James Baker and the birth of a town

How the youngest Baker brother left the comforts of England for the wilds of British Columbia

Two early photographs

Two early photographs

Jim Cameron

The Kootenays, 1884: Wild, bountiful, a sportsman’s paradise, an investor’s dream, a veritable land of opportunity. Any one of these factors may have drawn James Baker here. The total package may have proved irresistible.

Whatever the reasons, at age 54, James Baker, his wife and at least one son, Valentine Hyde, left a very comfortable life in London, England, and travelled to the British Columbian frontier.

The Baker clan had a penchant for exploration and adventure. Perhaps James, having achieved success at home, could no longer resist his inherent call of the wild. Perhaps, as the youngest brother, he wished to make his mark as had his older siblings.

Procuring and developing an estate seems to have figured highly in James Baker’s plans and British Columbia was chock-a-block with opportunity. Land was cheap and plentiful and, in 1884, the Baker family found themselves in Skookumchuk, where they wintered before James got down to business.

The name Galbraith was synonymous with Kootenay at the time. Among the earliest settlers at Galbraith’s Ferry (later Fort Steele) the Galbraiths were entrepreneurs and landowners of the first order. The family owned a large amount of land that included Joseph’s Prairie, an area James Baker viewed as a prime location. So saying, he duly purchased some 480 acres in August, 1885, for nearly $20,000, and set up shop at the former Galbraith ranch on the gently rising hill to the southeast of the prairie. The rough settlement included a lumber mill, a store, a barn, a few dwellings, and the district customs house. He added more acreage in 1886 and 1887 for a total of nearly 6,000 acres (about half the size of present day Cranbrook). Of that, about 100 acres was cultivated as farm land, yielding hay, wheat, oats and vegetables. He also ran a store that sold both necessities and hard to find items, often imported from England.

He named his property Cranbrook Farm, after the town in Kent, England, where his ancestors had once maintained an estate. Further, he fenced his open prairie, an act that did not sit well with the local natives although impending violence was averted by the arrival of Sam Steele and his men of the North West Mounted Police.

James consolidated his position as a man of influence in the mid-1880s, when he was elected Member of Parliament for the Kootenays, a position he would hold for many years. During this time, along with his political duties, he formed a syndicate with William Fernie and Arthur Fenwick for the exploration and mining of coal under the Crow’s Nest Company. So too, was the Crows Nest Pass marked as the easiest route for the southern railway to enter British Columbia.

The Ft. Steele Prospector newspaper, published by editor A.B. Grace, himself an ardent booster of his town and an even more ardent detractor of James Baker and all things Cranbrook, fired a typical broadside in July 1897, declaring James Baker “…played the traitor and outraged the sacred trust reposed in him.” Further, he was “…prostituting his position as our representative [Member of Parliament] for selfish purposes and personal gain even though he has denied it several times.”

When one considers the vitriol exhibited it should be recalled that when James Baker was elected as Kootenay member of parliament the majority of his constituents were centered in and around Fort Steele. It is easy to understand that they felt betrayed by their political representative. On the other hand, in the same newspaper it is noted that, according to Mr. Grace, the assessed value of Ft. Steele amounted to 300 property lots worth $63,960 or $213.20 per lot versus Cranbrook with 1,088 lots at $72,130, or $66.30 per lot. This may, in fact, have been an important factor in the CPR’s decision to choose Cranbrook as the site of their depot.

There is some evidence to suggest that Fort Steele land speculators hiked their prices appreciably in expectation of the coming of the CPR. It was a ploy with which the railway was all too familiar. The fact that Mr. Baker went so far as to grant 50 per cent of his Cranbrook Townsite to the CPR must certainly have further influenced their final decision.

Still, the actual bottom line may well be found in a letter from CPR chief Engineer Lumsden, in 1897, in which it is stated that the railway “…could not be located nearer to Ft. Steele than it is without damaging the character of the line by increasing the length and the gradients.” Simply put, it was safer and easier to build the railway line through Wardner and on to Cranbrook than to go through Fort Steele.

The decision spelled eventual doom for the town of Fort Steele, forever foiling the hopes of those who had invested there.

With the arrival of the CPR to the Cranbrook Townsite in 1898 and the rapid growth of the town, James Baker must have felt a definite pride. He may too have felt much of his work was done for he returned to England in 1900, leaving his interests under the care of his son Valentine Hyde Baker.

James Baker, a man of intelligence, grace and dignity, died of heart failure, age 76, at Parkstone, England, on July 31, 1906.