Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter XVII Transportation and Communication
In this chapter it is purposed to deal with
the subject as it affects the whole North-West. It is one that cannot be
logically disjointed into geographical sections.
The history of transportation has been the
history of the development of Western Canada. Every improvement in
transportation has resulted in an improvement in the comfort of the
people, and in an increase of wealth. The railway has been the greatest
factor in developing the country. The country stagnated until the
railway crossed the plains in the early eighties. Alberta was the last
province of the plains to get the railway and was, therefore, the last
to reap the benefits of the epoch- making change. If one reads the early
newspapers of the province—The Edmonton Bulletin, the Macleod Gazette or
the Lethbridge News—papers published before the railways came to
Alberta, little difference will be found in the description of the life
and occupations of the inhabitants from the conditions described by
Henry and Harmon nearly a century ago.
The history of transportation in the
North-West begins with the canoe and Indian travois—the dog travois and
the horse travois—and progresses from one form to another until it
evolves into the navigation of the air by the aeroplane.
It is a peculiar thing that the Indians
never developed the rudiments of engineering science. As far as we have
been able to find there is no record of the Indians of the plains ever
having constructed a bridge or built a road on the prairies.
Consequently when the first traders invaded the West, the only highways
of travel were the rivers or the rude Indian trails.
In dealing with the subject it will be
convenient to treat in the first place of the various means and methods
of transportation and in the second place with the trade routes of the
West from the earliest times. The first means of conveying the furs and
peltries of the interior to the seaboard and carrying back the
merchandise to exchange therefor was, of course, the canoe.
There were three kinds of canoes used in
the fur trade in the commerce of Western Canada—the Montreal canoe, the
North canoe and the Indian or express canoe. The Montreal canoes were
used by the North West Company on the lakes as far as Fort William. They
were too large and cumbersome for the interior trade and too heavy to
carry over the portages, requiring four men. They carried twice as large
a cargo as the North canoe and were paddled by 14 to 16 Voyageurs.
The North canoe was the ideal craft of the summer voyageur, the
universal idol of its day. It was a light, graceful vessel of about 36
feet long and 50 inches to 6 feet broad, made of birch bark sewn with
vegetable fibre and well gummed with the gum of the yellow pine. It was
gaudily painted On bow and stern with those mythical figures which
superstitious boatmen believed increased its speed. In this fairy-like
craft the traveler sped swiftly over the bosom of the lake, or the long
reaches of the river, the bright vermilion paddles gleaming in the
sunlight, the forests echoing to the measure of some weird boat song or
the chansons of the voyageurs. A light canoe crossed the continent from
Montreal to the mouth of the Columbia River in 100 days. Loaded with
fur, canoe brigades left Fort George on the Columbia about April 1st,
and reached Fort William July 1st. Remaining there for twenty days, they
were back at the mouth of the Columbia again on October 20th, with the
outfits for the winter trade. Sir George Simpson in his famous progress
through the posts of Rupert's Land and the Columbia, in 1822, traveled
from York Factory to the mouth of the Fraser River in ninety days,
sixteen of which were spent at the various posts of the company.
This was the first of Sir George's
triumphal tours through the West. The people of the West have seen many
distinguished excursions and entertained many visitors, but possibly no
party that ever traveled through the country impressed the people of the
day more than the Dictator of Rupert's Land did on this famous journey.
The capacity of the canoes varied. Those
that conveyed David Harmon to the North-West in 1800 carried about two
tons and were manned by six Canadians. However, the North canoe carried
from 2,000 to 2,500 pounds, three passengers, eight or nine voyageurs
and provisions for a month.
The Indian canoe was from 15 to 18 feet
long, two and a half feet beam and would carry three men and provisions.
It could be carried by one man. These canoes were used for rapid
journeys by the officers of the fur companies or by special messengers
and were called express canoes. Canoes dug out of poplar were frequently
used by the Indians as well as by explorers and traders. Gabriel
Franchére descended the Athabaska River in 1814 to Lac la Biche in a
poplar dugout while others of his party had elks' skins stretched on
It is not known exactly when York boats
were first used by the Hudson's Bay Company, but when Simpson became
governor of Rupert's Land, in 1821, one of the first things he did was
to investigate the methods of transportation. York boats were used in a
limited way before this, however, for Alexander Henry says he saw them
on the Saskatchewan River in the early years of the 19th century, that
would be about 1805 or 1807.
At the meeting of the Council of Rupert's
Land in 1823, it was decided to add York boats to the lines of travel.
These boats effected the saving of one-half in the wages, and Simpson
himself superintended the dispatch of a brigade of four boats from York
Factory to the Athabaska by way of Nelson River. These boats were also
called inland boats or Mackinaw boats. They were from 28 to 30 feet
long. Manned by a steersman and eight men, they carried from 75 to 80
inland pieces, that is, packs of 90 lbs. each. Their size and capacity
was regulated by the Council of Rupert's Land. We find in the minutes of
1836 that the Council ordered that York boats should be 28 ft. long at
least and should have a minimum capacity of 80 pieces. The goods and
furs were packed this way because of the numerous portages which
compelled the voyageurs to unload, and reload at every portage on the
route. The packing of goods was an art in itself in the old days of the
fur trade. One man generally carried two packs and there was great
rivalry among the crews to see who could carry their packs over the long
portage without setting them down on the way.
