John Baldwin

Original article by Warner and District Historical Society (1985).  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


When the Galt family received their land subsidy to build the Great Falls & Canada and St. Mary’s River Railway lines, they sought independent companies to sell this land. One was the O.W. Kerr Land Company of Minneapolis, who purchased three townships, mostly in the present day Warner area.  O.W. Kerr appointed two industrious farmers Frank Leffingwell and Charles Egan, to act as their agents to sell the land to prospective American farmers from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.  Special trains were commissioned to bring the colonists west on the Great Northern and into country on the Galt-owned lines.


Among those who assisted Kerr’s colonists was a porter named John Baldwin.  It’s not known if he worked for Kerr directly, or for the Great Northern, or even the Great Falls & Canada Railway.  Baldwin was born in Georgia and was among the many hundreds of black Americans who created a proud tradition as Pullman porters on trains in Canada and the US in the golden age of rail travel.  Baldwin himself was bit by the land boom bug, and purchased a 1/4 section, NE 2-5-16-W4, near Warner.  Baldwin never physically developed this land and rented it out to local farmers, but he always liked to tell the passengers he served about “his ranch in Alberta”, as a promotion for his employers.


Baldwin visited his property often and made many friends in the area.  He died in 1957 and the quarter was sold to the Graham family.  The Warner and district history book “Wagons to Wings” remembered him for “his cheery disposition and he loved to tell stories of his young life in Georgia and of the people and experiences he had while he was a porter on the train.”



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The only known photo of John Baldwin – scanned from the Warner & District History Book (1985) – page 247
















New pioneers at the Lethbridge Train Station from Dayton, Ohio – March 1914 – Galt Museum & Archives Photo 19821029000

Posted in Galt Blog

The Great Falls & Canada Railway

Article by Jason Paul Sailer.  Re-edited by Chris Doering.

The worldwide 1887 – 1888 recession struck the Galt family’s Lethbridge based coal company almost as soon as it went into production necessitating new markets immediately if it were to survive. The major customer for the Galt coal was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but having only one major customer meant that colliery was subject to the whims of the CPR in the orders – sometimes lots of coal was ordered, and the next time hardly any. To remain profitable the Galt’s installed modern machinery and expanded mine operations, and the search was on to find some additional major customers. With the recent boom of mining in Montana (copper, silver, gold, etc) Sir Alexander Galt began the planning on building a railway south to Helena, Montana to new markets. However, the economic downturn in the United Kingdom shattered investor confidence forcing Sir Alexander Galt through two years of tenacious negotiations (and the reduction of the railway line to Great Falls) in order to underwrite the new railway. However, it was not until October 2nd, 1889 that the newest of Sir Alexander’s charters was approved by the United States government: that for the Great Falls and Canada Railroad (GF&CR). Capitalized at $2 million, with equipment costs estimated at $4 million, the original Board of Directors was interlocked with that of the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC), through the presence of Sir Alexander Galt, Donald Grant, Alexander Kinsman, Samuel Grant, and William Barr.

Five months later, while equipment was being assembled in Lethbridge to extend the railway 65 miles to the International Boundary, a very similar construction camp was organized at Willard, Montana, two miles west of Great Falls. In March 1890, a plow, a pair of engines and thirty cars, accompanied by 500 men, began construction of the railroad. It progressed at the rate of three to four miles a day, following the water-courses which led generally northwestward, paralleling the deep-rutted “Whoop-Up Trail” most of the way.  Laborers were paid $1.50 per 10 hour work day! The actual distance was 134.37 miles to the border and this required the construction of many timber bridges, as well as two Howe-truss spans across the Teton and Marias Rivers. Construction progress was steady, so that by midsummer 1890, the railroad had reached Conrad and was heading for the Marias River. An railway yards and roundhouse facility would be built in Great Falls, located on the west bank of the Missouri River.

