Skip to content

Two Banff icons take spotlight in new books

BANFF – Two of the newest books from Banff-based Summerthought Publishing have a lot in common; first published in the early 1970s – both books are about Bow Valley icons written by Bow Valley authors.

BANFF – Two of the newest books from Banff-based Summerthought Publishing have a lot in common; first published in the early 1970s – both books are about Bow Valley icons written by Bow Valley authors.

Both Tilikum: Luxton’s Pacific Voyage by Norman Luxton and edited by his daughter, Eleanor Luxton, and A Castle in the Clouds: The story of the Banff Springs Hotel by Bart Robinson are also based upon decisions made elsewhere that came to have a profound effect on Banff and the Bow Valley.

In 1901, Luxton set out with Capt. John Voss to sail around the world on a 32-ft.-long whaling canoe bought on Vancouver Island from an elderly First Nations woman. Luxton made it as far as Fiji, where he was forced to quit after he fell from the canoe and was dragged by waves across a coral reef, nearly killing him.

“…what a mess my body was in,” writes Luxton. “I had no toe-nails, no finger-nails, and all the front of my body was as raw as a butcher’s hind-leg of beef. My knees were scraped to the bone and my shins also, such was the roughness of my treatment by the coral.”

While it may seem that a voyage across the Pacific Ocean in cedar canoe (on display in Vancouver at The Maritime Museum of B.C.) has nothing to do with Banff, it is, in fact, where Luxton’s story with Banff begins.

He came in Banff on the advice of friends who thought the hot springs water of the Cave and Basin would help him heal. Once he had recuperated, the Winnipeg-born Luxton stayed, becoming one the town’s most passionate boosters and promoters while at the same time building a substantial business that continues today.

Luxton built the original King Edward Hotel and Lux Block, which included the Lux Theatre (now The Spirit of Christmas); the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop and the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum. A trained newspaperman, Luxton also bought and operated the Crag and Canyon newspaper. He was a key figure behind Banff Indian Days, the Banff Winter Carnival and the move to bring one of the last herds of plains bison to Alberta from Montana. Descendants of those animals now roam the Panther Valley in northeastern Banff National Park.

Luxton married into a prominent southern Alberta’s family, the McDougalls, missionaries who opened the Morley mission on the Stoney Nakoda First Nations reserve. He and Georgina McDougall had one daughter, Eleanor, who founded the Eleanor Luxton Heritage Foundation (ELHF) in 1995, which today continues to promotes Banff’s history, culture and ecology.

If Luxton had not fallen from the Tilikum and gotten dragged across the coral, all of that may have never come to pass.

Luxton’s Tilikum journal was first published by Gray’s Publishing in 1971. Key Porter published the second edition in 2002. Summerthought, meanwhile, released the third edition this year in partnership with the ELHF. Along with the original material, the third edition features a foreword and epilogue by Harvey Locke, a Banff author, conservationist, ELHF trustee and a distant relative of Luxton’s.

Tilikum provides both an adventure-filled travelogue and an honest insight into Luxton and his huge personality, and based upon Tilikum alone, it’s easy to see why he had such a huge effect on Banff.

Just as Luxton found his way to Banff ultimately because of his decision to embark upon a world voyage in a canoe, the Banff Springs Hotel came to be built in Banff because of a decision made by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Instead of taking the more northerly route over the Yellowhead Pass, the CPR chose to go by way of the Bow Valley and the Kicking Horse Pass.

That decision brought the railroad and its general manager, William Cornelius Van Horne to the confluence of the Spray and Bow rivers where he decided to build a great hotel as part of a plan to profit from tourism.

Construction of the original Banff Springs Hotel began in the fall of 1886, opening two years later. Construction began on the new hotel, as it is known today, in 1912. The 11-storey centre tower was completed in 1914, while the north and south wings, after fire gutted the north wing in 1926, were finished by 1928.

A Castle in the Wilderness: The Story of the Banff Springs Hotel builds upon Robinson’s 1973 book, Banff Springs: The Story of a Hotel. While Summerthought re-released his first book about the hotel in 2007, A Castle in the Wilderness is its own book (and better by far than its predecessors) with updated text and numerous sidebars and historical and colour photographs.

As part of the updates, Robinson has included how the hotel continues to meet changing and challenging times, including both 9/11 and the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak. He also explores how the Banff Springs has remained a welcoming place for Banff residents and visitors not staying at the hotel.

Robinson, an editor, historian and journalist (also co-author with Brian Patton of The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide), is a gifted and perceptive writer who has a graceful and enviable way with words.

He also sees the bigger picture and A Castle in the Wilderness offers much more than just the history of the hotel. It is also a history of the CPR in the Rockies, of Banff, of Banff National Park and of the people who made the Banff Springs what it was and what it is today.

“The Banff Springs is as successful, as in demand, and as busy at it has ever been,” writes Robinson, adding that while the hotel continues to adapt and change, it still actively maintains its connection to the past.

“Through hard times and good,” he writes, “the Banff Springs has become one of those rare institutions that transcends itself and becomes a symbol of place and time.”

Like the Banff Springs, Luxton could also be described as a “symbol of place and time,” and as such, they both inhabit an extremely important place within the history of Banff and the Bow Valley. These two institutions – and Luxton truly is an institution unto himself – help to form the backbone of this region’s identity.

Both Tilikum: Luxton’s Pacific Crossing and A Castle in the Wilderness: The story of the Banff Springs Hotel are available for $19.95.