Fort Steele

Discovering Fort Steele, British Columbia: A Journey Through History

Fort Steele is a heritage site nestled in the East Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia. This visitor attraction is situated on the east shore of the Kootenay River, between the mouths of the St. Mary River and Wild Horse River. The locality is conveniently located on the merged section of highways 93 and 95, approximately 17 kilometres northeast of Cranbrook and 230 kilometres southeast of Golden.

The Ferry and Bridges of Fort Steele, British Columbia

In 1864, John Galbraith arrived in Fort Steele to prospect for gold on Wild Horse Creek. However, he soon switched to more lucrative business opportunities. He was granted a charter for a toll ferry across the Kootenay River and established a general store. The ferry and store greatly profited from the early goldfield traffic to the Fisherville mining camp. The ferry charter was renewed several times until it was replaced by a lift span bridge in 1888. The 1894 flood destroyed this structure, which was superseded by Howe truss approaches and an opening span. The 1934 bridge comprised three Howe trusses. When the highway was realigned in 1966, a concrete span was chosen.

The Origin of the Name: Fort Steele, British Columbia

The crossing became known as Galbraith's Ferry, and the place assumed the same name. In 1887, Superintendent Sam Steele arrived with a detachment of the NWMP to defuse tensions between settlers and local First Nations. The police compound erected that year had the appearance of a fort, leading to the community adopting the name of Fort Steele in 1888.

Fort Steele, British Columbia: Waterway and Roads

Early supplies came in by pack train from Walla Walla, Washington. A wagon road northward to Canal Flats opened in 1886. In 1895, a wagon road to the Elk River was completed, providing a link with Montana. By the late 1890s, two riverboat companies served the Jennings, Montana–Fort Steele run. From 1898, a jitney service connected with the Eager train station. The highway, which followed Main St, was diverted to the present position in 1965.

The Community of Fort Steele, British Columbia

In 1864, the population numbered over 3,000, but five years later, few remained. By July 1888, the NWMP had been reassigned to Fort Macleod and the detachment buildings abandoned. The settlers, who numbered about 11 Caucasians and 60 Chinese, occupied the few buildings by the river. In 1894, the townsite was surveyed, and two hotels were erected. By 1895, Fort Steele was developing into a mining centre. The infrastructure included two general stores, three hotels, and a sawmill. In 1897, an annex was added to the Dalgardno Hotel, five further hotels were opened, and the Government Building was erected. Several new business premises were added to the town, which joined the US telegraph network. A Board of Trade was established. During the first six months of that year, the population grew from about 300 to 3,000.

The CP Railway and Fort Steele, British Columbia

Robert Galbraith, who owned much of the land around Fort Steele, sold a key part of his Joseph's Prairie holdings to Colonel James Baker in 1885. The B.C. Southern was a Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) subsidiary. In constructing westward from the Crowsnest Pass, many assumed that Fort Steele would be the divisional point. However, the railway track crossed the Kootenay River at Wardner, bypassing Fort Steele on the way to Cranbrook. The Kootenay Central Railway (KCR) was a CP subsidiary. The northward advance of the rail head from Colvalli was near Fort Steele in August 1914. That November, the last spike was driven near the north end of Columbia Lake. Through train service commenced in January 1915.

Fort Steele, British Columbia: A National Heritage Site

Being the first NWMP post in BC, Fort Steele was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925. In 1961, the province acquired the site to be a historic park. In 1981, the government released a concept plan. In 2004, the non-profit Friends of Fort Steele Society took over full management. Authentic Fort Steele buildings, some of which were moved to within the present site, include the schoolhouse, two churches, the Opera House, and Windsor hotel. The site includes some reconstructed replicas, smaller buildings salvaged from the region, a selection of early machinery, and railway artifacts. Actors wander the town in period costumes. The Wildhorse Theatre stages live productions. Visitors can have their images captured in old-time brownish tones at the photo studio, practise gold panning, take horse-drawn rides, and watch demonstrations, such as blacksmithing. Meals are available in the International Hotel restaurant and snacks at the City Bakery.

The Railway of Fort Steele, British Columbia

During summer, steam train rides are offered on a 2.5-mile return journey, with a short stop at the "St. Mary's look-out". The locomotive fleet has included a Pacific Coast Shay locomotive ("115") built for logging operations on Vancouver Island, a 2-6-2 prairie class locomotive ("1077") built in 1923 for logging work on Vancouver Island, and a 0-4-4 type "Dunrobin" ("397") built in 1895 for private use by the Duke of Sutherland. Two vintage 1950s diesel switching locomotives, both in near-derelict condition, are currently for sale. Other rolling stock includes three flat cars, a British coach, a small parlour car, a CP caboose, and two tank cars used for fuel storage.

Sources