Rail History of
History of the
Historic Trails of Central
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
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.
In 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.
Explorer, 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
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
Fort Edmonton along a natural and long-time aboriginal pathway that he called the Wolf's
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
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
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
Freighters from Montana and southern Alberta increasingly used the crude
'road' between Calgary and Edmonton and it became known as the
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.
The 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,
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
The role of the trail took a
dramatic turn when the
Calgary and Edmonton Railway was constructed in
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
The Calgary and Edmonton Railway
Progress on the
Completion of the Trans Canada Trail in Central Alberta