The origin of Fort Steele is closely linked to the discovery of gold on nearby Wild Horse Creek in the 1860s. The gold rush peaked in 1865 when an estimated 5,000 prospectors flooded into Fisherville combing the hills in search of their fortune. The gold strike was rich, as many men reportedly earned from $40,000 to $60,000 that summer.
One would-be miner named John Galbraith recognized the need for providing a crossing over the Kootenay River and started a ferry service. A small cluster of buildings grew up around his ferry office and became known as Galbraith’s Ferry. Records indicate John Galbraith charged $5 per person and $10 per animal to use his ferry service, a huge amount of money at that time. The Galbraith family earned a lucrative income from the ferry operation until the first bridge was built in 1888. By that time, they were well established as the town’s founding family.
By the fall of 1865 the rich and easy-to-access gold diggings close to the surface were largely depleted. To make a profit, miners had to invest money in shafts or hydraulic equipment. Interested only in the quick profits of a new strike, most of the 5,000 miners moved on in search of better prospects. By 1882, only 11 settlers lived in the East Kootenay district. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Golden in 1885 encouraged settlers and prospectors to once more venture into the region.
As more people arrived, it was inevitable disputes over land ownership between the local Ktunaxa First Nation population and the newcomers would arise. The most serious dispute was between Chief Isadore of the Ktunaxa and Colonel James Baker over a piece of land called Joseph’s Prairie, the site of present-day Cranbrook. Tension peaked in 1887 when the local Constable Barnes of the British Columbia Provincial Police arrested two young members of Chief Isadore’s band for the murder of two miners. The murders had taken place almost three years prior to the arrest. Chief Isadore and 30 armed men broke open the Government Building jail in Galbraith’s Ferry and released the Ktunaxa prisoners.
Superintendent Samuel B. Steele and 75 members of the North West Mounted Police were sent to resolve these problems. They established the first post west of the Rockies, Kootenay Post. After dismissing the criminal charges against the 2 Ktunaxa men and mediating the land problems, the NWMP departed in 1888.
The residents of the area petitioned the Dominion Government to change the settlement’s name from Galbraith’s Ferry to Fort Steele in honour of the Superintendent of ‘D’ Division.
After the departure of the North-West Mounted Police, things were fairly quiet at Fort Steele until 1892 when major deposits of silver, lead, and coal were discovered nearby. Prospectors flooded the valley once more, and the hills were dotted with campfires each evening.
Fort Steele became the region's commercial, social, and administrative centre and quickly grew to over 1,000 people. In 1898, the local “Prospector” newspaper listed the town’s thriving businesses, including 11 hotels, 4 restaurants, 4 general stores, a hardware store, a brewery, and a wide assortment of other establishments ranging from a Chinese drug store to tailor shops and barristers.
Entrepreneurs installed telephone and telegraph services in 1897. In the spring of 1898, a waterworks system was installed along Riverside Avenue, reducing some of the townsfolk’s dependence on barrels of muddy water hauled up from the Kootenay River.
The boom at Fort Steele began to slow in 1899, due largely to the efforts of Colonel James Baker, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly. The previous year, the long-awaited Crowsnest Route of the Canadian Pacific Railway had bypassed Fort Steele in favour of the fledgling community of Cranbrook. Fort Steele’s land values and population plummeted as Cranbrook attracted the tradesmen and merchants. Finally, in 1904, the Provincial government offices were moved to Cranbrook and by 1910 Fort Steele was in a state of sharp decline.
In the late 1950s, local citizens devoted to bringing Fort Steele back to life petitioned the Provincial Government to protect the old town. In 1961, the Government declared Fort Steele an historic park with a mandate “to preserve, present, and manage for public benefit the historic settlement of Fort Steele . . .”
Today, Fort Steele Heritage Town is one of the most important attractions of its kind in British Columbia with over 80,000 people visiting each year.