A port of entry was required for crossing the International Boundary so AR&RC engineer Mr. Barclay and NWMP Inspector Moodie chose the site for the location of the train station in June 1890. A 3,800sf International train station would be built over the summer months, and would be situated half in Canada and half in the United States. The construction company that built the station was run by a man by the name of Donald Grant. He brought the building materials up from Fort Benton on bull trains. The station was designed to include U.S. & Canadian customs areas, freight areas, and a dining room – the only evidence of the boundary marked by a painted line on the platform! Exactly 108 days after construction began; the AR&CC and the GF&CR met at the International Boundary and regular traffic began to roll over the 35-pound rail immediately, the first coal train leaving Lethbridge, Northwest Territories the day following, October 2nd 1890. The city of Great Falls reacted in much the same way as the city of Lethbridge had. The newspapers heralded the event and a magnificent dinner was given by Mr. Phillip Gibson at the Hotel Bristol in honour of the GF&CR officials. On October 20th, a special one-week excursion fore was announced, to augment the passenger traffic.For a $10 fare, a passenger could leave Great Falls for Banff; via Lethbridge and Dunmore, a round trip of some 900 miles. Leaving Great Falls in mid-evening, the mixed train arrived at Lethbridge after lunch on the following day. Today, the same distance is covered – albeit by automobile – easily in less than four hours! Almost from its inception excursions were popular on the narrow gauge line. The first was to run almost before the new roadbed had settled on May 25th, 1891, carrying Colonel Searles, editor of the Great Falls Tribune and 59 others northward to Lethbridge. His account of the journey was written from the ample comforts of Roadmaster H. L. Laughlin’s private car suggesting that the official served something stronger than Missouri River water. “The train was under the immediate supervision of that prince of conductors, Harry O’Brien, while cool-headed watchful Joe Carroll occupied the seat of honor and responsibility at the lever and throttle valve. It is not claimed that the Great Falls and Canada narrow gauge is the great “scenic route” to British Columbia. The road does not run through deep cavernous canyons, where the possibility of a land or snow slide under which a train might be crushed to pieces, adds just enough of the spice of danger to the tourist to make the passage through it intensely interesting, nor does it run over the brow of precipices from whose dizzy heights the trembling passenger may be dashed to eternity. Upon every hand broad plains extend as far as the eye can reach, broken only here and there by streams of pure mountain water, or on clear days by the grand old Rockies in the far distance and the Sweet Grass Hills in the near. Not a tree is to be seen between Great Falls and Lethbridge, and indeed, as far as the question of fuel is concerned, none are needed.”

Sitting Bull was not the only fugitive to seek the northward sanctity of that mythical line as the whiskey traders had often fled for safety south across it. That white line beside the track was to provide still another sanctuary. Apparently US law officers chased a fugitive northward who beat them across the line at the depot. Since there was nowhere else to go, the officials decided to hang around and starve him out.  Taunting the lawmen, he had food carried to him over from the US side and ate it sitting on the depot bench on the Canadian side with the lawmen a few feet away, fuming! When a correspondent of the Winnipeg Free Press ate lunch at Coutts in March, 1891, his impressions described anything but the Harvey Girls, as a not nearly occurred. “The table (in the restaurant) bore a strong resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s cupboard and the waiter did not appear to be in any great hurry. The bill of fare consisted of ham and eggs, and when the waiter made his appearance with the first consignment it was plain to be seen that he was sad and lonesome there by himself and had been drowning his grief in Montana Forty-Rod. He brought in one piece of ham and two eggs to satisfy twenty hungry individuals.” Apparently the passengers devoured the only nourishment available, a portion of a barrel of pickles and its brine, since the only other food available in the kitchen was a small blackened piece of ham presided over by a brooding cook and “a boy whose shirt had been used to supply dish cloths when its owner was short taken.” The cook let the ‘howling mob’ board the train without paying but insisted the correspondent pay four bits since he was the only one to dine. Four months later following a change of management, a Great Falls bound excursion train was treated to as royal a repast as the writer’s meal had been frugal.

Prior to 1896, as many as four freight trains a day were working 200 to 300 tons per train southward. At Great Falls, parallel to the standard-gauge tracks of the Great Northern Railway (GN), a massive thousand-foot-long, 26-foot high interchange coal dock had been constructed, so that the self-dumping narrow-gauge cars of the GF&CR could dump their contents into the hoppers of the GN. Lethbridge coal was almost the only source of revenue for the road and little effort was made to attract other commodities.  It is likely that Canadian crews and motive power worked the AR&CC / GF&CR line from Lethbridge to a point about 94 miles south eastward, where United States engines and crews took over, although engines were frequently used interchangeably. This changeover point was Shelby Junction – actually Virden – three miles west of Shelby, Montana, the crossing point where the narrow gauge intersected the newly constructed mainline of the Great Northern Railway. A disused boxcar did duty as a station. The road’s roster of that time shows eight engines lettered GF&CR, six of which were new Baldwin moguls, with two consolidations of unknown ancestry. Probably because of their brand-new condition, the moguls were good steamers, but bailing Lethbridge black diamonds was no easy job on the twisting, uneven road bed and at least one fireman sheepishly admitted that his broken ankle was the result of an unexpected exit from the diminutive cab.

