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Early Settlers

Col. J Baker


In 1883, Col. James Baker had bought most of Joseph's Prairie where now Chief Isadore lived in the winter and ran his cattle. It galled Isadore that Baker walked in and pushed him over. It galled Baker that Isadore wouldn't move. Isadore was burned out three times between Baker's arrival and the 1887 arrival of Sam Steele with a force of some seventy-five North-West Mounted Policemen (NWMP) to deal with "a threatened uprising" among the Indians. The immediate incident involved the arrest of two Indians accused of murdering a miner. Isadore released them from white jail, saying he would deal with them. When Steele arrived, he insisted that Isadore return the men for trial. Steele tried them and found them not guilty for lack of evidence. He observed with surprise that no one had conducted an inquest; there had been no burial of the miners; and no one had attempted to get justice until three years later.


Around this incident was a whole lot of feather soothing and negotiating by various members of the two communities, including Father Coccola, a Catholic priest who was at the time in charge of the Mission on St Mary's River. But the story is told that Isadore and his men, before sunrise one morning, entered the NWMP camp and took control of the sheaves of rifles that the police made outside their tents every night. As a show of strength, it had its effect. Isadore did not keep the rifles, but from that time he and Steele enjoyed a relatively balanced relationship.

Baker named his property at Joseph's Prairie "Cranbrook" after his home in Kent, England. Elected a Member of the Legislature in 1886, he was re-elected in the next three general elections, spanning fifteen years. He also dabbled in mining, lumber and land interests, using his influence at the centres of power to persuade governments to charter a railway through the Crows Nest Pass. In this he was supported by all the whites in Wild Horse, Fernie, Moyie, and Wardner. Where he lacked the support of the biggest settlement of all, Fort Steele was in bargaining to have the divisional point of that railway in his, as yet, just imaginary town. Once he won this concession, Baker laid out a townsite on his land, called it Cranbrook, and began to sell lots as the railway, built by a subsidiary of the CPR, snaked its way west from Fort McLeod on its way to Kuskanook on Kootenay Lake.

The first building on the site was the Cranbrook Hotel, built in 1897 where it stands today, across from the railway tracks. It housed men who visited between working shifts in camps, speculators who came to sniff out investments, security police who accompanied the CPR payroll for some 2000 labourers. Visitors who came to scope out the Cranbrook situation had a place to stay. From the door of the hotel they could look across a field to Baker's house, take in a few supply shacks on the CPR property, but not quite see the Cranbrook Lumber Company mill to the northeast. Many expressed surprise at the vacancy of the view.

Before rail came to Cranbrook, most transactions took place using gold dust. You offered your purse and the merchant took from it what would cover your purchase. Workers on the Dewdney Trail, built in 1864 to complete an east-west road to the coast, were paid $75 a month in gold dust provided by the Gold Commissioner at Wild Horse. Payroll for the Royal North West Mounted Police was the first currency in the area, but it was scarce again until the rail workers had to be paid, also in currency. Gold was plentiful for prospectors and their suppliers in this area, where millions of dollars worth of gold was taken out of the creeks as dust or as nuggets. The nuggets commonly weighed 8 to 10 ounces, although the biggest nugget reported was 36 ounces.

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