Trails and Trains
(revised and updated May 2022)
and credits at bottom of page.
The many rivers, tributaries and lakes of Central Alberta, as well as
natural land formations, were the first transportation corridors in Central
Alberta for the nomadic First Nations people and the first fur traders
and explorers. In fact, the corridor was likely used by the first human
inhabitants in North America in their migration from Asia near the
close of the last ice age.
The natural north-south corridor, several kilometres wide east of the
Rocky Mountains through what is now Alberta and approximately centred in
the Red Deer area, was used by different aboriginal tribes for
several centuries before European traders set foot in Western
Canada. Eventually a series of trails developed both east-west
and north-south to facilitate trade and settlement across the prairies.
Most of those 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, both of which built forts near Rocky Mountain House. The
earliest trails were really just paths guided by natural geological
Other trails facilitated the hunting of wildlife (particularly
the buffalo), the exploration and mapping of the area (including the
adventures of Anthony Henday and David Thompson), and the movement of the North West Mounted Police.
In 1873, a crude 450-km cart road, known as McDougall's trail, was built
south from Fort Edmonton to the Red Deer
River at a natural and relatively safe ford about six kilometres upstream from the current city of Red Deer,
continuing south to Lone Pine (near Bowden) and then southwest to a mission at Morley,
about 80 kilometres upstream on the Bow River west of present day
In 1875, the North West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary and they
carved out a wagon trail from there north to join up with McDougalls' trail
near Bowden. At that time there were no
recorded inhabitants other than aboriginals between Calgary and Edmonton
although hunter and trapper Addison McPherson had reportedly built a log
cabin at the Red Deer River Crossing in 1872.
When the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in
Calgary in 1883, the Calgary and Edmonton Trail gained major
significance in July of that year as the north-south stagecoach
route for regular mail and passenger service between the two forts
that were to become Alberta's two major cities. The fare each way
was 25 dollars, a considerable amount of money at the time but
a hundred pounds of luggage. It took four to five days each way. Freighter
wagons took almost two weeks.
were established at least every 20 miles between Edmonton and
Calgary, including Red Deer Crossing, Lone Pine (east of Bowden),
Poplar Grove (now Innisfail),
'The Spruces' north of Poplar Grove, Cache Camp (west of current day Penhold), Blindman Crossing (south of
current day Blackfalds), and Barnett's (now Lacombe), where travellers,
as well as freight and stagecoach crews, could receive food, overnight
accommodation and a place to rest their
horses. In some cases, small communities also sprung up, including those at Red Deer
Crossing and Poplar Grove.
It wasn't long before the value of a railway joining Alberta's two major
population centres (Calgary and Edmonton) became obvious.
From 1885 to 1890, a series of charters were granted to a number of
companies to construct a rail line from Calgary to Edmonton, each with
their own preferred route, but most
never succeeded in getting started as a result of lack of financing. The
destiny of many settlements were directly tied to where the railway
decided to go.
A new company, the Calgary
and Edmonton Railway Company, was chartered in early 1890 with the
provision that, once constructed, would be leased to the Canadian Pacific Railway for 6 years with
an option to renew the lease or buy out the line.
Construction started north of
Calgary in 1890 but a decision was yet to be made as to where it
would cross the Red Deer River. Three routes had been surveyed -- one near Innisfail, one at Red Deer Crossing and
one at the mouth
of the Blindman River (17 miles downstream from the Crossing). The
Blindman option was the
preferred route as it necessitated only one river bridge instead of two.
The route was to follow the general C & E Trail corridor but
was modified significantly to reduce the grade of the railway and
accommodate the best locations to bridge rivers, streams and
settlers at the Crossing, where the historic Fort Normandeau is
now located, generally expected that the railway would cross the river there. In fact, a townsite had been laid out in anticipation
of the arrival of the railway.
In July of 1890, James Ross, on behalf of the railway, met with
Leonard Gaetz who was one of the largest landowners near the river
downstream from the Crossing and was local agent for the Saskatchewan
Land and Homestead Company. He had
a great deal of political influence and was an ardent promoter of the
region in his travels to Calgary and eastern Canada. When Rev. Gaetz
offered to Mr. Ross on behalf of the railway an undivided half interest
in his 1200-acre farm if the railway built the river crossing and
new townsite on his property, Mr. Ross gladly accepted. Tracklaying reached the new Red Deer townsite
in November, only four months after construction started at Calgary.
During the winter of 1890-91, a wooden railway bridge was built
the Red Deer River near the Gaetz homestead and the line continued north
toward South Edmonton the following year.
The first railway station in Red
Deer was built in the spring of 1891 and regular passenger service to
Calgary and Edmonton was in place by that summer
reducing the travel time from 4 days by stagecoach to 12 hours by train.
Once the mail contract shifted to the railway, the stagecoach
service was doomed and ceased operation. As the new townsite was
established, the settlers at the Crossing started moving to the
new community of Red Deer.
Part 2 -
Trains and Transit
Photo descriptions and credits:
Header: Stagecoach along the Calgary and Edmonton Trail (Glenbow
Archives, date unknown);
Reconstructed fort at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site
(Parks Canada, date unknown);
Red Deer Crossing settlement west of current city ca 1887 (Red Deer
Illustration of Calgary Edmonton Trail stagecoach
(The Little Village That Grew: A History of North
Red Deer by Red Deer & District Museum Society 1987);
'The Spruces' stopping house between Innisfail and Penhold at
Innisfail Historical Village (Paul Pettypiece 2006);
Early train on the Calgary and Edmonton Railway near Red Deer ca
1901 (Red Deer Archives);
Reconstructed Fort Normandeau at Red Deer Crossing (Paul Pettypiece
Calgary & Edmonton Railway timber bridge over Red Deer River 1892
(Provincial Archives of Alberta B2852);
Ross Street and the Alberta Hotel get Red Deer community started ca
1893 (Red Deer Archives P234)