History & Geology

History and Geology of Banff’s Springs

Some people suggest that the history of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the birthplace of Canada’s system of national parks, began with the discovery of the springs by three railway workers in the fall of 1883.

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Painting of the “discovery” of the Cave Spring, November 1883, that used to be at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff, Alberta.

Other people say history of the area began with the First Nations people. Archaeological digs near the Town of Banff suggest that people have been using the area since the glaciers left, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

But the history of the area extends much further back in time.

Scientists indicate that the Rocky Mountains began forming 140 million years ago with the building period coming to a close about 45 million years ago. The sedimentary rock which forms the Rockies is about 1.5 billion years old and was largely deposited under ancient seas. These sediments, at that time on the west-coast continental shelf, were pushed to the northeast and inland. The flat layers bent into folds, broke into moving thrust sheets of rock, and were stacked upon each other. Where thrust sheets meet and ride over one another, a thrust fault is formed.

The Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault, located slightly to the west of the town of Banff and running along the east-facing slope of Sulphur Mountain, is the reason for the thermal springs near the town. It is also the ultimate reason for Banff National Park being created and allowed for the evolution of the Banff Springs Snail. Nowhere else in the world did the forces of geology and biology combine in this manner to allow the evolution of this unique species of snail, which is confined to the thermal springs found along the Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault.

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Map of the local geology near the town of Banff showing the various layers and ages of rock and the location of three local thrust faults (Borgeau, Sulphur Mountain, and Rundle) and thermal springs (from Grasby and Lepitzki 2002).

Next Page – How the Springs Work