The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression in the United States that began in 1893 – it was marked by the overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads, resulting in a series of bank failures. Compounding market overbuilding and the railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply. The Panic of 1893 was the worst economic depression the United States had ever experienced at the time. This Panic would affect most of the railroads, including the GF&CR to a lesser-extent. The famed American railroad, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad would declare bankruptcy, followed by the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The prolonged effects of the Panic would also cause banks to close, businesses to fail, and numerous farms to shut down. A wave of strikes took place across the United States, most notably coal miner’s strikes that lead to violence in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. The more serious Pullman Strike would virtually shut down all the railroads in the United States west of Detroit, Michigan from the spring to the fall of 1894. The American Railway Union pitted the Pullman Company, several railroads (including Great Northern), and the federal government over massive layoffs at the Pullman company, and the general reduction of wages throughout the railroad system. At its peak 250,000 in 27 states were on strike – and 30 strikers were killed in response to the riots and sabotage that caused up to $80 million in damages. The violence occurred when the federal government sent in the Army to stop strikers from interfering with trains that carried mail. However, as this was occurring the GF&CR was unaffected by the strikes and was for the summer of 1894 the only source of railroad communication open to Great Falls. As a result, the GF&CR put in special freight rates from St. Paul, Minnesota over the lines of SOO, Canadian Pacific, and their own AR&CC to move items to/from Great Falls. Ironically, some of these freight rates were lower than what Great Northern was charging previously to the strike!

In July 1894, surveyors were busy locating a grade for a new branch to the Boston & Montana Smelter and the citizens of Bynum, Montana were clamoring for a 16-mile branch to their town. Plans were being prepared for a new $5,000 station at Great Falls, to be built just west of the Montana Brewing Company’s plant. The tract of land was to have been about nine acres in area, accommodating a yard 2,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. The right-of-way, coming in from Willard, was to have been 50 feet wide by two miles long. All this enthusiasm had been generated by the discovery of anthracite coal in the Crowsnest Pass and vastly increased tonnage on the GF&CR was anticipated. And with good reason: Pennsylvania anthracite was $18.00 per ton in Great Falls, while the Alberta fuel was expected to sell for $10.00. Alas the best planning did not achieve the anticipated result.

On the ” ‘lone prairie”, the wind normally howls at better than 60 miles per hour and under such conditions, the narrow-gauge empties being returned from the south ran the continual risk of being derailed. When the wind blew this hard, train schedules went by the board, as train speeds were reduced from a brisk walk to a careful crawl. As more land went under the plow of the homesteader, top-soil, driven by the raging wind, made operation of the railway a nightmare, with visibility dwindling to a few feet ahead along the winding track. Fires were a constant danger during the dry summers and the laboring locomotives frequently were the cause of large blackened patches along the right-of-way. The Canadian Pacific Railway, further to the north, had adopted the expedient of plowing strips on either side of the track, to “trap” the red-hot cinders.  The GF&CR, being subjected to high winds in all seasons of the year, found it impossible to prevent sparks from igniting the tinder-dry grass, sagebrush and tumbleweeds.  When one vast area of prairie, almost 600 square miles, burned over in 1894, the GF&CR was the target of ill-will and ugly rumors, which it needed not at all, considering the woes that the company already had.  The Sand Coulee, Montana coal mines went into full production in May 1896, their product being offered in Great Falls, delivered to the households, at $2.50 per ton, while the cost of Galt coal was twice as much. The market for the Canadian product evaporated rapidly. The railway’s future was so gloomy that it was not surprising that other alternative forms of traffic began to be sought.

