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Cave and Basin book offers context, clarity on history of Banff hot springs

The abridged story of the Cave and Basin says three railway workers – Frank McCabe and brothers Tom and William McCardell – discovered the hot springs in the fall of 1883.

The abridged story of the Cave and Basin says three railway workers – Frank McCabe and brothers Tom and William McCardell – discovered the hot springs in the fall of 1883.

The story goes on to say that their attempt to claim ownership of the springs led to the creation of Canada’s first national park.

That has been the dominant narrative for many years and, while largely true, it is only a small part of the story.

The full story, meanwhile, as shared by Banff historian E. J. (Ted) Hart in his new book Cave and Basin: Banff’s hot springs and the birth of Canada’s national parks, is much richer, more complicated and more compelling than the abridged version would have us believe.

While relatively brief at 96 pages, Hart’s book, published recently by Banff-based Summerthought, is welcome as it is the authoritative record of the hot springs.

Hart’s main strength as an historian has always been the quality of his research, and his highly detailed books – particularly The Place of Bows, The Battle of Banff and Banff: A History of the Park and the Town – have always been immensely helpful in trying to understand the history of the Bow Valley.

Cave and Basin falls into the same category. Hart has pulled together a remarkable amount of detail on a subject that has been shoved to the sidelines for many years. The fact that the Cave and Basin is an important place and that the hot springs were the catalyst for great things is well known and long understood. It’s just that many of the details have been well understood, but certainly not brought together under one title. It hasn’t helped that the Cave and Basin hasn’t always been given its due as one of Canada’s defining locations.

That began to change, however, with the 2009 $13.8 million restoration project that saw the Cave and Basin National Historic site restored and upgraded. With its focus on education and as a place for the community, Hart’s book is a fitting companion for the new and improved Cave and Basin, which re-opened in 2013.

Hart begins his story with the Indigenous people of the Rocky Mountains and southern Alberta, placing their story into the context of the hot springs. It’s an appropriate place to start given that archaeological records and oral history shows that Indigenous people have had a connection to the Bow Valley for some 13,000 years.

He then moves on to the role Euro-Canadians played in making the hot springs what they are today. And surprisingly, the first non-Indigenous person to make note of the springs was explorer James Hector, who reached the Bow Valley in 1858 as a member of the Palliser Expedition. Hector, whose mishap with a horse prompted the name for the Kicking Horse pass and river, made note of “warm mineral springs” in his journals.

After Hector, the next people to come across the springs were prospectors Joe Healy (Healy Pass) in 1873 and Willard Burrell Younge in 1875. Neither Healy nor Younge filed a claim to the hot springs.

By the time McCabe and the McCardells came along in the fall of 1883, the hot springs had already been “discovered” at least three times, if not more.

None of that, however, detracts from the role McCabe and the McCardell brothers played in the story of the Cave and Basin and the Bow Valley. Their actions, as Hart shows, still had a real and long-lasting effect – after all, they were one of the catalysts for the creation of Canada’s first national park, and they deserve that credit.

From the confusing and complicated process of the claims and counter claims the government had to unravel before it could form the hot springs reserve, Hart explores how the hot springs were used and what that use tells us about the Bow Valley.

This is where Cave and Basin really stands out. As he explores this theme of use and development, Hart shows that what we think we know of the history of the Bow Valley – just like the Cave and Basin’s origin story – isn’t always the case.

For example, we tend to think tourism in the Bow Corridor was a child of the CPR and that the Banff Springs Hotel, which opened in 1888, was the start of it all, but the reality is more nuanced. In fact, by the time the Banff Springs opened, according to MP Peter Mitchell, whom Hart quotes, people were already “flocking” to the hot springs by 1885, even without any infrastructure or facilities.

We also have this idea that the “busy-ness” of the Bow Valley is a new thing, but again as Hart shows, what is old is new again. This can be seen by looking at early attendance numbers for the park and the effect those numbers had on the park. Between 1897 and 1906, the number of visitors climbed from 5,537 to 30,136. The rise in the number of people visiting the park and the Cave and Basin hot springs led the park service to open a facility at the Upper Hot Springs in 1905.

As attendance continued to climb, with 44,691 visitors to the Cave and Basin by the end of the 1920–21 season and another 27,866 at the Upper Hot Springs, more development followed.

With the opening of Tunnel Mountain Campground in 1928, parking at the Cave and Basin had reached its limit, forcing parks staff to enlarge the parking lot.

It just goes to show that even back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Bow Valley was a busy place, just as it is today, and the challenges were often the same that we face today.

The context and clarity Hart brings to Cave and Basin: Banff’s hot springs and the birth of Canada’s national parks makes it an enlightening read. By helping readers to better understand one of the Bow Valley’s defining locations, Hart also helps us to see that our history much more complicated and interesting than the abridged stories let on, but the challenges the Bow Valley faces today are not unique to us alone.

Cave and Basin: Banff’s hot springs and the birth of Canada’s national parks, published by Summerthought, is available for $14.95.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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