After the union of the fur companies in
1821, Norway House became the chief distributing point for the
North-West, or its chief base. It was to the West what Winnjpeg is
now—all traffic passed through this point to and from the whole
interior. Goods were brought from England to York Factory in August and
carefully packed into 90-pound bundles the following winter. In the
spring they were conveyed by York boats to Norway House. Here they were
stored in the warehouses until the following summer, when they were sent
to the Athabaska and Mackenzie districts, via Portage la Loche, by the
Red River brigade which also brought the farm and country produce of the
Red River to Norway House. The brigade was met at Portage la Loche by
the brigade from the north. The furs were carried over the 12-mile
portage at this point, where they were loaded and conveyed by the Red
River brigade to York Factory. The merchandise for the Mackenzie outfits
was also carried over the portage to be loaded in the boats or canoes
that brought the furs to the western end of the portage. Before 1831 the
brigades of the Athabaska used to carry their furs and boats over
Portage la Loche, going all the way down to York Factory and back again
with outfits. It was considered a great step in advance when it was
decided to keep boats and canoes at each end of the portage.
Norway House was the point where many of
the York boats were built. Rocky Mountain House was another point where
these boats were built, on account of the abundance of spruce forests.
Some were also built at Edmonton, the headquarters of the Saskatchewan
Brigade. In 1835 Chief Factor Rowand was ordered to supply 12 new boats.
Usually 6 to 10 boats were built every year at Edmonton. Every year
about the end of May the brigade left Edmonton with furs, pemmican,
dried meat and leather for Cumberland House and Norway House, where
these supplies with similar supplies from the Red River were distributed
to the northern and eastern posts not so favorably situated for a food
supply. The brigade varied from year to year. In 1825, when Alexander
Ross was returning from the Columbia, he went down to Norway House with
the brigade from Edmonton. It consisted of 12 boats; but when Paul Kane
went down in 1848, the brigade comprised 23 boats and 130 men. Sometimes
the boats were taken down with half crews and full crews were obtained
on the return journey by using the recruits that were brought out from
the Old Country from year to year to serve at the various posts on the
Upper Saskatchewan and the Columbia. The journey to York Factory and
return occupied about four and a half months.
The minutes of the Council of Rupert's
Land for 1833 contain special rules for loading. Seventy pieces was the
smallest load; ten pieces were allowed for each commissioned gentleman;
five pieces for first-class clerks; three for postmasters and junior
clerks, and one-third of the above allowances to cover the freight of
private orders for the same classes remaining inland.
At Norway House there was a chief
transportation officer. He was a very important man and had a great task
in regulating the Hudson's Bay time-table of the day. The movements of
the brigades had to be so regulated that those starting from the points
as far apart as Norway House on Lake Winnipeg and Fort McPherson on the
Mackenzie, should meet within a day at Portage la Loche. When one
considers the numerous portages (for example, there were 36 portages
between Norway House and York Factory along the Hayes River) the
unceasing toil and labor, the feat becomes a marvel of human endurance,
pluck and organization. There was great punctuality in the dispatch of
the canoes and the boat brigades. This was necessary because of the
early close of navigation on the northern lakes and rivers. A delay of a
few days at Red River might mean starvation on the Mackenzie the
following winter. The arrival of the brigades could be calculated with
as much certainty as the freight train of today, and possibly with
greater precision. The anxious trader might ascend his lookout post with
the certainty of seeing, sweeping around the nearest point, the
well-laden boats with their swarthy crews bending low to their oars and
gaily singing to the measured stroke.
But this was not the only problem the
chief transportation officer encountered. He and his staff had
difficulty always in getting the crews organized. The company needed 500
men for the boat brigades and 3,000 altogether for the trading season.
The crews were generally half-breeds or Indians, careless, dissolute and
irresponsible. The voyageurs generally lived such a hand to mouth
existence that the Company advanced their wages in the winter and when
spring came they generally rebelled against working the following summer
for the balance. Strikes were of frequent occurrence, and sometimes were
settled by a good drubbing given by the chief factor himself or some of
the special men. In fact, the difficulty of obtaining and controlling
the crews was one of the causes that influenced the Company in adopting
Red River carts.
The next step in the evolution of
transportation was the Red River cart. This vehicle was an invention of
the Nor'-westers. Henry mentions them when he was at Pembina in the
early years of the last century. They were used by half-breeds in the
great buffalo hunting trips. In 1820 Alexander Ross placed the number in
the Red River at 540. In the June hunt of 1840 there were 1,210 carts
gathered at Pembina from every nook and corner of the Red River. The
advance of settlement in Manitoba began to attract trade to Fort Garry,
which then began to grow at the expense of Norway House and York
Factory. In 1850 the Hudson's Bay Company brought in their first goods
by Red River carts from St. Paul.
In 1856 a train of 500 carts left
Winnipeg for St. Paul with wheat, tallow and beef, and brought back
manufactured goods. The Hudson's Bay Company continued to send out its
fur by Norway House and York Factory but the buffalo skins were sent out
by carts to St. Paul. Fort Garry soon became the base for goods imported
from the United States and Canada, and a separate warehouse was
maintained outside the fort for Canadian and American goods. The trade
grew rapidly, and it is estimated that the Hudson's Bay Company and
petty traders operated at one time 1,500 carts between Winnipeg and St.
