A Brief History of Strathcona Park

Extract from Island Alpine

The forces of nature have shaped and transformed the land we now know as Strathcona Park for hundreds of millions of years, and what fine work these forces have wrought. Continental upheaval, plate tectonics, the accumulation of sedimentary limestone, the violent power of volcanic activity and the masterful strokes of glaciation have all played a role in shaping the mountains of Vancouver Island.

The First Nations people criss-crossed the Island on well worn trading routes for untold millenia. Their legends and cultural ties to the mountains are rich and deep. European settlers arrived on the west coast of British Columbia in the late 1700’s. But it took a full one hundred years of fur trading, coal mining and settling along the shorelines before any serious interest was paid to the rugged interior of Vancouver Island.

Several expeditions set out to explore this uncharted territory in the later half of the 19th century but it wasn’t until 1890 that a pivotal endeavour embarked that would lay the foundation for the formation of Strathcona Park.

Esquimalt-Nanaimo Railway Grant

In that year, 1890, William Ralph was commissioned by the nascent British Columbia Government to survey a swath of land along the east coast of Vancouver Island to be ceded to the Nanaimo & Esquimalt Railway Company. The eastern boundary of this land grant was to be the east shoreline of the island and it was Ralph’s task to survey the western boundary which was to parallel the coast some 50 miles inland. This line ran from Sooke Bay near Victoria to Crown Mountain west of Campbell River.

Unbelievable though it may sound Ralph and his party travelled in more or less a straight line placing survey posts at 5 mile intervals. It is this line that we see striking a prominent diagonal along the eastern boundary of Strathcona Park today.

W.W. Bolton Expeditions 1894 & 1896

A second key event in the formation of the park, and indeed the exploration of Vancouver Island as a whole, was the 1894 & 1896 expeditions led by the Reverend William Washington Bolton. Bolton’s forays were enviable affairs journeying from near Shushartie on the northern tip of the island via Quatsino Sound, Nimpkish Lake, Woss Lake, Nootka Sound, Muchalet Inlet, Burman River, Buttle Lake and thence through Price Pass to Great Central Lake and on to Victoria.

In the hundred years plus since Bolton’s journey, industrial roads have carved through most of this territory stripping timber and leaving a greatly altered landscape. Bolton’s experience will never be equalled as the wilderness that he and his party traversed has been diminished to a fraction of its former glory. (Note: In 2002 Peter Janes traversed the length of Vancouver Island in an incredible 500 km solo hike.)

1910 Strathcona Discovery Expedition

William Bolton paved the way for a third expedition and one that was seminal in the establishment of a park preserve. Acting on the advice of the Governor General of Canada to create a National Park in British Columbia, and impressed by Bolton’s account, the then Premier of B.C., Sir Richard McBride, reserved an area in the centre of Vancouver Island for a park in June 1910. The park was named Strathcona after Donald Alexander Smith - Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, Alberta. Lord Strathcona was notable for having driven the last spike on the trans-continental railway.

To formalize the land to be set aside in the park the Minister of Lands, Price Ellison, set off to explore the area departing Campbell River on July 7, 1910 with a party of twenty three including his daughter, 20 year old Myra Ellison. Travelling up the Campbell River on the lake chain Ellison and his party spied Crown Mountain and settled on it to be their prime objective.

Climbing west over Mt. Evelyn and crossing the Tlools Creek valley the party reached the summit of Crown Mountain on July 29, 1910. Ellison and his entourage chose Crown Mountain on a whim but fate played them and the new park a fine hand. Crown Mountain’s position on the north side of the Elk Valley looking south into the most impressive group of summits on Vancouver Island gave the Minister one of the most spectacular alpine views on the island, doubtlessly sealing it in his mind that this was to be the area of the new park.

After resupplying at Buttle Lake, Price Ellison and his party continued in Bolton’s footsteps up the lake to Price Creek and followed the route over Price Pass to Port Alberni. Ellison submitted his report on the expedition to cabinet and on March 11, 1911 Strathcona Park was officially designated.

Surveying Strathcona Park

Work began almost immediately under the supervision of Col. Reginald Thomson to bring a road from Campbell River to Buttle Lake and to survey the boundaries of the new park. Thomson commissioned W.W. Urquhart to lead a survey party along with photographer W.R. Kent. Together Urquhart, Kent and Einar Anderson travelled over, through and to the top of almost every major feature in the park during the summers of 1913 and 1914. They named many of the rivers and peaks and their own names will forever be associated with the mountains of Strathcona Park.

The elaborate plans proposed for Strathcona Park in 1911, including a railway branch line and no less than two CP hotels, were quickly put on the shelf with the coming of the First World War. The huge spruce and cedars of the Elk Valley were sequestered for the war effort and this began a change of tide for Strathcona Park.

A Checkered First Hundred Years

From that point until the present day the history of Strathcona Park has been one of dogged pursuit by industry for the rich resources within and all around the park. Logging and mining have insidiously chipped away at the original splendour of this great park. A large scale hydro electric project on the Campbell River saw Buttle Lake’s rim logged and the valley flooded, raising Buttle Lake and swelling Upper Campbell Lake back into the Elk River. This disastrous act has affected local wind patterns, wildlife habitat and the seasonal fluctuation of the lake reservoirs creates an ongoing eyesore exposing the stumps of a once glorious forest. It is a sad fact that much of this industrial abuse has been perpetrated by Crown corporations and their offspring, overseen by the very provincial government that once had the foresight to declare the region parkland.

Strathcona Park faced its darkest hours in 1987-88 when then Environment Minister Stephen Rogers announced in January 1987 that the ‘recommendations’ of the Wilderness Advisory Committee would be implemented. This committee suggested deleting large areas from the park and turning them over to logging, mining and other resource interests. One area to be deleted was the entire Bedwell River valley. There was a public outcry and local activists united to form the Friends of Strathcona in order to organize their objections to the ill conceived government policies.

Matters came to a head in January 1988 when Cream Silver, a company who held mineral ‘rights’ around Cream Lake announced their plans to begin exploratory drilling. The Friends of Strathcona, the public and media descended on the area around Price Creek. A blockade was formed and for two months a tense standoff ensued. Kel Kelly became the first Canadian to be arrested for defending a park when the RCMP took him into custody.

Restoring the Balance

Fortunately the uproar caused the government to back down and instead they commissioned Peter Larkin to conduct an independent review on the future of Strathcona Park. The result was a report ‘Restoring the Balance’ which paved the way for the subsequent Master Plan which came from a series of extensive public hearings. When the dust settled, the Strathcona Park Master Plan saw park boundaries legislated making it far harder for ministers with shares in mining companies to remove parkland by a simple ‘Order in Council’. Most of the park became designated as Wilderness Conservation land recognizing the true value of wilderness to British Columbians.

Strathcona is still not immune to the whims of political office and recent cutbacks in the Park’s Department does not bode well for a smooth ride ahead. Those who love and cherish Strathcona Park should remain vigilant to ensure that it remains part of our children’s heritage.

Philip Stone

this page last updated
Sat, Feb 13, 2010

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