The Columbia Valley was a traditional hunting and fishing ground used seasonally for millenia by First Nations people, for whom the land provided food, medicine, and materials for shelter and clothing.
The arrival of legendary explorer, fur trader and mapmaker David Thompson in 1807 marked the first introduction of Europeans to the region. Thompson crossed into the valley from north of what is now the town of Golden, and built the valley’s first trading post, Kootenai House, on the banks of the Columbia River near Invermere. From that base, he traded goods for pelts with First Nations, and mapped and measured the mountains and streams in the area. He was the first non-First Nations man to travel the full length of the river from its headwaters at Columbia Lake to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1869, another famous explorer arrived in the valley, Captain John Palliser, who led an expedition in the area searching for a route through the mountains for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The first permanent settlement in the valley was Peterborough (now Wilmer), home to miners, prospectors and ranchers who traveled into the valley by steamboat along the Columbia River.
Soon the lakeside community of Athalmer began to attract settlers, as well as the lakeview community of Invermere, built atop a large, flat benchland overlooking Lake Windermere.
Commerce was originally based on the abundance of logs, ores and furs found in the valley, as well as the burgeoning ranching and agriculture community.
By 1899, the Canadian Pacific Railway had begun employing Swiss mountain guides to help their passengers explore the area. The chance to experience the wilderness of an infant country drew visitors from Europe and across North America. Tourism began to thrive.
Robert Randolph Bruce, who had arrived in the valley in 1885, established the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruitlands Co. in 1911, which drew hundreds of gentlemen farmers from England and Scotland to the area with offers of low land prices and swift immigration.
It was also Bruce who lobbied the provincial and federal governments for a highway to connect the valley with the east. Bruce’s determination to see the highway finished was rewarded in 1923 when the Banff-Windermere Highway was completed; meanwhile, the Kootenay Central Railroad had begun operating a regularly scheduled train service between Golden and Cranbrook in 1915.
The little farming hamlet of Edgewater was an economic ‘project community’ with a sawmill, hotel, domestic water, power and such planned and built in 1912 which began attracting workers from far and wide. The irrigation flume is 104 years old and still functioning.
Athalmer, Invermere and Windermere continued to develop on the banks of beautiful Lake Windermere, while Radium and Fairmont drew visitors with their famed natural hot springs.
Today, the valley’s economy is considerably diversified from the fur trading, lumber and mining operations that originally brought settlers to the region. Tourism is booming and many Canadians, especially Calgarians, own seasonal homes here.
To learn more about the region’s pioneers, visit the Windermere Valley Museum in Invermere (the museum is formed from a cluster of heritage buildings moved to its current site from around the valley).