Paul. The rate was 18s 5d per 100 pounds. Each cart carried from 900 to
1,200 pounds and was drawn by an ox or Indian pony. For each of these
carts there was one man, and a number of spare horses were always taken
along to relieve the tired animals from time to time. The number of
carts in a train sometimes consisted of several hundred. In that case
the train was divided into brigades of ten carts each. The daily
progress was from 20 to 25 miles.
The first carts in Alberta were brought
by Rev. Father Lacombe in 1862, with supplies for the mission at St.
Albert. Five years later the Hudson's Bay Company brought in a train of
80 carts with goods for the posts and established a traffic which
continued until steamboats began to operate on the Saskatchewan. In 1870
ten carts passed safely from Edmonton to Fort Benton with furs and
brought back flour and whiskey. This was the first time it was ever
deemed safe to pass through the country of the Blackfeet.
In 1859 steam navigation was inaugurated
on the Red River. In June of that year the S. S. Anson Northrup steamed
into Fort Garry from St. Peter's River, Minnesota. The success of this
venture induced the Hudson's Bay Company to build the S. S.
International in 1862. She was 150 feet long with 30 foot beam and drew
two feet of water. She reached Winnipeg May 26, 1862. This steamer ran
between Fort Garry and Georgetown, 200 miles farther up the river in the
State of Minnesota. Messrs. Burbank & Company of St. Paul established a
stage route between St. Paul and Georgetown, so that a trip could be
made from Montreal to Fort Garry in twelve days. The Sioux massacre, in
1862, caused river traffic to languish for a number of years—in fact,
until the Northern Pacific reached Moorhead in 1872 from Duluth. The
success of the International induced others, notably James J. Hill, N.
W. Kitson, Donald A. Smith and James Ashdown to engage in the river
transportation business. The steamers Selkirk, Manitoba and Minnesota
soon became strong competitors with the Hudson's Bay steamer.
The S. S. Commissioner was the first
steamer to ply oil Red River below Winnipeg and by 1883 there were 19
steamers operating on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, on Lake Winnipeg
and on the Saskatchewan River. The S. S. Colville plied between Winnipeg
and Grand Rapids, making the round trip of 350 miles in five days. There
were also eight freight
steamers and seventeen barges oil Red
River. Two steamers plied between Winnipeg, Brandon and Fort Ellice and
at high water Fort Pelly was reached. The round trip of 700 miles to
Pelly was scheduled to take 21 (lays. Six steamers operated on the
Saskatchewan River from Grand Rapids to Blackfoot Crossing oil South
Branch and to Edmonton on the North Branch. A short railway of five
miles was built by the Hudson's Bay Company in the early seventies to
portage the steamers from Lake Winnipeg to the navigable waters of the
Saskatchewan above Grand Rapids. The principal steamers on the
Saskatchewan were S. S. North- cote, S. S. Northwest, S. S. Marquis, S.
S. Lily, S. S. Manitoba, S. S. Princess. The pioneer was the Northcote.
She was on the Saskatchewan 1871 and came as far as Edmonton for the
first time in July, 1875, with supplies and mail for the detachment of
the North West Mounted Police. The Lily was a steel hull brought to the
Red River in parts from England by the Hudson's Bay Company and there
put together. She operated on the South Branch as far as Medicine Hat.
She was finally sunk below Saskatchewan Landing. Other steamers were the
S. S. Alberta, S. S. Baroness and S. S. Minnow. These were small but
powerful river boats owned by the Gait Coal Company of Lethbridge and
carried coal from the Lethbridge mines down the Belly River and the
Saskatchewan to Medicine 1-lat. The Baroness made a trip to Edmonton in
the spring of the Rebellion of 1885. The Minnow was purchased by
Lamoureux Bros. of Fort Sasketchewan and operated oil North Saskatchewan
between Edmonton and Battleford. The first steamers on the Saskatchewan
belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company, used to carry only the Company's
merchandise to its various posts. After 1880 the Company opened the
traffic to all traders and did a general transportation business, until
the boats were taken over by the Winnipeg and Western Transportation
Company. The Company spent considerable sums of money to improve
navigation on the North Saskatchewan and was able to induce the Federal
Government to supplement its expenditures in this respect. Up to 1884
over S21,000.00 had been expended by the Government and the Hudson's Bay
The Hudson's Bay Company was also the
pioneer of steamboat transportation on the northern rivers, Athabaska,
Peace, Slave and Mackenzie. The S. S. Grahame was built at Athabaska
Landing in 1882 by Captain Smith. The S. S. Wrigley was built at Fort
Smith in 1887. Other steamers, the S. S. Athabaska, S. S. Peace River,
S. S. Slave River, S. S. Mackenzie River followed in due course,
operating from Hudson's 1-lope on the Upper Peace River to Fond du Lac
at the east end of Lake Athabaska, down the Mackenzie River to Fort
McPherson and up the Liard River to Fort Nelson.
In 1908 the Northern Transportation
Company entered the North and established a fleet of steamers, viz., S.
S. Northland Echo, S. S. Northland Call, S. S. Northland Sun and S. S.
Northland Star. These steamers operated on the Athabaska River and on
Lesser Slave Lake. The Northern Sun plied between Grouard and Saulteau
Landing to connect with the Northland Echo and the Northland Call. About
1910 the Alberta Arctic Transportation Company placed the S. S. D. A.
