TIME WINDOWS: The Old Glory weather observatory

In the 1940s plans were launched to construct a meteorological observatory on Old Glory Mountain.

Sacks of coal are being unloaded from Wilfred Gibbard’s pack train

Sacks of coal are being unloaded from Wilfred Gibbard’s pack train

In the 1940s plans were launched to construct a meteorological observatory on Old Glory Mountain to support commercial air travel with accurate weather data. The observatory was constructed by Doukhobor contractors from the Castlegar area over two summers, starting in 1942; it commenced service in 1944. The building joined the Forest Service fire lookout that had been built slightly higher on the peak a couple of decades earlier. Unlike the lookout, the observatory was manned continually, summer and winter.

The crew of three meteorological technicians was tasked with taking hourly readings of various weather parameters. Their laboratory and residence were supported by tons of supplies that were moved to the lofty location by horse pack train from a base camp on Hanna Creek. Wilfred Gibbard had the transport contract for the last 20 years that the station was in service. Supplies transported included coal for heating and cooking, groceries, fuel for a generator, hydrogen cylinders for the weather balloons, and water in the summer.

The weather technicians were tasked with regular travel to Rossland in order to collect mail and re-connect briefly with civilization. In the summer, the easiest route was along the pack trail to Gibbard’s base camp and then by logging road to Rossland. With the coming of snow, skis or snowshoes were adopted, and the route was altered to follow the high country more directly.

This winter travel often led to various trials, and an emergency cabin on the approach ridge provided a measure of safety. It was connected to the Observatory-Rossland phone line, and stocked with emergency supplies. A wood stove served for cooking and a small loft provided sleeping accommodation on canvas stretched between two cross beams. Sheet metal cladding on the entrance door gradually accumulated a directory of guests and passers-by.

Although not employed at the Observatory, Bob Bowen was a frequent visitor. For a young man, the climb was exhilarating, and the views at the top were superb. That is, when the mountain was not enveloped in cloud, which it was for a good part of the winter. Bob also had an eye for the beauty around him, and the skills to transpose it onto paper. His watercolours add a unique quality to remembrances of the place, and what life in that isolated spot was like. As the technologists on site often pined for female companionship, Bob obligingly painted a nude on one of the walls, resisting the enthusiastic prodding of the residents to make it bigger.

It was Bob who chose the name for Unnecessary Mountain, a small eruption at the top end of the ridge occupied by the cabin. He got the idea from a Lil’ Abner comic. As the ridge provides some rather undesirable ups and downs on the approach to the base of Old Glory, the name is apt.

Wilfred Gibbard had to relocate his base camp to a new site about a mile higher up Hanna Creek after Highway 3B was constructed. The new highway and the shorter pack trail made the work a bit easier after 1964. For the Observatory, however, the end was nearly in sight.

It was lost in a fire that spread from on over-stoked and overheated furnace on the night of Jan. 2, 1968. Bill Raithby was the sole occupant, as his partners had gone to Rossland for mail. He was able to escape the inferno with nothing more than the long johns he was wearing and sought shelter in the unheated fire lookout, where he would have died of exposure had not ham radio operators from Castlegar noticed the unusual silence on the airwaves. A rescue party reached him just in time and, during a break in the cloud layer, a chopper from Castlegar whisked him to safety.

With the meteorological observatory gone, only snow measurement data was collected from the original survey sites by members of the Kootenay Mountaineering Club. The club also adopted the Ridge Cabin, and it continued to provide welcome shelter to hikers, hunters, and skiers. Unfortunately it caught on fire in the spring of 1989, probably from its poorly-maintained stove, after a party had left with it still burning. A forest service crew flew to the scene to keep the fire from spreading and supervised its complete and final demise.

The late Ron Walker compiled and published a record of the highest meteorological station in Canada, with reminiscences by his coworkers and Wilfred Gibbard. It makes for cozy winter reading.

With thanks to Ron Walker, Bob Bowen, Rob Dorey, and Bert Port.

Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org

BELOW: The emergency Ridge Cabin was maintained by the Kootenay Mountaineering Club during the last years of its existence. Walter Volovsek visited it in 1980 and spent the night with a friend and resident packrat. (Walter Volovsek photo)

Previous installments in this series

David Thompson: Mapping our region

Echoes from Savary Island

Reappraising the Franklin Expedition

Connecting with Albert McCleary

A story behind a photograph

Tribute to a photographer

Farron summit industry

Farron memories

Ben Shaw: Myth and reality

Lilette Mahon: Art in living

Lilette Mahon: A mentor’s gift

Edward Mahon: Searching for a legacy

Edward Mahon: A stimulating childhood

Ole Skattebo: Fishing legend

Ingenuity: Milking the river

Intrigues: Castlegar’s lacklustre childhood

Perceptions: Adrift on the River of Life

Local history interwoven with rivers

Drawn into the currents of time