In a sense, with the purchasing of Maligne Tours by Brewster Travel Canada, tourism up at Maligne Lake has come full circle.
Sure you could split hairs and point out that it was Fred’s brothers, Bill and Jim, who started the travel business in the Rockies back in the early 1900s, or that today Brewster is a subsidy of Viad, an internationally-traded company based in Arizona. The fact is that the Brewster name has for more than 100 years been part of the tourism DNA at Maligne Lake.
Indeed the first tourists to ever be guided to the lake—if you exclude Mary Schaffer and her travelling companion, Mary Adams, in 1907—were guests of Fred Brewster. That was in 1914, when the trip took three days on horseback, rather than today’s 45 minutes in a car or bus.
Fred Brewster was the fourth son of the famous Brewsters of Banff. While his two brothers were guiding tours down south, Fred, after he returned from World War One as a decorated major, built Tent City on the shores of Lac Beauvert. He operated camps on Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake—not to mention in the Tonquin Valley—and pioneered the famous Skyline Trail between Maligne Lake and what eventually grew out of Tent City: the Jasper Park Lodge. No wonder people called him “Mr. Jasper.”
Folks also called him “Mr. Maligne.” Brewster built the Maligne Lake Chalet in 1927. The building housed a dining room, kitchen and common area. Guests stayed in adjacent tent cabins—the same tent cabins that Maligne Tours wanted to recreate as part of their hotel proposal in 2013. At about the same time that Brewster was finishing his majestic chalet, outfitter Curly Phillips built a 24-foot boat for transporting passengers to the head of the lake. Powered by a motor, the boat could easily reach the Samson Narrows in a few hours. Thus, in 1927, the first incarnation of scenic boat tours on Maligne Lake was established.
Maligne Tours was created in 1952, when Rainbow Tours, which had been started by Phillips (he died in an avalanche in 1938), changed its name. Three years later, Bill Ruddy bought the business. Ruddy, who had pioneered snowcat tours on the Columbia Icefield, would preside over the major operational changes and commercial development proposals that were coming down the pipe in the 1960s and 70s.
Starting in 1941, when Brewster put the first automobile on it, a rough wagon road from Jasper to the north end of Medicine Lake made it possible for cars to travel part of the way to Maligne Lake. From there it was a ferry ride, then an overnight stay at Medicine Lake camp before saddling up for the rest of the two-day journey. Eventually, by 1965, tourists could bring their cars to the south end of Medicine Lake where they’d catch a bus to Maligne Lake, but it was still a bone-jarring adventure.
When a paved road was proposed to Maligne Lake, an ambitious development plan accompanied the blueprints. Not only would the Maligne Lake facilities be enhanced to include a marina, a campground, three motels, a restaurant, tour boat facilities and the supporting infrastructure, engineers suggested, but there was also talk of constructing a road across Maligne Pass, linking the area to the Icefields Parkway. In the end, of course, the scheme was scaled back; the road was built, but overnight accommodations were in fact discontinued. Because of this change, by 1970, Fred Brewster sold his Rocky Mountain Camp to Maligne Tours, citing a severe loss of revenue due to the operational disruption.
Until this past January 4, that was the last time the Brewster name was connected—at least by legal tender—to Maligne Lake. Ruddy, meanwhile, expanded the day use operations; after increasing his fleet of tour boats in anticipation of visitors arriving in droves in their own cars, in 1977, he constructed the present-day lodge on the site where the Rainbow Lodge once stood.
According to historian Meghan Power, Bill Ruddy and his wife Evelyn were renowned for their hands-on approach to ensuring that visitors to Maligne Lake enjoyed themselves, and they were equally popular with their staff members, many of whom returned year after year. As a loving tribute to his distinctive green woollen pants, shirt and Bavarian-style green alpine hat—complete with feather—Power writes that “staff liked to recite ‘The man in the green who runs the scene at Maligne.’”
Although it was Gerry Levasseur who bought Maligne Tours from Ruddy in 1980, it was Levasseur’s senior staff who “ran the scene at Maligne” henceforth. General Manager Pat Crowley, who has been with Maligne Tours for more than 40 years, will stay on to help with the transition to the new ownership, according to Brewster. “There are no anticipated staff changes as a result of this acquisition,” the company has said. Jasperites, meanwhile, have been speculating that the deal could mean Brewster will ramp up renewed lobbying efforts for a hotel—something Brewster denies.
However the future plays out, we can see that by looking at 100 years of tourism at Maligne Lake, there has always been an effort by energetic men and women to help others discover the magic they’ve come to know there. Fred Brewster—engineer, military man, cowboy, entrepreneur and guide—not only embodied that spirit, but forever intwined his family’s name with the DNA of Jasper tourism.