But a bright line was on the horizon – the federal government granted AR&CC (and its predecessor NWC&NC) large tracts of land (in excess of one million acres) in return for building the rail lines (from Dunmore to Lethbridge and Lethbridge to Great Falls). Land sales would offer profit back to the AR&CC, but the AR&CC needed people to buy the land and farm. But on the semi-arid prairie, irrigation would be the key to keep people on the land. Irrigation was proposed back in 1881 by William C. Pearce, a senior federal civil servant in Calgary, after a study of systems in Colorado and Utah. The only people with the extensive knowledge of irrigation at that time were the Mormons, based out of Utah, USA. In negotiations between the company and the Mormons, it was decided that the AR&CC would sell the land to the Mormons for $1 per acre, on the basis that the Mormons would dig an irrigation canal. However two obstacles came up; the first was the church did not want to assume the whole burden of the project, and that custom of granting alternate sections of land prevented efficient irrigation, because they would have to dig the canal through the government, school, and private lands as well as their own. The deal was put on the back burner for a few years, while talks continued. It was then after the federal election of 1896 that Clifford Sifton, the new Liberal minister of the interior, became involved with the negotiations and offered any assistance to speed up the processes. The minister worked with the Galt’s land commissioner, Charles Magrath, and the lobbying efforts of the Lethbridge News, to allow the AR&CC to consolidate its land holdings into large blocks, and assisted with the necessary survey & research work into where the proposed irrigation canals were to be built. Again, the AR&CC re-approached the Mormons and this time was able to work out a suitable agreement. The Mormons would supply all the labor to build 100 kilometers of irrigation canals from the St. Mary’s River, in return for a payment of one-half in cash and one-half in land with the water rights included. As well, the Mormons were to establish two settlements with 250 inhabitants in each (future Stirling & Magrath).  With the deal signed on November 3rd, 1897, the Mormon leader, Charles Orca Card, plowed the first furrow for the irrigation canal ten months later. The GF&CR gained its new form of railway traffic – transporting Mormon settlers north from Great Falls into southern Alberta. The railway would lessen the new settler’s feelings of isolation from Utah, and sped up the colonization of the AR&CC owned land.

In 1897 and ’98, the GF&CR filed applications to become a bonded carrier and there was speculation that the line would be standard gauged. More rumors followed in 1901, probably generated by Elliot Galt’s application to Ottawa, in February, to lease the remaining Canadian and United States holdings to the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was followed by a trip to England, where Galt attempted to convince the shareholders to standard gauge the line. There was the additional possibility, so it was said; that the line might be sold to the Great Northern Railway and James Jerome Hill. The AR&CC / GF&CR threat to sell to Great Northern’s main competition was recognized by J.J. Hill, who was not about to allow the GF&CR to slip through his fingers, as the SOO Line had recently done. Hill therefore quickly moved to incorporate the Montana and Great Northern Railway (M&GN), which would purchase the Great Falls and Canada. On August 1st, 1901, this strategy was successfully accomplished. What may have surprised the officials of the Great Falls and Canada was the purchase price – apparently, Hill paid only $750,000 for his new property, but simultaneously assumed indebtedness of $2 million, most of which was held by a New York City bank. While the Montana and Great Northern was not to assume control of the property until October 30th, 1902, thus giving the GF&CR time to standard gauge its line, it was the natural elements which were to deal the final hand to the narrow gauge. Almost as soon as the agreement of sale was signed, a third rail was laid and business went on as usual until May 1902. After that, the line was closed when heavy rains caused severe flooding and innumerable washouts, several major bridges being swept away by roaring streams. The M&GN rapidly under took the replacement of bridges and culverts, relocating portions of the line to reduce curvature and lower grades, and replaced light iron with heavier rails. On January 1st, 1903 standard gauge service commenced between Lethbridge and Great Falls, Montana. In 1907, the GN officially assumed operation of the rebuilt railroad to Sweetgrass, Montana, just south of the International Boundary from Coutts, Alberta.

While a narrow-gauge railway had at first appeared to be a viable enterprise to the Directors of the AR&CC, it had some negative aspects. At a time when most railways in North America were building to a 4-foot-8 1/2-in standard gauge, Galt and his associates chose to build to the less expensive 3-foot narrow gauge. They saved on the main line costs, but spent much more on expensive freight transfer facilities, necessary wherever the narrow gauge touched the standard gauge. Moreover, the AR&CC/GF&CR had been built primarily for the purpose of hauling coal and little effort had been made to diversify its traffic into general merchandise until it was too late. The final blow was dealt when the Sand Coulee coal mines began to produce. This destroyed the GF&CR’s main source of revenue and, to economize, the railway deferred equipment and right-of-way maintenance, a decision that resulted in rapid deterioration of the plant that rising profits could not forestall. As such, some of the equipment was sold off to raise funds – a good portion of the equipment went to the Kaslo and Slocan Railway on the west side of Kootenay Lake in central British Columbia, while other engines and cars went to various narrow gauge railways in the Pacific Northwest, and to Alaska.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission



