The History Of Valemount

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CraigBaird

The land that would be Valemount has been the traditional territory of the Indigenous including the Kootenai, Shuswap and Rocky Mountain Cree. They inhabited this area for thousands of years, forming complex societies that depended on each other for trade, with goods coming from the coast of British Columbia and the interior of the future Canadian Prairies.

Other Indigenous that had ties to the area included the Lheidli T’enneh and the Mountain Metis.

While fur traders were often moving through the area to trade with the Indigenous, settlement in the Valemount area came slowly over the course of the late-19th century and early-20th century.

This would result a major change of life for the Indigenous of the area. The Simpcw people, for example, would be expelled from the Tete Jaune Cache in 1906. Today, there is an exhibit that showcases this at the Valemount museum.

The defining part of the landscape in this area, which has been looked upon with reverence by the Indigenous, all the way up to today with travelers and the residents of the area. It is Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, situated in Mount Robson Provincial Park. The mountain was named for Colin Robertson, who worked for both the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, rather than for John Robson, who was a premier of British Columbia. The Indigenous people had a different name for it, Yuh-hai-has-kun, which means The Mountain of the Spiral Road. In 1893, the mountain was first surveyed by James McEvoy and was documented as the highest point in the Canadian Rockies. Conrad Kain would be the first person to climb the mountain, which he did in 1913.

In 1906, a man named Fulton Alexander McKirdy would stake the first homestead in the area.

About two kilometres away from future Valemount, a town called Swift Creek was established and a railway station was built there in 1914 as the railway finally came through the Yellowhead Pass, which was the original route of the Canadian Pacific Railway when it was being built across Canada in the 1880s, before it changed to the Kicking Horse Pass.

Swift Creek owed its start thanks to the railway workers who liked the area and decided to stay. Soon, stores would start up, and logging became the main industry of the area. There was also a school, hotel and post office.

At the same time the railroad was being built through, a young man named Kushnir who worked for the Canadian National Railway noticed that there was a valley between the mountains of the area. He would call the area Valley in the Mountains as a result.

In 1927, the decision was made to move Swift Creek one mile down the tracks. With that move, the name Swift Creek was gone. There was a suggestion of calling the area Bergoyne but that was put to the side and instead Valley in the Mountains became Valemount and a new community was born.

In 1918, the Adolphus Warden Patrol Cabin was built to serve as the home for park rangers in Jasper National Park. Sitting in a beautiful meadow, with coniferous forest around it and Mount Robson looming over the landscape, the cabin stands to this day and is used by travelers who are hiking through along the North Boundary Trail. In 1998, the cabin was made a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.

On Feb. 18, 1924, Myrtle Isabel Hargreaves was born in Jasper, but she would spend her childhood living on the Mount Robson Ranch near Valemount. She would eventually find herself becoming a legend of the area of Berg Lake. By the time she was a teenager, she was known in the area for being a competent horsewoman, wrangler, packer and camp cook. When the Second World War began, she started to work doing the work of men in the area while they were serving overseas. On June 5, 1946, she would marry Murray Cochrane and together the couple would work to take care of the land at Berg Lake. Together, they would have six children together.

In 1959, the family moved back to the Robson Ranch to manage it for Alice Wright, and they would remain there for the next three decades. During those years, Isabel would train generations of young people who had come to work at the ranch. She would even give free English lessons to the new residents of the area. When she had downtime, she would knit and sew, while also creating wedding, anniversary and birthday cakes.

In 1980, the couple were able to buy the ranch they had stayed at for so long. Isabel quickly adapted to a changing world when the highway reigned supreme and train travel was something fading in the background. She would also work with other tourism providers to ensure that overflows from her own ranch could stay at their own accommodations. Wendy Dyson would say quote:

“She was a great mentor. She taught us that we all need to work together to succeed.”

Isabel would also take her love of local history and become a founding member of the Valemount Historic Society, always helping out in any way she could. Even as she reached her 70s, she would travel the world visiting Europe, New Zealand, taking a train trip across Canada and a weeklong cruise on the river Rhine. Isabel would pass away on Oct. 24, 2014 at the age of 90.

Only two years after Valemount came into being, it would make nationwide news all thanks to the crash of a biplane.

In July of 1929, Captain Ross Hoyt, a United States aviator, was flying from Nome, Alaska to New York in his Curtiss Hawk army pursuit airplane when he was suddenly forced to make an emergency landing just outside of Valemount. The cause of the issues was water getting into the gas line, causing the engine to cut out. It was far from an easy landing either with the plane crashing into a field. It would be a total wreck and beyond repair. Thankfully, Hoyt was making the flight across the continent while wearing a parachute and as the plane began to descend, he bailed out and thanks to the parachute, was not injured. He had left Fairbanks on July 21 and flew to Whitehorse, and then started on his flight to Edmonton when the problems started. Hoyt was stuck in Valemount for several days but he would eventually leave and head to Edmonton where he was given a huge reception. His plane would be shipped there after his arrival. The Edmonton Journal would report quote:

“He will stay at Valemount several days to load the plane onto a box car for shipment to New York. He will travel to New York himself via Edmonton and Minneapolis. He said after a good night’s rest he is feeling very fit.”

