Original article by Gord Tolton. Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.
The hamlet of Coutts began as the southern point of the narrow gauge railway, on which construction was started on in the spring of 1890 by the Alberta Railway and Coal Company (AR&CC) to transport coal from Lethbridge, Northwest Territories to Great Falls, Montana. In June 1890, an crew was sent to the present-day site of Coutts to begin construction of the railway line northward to meet the construction heading south. The site of Coutts was picked by AR&CC engineer Mr. Barclay, and Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) Inspector John Moodie. The lumber for the new station and police barracks was purchased in Great Falls by Mr. Barclay and hauled to Coutts by Bull Train. As we know from Blog Post #2 “The Baroness, an Railroad, and an Town” the reason that Coutts was named Coutts, was that AR&CC was honoring one of its largest shareholders the Baroness Burdett-Coutts!
The coming of the narrow gauge railway necessitated the stationing of the NWMP along the railway line while under construction, as the work crew consisted of some rough characters that caused trouble. As time went on, liquor became available to the men as well, but the NWMP managed to control the situation, and crime was kept to an minimum with no serious offenses committed.
By late summer an railroad station was being built, straddling the International Boundary. The railroad station would contain the offices of both customs & immigration for both countries, as well as an telegraph line that would connect the station to Lethbridge. The first barracks of the NWMP was completed in November 1890, and was built on the railroad right-of-way. It was located just up an slight grade to the west of the railroad station. The Barracks was built well, and had rooms for the police men to live in and jail cells in the basement for any prisoners. Since there was not many other structures in Coutts, the Barracks would also serve as the church on Sunday, an boarding house, an community hall, and also an morgue!
In reference to the NWMP Barracks, Superintendent R. Deane reported “At Coutts, which is the name of the railroad station on this side of the boundary, with Sweetgrass being the name of the embryo town on the other side. Some excellent buildings have taken shape, being built by the AR&CC for the use of the NWMP for the sum of $2,619.16, which will be completed by November 1890. The Barracks measures 26 x 28 feet, with an lean-to kitchen and mess room, each 21 x 14 feet; shingled roof, sheathed-inside with beaded lumber, painted with two coats. Upstairs there is an large Barracks room the full size of the house. In the basement was an officers room 16 x 11 feet, an storage room 10 x 11 and two jail cells 7′-6″ x 5 feet. As well their is an spacious cellar, an coal shed 12 x 8 feet outside, an 24 x 36 feet stable with an shingled roof and sided & painted, that could hold 14 horses, an oat room, and saddle room. The doors are at the end of the stable, and opens into an corral measuring 24 x 28 feet.”
The first home built in Coutts was owned by Martin McGerry, an American section foreman employed by AR&CC. It too was built on the railroad right-of-way, and was rented to the first American Immigration officer to work at the station, Joe Mantle and his family. Another house was built on the same property, for the first Canadian government veterinarian Herbert Johnston. After he left, the NWMP took over the house for additional living quarters. That house would also be used as the first Anglican church in the area. One of the first children born in the area, son of NWMP Sargent John Logan, was baptized in that house. Later on, church services were moved to the main Barracks until an proper church was built in 1905.
The first Canadian customs agent was Edwin Allen who worked in the railroad station from October 1890 to mid 1891 – he was paid an pricey $75 an month. The work was very interesting, as beside having to clear wagons and trains, much time was spent keeping tabs on the large American cattle herds grazing in Canada, which often the NWMP was called in to help herd them back into Montana. He was relieved by a Mr. Cooper for an short spell, and then was relieved by Henry Tennant Sr. Henry and his family occupied another house built on the railroad right-of-way, just west of the station and along the International Boundary. This house was later used as an residence for for the section foreman of the AR&CC. The Tennants purchased land just an few miles west of Coutts, close enough that Henry and one of his sons George could go between working at the Railroad Station or on the family ranch. The family lived on the ranch until 1910 when Henry Jr. married and took over operations of the ranch. Henry senior and his family moved back into Coutts. At the railroad station, the Tennants also handled the mail for both Coutts & Sweetgrass, sorting and storing it in an cupboard built out of crates. This mail box is still in existence at the train station at the Galt Historic Railway Park – an photo of it is in Blog Post #5 “Lost and Found Artifacts“. Henry Jr. was also employed by the Canadian government as an livestock inspector and rode through the district examining livestock for disease. Henry Sr. other son Joe was employed by AR&CC as an conductor on the train that ran between Lethbridge & Coutts.