“Great Northern Railway Mileposts” – April 2011 – James C. Mattson, Seattle, Washington USA
Atlas of Alberta Railways – University of Alberta –
Dictionary of Canadian Biography “Elliot T. Galt” –
Great Falls Tribune – May 26, 1963
Canadian Rail Magazine – #273 – October 1974
Canadian Rail Magazine – #376 – September 1983
Irrigation in Southern Alberta: 1882 – 1901 – A.A. Den Otter (1975)

View of an wreck of the GF&CR steam locomotive #12 on the Sun River curve, 7 miles north of Great Falls, Montana – June 1891 – Galt Museum & Archives P19760234080

GF&CR steam locomotive #13 (former Alberta Railway & Coal) at Shelby Junction, Montana. From left to right; Andy Niven (fireman) & Tom Nolan (engineer) – 1897. Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1167-11

Alberta Railway & Coal Company steam locomotive #17 in Great Falls, Montana in 1894. From left to right; W. Niven, T, Nolan, R. Gikey, W, McDonald, and R. Hardy – Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1245-1

View of one of the GF&CR sleeper cars – 1890 – Galt Museum & Archives P19891046021-066

Irrigation flume near Stirling, NWT – 1900 – Galt Museum & Archives 19731721000-016

Irrigation canal of the St, Mary’s project – southwest of Lethbridge – 1911. Galt Museum & Archives 19740030053


Posted in Galt Blog

Victorian Prairie Christmas Event ~ 2014

All performances this week Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the Station – 1:00 pm

Cowboy Poetry, Christmas Carols, Storytelling, tours of the station…Light refreshments served

Tickets at the door – $20 per person; cash or cheques made out to Great Canadian Plains Railway Society

Any questions please email us at or phone Ray Oldenburger at 403-756-3313

Posted in Galt Blog

Coutts’ Saskatchewan Twin – Customs & Immigration Facilities at North Portal

Original article by A.R. Lyall & the Estevan Community Access Project Customs.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


The North Portal Customs, designated at that time as a Preventative Station, opened in June 1893, possibly at the time the Canadian Pacific and Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railways connected across the International Boundary (while the railway was not officially opened until September 24th, 1893).  A.C. Paterson was the first Sub-Collector and the port was raised to the status of an Outport of Customs and Warehousing Port on July 1st, 1895, under the survey of the Port of Winnipeg, with Paterson receiving his permanent appointment as Sub-Collector at an annual salary of $800.  For some unknown reason the Outport of North Portal was detached from the Port of Winnipeg, and placed under the Port of Calgary on January 1st, 1896.  One possible reason being that the Province of Manitoba had been formed and the North Portal office was to remain within the North West Territories.  At this time Regina was also an Outport under the jurisdiction of the Port of Calgary but was raised to Port status on July 1st, 1902, taking over the jurisdiction the Outport of North Portal until July 1st, 1904, when North Portal was erected into a Customs Port of Entry and Warehousing Port.  It is interesting to note that the first year’s collections was $58,328, while today it runs in excess of nine million dollars.


The first Customs Office was located in the CPR Depot, but this space was apparently required for other purposes such as a church, dance hall, concert hall and for meetings of all kinds, with the result the CPR provided a separate building on their right-of-way.  This was fortunate for in 1908 the depot was destroyed by fire. Paterson while Collector also acted in the capacity of the first Immigration Officer.  However, he was promoted to District Inspector and transferred to the Port of Calgary in 1912 and a few years later transferred to the same position at the Port of Regina where he remained until his retirement in 1926.  Two other Collectors, J.S. Hornibrook and W.R. Davis remained at the Port for a couple of years with C.P. Wright in that position until retirement in 1946.  A.R. Lyall then assumed the Collectorship until retirement in 1971, followed by H.A. Gardiner, 1971-74, Earl Clarkson, 1974- 76 and the position now known as Area Manager taken over by D.W. Marshall.


