Jasper Park History
Jasper Park Golf Course – 1921 to 1929
This piece began when I purchased a collection of original Jasper Park photos taken just after opening. The bunkering that I loved was not the bunkering found in the photos. I had heard the legend that the CNR had ordered Thompson to immediately renovate the bunkering at Jasper Park after seeing the finished work at Banff Springs. But there was Alister Mackenzie’s quote from September 1928, “In Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, Canada has taken the lead in golf course architecture and has produced 18 holes that within the whole scope of my experience and knowledge are not surpassed.” Could the bunker work have happened earlier? Is Jasper Park rather than Banff Springs the quantum leap in his architecture? I thought it would be interesting to fully document what he actually did from the opening till the 1929 Canadian Amateur when the current bunkering shows up for the first time in archival photos. Perhaps this might shed some new light on the evolution of his architecture…
Origins to Opening
I had always assumed that this was a Canadian National Railway project driven by then president Sir Henry Thornton, but it turns out that it was originally the idea of Parks Canada to add golf courses to the Park System to increase tourism. In 1921 they had asked Banff’s professional William Thomson to look for a golf course site for Jasper National Park. In 1914, author Arthur Conon Doyle had suggested a site by Pyramid Lake, but upon closer inspection Thomson dismissed the site as too difficult to build. After scouting out the area around Lac Bealivert he suggested that this location would be better suited for building nine holes. He pointed out there was even the possibility to add an additional nine more holes later if the Park desired. The Park begun building the nine hole course in 1922, but it barely progressed because of limited resources.
Between 1921 and 1922, there had been a number of cabins built overlooking Lac Bealivert by the Grand Trunk Railroad. In 1923 when the Canadian National Railway was established (GTR was one of the amalgamated railroads), they took over the area and immediately began the construction of destination resort. A.J. Hills, an assistant to vice-president of CNR wrote, “On his first visit to Jasper Park Sir Henry reached the conclusion that a golf course was a necessary feature for the Canadian National’s principal tourist resort, and in line with his well-known principle that if a thing is worth doing at all it was worth doing well.” So in 1924 CNR took over the project and property leasing it for one dollar.
Early in 1924 Stanley Thompson was selected as the architect. In a report to the CNR he wrote, “The principle observed in planning the course has been that the course should be sufficiently high-class to justify itself apart altogether from the extra-ordinary setting in which the course is being placed. While there are peaks of great height and extra-ordinary grandeur in the distance surrounding the entire course, yet the terrain actually utilized for the course is only such that is proper for good golf.”
Stanley Thompson visited the property in May 1924 and set out a preliminary routing for the course. A.J. Hills wrote, “It required great courage to undertake the construction of a golf course at Jasper. Uncleared Rocky Mountain country made it hard for any but the boldest to think of golf in the immediate vicinity of the lodge. Finally the advice of Mr. Stanley Thompson [who] looked over the uncleared country and saw the makings of an ideal golf course when others saw only forest, rough brule land, swamp, a wild lakeshore line and a plain covered with rocky outcropings. Unhesitatingly he reported in favour of building the course in the vicinity, and he was given the job of doing it.”
The original plan was for a course measuring approximately 6,600 yard course. “[Mr. A.J. Hills] and Mr. Stanley Thompson, the architect of the course, made visits to some of the most celebrated American courses before the plans at Jasper Park were finally decided upon and complete.” I can confirm they played Mt. Bruno together in July of 1924, but in the book Golf at Jasper Park, A.J. Hills wrote, “The highest comparative standards were set up. While not attempting the harsh difficulties of Pine Valley, the interest attaching, as on that course, to each shot was kept in mind.” Hills continued, “The large scale of doing things at the National Links of the USA (Southampton LI) was made part of the objective, as well as the modern scale of lengths and the bunkering treatment found at Gleneagles – most notable of countryside courses recently built in Great Britain. ”
Further on in the book he added, “Designed from the outset to be the highest championship caliber, it follows that the course will be somewhat more difficult than the usual run of courses – but alternate routes make it more enjoyable for all classes of players.”
In the summer of 1924 the land was cleared of vegetation and rocks using 50 teams of horses and 200 men. The project was built all at once, but there was a definitive push to open a nine hole course before all eighteen would be available for play. This would encompass the first six holes, then the 11th, “the practice hole” and finish on the 18th hole.
One of the earliest projects was to create a dam 200 feet up on Signal Mountain to collect, store and supply water for the golf course. This was approved by the local Parks Superintendent without going through any upper administration because the water in the creek disappeared through the limestone further down in the valley and therefore there would was no potential impact on the resource below. The “entire course” was irrigated including fairways, tees and greens right from outset.
The soil in the valley proved to be too thin for growing turf, so Thornton took the decision to buy a quarter section of prairie farm land in Stony Plain Alberta. The soil was shipped to the site by train. It was received and spread over the site prior to establishing turf. A. J. Hills adds some insight in the grassing in Golf in Jasper Park, “A word about the greens is in order. Creeping bent, which was put in by the stolon process, was used throughout, with most satisfactory results.”
