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Historic Trails of Central Alberta

The many rivers, tributaries and lakes of Central Alberta as well as natural land trails were the first transportation corridors in Central Alberta for the nomadic First Nations people and the first fur traders and explorers. Eventually a series of trails developed both east-west and north-south to facilitate trade and settlement across the prairies.

Most of these trails weren't named except for the ultimate destination or originating point. Other trails had several names. Many of the trails in western Canada facilitated trade between the First Nation people and the fur-traders of the Hudson Bay Company and North West Company. Other trails facilitated the hunting of wildlife, particularly the buffalo, and the movement of the North West Mounted Police.

Much of the history of the First Nations prior to the coming of Europeans is effectively lost as a result of a series of smallpox epidemics, including those of 1736 and 1782, wiping out 90-95% of the aboriginal population, including elders who traditionally passed down the stories of the past to subsequent generations.

The Hudson Bay Watershed and the Fur Trade

Since 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company had a trading monopoly over all land and waterways within the Hudson Bay watershed. The company built posts and forts around James and Hudson Bays. Hunters and fur traders plied the various rivers within the watershed including the North Saskatchewan, the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan Rivers.

The first inland post was at Cumberland House built in 1774 in present-day Saskatchewan.

Twenty years earlier, the first European to travel in Central Alberta was Anthony Henday in 1754 guided by a Cree trading captain named Ateesh-Ka-Sees. He was dispatched by the Hudson's Bay Company to convince the native peoples, particularly the Archithinue (Blackfoot)in the Red Deer area, to travel to Hudson's Bay to trade furs. He is reported to have been the first European to see the Canadian Rocky Mountains from a vantage point on Antler Hill near Innisfail. He is also known to have met with the Blackfoot at Pine Lake and crossed the Red Deer River twice north of Delburne.

Forty-one years later, in 1795, Fort Edmonton was established on the North Saskatchewan River.

reconstructed fort at Rocky Mountain HouseIn 1799, the North West Company (formed in Montreal 20 years earlier to trade in areas surrounding the Hudson Bay watershed) built a trading post near the North Saskatchewan River at Rocky Mountain House to collect furs from the Rocky Mountains west of the Hudson Bay watershed. This was immediately followed by competitor Hudson's Bay Company building at Acton House nearby.

Rocky Mountain House Historic SiteExplorer, mapmaker, surveyor, historian and fur trader David Thompson used Rocky Mountain House for a couple of years as base for his many explorations of the river and the mountains. After returning east, he was back in Rocky Mountain House in 1807 and was the first known explorer to cross the Rockies at Howse Pass, continuing his explorations in British Columbia and the northwestern United States.

A north-south trail along the foothills of the Rockies extended in both directions from Rocky Mountain House. It is now referred to as the Cowboy Trail.

There was also a trail extending east from Rocky Mountain, north of Red Deer to Buffalo Lake.

In 1821, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company merged and adopted the name Rocky Mountain House for the HBC post (about 7 km west of the current town). In 1869, Rupert's Land was annexed by Canada and became part of the Northwest Territories.

In 1875, the last fort at Rocky Mountain House was closed.

The Wolf's Track

David Thompson often travelled east from Rocky Mountain House to north of a shallow ford on the Red Deer River (near present-day Red Deer) and travelled to Fort Edmonton along a natural and long-time aboriginal pathway that he called the Wolf's Track.

The Old North Trail

The Old North Trail was a natural north-south trail from the northern United States to north of the Red Deer River used by aboriginals, traders and missionaries. It was essentially the southern extension of the Wolf's Track.

The first known missionary to travel around the Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House areas was Methodist Robert Rundle in 1841. Father Albert Lacombe first travelled through the area in 1855. In 1858, Sir John Palliser visited the Red Deer area to determine settlement potential.

The Hudson's Bay Trails

Probably not a single trail but a variety of east-west paths linking Rocky Mountain House with other trails, the Red Deer River, Buffalo Lake and eastward to routes that eventually linked with Hudson's Bay. The current Highways 11 and 12 roughly follow those trails. Highway 11 is now officially called the David Thompson Highway and sometimes called the Explorers Trail.

