A Brief History of Waterton Lakes National Park

In 1858, the first unquestionable visit to Waterton Lakes by a European was made by Lt. Thomas Blakiston. Originally a member of the Palliser Expedition, Blakiston, after several disagreements, continued on his own. Travelling south, Blakiston was particularly interested in finding a railway pass through the mountains. Reaching the area of the Crowsnest Pass, he asked his native guide what lay down the valley. His guide replied, “many days of poor travel” (possibly relating to the large amount of windfall that aboriginal people, travelling on foot, preferred to avoid). Consequently, Blakiston missed the lowest and best pass in the Canadian Rockies for a railway. Had he discovered it, this may have changed the history of the west and national parks!

Blakiston instead entered North Kootenay Pass, crossing the Continental Divide into what is now British Columbia and Montana (Tobacco Plains). There, Blakiston met a tribe of Kutenai who told him of the South Kootenay Pass. Using this pass, Blakiston re-crossed the divide, travelling along Blakiston (Pass) Creek and out to a chain of three large lakes. On Sept. 6, 1858, he wrote:

After two hours travelling on level ground along Red-stone creek (Red Rock) we emerged on the Saskatchewan plains, just six geographical miles north of the 49th parallel and camped at the lakes ...The scenery here is grand and picturesque...game is abundant, including, grizzly bears...and we obtained both fresh meat and fish.

He named the lakes Waterton Lakes to honour the British naturalist Charles Waterton.

Another notable person to visit the Waterton Lakes area was John George “Kootenai” Brown. Born in Ireland in 1839, Brown served with the British Army in India before coming to North America. A well-spoken and educated man, Brown first saw Waterton in 1865 after travelling over the South Kootenay Pass. At that time, he vowed he would return to this place of scenic spendour, “for this is what I have seen in my dreams, this is the country for me.”

In 1869, after marrying Olivia Lyonnais (a Métis girl), Brown (former army ensign, deckhand and gold prospector) embarked on a series of careers, including riding pony express, scouting for General Custer and hunting buffalo and wolf. After being acquitted of murder charges in Montana, Brown returned to Waterton in 1878 with his family and settled in the area. His life there included trading, hunting, ranching, guiding and fishing. After the park was established as Canada’s fourth national park in 1895, Brown became the first game guardian, fisheries officer, and later the Forest Ranger in Charge.

In 1908, in the Blakiston Valley of Waterton Lakes National Park, traces of copper were found and a small claim was worked for a short time. Coppermine Creek is named for that claim.

Oil Exploration
Waterton was the site of western Canada's first producing oil well, the second in all of Canada. Long before, the Kootenai had discovered the presence and medicinal value of oil seepages along Cameron Creek. The first oilrig drilled in 1902 but was closed down by 1906. Other attempts were made until the 1930s. Geologists explain that the first oil strikes in Waterton were a fluke. The rock of the park is too old to produce oil. It seeped from oil-bearing Cretaceous rocks buried to great depths by the Lewis Overthrust.

Waterton Townsite
In 1904, the Western Coal and Oil Company from Vancouver drilled for oil near Cameron Falls, striking a flow of one barrel/day. They were responsible for the first settlement in the present Waterton Townsite, constructing a cookhouse, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, office, stable and engine room. Dreams of oil wealth soon dwindled and in 1910 the first cabin lots in the Waterton Townsite were surveyed (150 lots offered for leaseholds at $15/annum for waterfront lots and $10/annum for back lots). The next year, Jack Hazzard built the first hotel in the Townsite, E. Haug, Sr., built a dancehall and the first passenger launch (4 HP) began operating on Upper Waterton Lake. The tourism industry had arrived in Waterton.

For the next decade development for tourism continued. Access to the Townsite became easier as bridges were built over Blakiston Creek and the Waterton River. The steam paddle wheeler, “Gertrude,” which had originally been used as a work boat for a nearby sawmill, served as a passenger boat, was tied in Emerald Bay for use as a tea house and then sunk in the bay (it is presently a popular scuba-diving attraction). Later a passenger launch called the “Linnae” (capacity 75 passengers) was launched on Upper Waterton lake. Regular mail, telephone service and a summer RCMP detachment from Fort Macleod were established in the park. In 1917, a campground was cleared near Cameron Falls. By 1924 the park had a stable, bunkhouse, a garage, a warehouse, a granary, an incinerator, a blacksmith shop, hay barns, government buildings, post office, telephone building, a hotel, cottages for rent, rooming house, restaurant, dancehall, two general stores, RCMP station, playgrounds, tennis courts, golf course, rowboats, gas motor launches, saddle and packhorse outfits and many summer cottages.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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PO Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936



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