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Photo of Spalding

Capturing History

Joseph Frederick Spalding: Photographer—Tourist—Visionary

Life in Fernie

J.F. Spalding lived in Fernie during a very dynamic and exciting time in the small town’s history. When Spalding moved to Fernie in 1904, the town of 1,400 or so residents had only recently been incorporated, and had only been formally “discovered” in 1898. The town’s sole raison d’ętre was coal, and many of the town’s initial economies were based on the discovery of coal seams in the area. In 1898, James Baker and William and Peter Fernie purchased roughly 10,000 acres of land that spanned from nearby Morrissey to Coal Creek, and thus formed the Crows Nest Coal and Mining Company.

Image Blooming industry...The Coal Creek mines near Fernie B.C.

The mining enterprise, however, could not be sustained without the cooperation of the railway, and so the CPR arrived in Fernie. Another spin-off from the coal mining industry was logging as wood was required for station houses, cattle guards, for track maintenance, in the mines, and for the construction of the town’s buildings. Fernie was transformed as if overnight and homes for the miners, coke ovens, and beehive ovens sprung up to handle over ten thousand tons of coal that were extracted each year.

Spalding was an active member of the burgeoning Fernie community, and he set up shop and advertised heavily to attract business. It is assumed that the need to advertise indicates that he was not the sole photographer in Fernie, and that he had to actively seek out clients. Spalding touted his studio as very modern, and in 1908, he invested over $1,000 into the studio to furnish it with new backdrops and accessories.

Image The devastating remains of the Fort Steel Brewery after the Great Fire of 1908.

Spalding’s role in the community could only have been strengthened when he, along with many other Fernie residents lost homes and businesses to the Great Fire of 1908. Despite his loss, Spalding chronicled the aftermath of the fire with great care, and in doing so, it appears that he felt an immense sense of pride in the rate at which the city “Rose from the Ashes.” Within two months of the fire, a Spalding photograph shows a bustling main business area, and it appears that Spalding too picked himself up and continued on with his successful business.

Image Residents gather at the Relief Distribution Center after the Great Fire.

Spalding was on-hand to chronicle the growth of Fernie, from the rebuilding stage and to highlight new buildings such as the law courts. By 1910, the population of Fernie had boomed to 3,500, and the town boasted sawmills, curling and skating rinks, banks, hotels, and many other amenities of any modern town. Spalding photographed fine houses from around Fernie, took sweeping photos of Victoria Avenue on beautiful snowy days, and captured residents dressed in their finery strolling down the streets of Coal Creek. Spalding also captured the working man in his domain: in the bush logging, heading into the mine tunnels, fishing in the Elk River, and working on the railway.

Image Enjoying the 1909 Labour Day celebrations.

Spalding’s Fernie was a picturesque and relatively peaceful place. Aside from the Great Fire of 1908, and the flood of 1916, his photos present an idyllic setting where any English settler might like to plant roots. The photographs of social events serve to reinforce feelings of community and spirit. The Peace Day celebrations allude to a community deeply committed to their men in the services, and to the joys associated with local picnics, children, school sports teams, handsome families, and so on. Spalding felt that Fernie was a truly wonderful place and in his 1919 letter to the editor of the Fernie Free Press, Spalding reinforced his belief in Fernie’s potential, and he stated that, “we have absolutely the finest scenery there is in the whole of the North American continent...”

Image There were many clubs and groups in Fernie that were photographed by Spalding.

Spaldings images of Fernie, to some extent, carry over Victorian notions in that they allude to man’s drive to conquer nature, to gain prosperity, and to understand and secure technological advancements. Spaldings numerous images of trains, of mining operations, and of logging technology all reinforce these idyllic and progressive Victorian ideals. Such notions are slow, however, to accommodate the consideration of labour strife, of ethnic divisions, of poverty, or of the hardships provided by the weather and topography in the Fernie area. As one of its successful, professional citizens, Spalding truly believed in Fernie, in its boundless potential, and his images of the town, in the time he lived there, speak volumes to his feelings of optimism for what the future of Fernie might hold.

Image Spalding challenges the businessmen of Fernie to get more involved in promoting further development of the town.
Image Spalding's proposed "Premiere Tour" with Fernie in the middle.