The future of six historic cottages in the Canadian Village of Golden hangs in the balance as they go on sale. Can this Swiss-Canadian cultural heritage be saved?
This content was published on January 8, 2022 – 10:00
“An incredibly unique opportunity to take ownership of Canada’s history”, is how the real estate agency describesExternal link the chalets in the Rocky Mountains. All six are currently on sale for an asking price of $ 2.3 million (CHF 1.6 million).
What is touted as the history of Canada is, in fact, also part of the history of Switzerland, as the chalets are part of the heritage of the Swiss alpine guides of the province of British Columbia. Around 1900, the Swiss were hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway to help tourists climb the many difficult mountain peaks in the region.
The chalets were their homes. The local museum is now concerned that the sale could result in the loss of the historic buildings and with them an important part of Golden’s history.
This concern, as well as a recent short documentaryExternal link movie [above] on the future of Edelweiss Village – as the houses are collectively called – prompted Johann Roduit, member of the Council of the Swiss Abroad, to organize a virtual round table last November.
Building Canadian mountain culture
At the turn of the 20e century, Swiss mountain guides enjoyed a unique reputation the world over. They were experts in their field, with countless early climbs of 3,000 meters in the Rockies to their credit. They helped make the mountain culture of Western Canada what it is today.
Proof of the lasting impact of Swiss mountaineers, many peaks bear their namesExternal link.
“They have done incredible things”, says Ilona Spaar, author of the book “Swiss Guides”External link. As she points out, in more than 50 years as a Swiss mountain guide in the Rockies, no fatal mountaineering accident has occurred among the thousands of climbs they have made.
Guides began as seasonal workers in the late 19th century, working in the Rockies between May and September. At a time when travel was arduous and slow, this arrangement put a strain on the men themselves and their families back home. As Spaar wrote, “they didn’t want to leave their wives and children in Switzerland for so long”.
The Canadian Pacific Railway therefore had the idea of building permanent homes for the guides and their families. Thus was born Edelweiss Village, a picturesque Swiss settlement in Golden, British Columbia.
The railway company needed the Swiss guides, who were seen as a real attraction at the time. As one of them, Ed Feuz Jr., once said, “In Switzerland we were just normal people. In London and Canada, we were curiosities.
There was also a strong showmanship and marketing element to all of this, according to Spaar. For example, the design of chalets has little to do with authentic Swiss buildings. Nonetheless, they have intricate woodwork, wooden staircases, and jaw-dropping views from every window.
Despite being on the main railway line, Golden was isolated at the time and had everything to gain from having resident Swiss mountain guides. Even today, the place is nowhere near as much of a tourist draw as Lake Louise, some 80 kilometers away. All the more reason, then, for the local museum, as well as Roduit of the Council of the Swiss Abroad and the author Spaar, to believe that this historic site has enormous potential.
In 1912, the six chalets of Edelweiss Village were ready to welcome Swiss guides and their families. But there was a catch: the village was built on a hillside above the railroad tracks, two kilometers west of the village of Golden. It was too far from the center for most women and children, especially before the advent of the automobile.
To make matters worse, the houses were drafty and cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. Over time, Swiss families began to settle in the center of Golden. Thanks to the descendants of Walter Feuz, all the original buildings of Edelweiss Village are still standing. The Feuz chalet has been preserved as it was when his family lived there, decorated with memorabilia from the early days of Swiss mountaineering.
Now, however, all six buildings are to be sold as a block.
Who will save this piece of history?
“Historical heritage must not stop at national borders,” says Roduit. Switzerland has cultural assets all over the world. As a newly elected member of the Council of the Swiss Abroad, he intends to defend Switzerland’s cultural heritage around the world. According to him, Edelweiss Village is also part of Swiss history.
“A lot of people have come to see the cabins in recent months,” the real estate agent explains in the documentary. Among them, many experts in the protection of historic buildings. But ultimately it all comes down to cost.
“It is clear that a lot of money will have to be invested,” says Spaar. “The houses are very old.
There is great hope in Golden that the cabins can be physically preserved, and possibly even open to the public.
“It is difficult, and also frustrating, to see that this piece of history cannot be saved for lack of money,” laments museum director Brittany Newman in the documentary. For her, the way is clear: buildings must be classified as heritage.
The village of Edelweiss is a real patchwork of history, says Spaar, because it combines family history, local history, immigration history, the history of mountaineering in Western Canada, the history of tourism and the history of architecture.
“My great hope is that local tourism – on the rise because of Covid – discover and understand the history and value of the village of Edelweiss,” she says.
During the virtual roundtable, the idea of preserving houses digitally was considered. All the documentary film stakeholders also agree: digital preservation is better than nothing. However, this can never replace the actual experience of seeing, feeling, and entering houses and their history.
The perfect solution, in their eyes, is both physical and digital preservation. It remains to be seen whether someone will step in to preserve this piece of history.
Translated from German by Julia Bassam