Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller. Depicting the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors, these advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.
I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought often called for prominent artists who created posters by the thousands in different languages. Distributed globally, they portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?
It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway there would have been no unified Canada. Without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.
His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:
“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”
Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards’… but mostly for the privileged few.
Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery and legendary mountains all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven hundred-year-old Douglas Firs. A landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.
Few Europeans had yet passed through the region; Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847, and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first train tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886 through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.
We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room, watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.
Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.
We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, we steep in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air. It’s nothing short of breathtaking and in the idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health-giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire; a winter getaway to perfection!
The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was! With two-hundred and fifty rooms that opened seasonally from mid May to early October, CPR’s advertising strategies quickly paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships bringing the international set from far and wide to the Canadian Rockies.
The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower and additional wings were added and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece.
As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces and ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes. The million-dollar views are spectacular and I can easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.
I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead… our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed and needed in the new colonial, cultural mosaic of Canada.
For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel and the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. From the First Nations to present day peoples, it’s about the cultural heritage that still echoes throughout these grand peaks.
If you go, allow me my suggestions:
Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.
Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!
Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.