Castle Mountain is an approximately 2,860 metre (9,383’) mountain located in Banff National Park. It is in the Bow Valley and situated approximately 30km northwest of the Banff town site and 20 km southeast of the Lake Louise town site. The name is descriptive and comes from the fortress- or castle-like appearance of the mountain; its peaks and ridges give the impression of the towers and battlements characteristic of a medieval fortress or castle. The mountain appears to stand alone in the middle of the valley and, although it is not amongst the tallest of the mountains in the area, it is one of the most picturesque and well-known mountains in the Canadian Rockies. This prominence has made the mountain the subject of one of the greatest naming controversies in western Canadian history.
The origins of the name Castle Mountain are found with the Palliser Expedition, which explored western British North America from 1857 to 1859. In August 1858, the expedition split up to cover more territory. Dr. James Hector, the expedition’s geologist, led a party westward from the Morley area up the Bow Valley. On August 17, 1858, Hector’s party entered a wide portion of the Bow Valley between the Sawback Range and the Bow Range. He recorded in this Journal that “[s]eeming to stand out in the centre of the valley is a very remarkable mountain, still at a distance of 12 miles, which looks like a gigantic castle.” Hector spent the next two days camped near the mountain, which he named Castle Mountain. [Interestingly, on August 12, 1858, just five days prior to Hector’s naming of Castle Mountain in the Bow Valley, Lt. Thomas Blakiston, another member of the Palliser Expedition had bequeathed the name Castle Mountain to a mountain near Pincher Creek. In order to avoid confusion, Blakiston’s mountain was officially named Windsor Mountain in 1915].
On August 19, Hector and a party member named Sutherland attempted to climb Castle Mountain. Hector recorded the details of the climb in his Journal:
[W]e began to rise very rapidly. At 1,000 feet above the valley, before we had quite got out of the woods, we came to a cliff, about 80 feet high, composed of quartzite and indurated sandstone of a pinkish hue… . After this we reached the first of the cliff ranges that are so conspicuous from the valley below … . When 2,000 feet above the valley we passed round to the N. side of the mountain, and found that a deep valley separated it from a lower spur composed of splintery shale of a dull red colour. The mass of the mountain, which rose more than 2,000 feet above us, seemed to be composed of thick bedded limestones, and these breaking away as the soft shales below them have been destroyed has given rise to the castellated appearance.
Hector’s party left Castle Mountain the next day to continue their exploration of the Bow Valley. On September 3, he again noted the mountain, which could be seen from Kicking Horse Pass, at a distance of 15 to 20 miles.
On his second journey up the Bow Valley in 1859, Hector camped at the north end of Castle Mountain. During this trip he recorded observations that the mountains on the west side of the valley were characterized by strata of soft shale, while the mountains on the east side of the valley were composed of limestone. Geologically speaking, he wrote, Castle Mountain, with its heavy shale, belonged with the mountains on the west side of the valley, even though the course carved by the Bow River placed the mountain on the valley’s east side.
The Palliser Expedition wrapped up in 1859. In 1861, Hector was appointed as the director of the Geological Survey of Otago, New Zealand. He spent the rest of his life in New Zealand, where he died in 1907 at the age of 73 years. Despite only spending two short visits to Castle Mountain, Hector’s vivid descriptions of the mountain and the name he gave it lived on.
In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway established a station near the mountain. This station was listed as Castle Mountain in the railway’s timetables and maps. Also in 1883, a mining town known as Silver City was established in the mountain’s shadow. It quickly grew to over 2,000 people before disappearing in 1885 after the expected ore deposits failed to materialize.
In 1912, the Geographic Board of Canada officially approved the name Castle Mountain to identify the mountain on federal maps. During the First World War, the Castle Mountain Internment Camp was established to contain detainees, mostly recently-arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. Castle Mountain also featured prominently in promotional literature produced by the Canadian Pacific Railway and Banff National Park. The mountain continued to dominate the landscape of the region and the minds and imaginations of those that viewed it. The name Castle Mountain appeared to be indelibly affixed upon the map. The events of 1946 changed that.
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National Topographic System Map Sheet: 82 0/5 – Castle Mountain
Latitude/Longitude: 51° 17′ 59″ N & 115° 55′ 21″ W
Alberta Township System: Sec 8 Twp 27 Rge 14 W5
Description: Approximately 30 km northwest of the Banff town site and 20 km southeast of the Lake Louise town site.
Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator
More information about Castle Mountain and Dr. James Hector can be found in:
Dell, R. K. “Hector, James: 1934-1907, geologist, explorer, administrator,” Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, available from http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1h15/1.
Kordan, Bohdan S. and Peter J. Melnycky. In the Shadow of the Rockies: Diary of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, 1915-1917. (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1991).
Spry, Irene M. ed., The Papers of the Palliser Expedition, 1857-1860. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1968), available from http://link.library.utoronto.ca/champlain/search.cfm?lang=eng. [Dr. Hector’s Journal for 1858 can be found on pages 286-469].