During the early years, for people to have to report to Customs was considered an infringement upon their rights.  Many were reluctant to do so, and in some respects, owing to the location of the office, they cannot be blamed.  However, this was made easier with the construction of Highways 52 and 39 joining in the same manner as the railways, with facilities being provided on both sides of the junction.  The first Canadian office, intended for handling highway traffic only, consisted of one room for office space, a coal bin and very primitive facilities.  To heat this building it required two space heaters during the severe winter weather.  A few years later, improvements being made to Highway 39 resulted in the road surface being higher than the office with the result it was difficult to keep rain and melting snow from entering the building.  This was overcome by raising the office and provided a full-sized basement with a pipeless furnace installed.  The primitive facilities were then moved to the basement, which had to be enlarged upon, with the appointment of female officers to the staff.  The small coal bin was then remade and converted into office space for the Collector and all other duties formerly performed in the railway office being done in the highway office.  This proved too congested and with the increase in truck traffic a separate warehouse was constructed providing additional office space as well as two bays for the checking of freight.  Later this building, being cold and inadequate, was replaced by the present warehouse.  However, with the construction of the present quarters in 1954 working conditions were very much improved.


Undoubtedly with the connecting of the railways the main traffic would be trainloads of settlers and their effects destined to many points in Western Canada.  However, it later developed into a main freight and passenger train point.  In the earlier years all less carloads of freight was checked and transferred to cars for various destinations in bond for Customs clearance.  Over the weekend this could entail, at times, fifteen carloads – not a very pleasant job working inside a steel box car during the winter months, then returning to the office with nearly frozen fingers to do all the paper work in connection with the freight!  Passenger traffic also developed very rapidly, and at one time a train known as the Spokane Flyer entered daily en-route to Spokane.  How long this operated in not known but was replaced by a train known as the Mountaineer which operated between Chicago and Vancouver.  As well, numerous special trains would enter or depart from Canada at this port, travelling on a 20 minute block, which didn’t allow much time for Customs and Immigration examination.  Each train would carry approximately 200 passengers, about half of what can be put aboard a jumbo jet at the present time.  The CPR also operated a local passenger train making a return trip between Moose Jaw and North Portal 6 days a week.  The Mountaineer arrived at 5:20 a.m. and all work in connection with checking express and passengers baggage was done en route to Weyburn with the officers returning on the local in the afternoon.  Sometimes this could not be accomplished and it was necessary to travel to Moose Jaw to complete the examination.  Due to the early arrival of the train it was often necessary to awaken the passengers to examine their baggage.  At that hour of the morning some of the passengers were very scantily dressed.  I recall of one occasion of an officer going to examine the baggage of a passenger in an upper berth who turned out to be a beautiful girl dressed in her birthday suit. This caused the officer to stare for a few moments, to which she asked if he wanted to examine her or her baggage!


No mention has been made as to seizures but from an old register the first recorded seizure was made on July 13th, 1904, by A.C. Paterson and consisted of horses, wagon, harness, saddles and trunks at an estimated value of $550 which was released by payment of double duty on one horse in the amount of $46.  While all types of goods and materials are mentioned in the register, the most interesting are the seizures made during the rum running days, covering automobiles of types no longer made, from all over the Northern States.  So far no mention has been made as to how and when the service became known as Customs and Excise.  This was during the First World War, when the Special War Revenue Act was passed.  Under this act, Excise Tax was collected on certain imported goods and like goods made in Canada, as well as the Income Tax.  I understand this was to be a temporary measure but instead became two acts now known as the Excise Tax Act and the Income Tax Act.




Full time Immigration Officers were not stationed at North Portal until 1908.  Up until that time the Customs Inspectors were handling the Immigration examination.  In 1908 the Immigration operated under the Department of Interior and was administered by 3 customs officers, Patterson, Potvin and McIntyre.  Later with the port being serviced by the Soo Line and CPR having 3 trains a day, it was handled by 2 Immigration officers.


The work was arduous and the hours long.  The officers met the trains at the boundary line and in order not to detain them the officers accompanied the trains to Moose Jaw conducting the examination on the way.  Should an undesirable person be encountered it was necessary to accompany them to the inland point and then return them by the first available train.  It was decided some other alternatives would have to be found and it was decided to send the Immigration officers down into the USA some 50 miles or so and board the train conducting the inspection on the way to the border.  Undesirables would be taken from the train at Portal, North Dakota and return to their homes in the USA.  The train from St. Paul arrived at Portal at 3:30 a.m.  In the fall of 1908 the traffic over the Soo Line to Canada was very heavy and the CPR was requested to provide adequate accommodation for examining passengers in their new station.