Thomas and S. S. Dis- tributor, and S. S. B. C. Express on the Peace,
Athabaska and Slave rivers. The discovery of oil by the Imperial Oil
Company in the summer of 1920 stimulated interest in the riches of the
North and many new sailing, steam and gasoline boats were added to the
river traffic to carry the machinery, supplies, merchandise and
passengers bound for the new Eldorado.
It is interesting to note that the S. S.
Grahame, during the first season it was operated, made a trip up the
Clearwater carrying an excursion party of 150 Indians, comprising
Dogribs, Slaves, Chipevyans and Eskimos. They were greatly impressed
with the engineer and regarded him as a son of the Great Spirit. But it
is questionable if these natives were more impressed on this occasion
than were many of the people of Edmonton who witnessed on the 27th of
July, 1920, four De Havilands fly out of the East from New York, which
took no more actual flying time to make that long journey than it took a
canoe to come from Fort Saskatchewan to Edmonton a century ago.
Historical reference to the subject of
steamboat transportation in the North-West would be incomplete without
allusion to the Dawson Route from Lake Superior to the Red River. As we
have seen in the earlier chapters the first highway from Canada to the
North-West was by the Old Canoe Route of the French Canadian explorers
and fur traders, and the voyageurs of the North West Company. After the
abandonment of the Canoe Route in 1821 there was no direct route from
Canada. The North-West was reached indirectly from Canada via York
Factory or through the United States via St. Paul and the Red River.
In 1867 Fort Garry became the port of
entry and the Hudson's Bay Route speedily fell in importance. The people
of older Canada were now beginning to take an interest in the
development of the West. They were familiar with the outcome of the
investigation by the British parliamentary committee of 1857 and knew
that it was but a few years until the Hudson's Bay Company would be
forced to surrender its rights and powers in the West. Anticipating the
future, the Canadian Government sent out two distinguished explorers—S.
J. Dawson and Henry Youle Hind. These two men made an elaborate report
on the resources of Western Canada which created a profound impression
among the public men of the older parts of our Dominion. It was natural,
therefore, that the Government of Canada should seek a highway on
Canadian territory into the North-West. This desire led to the
construction of the famous Dawson Route. The engineers of the Canadian
Government recommended the use of boats on the water stretches, instead
of canoes, as well as the construction of a wagon road from Thunder Bay
to Lake Shebandowan and from Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry on the
western end. A part of this road was constructed by the Wolseley
expedition in 1870. Eventually this route opened for traffic and an
emigration transportation service opened in 1871. The route was as
follows: (a) By steamer to Fort William; (b) by wagon from Fort William
to Shebandowan, 45 miles; (c) by open boat from Shebandowan to Lake of
the Woods, 310 miles; (d) by wagon from Lake of the Woods to Fort Garry,
In 1872 steam launches superseded the
open boats and later two snug steamers 100 and 120 feet long were placed
on Rainy River and Lake of the Woods. This amphibious line was the
precursor of the C. P. R. and continued in existence until 1876, when
the contract respecting emigrant transportation was cancelled.
Passengers and freight left Thunder Bay three times a week or daily if
necessary. The time for the conveyance of passengers was not to exceed
10 or 12 days and for freight 15 to 20 days. Houses and tents were
prepared along the way for the accommodation of the travellers. The fare
from Thunder Bay to Fort Garry was $10.00, general freight $2.00 per 100
pounds, household furniture $3.00 per hundred pounds. Needless to say,
this route was never popular. There were too many portages.
Steamship transportation continued on the
Red River and on the Saskatchewan until the advent of the railway. On
December 3rd, 1878, the last spike was driven in the Pembina branch of
the C. P. R. which connected with the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba
at St. Vincent, Minnesota. This gave the North-West direct railway
communication with the outside world for the first time.
The story of the construction of railway
connection with the Red River is one of the greatest interest to
Canadians. After years of high financing and gambling, certain American
railway promoters became involved in an inextricable muddle in promoting
the St. Paul and Pacific and the Northern Pacific. At this stage Donald
A. Smith, George Stephen, N. W. Kitson and James J. Hill came on the
scene. They obtained the depreciated stock at prices varying from II to
70 cents per $1.00 of the par value. The new company was organized under
the name of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. These four
men by their splendid courage furnished a lesson in finance that the
people of Canada may point to with pride for generations to come. It was
the success of these men in this venture that enabled them to take up
the Canadian Pacific Railway and give Canada its first transcontinental
The contract of the C. P. R. was signed
October 24. 1880, from Callendar on Lake Nipissing in Ontario, to Port
Moody, in British Columbia. By 1883 the railway reached the Province of
Alberta. As the head of the steel moved westward trading by carts was
revived. The weekly issues of the Edmonton Bulletin in the early '80s
regularly report the arrival of carts or sleighs from the head of steel,
with goods for the Edmonton merchants and the Hudson's Bay Company.
The railway reached Calgary in September,
1883, and a stage line was established between that point and Edmonton.
The Edmonton Bulletin of August 4, 1883, contained the announcement of
the stage line, as follows: "Edmonton and Calgary stage, making weekly
trips between said points, leaves Jasper house, Edmonton, at nine and
the steamboat dock at 9:30 every Monday morning, stopping at Peace
Hills, Battle River, Red Deer Crossing and Willow Creek and arriving at
Calgary on Friday. Returning leaves Calgary Monday, stopping at same
places, and arrives at Edmonton on Friday. Fare each way, $2500; 100
pounds baggage allowed; express matter 10 cents per pound. First stage
leaves Edmonton on Monday, August 6th. Edmonton office in Jasper House.
