Michael Phillipps was typical of many young men who made the long journey to Canada in the 1800s. He was of a respected family — his father was an Anglican vicar in the parish of Dewsall, Herefordshire, England — he was intelligent, well-educated, capable and, above all, adventurous.
Born in 1840, according to most sources, he took the long sea journey to Victoria, B.C., in 1864, the year that gold was discovered on Wild Horse Creek. He did not jump on the gold wagon but instead took a job as clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Co. at Fort Sheppard, south of present day Trail, B.C., spending nearly a year there before moving to another outpost on Tobacco Plains, near what is now Roosville (referred to at the time as Fort Kootenay, although it was an unfortified compound).
He had an Iroquois guide in his company who proved useless when faced with the Ktunaxa dialect, so Michael took it upon himself to thoroughly learn the language.
Fur-trading was the business of the day, with the outpost also supplying many of the necessities required by trappers and prospectors which meant regular dealings in both currency and gold — during one trip to Fort Hope (Hope, B.C.) Michael and his partner carried nearly 150 pounds of gold dust and nuggets. At a value at the time of over $28 per ounce, it was a great deal of money to be packing through the wilds. The Tobacco Plains outpost closed soon thereafter, not least in fear of Blackfoot and Blood Indian uprisings, at which point Michael found himself at a posting near the conjunction of the Wild Horse and Kootenay Rivers.
Pictured: A portrait of Michael Phillipps in later years. In his youth he cut a dashing figure as he pioneered the west. – Courier Dec. 1961
As the gold panned out Michael took work constructing the first building on what is now the site of present day Cranbrook, a log customs house that stood in what now what remains of Baker Park. The Hudson Bay Company gradually pulled out of the area but Michael stayed on, taking up a considerable amount of good land on the Canadian side of Tobacco Plains.
He married Rowena (also spelled Roweena) David, daughter of Tobacco Plains chief Paul David and together he and Roweena had twelve children.
In 1872, he and Jack Collins headed up the Elk River, fur-trapping and prospecting for gold. Travelling along rough elk trails and river banks they steadily made their way east into the wild, unmapped country of the Crowsnest. Michael stated: “We found no gold but plenty of coal. A little west of Crow’s Nest Lake we struck buffalo signs and knew we had passed through the range without going over a mountain. From thereon I worked hard to open up the perfect pass through the Rocky range.”
They had inadvertently discovered the Crowsnest Pass; the problem was that no one at the time was interested in either the pass or the coal. Local Member of Parliament R.L.T. Galbraith, of Galbraith’s Ferry (Fort Steele), made an effort to secure funds to further exploit the trail but was firmly rebuffed by William Fernie, local gold commissioner who declared, “The Indians say there is no pass, and there is no use spending money to make a trail to nowhere.”
Michael continued his travels through the area, joined in 1874 by a group including prospector Jim Morrissey and together they named Coal, Lizard, and Morrissey creeks, among others.
In the following years, when the approval for the cutting of the trail through the pass was finally approved, it was Michael Phillipps and William Ridgeway who laid out the route that would become the present day Crowsnest Pass, connecting the East Kootenay to the bustling town of Fort McLeod, Alberta. It was to become a main thoroughfare until the CPR ran their line through the Rockies at Kicking Horse Pass, preferring to stay well clear of the Canadian/U.S. border.
Michael recalled in 1904, that during the time the trail was being made, “I showed a seam of coal to Peter Fernie [William’s brother] and well do I remember his reply. ‘If that’s your coal I don’t think much of it.'”
In 1886, local Member of Parliament James Baker and William Fernie undertook a serious study of coal outcroppings in the pass and promptly formed a syndicate with included Peter Fernie, James Baker’s son V. Hyde Baker, and the Hon. F. W. Aylmer. The following year William Fernie took a prospecting party into the pass and staked 10,000 acres of land in the area of Michel, Coal and Morrissey creeks. 1888 saw the application for a railway charter through the pass which was duly granted and would become the Crow’s Nest Railway, rolling into the town of Cranbrook in 1898.
Michael Phillipps eventually settled down on his Tobacco Plains ranch with his wife and family. The area was, for a time, referred to as Phillips, until Fred Roo built a hotel and successfully undertook to change the name to Roosville. Michael acted as Indian Agent, Justice of the Peace and member of the School Board for many years. He was often seen in Cranbrook and occasionally enticed to recall the stories of his earlier days in the area.
Surprisingly little has been done to ensure the legacy of one of the true pioneers of the East Kootenay. He died at his ranch on June 22, 1919, and is buried near his wife in the small Roosville cemetery. His many descendants are legion throughout the area.
In speaking of Michael Phillipps a local newspaper once said, “The subtle spirit of the wilderness had slipped into his blood, called him into lonely places, to remote headwaters of many an unnamed stream where no man had come since the making of the world.”