train and moved back to Ontario and joined the theatre community in Toronto. She even participated in the first few seasons of the Stratford Festival, performing as an extra in their first production of Richard III in July of 1953. She remained mostly in Ontario, with an occasional season in theatre companies in other provinces. And like most actors, she moved back and forth through several theatre companies. By most accounts she lived a happy and exciting life, but clearly her years and the challenges in Banff greatly contributed to the person she was. I met her when I was a child, in the early 1960s. She was around 55 years old and still acting. I found her to be captivating and I was completely enamored with her. She was tall and elegant and confident. And she told amazing stories and knew some very interesting people. Unfortunately, she died quite young of cancer, at 61 years of age. She never married, but she did have a child, named Fletcher, born in 1951 when she was 40 years old (considered to be very old at that time to be becoming a mother) but it didn't seem to affect her new career. Fletcher now lives in Tasmania and I correspond with him occasionally. And any time I see him, he always has a few good stories to tell about what he remembers of his mother.


Last thoughts...

And that brings us to the end of the walking tour. Hopefully your awareness of environmental issues pertaining to Banff has been broadened a wee bit and you will continue to ask yourself questions about the practices you see there; and that you will maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about any thing you read in promotional materials about this place. Clearly attitudes and awareness have changed considerably since Charlie's day, but issues continue to emerge, especially in relation to seeking ways to "restore" the park to its original state. It's an odd thing to realize that attempts at correcting past wrongs lead to other problems - once you start messing around with things, you almost can't stop, and it's impossible to go back.

Here's a very simple notion that begs questions for me - some time, walk into the local hardware store in Banff. Take notice of the number of pesticides and herbicides sitting on their shelves - poisons, all of them - Round-Up, Killex, WeedEx, Bug-B-Gon, etc. Why should a store in a national park even be allowed to sell these things? Even though the Banff Centre and some other public places in town are pesticide and herbicide free now, private residents can put whatever they want on their yards. Does that not seem counterproductive?

And here's another issue to consider; the Town of Banff is limited in it's physical boundaries and in the number of people permitted to live there (capped at 10,000); and all residents must be employed there or be the family of people who work there. But there is no cap on the number of tourists who can be in the community or in the park as day visitors at any one time, and literally millions come through every year (the Trans Canada highway goes right through it). How can a place possibly be a sanctuary for nature and animals with that much human presence and all the related vehicular traffic?

I will leave those thoughts with you.