Calgary office in Hudson's Bay Company store. D. MacLeod, Proprietor."
In many respects this was one of the most
interesting lines of transportation in the whole province. Many people
are still living who were familiar with the celebrated stopping places
at Chamberlain's, Scarlett's, The Lone Pine, Miller's at the Spruces 10
miles south of the Red Deer River, Blindman, Barnett's, Bear's Hill,
Boggy Plain, Edmonton, where the traveller arrived on the fifth day from
Calgary. It continued until the Calgary and Edmonton Railway reached
Strathcona July 27, 1891.
The railway with its branches to Prince
Albert and Edmonton, was the death blow to the steamboat traffic on the
Saskatchewan River, although in 1886 the steamboats were still competing
with the railroad in carrying freight to Edmonton and were giving a
cheaper rate. It cost $2.50 per hundred pounds to bring flour by the
railway and stage route, while it cost only $1.80 to bring it by
steamboat. On general merchandise, the rate by rail and stage was $4.50,
compared with $2.90 by steamboat. As late as 1896 the S. S. Northwest
arrived at Edmonton with 1,000 sacks of flour.
Other means of transportation that should
be briefly referred to are the dog sleigh or cariole, the pack train,
the Indian travois, the bull train and the Concord coach. The dog trains
were used in winter to bring the fur from the outlying posts to the
central depots, and also for the winter express. In the days of the
North West Company this express generally left the Athabaska in December
and reached Fort William or Sault Ste. Marie some time in March. In
later years, during the supremacy of the Hudson's Bay Company, the
winter express left Fort Garry, going by Norway House, Cumberland House,
Fort a la Come, and calling at the various posts until it reached the
far-off Mackenzie. The dog in the North was and is to a great extent
what the camel is in the desert. Dog sleigh was the fastest method in
winter and the writings of early travellers contain many fascinating
stories on this subject. A fine description of a trip by dog sleigh is
found in Paul Kane's book, "The Wanderings of an Artist." It was the
wedding trip of Miss Harriott, daughter of Chief Factor Harriott, and
John Rowand in charge of Fort Pitt, son of the famous Chief Factor who
ruled over Fort Edmonton so long. The trip was made down the river to
Fort Pitt in three days in very stormy weather, Christmas, 1848. The
party killed and consumed seventeen buffalo on the way down. Reference
has been made in a former chapter to the journey of Chief Factor
Christie in 1873 from Fort Simpson to Winnipeg to attend a meeting of
the North West Council, by dog sleigh.
The dog is the oldest beast of burden on
the plains. The Indians used him before the horse, as will be seen from
their language. The Blackfoot word for dog is "amita." The word for red
deer is "Ponoko," the word for horse is "ponokamitan," which means "the
red deer dog." The Sarcees derived a better name for the horse, for they
called it "the seven dogs," that is, it was as big and strong as seven
dogs. Henry saw 230 dog travois at Fort Vermilion in 1810.
Horses were used by the early travellers,
such as Thompson, Henry and others, in making rapid journeys on their
exploration trips. About the middle of the century there were a great
many horses kept at Edmonton to outfit the pack trains to transport the
goods to the mountains and thence to the Columbia department.
The open plains of Southern Alberta gave
rise to a different, method of transportation from that which was used
in the northern and wooded parts of the province. This was the famous
bull team method. It was introduced into Alberta by the American traders
from Montana and extensively used by I. G. Baker & Company in conveying
freight and supplies to the trading posts and to the posts of the North
West Mounted Police south of the Bow River. This firm used wagons of
very large size, called "Prairie Schooners." Three wagons were generally
hitched together and carried from 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of freight.
The first wagon carried 6,000 pounds, the second one 5,000 and the third
one 3,000 pounds. The whole train was hauled by ten or twelve yoke of
oxen. The wagons were neatly covered with a canvas tent and brought the
goods to their destination in perfect condition. Sometimes these
ox-trains travelled in brigades of ten to a brigade and were generally
accompanied by cooks and mess wagons. A brigade or more of these
ox-trains was an impressive sight as it picked its slow and regular way
over the prairie. By this means coal was hauled from the Gait mines at
Lethbridge to Calgary by a sixteen-ox team. Only once did one of these
trains try the trail between Calgary and Edmonton. It comprised nine
teams, six yoke of oxen in each, hauling two wagons, each loaded with
7,000 pounds. The train reached Edmonton June 24, 1885, with supplies
for the Alberta Field Force.
But to show that ambition and
resourcefulness are still a quality of the men of Alberta, the reader's
attention is directed to the case of Ralph Moorehouse, of Vulcan,
Alberta, who, in December, 1922, loaded 1,444 bushels of wheat in eight
tank wagons and hauled this immense load in one train twenty-two miles,
by twenty horses and ten mules, the length over all (teams and wagons)
being 245 feet. The load filled a car and is possibly the largest load
ever drawn by horses or oxen in the history of the West.
Passenger traffic in Southern Alberta was carried on by the well known
Concord coaches. The Mounted Police used buckboards and spring wagons.
