Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fort Steele a throwback to Wild West days

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FORT STEELE, B.C. -- So, asked the town gossip, all gussied up in her late 1880s finery: "Which building do you think is the most important in this town?"

"The brothel," I blurted out, not thinking.

"Hrump!" said the gossip, wagging her finger at me. "It's folks like you who give this town a bad name."

This town is Fort Steele, a restored and, in some cases, replicated historic village situated on a plateau overlooking the confluence of the St. Mary and Kootenay rivers near Cranbrook in the Kootenay Rockies region of the B.C. Interior.

The town was originally named Galbraith's Ferry but renamed to honour North-West Mounted Police superintendent Sam Steele, who built a NWMP post in the town.

Steele was sent out West by prime minister John A. Macdonald to diffuse a potentially explosive situation brought about by frequent skirmishes between ranchers, miners and the Ktunaxa First Nation.

The prim-and-proper town gossip is but one of the character actors who bring the town alive and engage with visitors who come from across Canada and around the world to witness first-hand how the Wild West was won.

A casual walk along its boardwalks takes tourists past many shops and businesses that are a throwback to a simpler, if more labour-intensive, era.

-- At the blacksmith shop, a student pumps the bellows to fire up the coals. When the tip of the iron gets red-hot, he pounds it into shape with a heavy hammer. No need to work out at the gym in those days.

-- At the leather-working shop, another student makes belts, which are available for purchase.

-- Popular with the wee ones are the hands-on gold-panning demos and, as you can imagine, the old-fashioned ice-cream shop.

You never know who, or what, you will bump into on the dusty streets of Fort Steele. But, on the handy little map in a brochure handed out to visitors, there are a total of 59 attractions listed.

Of all the attractions in the town itself, the most popular are the schoolhouse, the Wild Horse Theatre and the horse-drawn wagon rides, which turn into sleigh rides in the snow at the end of the season.

The majestic Clydesdales that do the heavy pulling follow in the hoofsteps of horses that pulled freight wagons way back at the turn of the century in the East Kootenay.

Ambling along on the boardwalk and day-dreaming about days of old, I was snapped out of my reverie by a sharp crack like a pistol shot.

There, across the street was a cowpoke with a bullwhip trying to make like Lash La Rrue, a popular motion -picture star from the '40s and '50s.

C-rack! went his whip.

"I think I will keep to my side of the street," I thought to myself.

On the handy little map in a brochure handed out to visitors, there are a total of 59 attractions listed at Ft. Steele.

Could you imagine a dentist calling his place Dr. Grice's Painless Dentistry. At least it's not too far from Mrs. Sprague's Sweet Shop.

Of all the attractions in the town itself, the most popular are the school house, the Wild Horse Theatre and the horse-drawn wagon rides, which turn into sleigh rides in the snow at the end of the season. The majestic Clydesdales that do the heavy pulling follow in the hoofsteps of horses that pulled freight wagons way back at the turn of the century in the East Kootenay.

If you attend Miss Bailey's class, make sure you're punctual. She doesn't tolerate tardiness.

And if you expect audio-visual aides, forget it. The only laptop here is where you keep your hands while you're paying attention to the school marm.

Another example of how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time is in communications. Before Twittering and texting, town folk would go down to the telegraph office to send messages on a network that connected Ft. Steele with Spokane, Wash., Kalispell, Mont., Idaho and the B.C. coast.

To unwind from a hard week's work in the mines, ranches and workshops, the pioneers would head to the Coventry Opera House to take in events such as dances, dinners, concerts and plays.

There never was a Wild Horse Theatre here in the good ol' days but that didn't stop heritage town planners from including it in the complex. They saw the need to offer visitors turn-of-the-century entertainment with vaudeville-type stage shows that run daily throughout the summer season.

A not-to-be-missed attraction at Ft. Steele is the four-kilometre-long steam-train ride that takes visitors from the train station just on the outskirts of town to a viewpoint high on a bluff overlooking the Kootenay and St. Mary Rivers.

The steam-blowing, chugging vintage locomotive 1077 was used in several movies, including High Noon (California), The Grey Fox (Ft. Steele), The Journey of Natty GAnn (B.C. and Alberta), and Shanghai Noon (Drumheller, Alta.).

As I sat in the open-air railcar, the slip stream wafting through my hair, I imagined myself in the saddle of one of Sam Steele's steeds, galloping along on the plateau with its fabulous views of the shimmering river below.

It's an image worth preserving, and so is the heritage town of Ft. Steele with its collage of sepia-coloured snapshots come alive, showing new generations what everyday life was like for our pioneering forebearers in the frontier of a fledgling British Columbia.

-- Canwest News Service

IF YOU GO

* For information on hours of operation in the spring and summer seasons, special events and rates, visit the Fort Steele Heritage Town website at www.fortsteele.ca http://www.fortsteele.ca.

* For more on the Kootenay Rockies Tourism region, check out www.kootenayrockies.com http://www.kootenayrockies.com.

* And, for general information on the province, go to www.helloBC.com http://www.helloBC.com.

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2010 E3

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