During the Second World War, a work camp was set up near to Valemount where Japanese Canadians were interred during the war. These Japanese Canadians were put to work building roads through the area and they would live in work camps like the Yellowhead-Blue River Highway Road Camp near Valemount. For the men and their families who lived at these camps, they would do what they could to make the camp livable, including making flower and vegetable gardens, bathhouses, a teahouse, bridges and baseball diamonds. You can still visit the site of this work camp, which serves as a reminder for a dark time in Canadian history, while honoring the men and women who lived there and helped to expand the road network of British Columbia from the Yellowhead Pass and beyond.

On Nov. 21, 1950, south of Valemount, a westbound troop train full of men going to fight in Korea, collided with an eastbound Continental Limited train, resulting in the death of 21 people, including 17 soldiers, and the crews of both trains. Not only was this a terrible accident, but it likely changed the course of Canadian history forever.

At the time, this stretch of track was the only mountainous track on the CNR mainline that did not have automatic block signals. As the two trains approached, a forestry worker noticed the impending collision and began to frantically wave, only to receive wave in return from the crew of the Continental. He then saw the two trains collide into each other at terrific speed. The locomotive of the troop train was lifted up and came down on the second car of the Continental train, crushing it. The troop train was carrying wooden passenger coaches, which were smashed to pieces by the heavy steel cars of the Continental. Some of the cars imploded, others were upended and pitched off the track as scalding hot steam froze the flesh of the men in the -18 C temperature.

Along with the 21 dead, there were 60 injured. The wreckage stacked 50 feet high in some places and one survivor would state that it looked like a quote:

“a jumble of twisted steel and splintered wood.”

The troops who were not injured did what they could in the six-inch deep snow to help those who were injured. Four of the dead were never found, likely completely consumed in the fiery explosion that occurred the next day at the wreck site.

The Canadian National Railway blamed Alfred John Atherton, the telegraph operator who had failed to correctly relay the Kamloop’s dispatcher’s order that the troop train pull onto a siding. Six months later, he was put on trial and the person representing him was a young Parliamentarian named John Diefenbaker, after his wife convinced him to do so. He agreed to and by showing evidence of errors in the transmission and his own high skill as a lawyer, Diefenbaker won a not guilty victory for his client. This case received nationwide news and raised Diefenbaker’s profile across the country. Seven years later, he was the leader of his party and the Prime Minister of Canada.

Nearby to Valemount you will find Mica Mountain and it is there that national news was made in October of 1955. It was in that month that William Roe was working on the highway when he decided to climb up Mica Mountain to inspect the old mine. While he was walking he saw what he thought was a grizzly bear 225 feet away. He had a rifle but he chose not to shoot it as he didn’t have a way of getting it down the mountain. Then, the creature stepped into fuller view. Roe would say quote:

“My first impression was of a man six feet tall, almost three feet wide and probably weighing near 300 pounds. It was covered from head to foot with dark brown silver-tipped hair.”

The creature then moved within 20 feet of where Roe was hiding. He would say quote:

“It squatted down on its haunches, pulled the branches of bushes, which were white and even. The head was higher at the back than front, the nose broad and flat, the lips and chin protruding, its eyes were shaped like a bear’s. Its neck was also inhuman, thicker and shorter than any man’s I have ever seen.”

Roe raised his rifle to shoot but the creature ran away after catching his scent. In the end, Roe was happy he didn’t shoot, saying quote:

“Although I have called the creature it, I felt now that it was human and I knew I would never forgive myself if I shot it. Whether this creature was a sasquatch I do not know. It will always remain a mystery to me until another one is found.”

If you would like to see if you will come across a sasquatch, or you just want to enjoy a fantastic hike, you can hike Mica Mountain near Valemount. This climb, which can be strenuous, climbs to the abandoned mica workings at the 7,000 feet level of Mica Mountain. The route follows old logging trails and roads that were cleared of brush for hiking in 1992. It then follows a mule trail to the top of an early 1960s logging area. Typically, the hike takes five to six hours.

For decades, one of the biggest events in Valemount has been Valemountain Days. Since 1982, the event has been a celebration of the mountain culture of the area. The event includes a parade, barbeque competition, athletic tournaments and much more. It has become the event many have looked forward to throughout the year in Valemount and it is a great thing to check out if you are thinking of coming to Valemount to see the local attractions. While the event took a break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will return in June.

Another event to check out is the annual Valemount Canoe Mountain Rodeo. Held each July, it brings out some of the best rodeo competitors from across western Canada and even the United States. Bull riding, barrel racing and much more are all part of the rodeo that runs for two days at the Canoe River Campground Rodeo Grounds.

If you would like to learn more about Valemount and its history, you can visit the wonderful Valemount Museum and Archive. The museum is situated in the original train station of the community and features several exhibits about the history of the area. Exhibits include a look at railroad towns of the area, the Japanese interment camps, Valemount pioneers and local war heroes. A trapper’s cabin has been recreated in the basement. There is also the Ishbel Cochrane exhibit, which features the Hargreaves Brothers Outfitting Company and the historic Robson Ranch where she grew up. On the upper level of the museum, you will find a bedroom and school room display. On the museum grounds, there is also a CN Caboose that serves as the annex. In the caboose, there are logging and farming artifacts to explore.

Another place to check out is the Valemount Legion. On the upper floor of the museum, there is the Valemount War Heroes Museum. This small museum features displays that highlight the many men and women who fought for Canada. Some who returned home, and some, sadly, who did not.

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