1744 Pioneer impermanence

Forgotten Cranbrook: A Photo History of Early Cranbrook & District
by Keith G. Powell, Derryll White, and Erin Knutson

Cranbrook: Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 2022
$29.95  /  9780981214696

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


Pioneer impermanence: A photographic history tour of the East Kootenays

I am staring into the faces of several older men all behatted, all sporting bushy mustaches and outfitted in garb befitting Cranbrook, BC’s early Board of Trade (1899). I see fewer mustaches on the Cranbrook baseball team a year earlier. Fewer still on the faces of the American big game hunters that flocked to the East Kootenay district to bag that trophy buck.

Forgotten Cranbrook is the latest of several books offering historic photographic images like these of a region in southeastern BC that runs from about Grand Forks in the west to Fernie in the east nearing the Rockies on the unceded territory of the Ktunaxa First Nation, also depicted in several of the book’s images.

The East Kootenay was always a world away during my childhood in the West Kootenay. Travelling to Cranbrook meant taking a ferry across Kootenay Lake near Nelson. Then driving  into lesser-known territory for me. This new book gave me a better sense of it and put a face, many faces, to this pioneer district.

Baker Street Early Cranbrook, 1897. Courtesy Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 0049.0144

In small towns, people strongly associate with the place. If you were from the West Kootenay you were somehow rivals with the East Kootenay. Our hockey games, curling bonspiels, baseball battles were always major wars for local supremacy. Beauty contests, fruit-growing competitions, and motoring races? You didn’t need to ask who to root for. It was the home team. One of them was the 1928 championship Rosebud women’s hockey team.

These regional competitions were a way to learn about our East Kootenay neighbours. As I glanced through the book, I felt transported into that bygone era of my youth and much farther back to mining history in nearby Kimberley from where Sullivan mine fed zinc ore to the smelter at Trail where my family worked.

The Chinese community seems underrepresented given the many Asian migrants that stayed after working on the Canadian Pacific Railway. They founded businesses as laundry owners, restauranteurs and, as the book shows, market gardeners.

The store of G.T. Rogers – Cranbrook’s first mayor – in downtown Cranbrook, early 1900s. Courtesy Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 0039.0109

Other migrant groups, such as Italians, Slavs and Russians, are also missing from this history of the Key City. Granted, some group shots might have included these groups along with the Doukhobors, a Russian religious sect. However, the latter group had settled mostly in the West Kootenay after 1908. One shot does show “Scandinavian timbermen” or “tie hacks” hauling rail ties hewn from local timber.

Co-author Keith G. Powell

More diversity is on display through images of social activities and entertainment. One example is the St. Eugene Mission Girl’s String Band. The Cranbrook Girls Bugle Band entertained often with shows like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado being staged at the Cranbrook Opera House.

Two odd events are associated here with the early motoring craze and a travelling circus. Cars were driven on the opposite side of the road back then and accordingly steering wheels were on the right. Roads were rough and motorists were inexperienced sometimes leading to mishaps. In one photo from 1924, a Buick sits on its roof. No injuries occurred but it illustrated the power of potholes.

Two years later Cranbrook mounted a massive search for a herd of elephants that had escaped from the visiting Sells-Floto Circus. One tiny elephant named Charlie Ed proved elusive. He was an Asian elephant, “known for their intelligence,” so the circus owners assumed he would follow the herd back into captivity. “Charlie Ed became the legendary Grey Ghost,” read the caption, until Ktunaxa trackers and circus handlers finally rounded him up.


The Otis Staples Sawmill at Wycliffe, just north of Cranbrook. Courtesy Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 2099.0002

Local industry is fully covered with pictures of the amazing Lumberton log flume, Cranbrook Sash and Door company, the Cranbrook Foundry and Machine Shop, and the Wardner Sawmill. Some racial diversity is added here with a photo of a Sikh funeral. The caption notes that from their arrival in the early 1900s many Sikhs found work in local sawmills.

Famous local personages are featured, including Valentine Hyde Baker, son of Cranbrook founder James Baker, a member of Parliament. The son oversaw the workings of the Baker Ranch and was an enthusiastic motorist. Dr. Frank W. Green was a local medical pioneer who served as the area’s legislative member in Victoria.

Colonel Baker’s ranch on Joseph’s Prairie, the site of present day Cranbrook. Courtesy Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 0048.0048
Co-author Erin Knutson

Lesser-known figures are also included. Otis Staples was the founder of a lumber company that employed 600 workers. Constable “Baldy” Morris was “a police force of one.” And Gunner Almie, one of the Scandinavian tie hacks mentioned earlier, was dubbed “the Paul Bunyan of the Kootenays.”

Of note during this time of health care staffing shortages in BC is a shot of the graduating class of 1936 at the St. Eugene Hospital School of Nursing. The school turned out 34 such classes and sent 209 nurses into the field.

Derryll White, co-author

The Palm Confectionary was a popular ice cream parlour. Miss McLeod’s Millinery was a fancy dress shop that survived the 1906 Cranbrook fire. Master wood carver Bud Amy earned a two-page spread as the creator of The Hunter and the Lumberman carvings on display at a local tourist booth.

The editors packed all of this and more into the slightly over-sized 120-page book and they added a historical timeline that helps place East Kootenay people, places and events in a historical context from the early 1800s to the 1960s. No page numbers and no index could pose a problem for researchers trying to quickly find the many interesting historic references in the captions of each photograph.

The Kootenays are well endowed with historical societies and museums that provide historians and other researchers with a plentiful supply of photos and information. One of the most efficient is the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History. A salute to it for this glimpse at another time and place in the province’s history. Cranbrook is less forgotten thanks to their efforts.


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His forthcoming book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), was reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), was reviewed by Mike SasgesEditor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Lily Chow, Sarah Berman, Wayne NortonMark HumeMichael Gates, and Jesse Donaldson & Erika Dyck, for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy. Ron lives in Victoria.


The British Columbia Review

Editor and Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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