The National Park That Wasn't

Posted by Daniel on May 20, 2011 - 7 comments

To celebrate the 100th birthday of Parks Canada, the story of a BC national park that might have been, but wasn't.

During the Depression decade, the province and the federal government got together to build the Big Bend Highway. As of 1927, the province's primitive road system stopped in the west at Revelstoke and in the east at Golden. Because the present day route of the trans-Canada Highway across Roger's Pass was then deemed impractical, the two governments agreed to push a road north and then south along the course of the Columbia River. When finished, the new road would make it possible for the first time to drive from Alberta to the Pacific Coast through BC; that is, without going south through the US.

BC and Ottawa agreed to share the cost of the new road but as the Depression worsened and BC's finances grew more precarious the province looked for ways of getting out of its share of the commitment. In 1931 BC had opened relief camps for the single unemployed and residents of these camps took over construction of the Big Bend road. Then, in 1933, the Feds took over these camps. It meant that they were now footing the entire bill for the road and naturally they came looking for some kind of quid pro quo.

The National Parks Branch proposed that BC set aside some land around what was then Kinbasket Lake as a park reserve. At first the idea didn't gain much traction in Victoria because the land in question was controlled by timber companies that would have to be bought out. Premier Duff Pattullo thought the answer was for Ottawa to create a new national park in the area and, coincidentally, to take over complete responsibility for maintaining the new Big Bend road. In response, federal officials indulged in a little blackmail. Realizing that the federal work camps were about to close, throwing the cost of completing its half of the road back to the province, the officials agreed to pay for finishing the road if the province agreed to maintain it, AND promised to preserve the previously discussed reserve from logging, AND agreed to give to Ottawa a pair of existing provincial parks in the Rockies if Ottawa decided it wanted them.

Nothing came of this negotiation and in 1940 the Big Bend Highway opened to traffic. The road proved unpopular with motor tourists. It was remote, treacherous and dusty and in the end not very scenic. (One journalist called it "the loneliest road in North America".) In order to increase its attractiveness, and get the Feds involved in paying for its upkeep, Premier Pattullo made a surprise move. In September 1941, out of the blue, he created Hamber Provincial Park, a huge 9,700 square kilometre chunk of wilderness between the Selkirks and the western flank of the Rockies, from about Golden in the south to the Yellowhead Pass in the north. In those days it was that simple for the premier to make a park.

Pattullo actually did not want a new provincial park. What he expected was that Ottawa would take over the park, attach it to its other Rocky Mountain Parks, and in the process take over maintenance of the Big Bend. But before he could negotiate this deal, he was forced from office and in the years that followed the Feds showed no interest whatsoever in taking over Hamber Park. The province was stuck with it and since it was Pattullo's initiative, no one else really knew what to do with it. The park languished from under-use and neglect. If an unwary tourist happened to drive up the Big Bend there were not even any road signs indicating the existence of the park. Logging was permitted within its borders and the Big Bend area was flooded for hydro development. Finally, as construction of the Trans-Canada Highway proceeded, the park was "disappeared". In 1961 Hamber Provincial Park was reduced in size to a small rump of 240 sq. km. high in the Rockies around Fortress Lake, pretty much what it is today, the national park that never was.

(To celebrate the centenary of Parks Canada, the University of Calgary Press has published a book of essays, A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011. The information about Hamber Park comes from an essay in the volume by Ben Bradley of Queen's University. The entire book is available online at