The story of the Crowsnest Pass and the early years of the City of Cranbrook are forever linked to the life and business dealings of Colonel James Baker. Baker was many things: soldier-adventurer, speculator, visionary, politician, businessman, wheeler-dealer, gentleman-rancher and prominent social figure.
Baker came from a famous family. His father was Samuel Baker a West Indies merchant of considerable success. His oldest brother was Sir Samuel Baker, (1821-1892) the author, sportsman and explorer of the Upper Nile and the first European to discover Albert Nyanza (Lake Albert). His older brother, Valentine Baker Pasha (or Pacha) (1827-1887), was a British army officer and later Lieutenant-general in the army of the Sultan of Turkey and was active in the war between Turkey and Russia before becoming the head of police in Egypt. There he was involved in several military actions and was wounded at the second battle of El Teb. He died in Egypt in 1887.
James Baker was born in London, England, on January 6, 1830. He was educated at the Collegiate School, Gloucester, by private tutor and attended Cambridge where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1861 and a Master of Arts in 1864. In December 1855, Baker married Sarah Louise White and they had a son, Valentine Hyde Baker.
He entered the Indian Navy in 1865 to survey the Arabian coast and was active, as first officer of the schooner Matria, in the campaigns to suppress the slave trade. Later he joined the British Army (Royal Horse Guards Blue) and fought in the Crimea with the Eighth Hussars. He retired from the army as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1875. He traveled extensively and wrote the book Turkey in Europe. He gained business experience as the private secretary of the Duke of Westminster, one of the most important landlords in London, and he was a member of the Athenaeum Club. This club, founded in 1824, had a membership based in the English literary, scientific and artistic circles.
Col and Mrs Baker and their son came to British Columbia in 1884 and settled first at Skookumchuck. In 1886 purchased property at Joseph's Prairie from John Gailbraith for a ranch at the present location of Cranbrook. He named the ranch site Cranbrook Farm for an old family property in England. After the original buildings burned, he built a new home in 1888. Baker and his son Hyde developed the ranch and a store while expanding their interests in the district. They became involved in schemes to develop the coal deposits in the Crowsnest Pass and soon were part of a project to incorporate a railway to be built through the Pass from Alberta. The Bakers were associates of William Fernie and others in the development of the Crowsnest Pass coal fields through the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company and Baker was a tireless promoter of a railway through the pass. This railway, he correctly reasoned, was essential to the development of the coal deposits and the settlement of the East Kootenay.
Financial backing was key to the enterprise and Baker and his associates eventually reached an agreement with the Canadian Pacific for the take over of their railway charter, the development of the coal fields and the promotion and sale of the townsite of Cranbrook where the CPR was to locate a division point on the new Crowsnest Pass railway. The agreement gave the CPR and Baker each a one half interest in the townsite and provided sufficient funds for the beginning of the large scale development of the coal mines at Fernie.
There was some controversy over the location of the railway division point at Cranbrook and the fact that the railway passed by Fort Steele which was an earlier and, at that time, a more important settlement. However, the CPR maintained that the route along to the west of the Kootenay River provided a better gradient for the railway and a more direct route than a line that would have passed through Fort Steele. Later, a CPR branch line was extended through Fort Steele from Colvalli, south of Wardner, when trackage was built between Golden and the Crowsnest Pass Route. Fort Steele itself never prospered as its promoters had hoped after it was bypassed by the railway in 1898. Ironically, in the late 1960s, when Lake Koocanousa was created behind the Libby Dam, most of the original route between Wardner and Cranbrook was abandoned in favour of trackage that passed through Fort Steele.
CPR Vice President Thomas Shaughnessy wrote to Collingwood Schreiber, Deputy Minister of Railways and Canals for the federal government on September 23, 1897 explaining the choice in routing past Fort Steele. He was concerned that opposition to the route from promoters of Fort Steele should not deter the government from approving the railway's plans:
The decision by the CPR guaranteed the future of Cranbrook as the major centre for the region.
In 1888, Colonel Baker was elected to the provincial legislative assembly as Member for East Kootenay which then included the entire region from the United States border to Golden. This placed him in a position where he could lobby effectively for the interests of the region which, coincidentally, corresponded very closely with his own. Baker served in the provincial cabinet in several portfolios including provincial secretary and minister of education, immigration and mines. He maintained residences in Cranbrook and Victoria. He was never defeated in office but choose not to run again after the government was defeated in 1898. In 1900, Baker then 70 years old, returned to England and retirement. He died on July 31, 1906 at Inglewood, Parkston, Dorset, England, at age 76.
Valentine Hyde Baker continued to run the family businesses at Cranbrook until about 1914 and was a member of the City Council. Hyde Baker also was president of the Baker Lumber Company in the Cranbrook area at Waldo and one of the incorporators of the Crow's Nest and Kootenay Lake Railway Company in 1888 which later became the British Columbia Southern. He and his wife Ida had three children: Olive born in 1900, Hugh born in 1905 and Valentine Edward, born in 1913.Baker Street in Nelson and Baker Street in Cranbrook were both named for the Colonel as was Baker Mountain near Cranbrook. Colonel Baker's home in Cranbrook, built in 1888, is an historical landmark, preserved in Baker Park.
This brief account of Baker was
based on biographies in: The Parliamentary Companion,
1889; The Parliamentary Guide, 1898-99; the Dictionary
of National Biography, deaths to 1900; and Baker's extensive
Read Colonel Baker's recollections on the discovery of coal in the Crowsnest Pass and its development.