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Banff’s Backyard Cabins

BANFF’S BACKYARD CABINS

by Tera Swanson

In Volume 4 of the Canadian Rockies Annual, Ryan Stuart digs into the affordable-housing issues threatening mountain communities (see Finding Home). It is a serious problem today, with potential impacts on the vitality of these towns, but it’s also an historic issue. Here we explore how Banff dealt with a housing crisis nearly a century ago, and how solutions of the past may also be suitable for the present.


Design for a Garage, Darrow Cabin. Photo courtesy Asia Walker, Town of Banff.

As the popularity of Canada’s mountain national parks steadily rises – hitting all-time visitation records in recent years –  it’s easy to assume that housing affordability and availability issues came about in recent decades. But local housing crises are not a recent problem. Just fifty years after Canada’s first national park was founded, Banff residents were already seeking solutions to an accommodation shortage.

Their fix? Building backyard cabins to meet housing needs for low-income households and transient workers.

A recent 2017 survey conducted by the Banff Heritage Committee aimed to determine how many of these cabins remain in Banff, and where they stand today. In doing so, they opened a window into the housing issues of Banff’s past – ones surprisingly reflective of present-day.

SHACK-TENTS, SHELTERS AND SHEDS

Originally built as early as 1912 to house the influx of summer workers, these backyard cabins began as crude tent structures with canvas walls as the only protection from the elements. Eventually, some owners reconstructed the tents to be more permanent – complete with solid walls, brick chimneys, electricity and even stoves.

Design for Tourist Cabin. Photo courtesy Asia Walker, Town of Banff

Many of the structures were unauthorized at the time they were built. Through the late ‘20s and ‘30s, the Federal Department of the Interior in Ottawa amended the National Parks Building Regulations, beginning a cycle of leniency and revocation to allow for the much-needed accommodations. This helped to avoid overcrowding of unkempt shacks that might tarnish the ‘crown jewel’ image of Banff and, in some cases, permitted park administrators to ban structures that were inhumane for living.

While the first structures were erected to address the housing shortage, the gradual increase in tourism in Banff National Park through the ’20s likely contributed to the popularity of more elaborate cabin layouts intended to be used for visitor accommodation (see “Tourist Cabin” above).

Historic photos of Armstrong Cabins at 412 Muskrat Street. Photo courtesy Asia Walker, Town of Banff.

Very few local owners strictly adhered to the rules put in place by Parks officials in Ottawa throughout these years. And while land-use regulations are just as stringent today, a number of the original cabins remain. Some serve as gardening sheds, while others have long been abandoned. But nearly 100 years later, a handful of cabins continue to serve their original purpose.

A ROOF OVER MANY HEAD

By 1937, 400 cabins and shack-tents had been erected in Banff. One problem for residents, however, was that the cabins were only to be used on a seasonal basis.

In the ‘30s, Banff was not the year-round destination that attracts visitors from around the world. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 1900’s, when downhill skiing gained traction, road development improved, and the Fairmont Banff Springs opened its doors year-round, that Banff’s tourism boomed beyond the summer months.

Present-day Fuller Cabin. Photo courtesy Asia Walker, Town of Banff.

Although renting these structures was only permitted from May 1 to October 31, the housing pinch was still felt through the winters of the ’20s and ’30s and several cabins remained occupied. Letters between local landlords and the Government of Canada indicated that some tenants – whether single CPR railmen or young families with three children – felt they had nowhere else to go.

The income pinch was felt as well. Many owners needed supplemental funds to get them through the slower tourism months and rented these cabins under the radar in hopes they would not receive a letter from Ottawa.

PAST SOLUTIONS TO PRESENT-DAY ISSUES

The backyard cabin fix remains relevant today. The ones still standing vary in habitability; some have been completely modernized into quaint bungalow-style accommodation (such as the Thomson Cabins below), while others are reminiscent of the original shack-style structures. These cabins continue to fulfill the needs of Banff locals, whether in the form of approved tourist accommodation income, or as housing for residents.

The Thompson Cabins at 220 Beaver are now used for tourist accommodation. Photo courtesy Asia Walker, Town of Banff.

It’s possible that a look to the past may be an answer for the future. The survey project concludes that following in the 1930s’ footsteps, a similar style of development (more akin to the modern day ‘tiny house’) would create much-needed housing, provide owners with additional income, and have a lower environmental impact than larger housing projects.

Below are past and present photos of the remaining backyard cabins. For more information, see Backyard Cabins: Town of Banff Inventory, Summer 2017.

All photos courtesy Asia Walker/Town of Banff.


Tera Swanson is a freelance writer and graduate from Mount Royal University’s Journalism undergraduate program. Whether laced into hiking boots or clipped into skis, her favourite way to explore the mountains is on her own two feet. She’s always up for anything that will end in the telling of a good story; be it through photography, from pen to paper, or over a locally brewed amber ale.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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