The Key to the Highway

Jim Cameron looks at the automobile's arrival in Cranbrook in Janus: Then and Now.

The first garage/auto dealership in Cranbrook offered the latest in Ford Cars.

The first garage/auto dealership in Cranbrook offered the latest in Ford Cars.

Jim Cameron

In the autumn of 1911, a small building arose near the corner of 7th Avenue and 1st Street. Its construction garnered mention, not just for the fact that it was made of brick — each brick building served as notice of the permanence of the young town — but, more importantly, for its function.

The narrow building, almost windowless, with a corrugated tin roof and a large doorway facing the street, looked just like what it was: a garage. It was not, however, a garage in the sense of an owner having somewhere to park the buggy for the night; it was the Kootenay Garage, Cranbrook’s first automobile service centre, built upon the principal that autos were here to stay.

In that regard manager Mr. A.J. Mott and his backers were far-sighted, as many others believed that the automobile was nothing more than a passing fancy. There were automobiles in town, of course, and had been since, well, let us digress …

The first mention of an automobile is given in June 26, 1900, and refers to local entrepreneur Jack Hutchison and his family “speeding along the boulevard in his new auto ‘White Wings’, the old one having proven too slow. Jack claims he can now do 25 mph with ease on a good straight road.”

Was this the first car in the city? There appears to be no further reference and research fails to turn up any manufactured auto of the era bearing the label “White Wings.” (There were, however, numerous autos on the market at the time, including the St. Louis Gasoline Buggy, the Orient Autogo, the Crouch Runabout and the Frisbie, all of which were little more than self-propelled carriages.)

It seems that the first well-documented automobile in Cranbrook made its appearance in May, 1906, and was owned by local Wasa entrepreneur Nils Hanson. Hardware store owner J.D. McBride of Cranbrook ordered an automobile from Chicago in April of that year but it was not delivered until early June, some weeks after Mr. Hanson trumped Mr. McBride by bringing his auto through the city.

It was only a matter of time until others jumped aboard: Mayor Bowness, Hyde Baker, and Doctors King and Green all soon had their own gasoline/electric transportation (often complete with personal chauffeurs and mechanics as few owners understood how the new-fangled things actually worked).

Although a few of the local movers and shakers came from monied families back east, many were young men who came west to seek their fortune and often succeeded. They were ambitious, daring and, in this case, driven to drive. The automobile, aside from being a rapid form of transportation, became a sought after status symbol. It was, therefore, a calculated gamble to open an actual garage/dealership and begin importing new cars for sale.

The Kootenay Garage was a licensed Ford Motor Car dealer and, by 1912, Ford was changing the face of North America, just as the automobile would change the face of Cranbrook. Mr. Mott was soon moving vehicles out as fast as he could bring them in; over 20 vehicles in 1912. Cranbrook became the auto centre of the Kootenays, shipping the latest models to Creston (where the Kootenay Garage opened another agency), Trail, Nelson, and other communities throughout the Kootenays.

New roads were being laid and former wagon trails improved to handle the slowly but inevitably increasing traffic.

It wasn’t long before the Cranbrook Garage sprang up on 6th Avenue, near Van Horne Street. What had originally been an area of horses and livery stables now gradually became home to the automobile and all that it entailed.

It wasn’t just the sale of autos either; providing gasoline proved an added source of income.

August 5, 1912, saw one of the first head-on collisions between two vehicles, in this case on a curve on the narrow Wycliffe road and thus auto repairs were also providing a steady income.

Mr. Mott even went so far as to acquire a dealership for modern, up-to-date French flying machines at a retail cost of $4,000 each (over $70,000 in today’s value). It appears there were no takers.

Still, business was so good that Nils Hanson decided to build a garage on 10th Avenue across from what is now Rotary Park. The building arose under the careful hand of contractor George Leask. Completed in mid-December, 1912, it was every bit the modern service station. The garage, constructed of brick from the Hanson brickyard near town, was 50 feet by 122 feet with an impressive façade containing a showroom, offices, a bedroom, store-rooms, a large well-lit area for inspection, a dust-proof paint shop (under the management of a gentleman previously employed as a carriage painter) and a large workshop with two pits plus an electric movable air compressor for filling tires. There was ample room for over fifty cars and it immediately brought Cranbrook to the fore, garage-wise.

The building was leased by the Kootenay Garage Company — things had come a long way in the course of less than two years.

Mr. Hanson took over the garage in June, 1913, and renamed it the Hanson Garage, a title it would retain for decades to come. The small building on 7th Avenue remained home to the Kootenay Garage in one form or another until 1920, when the company moved to 8th Avenue across from the Sam Steele Hotel.

The Kootenay, Hanson and Cranbrook garages were all eventually demolished.