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.
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