Trails of the Buffalo

In the late 1860s, large buffalo hunting camps were established near Buffalo Lake and a community sprung up at Tail Creek on the Red Deer River that became the largest settlement west of Fort Assiniboine in Manitoba with an estimated winter population of 2,000, mostly Metis. In the fall, hunters would arrive from Edmonton, St. Albert, Lac St. Anne Mission, Lac la Biche and other small communities in western Canada along a variety of trails collectively referred to as the trails of the buffalo.

In 1875, the North West Mounted Police set up a small post at Tail Creek to stop the suspected but never confirmed whiskey trade.

By 1879, the once-huge buffalo herds on the prairies had virtually disappeared, partly from excessive hunting, partly from disease and partly due to southern migration. With the buffalo gone, the hunting camps at Buffalo Lake and the 400 homes at Tail Creek were abandoned. In 1898, a prairie fire totally obliterated all the buildings except for one in the ghost town. A few years later, the community of Content was established at the site in hopes that the railway would run through but when it didn't, the community disappeared again.

The McDougall Trail (Morley Trail)

In 1873, the Methodist missionary John McDougall, his brother David, and his father George, blazed a crude 450-km cart road from Fort Edmonton south to the Peace Hills near present day Wetaskiwin, past the Bear Hills near Hobbema using the Wolf's Track. It continued south over the Red Deer River to Lone Pine south of Bowden using the Old North Trail and southwest to a mission at Morley, about 80 kilometres upstream on the Bow River west of present day Calgary. This 'built' trail was briefly referred to as the Morley or McDougall Trail with the portion between Lone Pine and Morley retaining the name much longer. During the previous year, hunter and trapper Addison McPherson had reportedly built a log cabin at the Red Deer River Crossing.

The Calgary-Edmonton Trail

In 1875, the North West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary and they carved out a wagon trail from there to Lone Pine to join up with McDougalls' trail north to Fort Edmonton.

In 1880, Indian Reserves were established for the Crees and Stoneys at Hobbema. In the same year, the first land surveyors arrived in Central Alberta.

Freighters from Montana and southern Alberta increasingly used the crude 'road' between Calgary and Edmonton and it became known as the Calgary-Edmonton Trail.

The trail crossed the Red Deer River at a natural and relatively safe ford about six kilometres upstream from the current city of Red Deer where Fort Normandeau is located.

In 1882 and 1883, several settlers set up at the ford, mostly on the south side of the river in a community known as Red Deer Crossing as well as along the river both up and down stream.

Ed Barnett was the first settler in the Lacombe area and between the Red Deer River and Fort Edmonton. A trail linking Rocky Mountain House with Buffalo Lake went through Lacombe.

C & E Trail and C & E Railway south of Red DeerThe arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in Calgary in 1883 meant a dramatic increase in traffic going north along the Calgary and Edmonton Trail. The first regular mail service along this route was established in July of 1883.

As traffic increased along the trail, stopping houses where travellers as well as freight and stagecoach crews could receive food and shelter, horses rest and settlers temporary housing, were established at least every 20 miles between Edmonton and Calgary.

In 1885, as a result of the Riel Rebellion, the Alberta Field Force moved soldiers and police from Calgary to Edmonton. Lieut. Normandeau and 20 men stayed at Red Deer Crossing to guard the trail and river, commandeering the stopping house and building a fort around it. At the same time, Fort Ostell was built at the Battle River (at present-day Ponoka).
In 1886, the North West Mounted Police set up a detachment at Fort Normandeau.

The role of the trail took a dramatic turn when the Calgary and Edmonton Railway was constructed in 1890-91.

Once the rail line was completed to South Edmonton in 1891, travel between the two major cities was reduced to 12 hours from 4 days by stagecoach marking the end of the Calgary-Edmonton Trail service.

Several trails developed linking smaller or nearby settlements with some of the larger centres. In Central Alberta, the Burnt Lake Trail linked Red Deer with Sylvan Lake while the Coal Trail linked Red Deer with Delburne and Content.

These historic trails and early explorers are commemorated by the naming of several modern highways that run on or close to those former trails. Highway 11 west of Red Deer to the Rocky Mountains is called the David Thompson Highway and sometimes referred to as the Explorers Trail. Highway 22 that runs along the foothills is called the Cowboy Trail. Highway 21 is called the Boomtown Trail.

The Calgary and Edmonton Trail (detailed)
The Calgary and Edmonton Railway (detailed)

Progress on the Completion of the Trans Canada Trail in Central Alberta

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