The City of Castlegar is found at the southern reaches of Lower Arrow Lake, at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. The explorer David Thompson traveled through the region in 1811 during his expeditions to find the head waters of the Columbia River system, and camped on the banks of the confluence. As the Kootenay region developed in the late 1890’s with prospecting and mining activity, railroad junctions, lake boats, and riverboats also converged and created a natural crossroad which soon attracted settlers. In 1897, a new townsite was established and the City of Castlegar was founded.
The city is named after the village of Castlegar, County Galway, Ireland, the hometown of Edward Mahon who was one of the community’s first residents. The name is derived from the irish words “Caislean Gearr” in reference to a small castle estate used for holidays by the local Barons, and the name’s use for the new settlement was perhaps suggested by the rock cliff faces and knolls which overlook the site of the original lake boat landing.
The new community grew rapidly when thousands of Russian immigrants arrived in the early 1900’s, who reshaped the local economy with fruit orchards, lumber mills, and other businesses. A large community of Portuguese mine and railway workers also settled in the area as industries developed and grew. The taming of the Kootenay and Columbia rivers by hydroelectric dams provided a foundation for many industrial works in the region, and attracted a workers from all over the world. A celebrated citizen of Castlegar is Alexander Zuckerburg, a civil engineer and self-taught artist who arrived from Estonia to help build the growing community. His unusual home and property on Zuckerburg Island are now preserved as a city park and historic site, which can be reached over a suspension foot-bridge from the south end of Millennium Park. Millennium Park is actually a collection of river-front walkways and community parks which are drawn together by a paved walkway through sheltered glades and riverfront viewpoints. Sports fields, playgrounds, and a complex of swimming lagoons are located at the north-end of Millennium Park, and can be reached by a short drive from the city’s downtown area.
The best views of the Columbia River and its confluence with Kootenay River, can be enjoyed from Zuckerburg Island and the walkways of Millennium Park. The river is cold, swift, and often unpredictable, especially during the Spring snow melt, and can be very treacherous for swimmers. The raw power of these waters can be appreciated at the old Brilliant Suspension Bridge (a heritage site now closed to vehicle traffic), which was built over the Kootenay River by early-Russian settlers using only hand-tools. The crossing was the first road bridge in the area, and connected orchards and farms on the east bench lands of Ootischenia with the CRP railway bridge and the vehicle cable-ferry to Castlegar.
Castlegar is also home to a convergence of educational opportunities. Above the river confluence, and across the Columbia from Zuckerburg Island, is the main campus of Selkirk College, a community college system which primarily serves the south-east interior of British Columbia. Selkirk College provides students with a variety of technical training and university preparatory programs.
A beautiful addition to Castlegar’s arts and culture scene is the city’s Sculpture Walk, a collection of public art objects which are distributed throughout the downtown district on street corners and public plazas. The collection changes each year, inviting people to explore and discover the unique, sometimes surprising art installations. Each year the collection grows, and sculptures are now found at different points along the city’s main thoroughfare, Columbia Avenue. The downtown area grew along with the early community, and a pleasant stroll along shaded sidewalks reveals buildings that are typical of many small towns of the 1940’s and 50’s. The most recent commercial development, including car-centric shopping plazas and big-box retailers, has occurred further south along Columbia Avenue near the main highway interchange, though it does not match the comfort and walkability of the community’s older core.
An interesting precinct of public spaces within the downtown has been created by the City Hall, a new building which won an award for green architecture and landscaping, and the restored Castlegar CPR passenger railway station, which now houses a museum dedicated to the community’s heritage. The CPR station was built in 1906, set with a wye of tracks that feed rail lines converging upon Castlegar. The museum features a collection of artifacts and histories about the railway in the Lower Columbia area, including specialized equipment, uniforms, photographs, and personal histories. Visitors can also tour an old CPR caboose on the property, and visit the second floor of the station building which served as a home for the station master and his family. A very unique feature at the museum is the preserved frontier cabin which served as the City’s very first police station and goal, a tremendous contract to the very modern RCMP detachment located nearby, on the other side of City Hall. The cabin serves as a reminder of how quickly the Castlegar has changed over the past century, from a frontier crossroad and supply centre, to a beautiful mountain community.
Castlegar is set within a terrain of gentle mountains and accessible backcountry areas. Residents and visitors to Castlegar enjoy a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities, such as hiking local trails, mountain-biking, and Nordic-style skiing. The close proximity of Lower Arrow Lake and Syringa Provincial Park also draws many boaters and campers. The Selkirk Mountains and the Valhalla Range rise to the East, and the Monashee Mountains capture the setting sun in the West. Today, the City of Castlegar retains its role as an important crossroad for travellers through these impressive ranges, connecting the district’s roadways to the main, east-west Crowsnest Highway route of southern British Columbia. Within this mountainous terrain, the Castlegar Airport provides a haven for aviators, and also serves as the major gateway for travel into the West Kootenay and Lower Columbia region. Whether by road, air, or even boat, Castlegar is a special place to visit.
Castlegar Railway Station & Museum
Rail Trail (blueberry)
Lower Arrow Lake / Syringa Creek
Nancy Green Lake Provincial Park