Having dealt with the means of
transportation, it remains to refer briefly to the routes of
transportation and the main highways of the fur trade before the advent
of the railway. Mention has been made of the Old Canoe Route via Fort
William, Rainy River, Lake of the Woods and Winnipeg River, of the route
by York Factory and Norway House and of the route via St. Paul down the
Red River. All these routes finally led to the Saskatchewan River.
Whether the traveller's journey was to the far-off Athabaska and the
Mackenzie, to the foothills of Alberta or to the regions across the
Rocky Mountains, a long lap of the journey was necessarily made on the
lower Saskatchewan River. The route to the Athabaska branched from the
Saskatchewan River at Cumberland House, up the Sturgeon-Weir River to a
series of lakes known as Heron, Pelican and Woody lakes within a short
distance of the Churchill River. Here there was a short portage called
Frog Portage, which was long known as "The Doorway to the Great North."
The Churchill River led to Lie a la Crosse Lake, Buffalo Lake and Lake
la Loche. This brought the trader within a short distance of Clearwater
River as we now know it, and at This point the voyageur found his
heaviest portage. This was known in the fur trade as the Long
Portage—Port La Loche, and is now marked on the maps as Methy Portage.
After crossing this portage the voyageur cast his canoe into the
Clearwater, the first river on his journey flowing west, which brought
him into connection with the great waterway system of the North. This
route was used for many years until the Hudson's Bay Company began using
ox carts between Fort Canton and Green Lake. At Green Lake the goods
were transferred to boats or canoes and thence down the Beaver River to
Lake Tie a la Crosse where the new route joined the old route, via
Cumberland House and Churchill River. As soon as the navigability of the
Saskatchewan was demonstrated, the Hudson's Bay Company adopted another
route to these northern posts. By this route steamers brought the goods
up the Saskatchewan, past Canton House to Frog Lake Creek, 180 miles
west of Canton. The goods were here transferred to ox carts and carried
fifty miles overland to the Beaver River which, as we have noted above,
flows into Lake lie a la Crosse and so on by the Methy Portage to the
waters of the North.
We have already seen the effect of the
construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway on steamboat traffic and
have to add that the construction of this railway caused another change
in the route of transportation to the Hudson's Bay posts in the North.
After 1883 the main highway to the North was from Edmonton overland to
Athabaska Landing, by ox cart, wagon or other conveyance, where
connection was made with the Hudson's Bay steamers and the Athabaska,
Peace, and Mackenzie River systems.
Until the early sixties the North
Saskatchewan was the highway to the British Columbia departments of the
Hudson's Bay Company, though some of the goods for New Caledonia were
sent over the mountains by the Peace River. In the early years of the
19th century the main line of travel lay up the Saskatchewan to Rocky
Mountain House and thence to the Columbia River by Howse Pass. This
route was used several times, as we have already seen, by David
Thompson. The Howse Pass was soon abandoned for the Athabaska Pass. The
point of departure from the Saskatchewan was Fort Edmonton, from where
the trade route lay overland to Fort Assiniboine and up the Athabaska.
Thus Edmonton became a point where there was a break in the line of
transportation and consequently grew into an important trading centre.
When trading vessels began to round Cape Horn the transcontinental trade
of the Hudson's Bay Company up the Saskatchewan was destroyed and
Edmonton lost its importance as a trading and distributing depot. To
increase the destruction, American traders pushing UI) the Missouri to
Fort Benton drew the powerful Blackfeet nation from the Hudson's Bay
posts where they had traded for over half a century and the glory of the
Saskatchewan was gone forever.
The story of transportation would be
incomplete without reference to the old trails of the Indians and the
traders. Many of the railway lines and trunk routes of to-day follow
some of the old Indian trails. For example, the railway lines west of
Edmonton to the Yellowhead Pass follow the old trail of the Mountain
Stoneys. The road of the Canadian Northern Railway from Edmonton to
Calgary follows the Blackfeet trail from the Great Plains to Edmonton
and the Canadian Pacific, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian
Northern main lines from Edmonton to Winnipeg conform in a general way
to the trails of the Plain Crees. After traversing this section of the
West the railway lines running north of Edmonton follow some of the most
important trails of the Wood Crees. A number of Indian trails
constituted such desirable roads that provision was made in the North
West Territories Act of 1875 to have them surveyed and maintained as
The use of the Red River carts opened up
a number of important trails from Fort Garry westward to the Hudson's
Bay posts and settlements on the upper Saskatchewan. The most important,
and one of the most travelled of these overland highways ran from Fort
Garry to Fort Ellice, passing the White Horse Plains, Portage la
Prairie, crossing the Little Saskatchewan River and Bird Tail Creek.
From Fort Ellice the trail ran northwestward through the Little and Big
Touchwood hills, past Quill Lake and over Salt Plains to the South
Saskatchewan, where crossings were made at different points but
principally at Gabriels' and Clarke's Crossing. The next point on the
trail was Fort Canton on the North Saskatchewan. From this point it lay
through the Thichwood Hills, past Jackfish Lake and Frenchman's Butte to
Fort Pitt. From Fort Pitt it connected with Victoria and thence into
Fort Edmonton. It was along this overland route that the first railway
surveys were made with a view to building a transcontinental railway.
Most of the old- timers in Northern Alberta came over this trail. It is
now regarded as a true test of the old-timer that he was either born in
Alberta previous to 1880 or entered the province by the old cart trail
from Fort Garry via Carlton and Fort Pitt.
