I’d driven through the small city of Cranbrook at least a dozen times without stopping for more than gas or a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s. The view of Cranbrook from the highway 95 is not inspiring — a lengthy string of fast food joints, hotels and small businesses. But the mountainous setting of the area is beautiful so I wanted to spend a little time exploring the region “off the highway”. My wife and I took a weekend to do so and had a lovely time.
Cranbrook is situated in the middle of the 16 km (10 mile) broad Rocky Mountain Trench in southeastern British Columbia, close to Alberta and Idaho, The relatively level ground of the Cranbrook town-site and “big sky” openness this bestows belie the majestic mountains that frame the valley and dominate the region — the Purcell Range to the west and the spectacular Rocky Mountains to the east. Because of it’s low topography Cranbrook is close to several important rivers, the St. Mary’s to the north which flows into the might Kootenay to the east (and into which the beautiful Elk River drains from the Fernie region south of town). Cranbrook’s climate is arid and mild and it’s the sunshine capitol of the province (more annual hours of sun than anywhere else in B.C.).
Named after a town in England, the areas was inhabited for dozens of centuries by First Nation’s people (Kootenay tribe). The first white folks in the region were miners and pioneers in the 1860s; by the late 19th century, Canada Pacific Railway built its rails to and a terminal in Cranbrook, bypassing nearby Fort Steele. Today Cranbrook remains a railway town, a mill town, a commercial center and tourist hub with large numbers of golf courses and outdoor recreational opportunities. The surrounding region is a mixture of forest, ranch and range land.
Here’s some of what we did in Cranbrook:
1) As the city to large extent exists because of the railroad, it’s well worth visiting the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel. This museum is very much a work in progress and will be for some time to come. It is preserving and displays a variety of passenger trains ranging from the the early 20th century ’til the 1980s. Twenty-eight restored rail cars provide a sample of the elegance and class of rail travel during the era when railroads were king. One of the main attractions at the museum is the luxurious Trans-Canada Limited train from 1929, including everything from sitting cars to an elegant dining car to sleepers. The restoration of these rail-cars involved thousands of hours removing layers of paint and refinishing the beautiful original inlaid mahogany and black walnut panels. Another highlight of the collection is the 1907 Soo-Spokane train, which provided service from Spokane, through Cranbrook and the Crowsnest Pass and over the Canadian prairies into Minneapolis. The museum also has exhibits of CPR memorabilia and a restored “Royal Alexandra Hall” (saved forever when the old CPR hotel in Winnipeg was demolished).
2) Doing a walking tour is the best way to get to know any city, so I’d certainly recommend visiting the small historic city center on foot. The tourist information office provides maps that highlight and give a background to many of the old buildings. The downtown (just off Hwy 95) has many local boutiques, shops and cafes. Also worth exploring is the Baker Hill Historic district, a few blocks from downtown, with many lovely Victorian era homes.
3) If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, stop at the Farmer’s market. While not large, the quality of produce, baked and preserved goods is high and of a fair price. Also, there are some very skilled local artisans selling their crafts, some with highly creative and original works, at a fraction of gallery prices. The Farmer’s market adjoins Rotary Park.
4) Visit the St Eugene Golf Resort & Casino a few kilometers out of town on a First Nation Reservation. The St. Eugene is a restored historic building, a former Catholic Mission school run by the Sisters of Providence for native children . Students were taught didactic courses and marketable job skills (eg. farming), and part of the idea was to Anglicize and Catholicize them. The school closed in 1970. The old building is now part a larger hotel complex under native ownership including the Casino of the Rockies, a first rate Golf Course and fine dining rooms. The resort also has the “Ktunaxa Interpretative Centre”. Of interest, the old mission building is home to an endangered species of bats, the Townsend Big-Eared bat. This species is found only in B.C. and the largest nesting colony is situated in the St. Eugene (The remodeling of the old mission building was done to accommodate this colony of bats).
5) Fort Steele Heritage Center: With gold rush beginnings in the 1860s, Fort Steele has gone from boom town to regional center to ghost town to one of the most important heritage attractions in British Columbia. The routing of the CPR trains to Cranbrook instead of Fort Steele brought about the abandonment of this Fort in the 19th century. We didn’t have time to see it on ‘this visit but plan to next time we’re in town.
6) Enjoy the outdoors. There’s plenty to do here — golfing, hiking, fishing in the St. Mary’s or Elk Rivers, kayaking, horseback riding, skiing and snowmobiling. Elizabeth Lake, situated at the southern end of the city, is a large wetland sanctuary that is a great place to bird-watch and, especially at dawn and dusk, observe wildlife (eg. deer, moose and elk). One of the resident’s adjoining the lake told us they like to watch the elk cross the frozen lake in the wintertime. There’s a modest trail system around the lake and more extensive hiking in the surrounding mountains.
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