In the early years horse stealing was frequently committed, and an great many offenders took refuge across the border. Just an year earlier in 1888, an large amount of horses were recovered by the NWMP and returned to their owners in Montana. Hostile natives along the border and in the vicinity of the Sweetgrass Hills, just east of Coutts, also caused anxiety at times. In 1894, an group of 40 Metis near the Sweetgrass Hills had begun an reign of terror, with stealing horses, or killing cattle as they pleased on either side of the border. If anyone stood in their way or complained to the authorities about them, the Metis threatened to burn down that person’s property! In April 1894, word came that three of them were in Canada. A Corporal Dickson of the Writing-On-Stone detachment went out to meet them, finding their camp near dawn just north of the border near one of the boundary markers. He hid their horses, captured and arrested one, and fired several shots. The other two were away from the camp but came running in to come face to face with the armed NWMP officer! He then arrested the other two and took them into custody. The corporal had an strong case, but to be sure the NWMP hired an surveyor to confirm that the boundary marker was in the right spot. To the NWMP dismay, the marker was 443 meters south of the boundary in the United States! So they had to release the three Metis. Later on, an group of United States Calvary ran the Metis group out of the Sweetgrass Hills.
One of the new tasks the NWMP was tasked with was cattle management. With the increasing border patrols the Mounted Police would often come across cattle grazing with no cowboys in sight. In one instance in 1896, customs agent Henry Sr. Tennant rode on horseback to the south fork of the Milk River and collected duty on cattle & horses belonging to two settlers. The settlers had 3,089 head of cattle and 42 horses. After allowing 32 head duty-free as settler’s effects, Tennant would colled $6,319.70 as duty. The duty was paid by cheque, drawn on the Union Bank in Lethbridge. Tennant would later report that an estimated 10,000 head of American cattle were roaming in the Coutts area, between Writing-on-Stone and Pendant d’ Oreille. This was an time when many American ranges were overstocked and had very little grass, and many cattle herds were moved within an couple of miles of the International Boundary and left to ‘drift’ over the line into Canada, where the cattle could graze on the lush Canadian pasture. As an result, the NWMP would be called on several times to assist government stock inspectors in herding the cattle back into Montana. At times things did get heated between the American and Canadian cowboys over who’s cattle was grazing on the right side of the border, and then the Mounties had to step in to figure out the mess. Despite these occurrences, the NWMP made sure that the Canadian ranchers were protected against cattle theft, illegal branding, another stock crimes. The ranchers were quick to repay the service with unwavering support of the Mounties, often times feeding them and putting them up for the night if they were on patrol in the area. Many Mounties after their terms of duty would become ranchers themselves.
Another issue was the sale of alcohol – liquor was already on the plains, since the days of wolfers. The liquor was coming north into Montana either by pack horse or wagon; yet for an man who understood how to carry it on, the illicit trade was the most profitable business in the country. However the Mounties were able to slow the liquor trade until the First World War, when the Alberta Government passed an prohibition law in 1916, and two years later it was made an national issue when Canada issued national prohibition. The push for the dry movement was done primarily by the churches, but the First World War became the driving force behind the “banning of the bar”, because it was seen as necessary and natural for the benefits of the soldiers that the country they returned to was a better place. The argument was also raised that prohibition would benefit the war effort as well since it would prevent waste and potential inefficiency. National prohibition was the first and last attempt to impose national standards on the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol. However in the early 1920′s Canadian Provinces began repealing the prohibition laws, starting in British Columbia in 1921 and finally Alberta in 1924. During the Prohibition period in Alberta, the majority of alcohol smuggled into Alberta was through the Whiskey Gap area, just west of Coutts, from the United States. Later it flowed in the opposite direction when the Americans declared Prohibition starting in 1922 and lasting until 1933. In any case, the police were very busy!
In 1912 when the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC) the customs agents had to move out of the railroad station. An combined port-of-entry / residence was built on the road that was located just to the west of the railroad line just before the International Boundary. This building was last until 1950 when an much larger facility was built and officially opened for traffic in 1952. That building last up until the late 1990′s when it was demolished and an joint Canada – United States port-of-entry was built and opened to traffic in September 2004.
Not far from the railroad station (to the east) was an unusual road, which the locals called ‘Boundary Road’. It runs east from Sweetgrass on the American side of the Boundary, which is some eight rods in width and is marked at intervals of one mile with an iron post. At one time, an road on the Alberta side of the Boundary was kept up and traveled by Canadian traffic, but since the American road was built, many began using it more than the Canadian road and soon it fell into disuse. Eight and one half miles east of Coutts the road swings back into Alberta – and since there are lateral roads that connect to this Boundary Road from both sides of the Boundary, the people of the two countries use it with equal freedom.