The work of surveying the old trails in
the North West Territories was commenced in 1885 and completed in 1888.
The most important in Alberta are as follows: (1) Calgary to Edmonton.
(2) Calgary to Macleod. (3) Blackfoot Crossing to Fort Macleod. (4) Fort
Walsh to Medicine Hat. (5) Blackfoot Crossing to Calgary. (6) Calgary to
Morley north of the Bow River. (7) Calgary to Morley south of the Bow
River. (8) The Bow River Trail along the Bow River bottom, near Calgary,
from Dunbow at the mouth of Hugh River to the northeast corner of
section 35, township 23, range 1, west fifth meridian. By O. C.
September 17, 1889, these trails were transferred by the Dominion
Government to the Government of the North West Territories.
Railway extensions in Alberta soon
followed the construction of the main line of the Canadian Pacific
Railway. In 1,885 the Alberta Railway & Coal Company, afterwards known
as the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company, built a line from Dunmore,
on the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to Lethbridge, 107
miles, receiving a grant therefor of 3,840 acres of land per mile. Five
years later the road was extended to the International Boundary Line at
Coutts, Montana, a distance of 65 miles, and shortly afterwards an
extension was made by this Company from Stirling to Cardston, 67 miles.
In 1893 the Canadian Pacific Railway, in order to forestall the building
of competitive branches of the Great Northern Railway into Southern
Alberta, acquired by lease the road from Dunmore to Lethbridge,
purchasing the same in 1897 and extended it westward through the Crow's
Nest Pass to connect with the C. P. R. extensions in Southern British
The railway from Calgary to Edmonton was
completed to the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River, opposite
Edmonton, on August 27, 1891, by the Calgary and Edmonton Railway
Company. Next year the same Company built the railway southward to
Macleod, reaching that point November 3, 1892. The Company received a
land subsidy of 6,400 acres per mile for the mileage between Edmonton
and Calgary. The road was immediately leased to the Canadian Pacific
Railway, and has been operated by this Company since that time. For the
next fifteen years there was little or no railway building in the
Province, but when settlers began to come in large numbers, in the
beginning of the century, railways were extended year by year.
In 1906 construction was commenced from
Wetaskiwin, on the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, eastward to meet an
extension from Lanigan westward. This line was completed in 1910, giving
the Company a direct line from Edmonton to Winnipeg, and to Moose Jaw
and St. Paul. A branch from Lacombe to Stettler was completed in 1906,
and by 1914 was extended to Kerrobert, giving improved railway
connections with Central and Northern Alberta. A cut-off from Calgary to
Lethbridge was completed in 1911 via Aldersyde and Kipp, and an
alternate line between Calgary and Swift Current was secured by the
Bassano Empress cut-off in 1914. A great steel bridge built over the
North Saskatchewan River at Edmonton in 1913, gave access by the
Company's line to Edmonton thirty years later than the old-timers of the
place hoped to have witnessed this event.
Other branches were built as follows:
Coronation to Lorraine, 19 miles, 1914; Suffield to Lomond, 84 miles,
1914. The charter of the Alberta Central Railway from Red Deer to
Lochearn, 64 miles, was acquired in 1912, and construction completed.
The most important extensions in recent
years by the Canadian Pacific Railway have been the acquisition by lease
of the Edmonton, Dun- vegan and British Columbia Railway from Edmonton
to Grande Prairie, 400 miles, and of the Canada Central Railway from
McLennan to Peace River, 48 miles, in 1920, and to Berwyn, 25 miles, in
1921. By the extension of these railways, 3,000 miles of lake and river
navigation of the Peace and Mackenzie River valleys are linked up with
with three transcontinental railway systems. A second connection is
secured by the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway, built by the
Government of Alberta from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, 296 miles.
The rapid settlement of Western Canada
attracted a competitor in the field of railway construction. This was
the celebrated firm of railway contractors, Messrs. McKenzie & Mann.
Welcomed by the people as deliverers from what they imagined to be a
monopoly of the pioneer railway Company of the West, Messrs. McKenzie &
Mann found little difficulty in building railroads by the system of
Government guarantees, and organized the Canadian Northern Railway
Company. In 1903 assistance was granted by the Dominion Parliament to
the Canadian Northern Railway Company to extend the Company's line from
Grandview, Manitoba, to Edmonton, a distance of 670 miles. The nature of
this assistance was a guarantee of principal and interest of first
mortgage bonds to the extent of $13,000 per mile, the principal
repayable in 50 years. The road was completed to Edmonton in November,
1905. Then Edmonton became a competitive shipping point with Calgary and
began to acquire modern commercial importance.
By 1916 this road, which provided a third transcontinental railway for
Canada, was completed to Vancouver via the Yellow head Pass and the
valley of the North Thompson River, thus giving Edmonton direct
connection with Vancouver on the survey made by the C. P. R. in 1872.
Branch lines throughout the Province,
with the assistance of Provincial guarantee of bonds soon followed:
Edmonton to Athabaska, 1909; Tofield to Calgary, 1912; Calgary to
Saskatoon, 1912; Edmonton to St. Paul, 1920; Camrose to Alliance, 1920.
