The Fernie Museum presents the valley’s history through a unique audio/visual program called Fernie Faces, featured in its main floor exhibit, This is Our Fernie. Through five historic characters Fernie’s fascinating growth is chronicled. This article features Michael Phillipps, who though in search of gold was the first to discover coal, coal and more coal in the Elk Valley.
Michael Phillipps was the type of character whom novels and TV westerns should be modelled after. The son of a Herefordshire parson, he first saw the valley of the East Kootenay in 1866. Until his death in June, 1916, he was a legend, and he still is, in the East Kootenay.
Michael Phillipps arrived in Victoria in 1862, at 19 years old, to work as a factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Kootenai, five miles south of the 49th parallel. There he became acquainted with the local Ktunaxa, learning their culture and becoming quite fluent with the language. Ktunaxa was the only language spoken in his home in later days.
In 1866 Phillipps married Rowena, daughter of a Tobacco Plains chief David, becoming one of the early pioneer families. Together, with their family, they operated a large ranch a half mile north of the U.S. border.
Michael Phillipps, along with companion John Collins, first explored the upper waters of the Elk River in 1873 and were the first Europeans to discover the Crowsnest Pass, the only pass in the Canadian Rockies discovered from the west traveling eastward. Sent to prospect for gold, they found none, instead finding coal in every drainage.
The next summer Phillipps, with companions Jim Morrissey and others, travelled up the valley again. The first crossing of the Elk River, south of Morrissey, gave them some idea of the difficulty of travelling during high water. Steering a huge log raft with over 1,000 lbs. of supplies was no easy matter in the wild swift waters. They travelled nearly half a mile below their launch site before landing on the east side. The group camped at a creek and explored it bringing out some of the coal. The creek was named after Jim Morrissey. Proceeding north, the group travelled as far as the next large creek - which they gave the name Coal Creek. It would be almost 20 years before the first mine would begin operations in the area.
During his life in the Fernie area, Phillipps worked as an Indian Agent, trapper, postmaster, rancher, magistrate, among other things. Leading a long and productive life, his legacy continues in the modern Phillipps family, prominent members of the Ktunaxa and Fernie communities.
To learn more about Fernie’s colourful past come explore the exhibit, This Is Our Fernie, at the Fernie Museum. Open every day from 10 am to 5:30 pm at 491 Second Ave.
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