Canal Flats, British Columbia, is the small town at the southern end of
Columbia Lake, the headwaters of the river. As Ilwaco, Washington, is the
closest population center to the mouth of the river (Ilwaco is at 46°18'33"
north, 124°02'31" west, and about 14 feet above sea level), Canal Flats is the
closest to the headwaters. Its geographic coordinates are 50°09'22" north,
115°48'52" west (map),
and its elevation is 2,680 feet above sea level, or about 30 feet above the
level of the lake.
It is a unique location, as the Kootenay River flows in a southerly direction
along the eastern and southern sections of the town, and the spring-fed
wetlands that form the southern shore of Columbia Lake are immediately to the
north. A short distance farther north, on the eastern shore of the lake, is
Canal Flats Provincial Park. Provincial Highway 93/95 passes to the south and
west of Canal Flats after crossing a bridge over the Kootenay.
There is an area on a bluff just south of town where Ktunaxa Indians had a salmon
fishing camp; the pits of their shelters are still visible. Some tribal
authorities believe this is evidence that the Ktunaxa people fished for salmon
in both the Kootenay and Columbia rivers and used this location as a base, but
there is no evidence — middens of salmon bones, for example — that salmon
ever were in the Kootenay.
According to the BC Geographical Names Office, David Thompson named this area
McGillivray's Portage, probably in honor of Duncan McGillivray, his friend and
partner in the North West Company who died in 1808, the year Thompson arrived
in the area, and for whom Thompson also named the south-flowing river (the name
later was changed to Kootenay). Two of McGillivray’s brothers also were North
West Company employees, and so it isn’t clear that Duncan was the namesake
although historians believe he was the most likely choice.
Pierre-Jean DeSmet, the Catholic missionary and explorer, traveled through the area in
1845-46 and later wrote that after baptizing an Indian named Morigeau, his
seven children and the children of three other Indian families, a cross was
erected on the plain south of Columbia Lake where the town stands today and the
area afterward was called the Plain of the Nativity. Later, William Adolph
Baillie-Grohman, the English adventurer, author and investor, who built a canal
linking the Kootenay and Columbia rivers, opened a post office at his
construction camp, named Grohman, in 1888, the year he completed the canal (See
visionaries for a profile of Baillie-Grohman). The post office closed
in 1890. The name Canal Flats appears to have been adopted over time by people
living in the area; the name first appeared on a British Columbia map in 1909.