Under an agreement, dated July 24, 1903,
and ratified by the Parliament of Canada October 24 of the same year,
the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company agreed with the Government of
Canada to construct a railway from Winnipeg to the Pacific Coast, via
Edmonton and the Yellow head Pass, to be known as the Grand Trunk
Pacific Railway. This road formed the Western Division of the second
Canadian transcontinental railway, the termini of which were Moncton, N.
B., and Prince Rupert, B. C. The Eastern Division from Winnipeg to
Moncton was known as the National Transcontinental Railway, and was
built by the Government of Canada. The Government of Canada guaranteed
the principal and interest of three per cent first mortgage bonds of the
Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, payable in 50 years at the rate of $13,000
per mile on the Prairie Section of the Western Division—Winnipeg to Wolf
Creek, a distance of 914 miles. On the Mountain Section of this
Division—Wolf Creek to Prince Rupert, B.. C.—the guarantee was for 75
per cent of the cost of construction. By September 13, 1909, the road
was opened for traffic between Winnipeg and Edmonton, and to Wolf Creek,
118 miles west of Edmonton, in February, 1910. Four years later, April,
1914, the first through train from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert arrived at
the latter point, thus completing the Western Division of the second
transcontinental railway company of Canada.
Meanwhile a subsidiary company, the Grand
Trunk Pacific Branch Lines Company, was organized to construct feeders
to the main line in Alberta. This Company, supported by guarantees of
principal and interest from the Provincial Government, built a branch
from Tofleld to Calgary and from Bickerdike to the coal fields in the
foothills between the Athabaska and North Saskatchewan rivers.
Between Edmonton and the Yellow Head Pass
the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway traversed the
same territory, running in many places only a few yards or rods apart.
After the default of both Companies in the payment of the interest
guarantees in 1917, the two main lines and the branch lines of each were
taken over by the Government of Canada and the two railway systems were
consolidated into one system. Owing to the useless duplication of lines
between Edmonton and the Yellow Head Pass and on account of the need of
steel rails for war purposes, the rails were lifted from different
sections of each roadbed and the remaining sections connected, making a
single line of railway from Edmonton to the Rocky Mountains. Thus over
$8,000,000 of public money was wasted by the jealousy of railway
corporations and the misguided benevolence of the Canadian Parliament.
Telegraph service was established in
Western Canada in 1871, when extensions from the State of Minnesota
reached Fort Garry and communication of this form was opened with Ottawa
for the first time. In 1874 the contract for the construction of a
telegraph line was made for a line from Lake Superior to British
Columbia. The route chosen lay along the proposed survey of the Canadian
Pacific Railway. Construction was completed from Selkirk, Manitoba, to
Edmonton via Humboldt and Battleford in 1878, and operated as far as
Battleford. The line crossed the South Saskatchewan River at Clarke's
Crossing from which point an extension was built to Prince Albert in
1883. Upon the abandonment of the first C. P. R. survey to the southern
route across the prairies, the line to Edmonton branched off at Fort
Qu'Appelle. West of Battleford the line ran westward via Hay Lakes to
the trail between Calgary and Edmonton, thence to Edmonton. A new line
was completed to Edmonton via Fort Pitt and Victoria north of the
Saskatchewan River on August 14, 1887, and the old line via Strang and
Leduc was abandoned. During the perilous days of the Rebellion of 1885,
a line was built from Dunmore to Fort Macleod, and from Moose Jaw to
Short lines were built within the
Province as follows: (a) Edmonton to St. Albert, 9 miles, 1889; (b) C.
P. R. hotel, Banff, to N. W. M. P. Barracks, 41.. miles, 1889; (c)
Edmonton to Beaumont, 15 miles, 1889; (d) Lethbridge to Cardston, 57
miles, 1894; (e) Edmonton to River Qui Barre, 1903; (f) Lloydminster to
main line of Government telegraph line, 1904; (g) Edmonton to Spruce
Grove and Stony Plain, 1904.
The shorter lines were operated as
The line from Edmonton to Athabaska, 96
miles, was built and put in operation October 1, 1904. It was extended
to Peace River Crossing, October 6, 1910.
The first mail service to Alberta was
established between Winnipeg and Edmonton in 1876. James McKay, Lord
Southesks' famous guide, received the first contract, delivering the
mail once every three weeks over the cart trail via Carlton and Fort
Pitt. In October, 1880, this contract was taken over by J. W. McLean,
known by all old-timers in the 'West as "Flat Boat McLean." As the
Canadian Pacific Railway was extended westward the mail was carried by
the railway mail service to the end of the steel where the contractor
took it over for Alberta points. Today mail is carried to points in the
far North by the same means as it was carried over the plains in those
early days—dogs in winter, canoe or boat in summer.
Though the people of the Far North have
not yet been reached by railway, telephone or telegraph, they are "on
the air" and in touch with the outside world. Radio stations at Fort
McMurray, Wabascaw, Fort Smith and other points down the Mackenzie
Valley receive daily news broadcasted from C. J. C. A., the powerful
broadcasting station of the Edmonton Journal, at Edmonton. Government
surveyors, explorers, tourists, prospectors, Royal Canadian Mounted
Police now take with them small receiving sets on their travels "down
Soon there will be a string of radio
stations to the Arctic rim of the continent—to the mouth of the
Mackenzie River, to Herschel island and Coronation Gulf, and the
loneliness of the cabin and igloo of these remote regions will be a
thing of the past.
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