Trans Canada Trail in
Rails to Trails
History of CARTS
Friends of Trails
Media News re trails 2002
December 2002, Alberta TrailTracker, by Mark Anderako, Lone Pine
Historic Trails - The
For over a century, the forerunner of the Calgary-Edmonton Trail was an
important conduit of communication and movement between the open prairie
and Fort Edmonton. Situated in the vast expanse of a glacier corridor,
this trail - a segment of the Old North Trail - was a natural pathway.
To the east dense forests, to the west, gently rolling hills.
Indian trails running south from Edmonton had long been adapted and
used sporadically by early explorers and itinerant traders. In 1858, the
Palliser Expedition camped at an area known as Cache Camp - later called
Poplar Grove and today known as Innisfail.
It wasn't until 1873 that a "civilized" trail between Calgary and
Edmonton came into being when the Reverend John McDougall, a Methodist
missionary, and his brother David, a free trader, built a mission at
Morley. They cut a formidable path for their cart train and livestock
from Fort Edmonton through the Peace and Bear Hills to the crossing at
Red Deer and then to the Lone Pine stopping house thirty miles south.
From Lone Pine (near present day Bowden) they veered westward up the
Little Red Deer River Valley then down the Ghost River to the Morley
site on the Bow River, some fifty miles upstream from Calgary. When Fort
Calgary was built two years later, the trail from Lone Pine was extended
due south along what is now modern Highway 2.
The Calgary-Edmonton Trail became a vital extension to the
expanding marketplace of the American traders during the 1870s and
1880s. Once the North West Mounted Police eradicated the whiskey forts,
of course the whiskey traffic didn't stop, but continued clandestinely
in barrels labeled "Coal Oil". Though the Trail was originally blazed
from Lone Pine to Calgary by the Hudson's Bay Company, the I.G. Baker
Company from Fort Benton, Montana, soon dominated the burgeoning pioneer
market. The Hudson's Bay Company and other Canadian traders were forced
to transport goods from Winnipeg up the North Saskatchewan or lug them
by cart over the Carlton Trail to Edmonton, then south over the
Calgary-Edmonton Trail. American traders freighted considerably more
cheaply from the east along the Missouri River to Fort Benton, then by
wagon over the Old North Trail to Fort Macleod and Calgary. The
Calgary-Edmonton trail made for an expedient northern extension to this
network. As the link between economic domains, the Calgary-Edmonton
Trail became firmly established as the pre-eminent artery in what would
By 1888, travellers freely ventured this well-beaten path in
whatever conveyance they found suitable. Among these, the Red River cart
was superior transport, quite adaptable for use on the varying terrain.
It was soon discovered that heavier wagons, though functional on solid
prairie ground, were poorly suited to the rich black soils of central
and northern Alberta. Stagecoaches were more "stage" than "coach".
Patrons soon grew accustomed to the unnerving experience of having to
sit in the back of wagons covered with canvas and crowded with freight.
A sudden stop called for a quick escape out the back.
Though the trail accommodated commercial traffic for many years,
few settlers inhabited the surrounding land until the Canadian Pacific
Railway reached Calgary in 1883. The iron horse ushered in a boom period
for the trail to Edmonton, as Canadian supplies were shipped to Calgary
via rail and then dispersed over this sole link with Northern Alberta.
The railroad also pushed back the American interlopers. The trail to
Edmonton soon became one of the busiest roads in all the Dominion,
carrying about nine-tenths of the supplies, mail and people that were
The Edmonton Bulletin reported in 1881 that about 363 settlers had
peopled the land between Calgary and Edmonton. Just two years later, the
area was populated enough to warrant regular mail service between the
two cities. Ad McPherson and John Coleman were awarded the contract to
carry the Royal Mail, light freight and occasional passengers. Later
that year, Donald McLeod started the first weekly stagecoach service.
The stage would leave Jasper House, Edmonton, at 9:00 a.m. and the
steamboat dock at 9:30 every Monday, making stops at Wetaskiwin (then
Peace Hills), Ponoka (then Battle River), Red Deer Crossing and Willow
Creek (in the Olds area), arriving in Calgary the following Friday if
all went well.
Freight wagons took considerably longer - up to 14 days, depending
on the weather conditions. The trail was often mired and deeply rutted.
Frequent flooding and blizzards stalled travel.
The trail was officially surveyed by George Ray in 1886, and the
modern traveller on Highway 2A can appreciate his work. He wrote:
"In view of the great traffic and immense travel which some day may
be done this way my intention was to make the road as straight as the
actual direction of the trail between the two extreme points would
allow. A little ditching, a small culvert, a slight cut or a few
branches thrown on a soft spot will be all that will be needed to keep
the trail open."
In 1891, the Calgary and Edmonton Railroad was completed, much to
the consternation of Edmontonians who were distressed that the Canadian
Pacific Railway Company was reluctant to cross the North Saskatchewan
River. As a result, the new town of Strathcona sprang into being,
drawing even more commerce away from Edmonton proper.
By 1885, the trail was well-populated and a number of stopping
houses sprang up to service customers. Many became sidings of the
Calgary-Edmonton railway, and later evolved into full fledged towns and
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