So what did Jasper Park golf course cost? We know the cost came up for discussion in Canadian parliament with reference to it being $124,290. In Canadian Golfer the final cost is given at $190,000. But what’s far more fun is the Stanley Thompson Interview by John Lecenda found in the Saturday Evening Post written in 1946, “The Jasper course was supposed to cost not more than $500,000. When that amount had been spent and the work was still far from finished, Thompson went before the Railroad’s Board of Directors, “Gentlemen”, he pleaded, “You wouldn’t spoil a ship for a hap’orth of tar would you?” The directors recognized the logic as well as the genius, tolerantly appropriated enough extra to complete the course.” In Hugh Newton’s 1946 Liberty article the project estimate was said to be $500,000 and he added, “A good guess is that it cost $1,000,000. before the last of the sod went down.”
Our answer comes from an intergovernmental memo found in Golf on the Roof of the World, “In May of 1926, General Passenger Traffic Manager C.E. Ussher asked General Executive Assistant J.O. Apps, in an item of inter-departmental correspondence headed “Golf at Banff versus Jasper National Park to ascertain how much had been spent by Canadian National at Jasper… Apps responded to Ussher’s query with information that up to February 1925, almost $125,000. Had been spent by Canadian National on the Jasper course with $25,000 additional estimated till the end of the year.” The reason they could get this answer was that Canadian National was a “nationalized” institution.
All of this information makes me wonder about the actual cost of Banff Springs.
Since we have already touched on the John Lecenda article, I’ll bring up another legend referenced in this article, John wrote, “Jasper’s No. 9 fairway is named Cleopatra because of its shape. Thompson took great pride in this anatomical breath-taker until he was playing in a foresome with Sir Harry Thornton, then the head of the CNR empire. When Harry was about to tee off, and saw the form of the fairway and its topographical embellishments, he quietly blew a gasket. “Mr. Thompson”, he said, “we have been friends for many years. I never thought you would have the audacity to do this to the Canadian National!” Thompson accordingly made some alterations, but the abridged version still aptly bears the name Cleopatra.”
I have thought about this one around for years. Knowing Stanley’s sense of humor and love of symbolism, I’m convinced that the hole played through some sort of “embellishments in the landscape.” At Jasper Park there are still numerous “sea themed” bunkers on the 10th hole. At Cape Breton Highlands he did construct a clearly visible woman’s face out of the 6th green site (Mucklemouth Meg) and the green itself was a perfect egg in shape. The man had a sense of humor … it seems Thornton did not.
From the pages of Golf at Jasper Park by A. J. Hills, “Here on the tee we are still on high ground. A straight decline before us runs down to a green of unique configuration, with Pyramid Mountain in grandeur beyond, which may be mentioned, because this hole is named after the Queen of the Pyramids – Cleopatra – and there the lady lies sixty feet below, like a huge fallen idol, as if the mountainside had slid down, upset and partly buried the colossal headless statue which now recumbent forms this unusually interesting green.”
The official opening of Jasper Park Golf Course was on July 16th, 1925, featuring Field Marshall Earl Haig and Lady Haig. They opened the first nine holes, with the second nine opening shortly after. For reference, the cost of a round was set at $2. and a caddy was an additional 75 cents. The course played to 6,455 yards and one of the very first players described it as “a little bit of heaven” when writing in the first visitor’s book.
“Surroundings of the course can’t be ignored, but at Jasper the aim constantly adhered to was that the golf should be good enough without taking the magnificent setting into account. The Rocky Mountains are imposingly grand and Jasper is a gem set in between four distinct ranges. Each direction has a totally different aspect, but hole by hole each of the eighteen was considered purely from a golfing point of view and glories of views are not expected to atone for a dull tee shot or an uninteresting putting surface.” A. J. Hills
Changes to the Bunkering
In Golf in Jasper Park, there is a wonderful review of the 1926 Annual Silver Totem Tournament. In this article, B.L. Anderson from the RCGA indicated that “Jasper must receive serious consideration as a host for a national event.” Later in the piece we also see the first mention of potential change, “A few changes are necessary, but no drastic ones, and it is agreed generally that Mr. Stanley Thompson, of Toronto, the architect, has achieved rare distinction.”
We know Stanley Thompson was kept on a yearly retainer (confirmed by Alan Carter, long-time director of Golf at Jasper Park) and provided an annual report to the Canadian National Railway. He also produced a renovation plan drawn in November of 1926 indicating his intended changes to the bunkering. It’s not uncommon for Thompson to recommend improvements to his own work.
With all the early praise for Jasper, it’s stunning to think the bunkering would look quite different by the time they played the Canadian Amateur in 1929. Thompson didn’t change any of the tees, fairways or greens. His work focused on renovating a majority of the bunkering to add more artistry. Some of that work was fairly subtle in nature, but most turned out to be quite significant.
About a decade back Robert Thompson and I purchased a collection of Jasper golf photos taken just after the opening. I turns out many of the same images were used in the book Golf at Jasper Park written by A.J. Hills (published in 1928). What was most fascinating to me were the bunker shapes and surrounding features. The bunkering was on a grand scale, but they were surprisingly on the plain side. But yet there were a few bunkers on the 10th hole in particular that suggested the transition between simple forms and the introduction of more flair into his architecture.