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Mountains in the Archives

Back to The Cairn

By Courtney Maxwell-Alves, Development Associate

What do mountains mean to you? Everyone’s answer will be different. For me, they represent magic, wonder, and history, they make me confront my crippling fear of heights, and they bring a level of unparalleled peace and serenity found nowhere else. Everyone who moves to the Canadian Rocky Mountains has a story, and I am positive that mountains play an important character. When I first moved here, I remember trying desperately to get to know the mountains around me: their names, their trails, their significance, their history. I wore my success as a badge of honour that named me a local.

Using archival photographs from the collections in the Archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, I will highlight three mountains that first took my breath away. Like us, each one has their own story and together we make up the mountain culture and human history of the Canadian Rockies.

I do not include Indigenous place names in this article. This is not something I missed or didn’t think about: due to the various names these mountains have and the difficulty I had finding information, I didn’t want to presume the information I found was correct. I would like to acknowledge this here and state that the names below are not the only names these mountains are referred to, and in fact, they are examples of land features that were renamed when settlers arrived in the area. This is important and should not be overlooked. Although they are not included here, I encourage further reading about Indigenous place names in Canada and in general.


Cascade Mountain

Arguably no other mountain or scenic view is more associated with the Town of Banff than the image of Cascade Mountain from Banff Avenue. This isn’t by accident. To highlight the majestic view of Cascade Mountain, early town planners surveyed and planned the town to align with it. Since then, images of Cascade and Banff Avenue have been used as postcards and fill tourist photo albums, now in the form of selfies and Instagram. Cascade, part of the Vermilion Range, serves as a geographical landmark and is well known to locals and tourists alike, particularly for photo opportunities but also for hiking and climbing.

Originally named for the waterfalls that are found on it, Cascade was later renamed by Sir James Hector the geologist for the Palliser Expedition in 1858, and was officially added to Canada’s Geographical Names Database in 1956. Standing at 2998 metres (9,836 feet), Cascade Mountain stands sentinel over the townsite and if you travel west on the Trans-Canada Highway, Cascade silently welcomes you to Banff National Park and the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Charles Leroy and first milk cow in Banff, 1888, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Pat Brewster fonds (V91/447/na66-1796)

Mr. Fisher, Bicycle, Sept. 1956, Bruno Engler/photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Bruno Engler fonds (V190/I/A/ii/2/na-24)


Sulphur Mountain

Named for the sulphur hot springs located at the base of the mountain, Sulphur Mountain, officially added to Canada’s Geographical Names Database in 1956, stands at 2450 metres (8,041 feet) overlooking the Town of Banff, opposite Cascade Mountain.

To highlight Sulphur Mountain I would be remiss if I did not mention Norman Sanson (1862-1949), a naturalist, meteorologist, and museum curator in Banff. In 1903, a meteorological observatory was built on Sulphur Mountain on a designated site selected by Sanson, and from 1903 until 1931, Sanson diligently collected weather records from this site (making one thousand ascents). In 1948, Sanson’s Peak was named in his honour. Another important scientific contribution was the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, which was a research facility at the top of the mountain that was in operation until 1978.

Today, Sulphur Mountain is known for the gondola (and hiking trail) that can be taken to the top of the mountain and overlooks the townsite. Playing an important role in scientific research, Sulphur Mountain now plays a central role in Banff tourism, allowing visitors and locals alike to walk the boardwalk, learn, and take in the views.

Sulphur Mountain Vermilion Lakes, ca. 1919-1929, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/II/A/PA-237)

1000th ascent of Sulphur Mountain by Norman Sanson, July 1, 1931, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Round family fonds (V547/10/na66-1855)


Castle Mountain

Moving away from the mountains that directly overlook the Town of Banff, Castle Mountain is by far my favourite mountain in Banff National Park. Standing at 2752 metres, Castle Mountain is located between Banff and Lake Louise. Renamed by Sir James Hector (of the Palliser Expedition) in 1858 for its castle-like appearance, this mountain has witnessed three important events in the Park’s history:

  1. In the early 1880s, miners in search of silver flocked to Castle Mountain and set up the now non-existent Silver City. Most left the area once it was apparent there was not as much silver as once thought, except for Joseph Smith who became the “hermit of Silver City” until he was moved into Calgary where he died November 1937.

  2. During World War I, the Castle Mountain Internment Camp (1915-1917) was built at the base of the mountain. This internment camp held “enemy aliens,” who were immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Primarily from the Ukraine, the prisoners were forced to work on various government projects mainly to improve the surrounding infrastructure. A commemorative plaque and statue now stand at the camp’s location at the base of Castle Mountain.

  3. Did you know that Castle Mountain was once officially named Mt. Eisenhower? Neither did I until I processed the Dorothy Wardle fonds and read her documentation of the The Castle Mountain Battle.” After World War II, the administration under Prime Minister Mackenzie King renamed Castle Mountain to honour American President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s role in leading the Allied victory. This did not go over well for Banff locals, like Dorothy Wardle, who spoke out in newspapers and continuously petitioned to have the Castle name restored, which finally occurred in the late 1970’s. Castle Mountain was officially renamed and added to Canada’s Geographical Names Database in 1979.

Old Silver City Mining Town and Castle Mountain, 18 miles west of Banff, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Norman Sanson fonds (V246/16/48/NA66-1989

Castle [Castle Mountain], Byron Harmon/photographer, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Byron Harmon fonds (V263/I/A/i/a/NA-4678)


Cascade, Sulphur, and Castle Mountains are mere examples of how humans interact with their physical surroundings, and how mountains can play crucial roles in mountain culture and history. Although hiking, climbing, camping, etc, are cornerstone activities to life in Banff, I hope through this article I have managed to encourage you to look at mountains and your environment differently. If you are interested in more photographs and information, or simply want to learn more, please visit our database and check out our collections.


Further Reading and Research

  1. National Resources Canada:

  2. Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund:

  3. Town of Banff:

  4. The Canadian Encyclopedia:

  5. Encyclopedia Britannica:

  6. The Canadian Encyclopedia: