Between 1811 and the mid-1850s, Athabasca Pass played an important role in the transportation routes of fur traders in western North America. Its importance derived from the strategic location it occupied on the Continental Divide at a time when traders, both British and American, were seeking to extend their commercial activity west of the Rocky Mountains.
In late 1810, with trans-mountain affairs pressing in a number of directions, David Thompson searched for a new route to bypass the blockade mounted by the Peigan Indians at Howse Pass. Led by Thomas The Iroquois, Thompson opened up of a route across the Athabasca Pass that became important to the continuity of the trans-mountain fur trade after 1811. While Thompson had already established a series of fur trade posts in the upper and middle Columbia River valley, the Athabasca route ensured stability of service to these posts. Until the 1850s, the Athabasca Pass became the main route used by fur traders crossing the mountains, a practice which was reinforced after the amalgamation of The North West Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.
Following the merger of the rival fur trade companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company became more heavily involved in Oregon territory. It established Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1825, which became the headquarters of the company’s Columbia District. Trade conflicts erupted between British–Canadian and American traders that eventually led to the establishment of the border between Canada and the US on the 49th parallel. This event, embodied in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, led to the closure of Fort Vancouver and the withdrawal of the Hudson’s Bay Company from the Columbia fur trade.
After the Hudson’s Bay Company withdrew from the Columbia fur trade, use of Athabasca Pass began to diminish. In 1848, a new mail service emerged that utilized the route again. Mail traveled from New York by steamboat to Panama, overland to the Pacific Coast, and then by boat to the Oregon Coast. The Hudson’s Bay Company could now save many months in the transit of its mail by using this route. The adoption of this service was the prelude to the reorganization of the Pacific slope operations as a separate department in 1852, administered directly from London.
By 1855, even the use of the pass as a route for the “Columbia Express” - a lightly equipped internal mail and personnel transit system, which, since the 1820s, traveled annually between York Factory and the west coast - was suspended, thus ending all but occasional regional use of the pass.
The Athabasca Pass is one of several western mountain passes designated as
nationally significant in 1971. The importance of these passes relates to their
role in opening up transportation links between east and west and in facilitating
contributions to geographic understanding of the character of the Rocky Mountains.
These cultural landscapes are places designated by the Government of Canada
as a site of importance to all Canadians because of its national historic significance.
Athabasca Pass National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
In January 1811, David Thompson, guided by Thomas the Iroquois, was the first white man to cross the Rockies through this pass. Thence he led his party down the Wood River to the place on the Columbia River later called Boat Encampment. Governor George Simpson subsequently named the small lake at the top of the pass ‘the Committee’s Punch Bowl’ - a reference to the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. For almost half a century, the Athabasca Pass was part of the main fur trade route between Canada and the Oregon country.
Kinbasket Lake is an extension of the Columbia River, created when the Mica Dam was completed further downstream in 1973. Below its waters is the original site of Thompson’s encampment on the Columbia, a national historic site commemorated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board in 1943.
In Cree, Athabasca means, "where the reeds are," a description of the marshy delta where the Athabasca River enters Lake Athabasca.
“Athabasca Pass National Historic Site of Canada Commemorative Integrity Statement,” Parks Canada, 2006