Citizens for a Livable Cranbrook Society provides grassroots leadership and an inclusive process, with a voice for all community members, to ensure that our community grows and develops in a way that incorporates an environmental ethic, offers a range of housing and transportation choices, encourages a vibrant and cultural life and supports sustainable, meaningful employment and business opportunities.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Baillie-Grohman's Big Idea
Perceptions by Gerry Warner
As the deadline draws nearer to terminate or renew the Columbia River Treaty (CRT), an utterly bizarre episode of B.C. history could potentially play a role in the momentous decision to renew or cancel arguably one of the most controversial treaties ever signed by Canada and the United States.
And that almost forgotten historic episode took place a little over 100 years ago about 100 miles northeast of Cranbrook.
I’m referring, of course, to the visionary scheme of English explorer, adventurer and promoter William Baillie-Grohman to build a canal – a shallow ditch really – linking the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers at what is now known appropriately as Canal Flats in order to lower the level of the Kootenay River at Creston and create a 30,000 acre Garden of Eden in the rich alluvial soil that in those days laid just below the water level every summer.
It may sound kooky, but the scheme was actually possible because of a unique quirk of geography that sees the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers almost meeting at Canal Flats but then flowing in opposite directions. Baillie-Grohman was one of the first to realize this and set out with great gusto in the 1880’s to actually make it happen after securing an agreement with the provincial government to build the mile long canal in return for a substantial land concession at the south end of Kootenay Lake where Creston now sits.
Using mainly Chinese labourers and overcoming many obstacles that would have stopped a lesser man, Baillie-Grohman worked for a decade on the project, even building a lock on the unique waterway because the Kootenay River was 11 feet higher than the Columbia where the two rivers almost meet. In 1889, he declared the project complete, uniting the two mighty rivers and creating a navigable waterway for the paddle-wheelers of the day that ran more than 200 miles down the Rocky Mountain Trench from Golden, B.C. to Jennings, Montana.
But this was an ill-stared venture from the beginning with Baillie-Grohman spending almost all of his fortune on the project only to have it declared illegal by Ottawa because the provincial government exceeded its authority in allowing it to be built. Only three ships ever passed through the canal in its short history and the captain of the last one to go through the jerry-built waterway had to blast the lock out with dynamite in order to get through.
In the case of the Baillie-Grohman Canal, history ended with a bang instead of a whimper! And that should have been the end to it except for the historic sign that still stands at the south end of Columbia Lake explaining the ill-fated project.
But not quite.
To the immense surprise of this writer and history buff, and I’m sure many others, the Baillie-Grohman scheme is still alive, at least on paper, and the piece of paper on which it lives is an extremely important piece of paper – nothing less than the paper that the CRT is written on.
I’m not kidding you.
I came across this a few weeks ago thanks to a reporter in The Dalles, Oregon of all places. She was doing a feature on the upcoming negotiations over the future of the Treaty and sent me an article by the Bonneville Power Administration engineer who heads the studies on the American side for the CRT review. Under the Treaty signed in 1964, Canada was granted the right to divert the Kootenay River into the Columbia in three stages beginning in 1984 and extending until 2064. At that point, we could divert all of the Kootenay into the Columbia except for a flow of 1,000 cubic feet per second, rendering the giant Libby Dam in Montana next to useless.
Talk about history repeating itself. I literally didn’t believe this when I first read it and thought someone made a mistake. But I checked around and quickly found it’s true even though negotiators on either side of the border don’t talk about it much. So I quickly called Kindy Gosal, director of water and environment for the Columbia Basin Trust, and he confirmed it to me also.
But would Canada ever exercise its option to divert the Kootenay into the Columbia as Baillie-Grohman had done so unspectacularly 123 years ago? That’s a “daunting” prospect, Gosal replied. “No environmental assessment would ever allow it,” he said, adding the diversion would mean destruction of the world-famous Columbia River Wet Lands and a host of other devastating environmental impacts from Columbia Lake to the American border.
Oops! What was that noise I just heard? Was is Baillie-Grohman saying “I told you so” from the grave? Could have been.