February 19th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 7
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Altered Courses - The Embattled Crowsnest River
Looking Back
courtesy Crowsnest Museum
1942 Italian town area flooded
Historic topographic maps of the Crowsnest Pass area reveal that the original trace of the Crowsnest River is substantially different from what is seen today. I have been told that a lot of the straightening of this once-meandering river had to do with flood control. Apparently the thinking was that the quicker you can get spring run-off through the community the less likely it is to overflow its banks.

When one studies the present day alignment of this embattled river one sees a lot of straight sections heavily riprapped to minimize erosion. Most of the lower reaches of the contributing drainages like the McGillivray, Nez Perce and Blairmore Creeks have also been armoured to keep them in their beds. From West Coleman to East Blairmore there is very little of the Crow that hasn’t been altered.

I was in Fernie in 1995 when the early June flood there sent Coal Creek out of its course and through the airport subdivision. The power of the water from that catastrophic event was astonishing. From the subdivision that I lived in, which was a half kilometer away from the creek, I could hear the deep klonking sounds of boulders the size of Volkswagens being rolled down its bed. Needless to say Coal Creek was heavily armoured after that.

The Pass has endured several disastrous floods that eventually precipitated the redirecting of water courses to minimize what happened in flood events like 1923, 1942 and 1948. Recently I came across some rare photos of that 1948 event that showed how Nez Perce went wild and breached its banks, running all through Bushtown. Upstream there were choke points, like the newly replaced tunnel under 19 Avenue, which also could not handle that massive flow.
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Tunnels under the CPR tracks like the one on the north side of Bushtown are bad choke points and one can clearly see in the 1948 images that Nez Perce took off east from there into the houses south of the tracks. The Gold Creek tunnel under the CPR tracks at Frank is also a problematic choke point and it doesn’t take much to plug that narrow passage with the likes of trees and debris. We can’t forget what happened to the Lyon Creek CPR tunnel in 2013. It was catastrophic, as we know.

Incidentally, when you look at the old original Crowsnest River course in the Coleman Bushtown area you see that it used to wend its way, with multiple elbows, through what is now the developed area. Indeed, when levels rise in the river people in Bushtown experience water problems. I am told most do not have basements and sump pumps can be the order of the day for crawl spaces. The river remembers where it used to go.

Some of you may recall a movement some years back to redirect some of the water east of Bushtown back into its old meander east of the Michalski Ranch. Not sure if this initiative will ever come to fruition but an interesting calculation done at the time of the original study revealed something surprising. It calculated that the section of meander they were planning to partially reconnect could hold three to four times more water than the straight lined section bypass (present day course) could hold. So did straight lining the river there, turning it into a featureless ditch, really help minimize flooding? Good question.
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Further west in Coleman an old federal topographic map I found in Peels Prairie Provinces (University of Alberta Library) shows McGillivray Creek had a different course. It ran east along the north side of the CPR tracks from the west side of West Coleman to the east side where an old concrete culvert carried it under the tracks. That culvert still exists, with a 1908 date stamped at its entrance, but McGillivray was straight lined to the Crowsnest River many years ago and that eastern course was buried. The flood photos from 1942 of West Coleman are epic and a museum photo used in the July 2013 Heritage Newsletter reveals just how bad parts were. One shot shows no less than 10 men using poles to get around on floating logs in a heavily flooded section of Italian town.

Moving further to the east, to Blairmore, I found an old 1917 survey map from the Glenbow archives that reveals some rather interesting features that existed then. It shows the tracing of a stream known as Spring Creek that winds its way through parts of East Blairmore and ran parallel to the Crowsnest River. The drawing also shows where a water well (spring?) existed near the Rocky Mountain Cement factory. Water from that well is shown flowing north to a small pond labeled “spring water” and then to a larger pond on the south side of the CPR tracks.
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Tracing Spring Creek back to the west, the drawing shows it running through what are now the houses of 135 Street and trending south of the old Blairmore Legion site before entering the Crowsnest River near the bridge.

I have long marveled at the phenomenon of the Crowsnest River going from frozen over to open water north of 135 street. It is assumed by most that there is a flow of spring or warmer water entering the river channel at that spot which causes this abrupt change. Looking at the Spring Creek trace on the old survey linen one can visualize that subsurface or spring waters may be following the old creek bed underground and emerging at that transition point in the river. I have shown on the map sketch where I think this may be happening.

It is said that the valley in which Coleman and Blairmore sit in is like a giant bathtub. What doesn’t flow into the Crowsnest River finds its way underground, inexorably moving to the east, until it is forced to surface to exit at the narrows of East Blairmore. (The bathtub overflows). It may be only coincidence that the subterranean water exits where the old Spring Creek bed came so close to the river’s banks.
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Yet further west the survey map shows that the Crowsnest River at one time bent south at 5th Avenue (now 129th Street) almost to Victoria Street (now 20th Avenue-Main Street) in Blairmore. A 1906 insurance map shows its south bank at the back door of the Alberta Hotel. You could literally throw your dish water from the hotel kitchen into the river. The aforementioned 1917 survey map shows the river pushed back somewhat to the north to about where the Bamboo Bistro restaurant now lies. 1917 was the year that Emilio Picariello bought the Alberta Hotel and moved his “operations” there.

The river at that time was a substantial multi-channeled wide spot that eventually was shifted again to the north to where it is today. The recent Crowsnest Dental building excavation revealed some of this old riverbed gravel remains. Such was the case all along the Crowsnest River where development squeezed it into a narrow straight lined funnel of water. Even Blairmore Creek was altered with a big eastern hook inserted to make room for the hospital heli-pad and yet another eastern diversion to about 113 Street away from where it used to connect behind the Kanata parking lot. It seems that everywhere the river or any of its major contributing streams proved inconvenient or in the way, they were simply moved.

Author’s Note: This piece begs further comment with regards to issues like the après Oldman River Dam construction attempts at upstream mitigation and perhaps some opinions on the present state of the beleaguered Crowsnest River’s riparian environment could be garnered. It seems yet another column would be in order.

If the paper’s modified map sketches prove difficult to read please try the on-line version where more clarity and extra images can be found.
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February 19th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 7
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