The influx of settlers continued through-out 1909 and 1910.  A normal day in March 1910 revealed 288 settlers for the Canadian West.  At 3 regular passenger trains a day it is obvious that western Canada was acquiring immigrants at a tremendous rate.  Between 1908 and 1919, the administration of Immigration was handled by a commissioner in Ottawa.  It then came under the Department of Immigration and Colonization, and the Port of North Portal was administered through a Commissioner of Immigration, Western Division, Winnipeg, Manitoba.  In August of 1917 it was noted in the records that North Portal was the most important Port in Saskatchewan and in so far as bringing in of stock and effects is concerned, the most important point in the west.  Inspector in Charge at that time was W.H. Dorsey with Inspectors M.A. Kemp and H. Watson.


In 1910 a new Immigration building was completed in North Portal for the Immigration officers and detention quarters for undesirables.  This building was rented from the CPR at $1 per year.  This building was the “Immigration Hall”.  The staff of the Immigration department in February of 1928 was comprised of W.H. Dorsey, Inspector in charge, Aylward, and Davis.  Mr. Dorsey was succeeded by Stan Gunn as Inspector in Charge and Gunn, by W.I. Dorsey.  It is interesting to note that March 31st, 1925 the furniture of Immigration Hall sold for the following prices: 2 cots – $1.00, 4 single blankets – $5.00, 1 kitchen range – $12.00, 3 beds with springs – $2.00, 3 lamps – $0.25, 1 table – $0.80


Present Day


North Portal is still used as an port of entry – it is the second largest port of entry between Canada & the United States in the geographical center of North America!  It is open 24 hours an day and has an major inspection center for commercial truck and rail traffic.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Customs staff at North Portal, Saskatchewan, 1912, Photo courtesy of











Photograph of a crowd gathered in a baseball field to watch baseball game at North Portal, Saskatchewan on June 6th, 1914 . Photo courtesy of Peels Prairie Provinces – University of Alberta Libraries











North Portal Railway Station – No Date – Courtesy of the RM of Coalfields #4.











Canadian Customs and Immigration Office – 1950 – Photo courtesy of the RM of Coalfields #4.











Posted in Galt Blog

Early Operation of the Customs office in the Coutts Railway Station

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


David Mittelstadt, our archival researcher has found a book entitled “The Collectors: A History of Canadian Customs and Excise” (Dave McIntosh, pub: NC Press/Revenue Canada, Customs & Excise, Toronto, 1984) which includes some timely passages about how the Customs & Immigration office worked in the 1890 International Train Station. The following is from that book, and nicely amends the information on Coutts history from a previous web blog post on the Coutts / Sweetgrass station.


In 1890, when the railway arrived at Coutts, on the border 60 miles south of Lethbridge, Fort MacLeod was still the only major customs port on the western prairies.  Seven miles east of the old Whoop-Up Trail, Coutts was made an out-port that year.  The town is named after Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, philanthropist, friend of Charles Dickens and substantial stockholder in the Alberta Railway and Coal Company which laid the rail to carry coal from the Galt Mines at Lethbridge to Great Falls, Montana.  The railway station at Coutts straddled the boundary and housed both Canada and US Customs and Immigration.


The station itself caused one of the first customs problems at Coutts.  The customs officer in charge, Edwin Allen, reported in October 1890 that ninety-six feet of the station was on the Canadian side and twenty-five feet on the American, and that the builder was seeking a refund of $62.93 duty paid to Canada on $478.90 worth of American materials used for construction on the American side.  Canada kept the duty and the railway reimbursed the builder.


The next month, Allen was writing ET. Galt, manager of the company, to complain that railway employees were smuggling liquor into Canada and selling it in Lethbridge.  He had found ten gallons of whisky in the tool box of engine No.17 (engineer, William O’Neil) and was compelled to recommend a $400 fine against the company.  However he would reduce the fine to $100 if Galt would agree to crack down on smuggling by his employees.  The company accepted and the fine came out of O’Neil ‘s pay.


Much of Allen’s work, and that of his successors, was taken up trying to keep track of enormous American cattle herds grazing in Canada.  Allen reported January 2nd 1891, that he had ridden 25 miles west on a Sunday to visit a “camp of cowboys” attending a US herd on what he believed was the Canadian side of the border.  He judged the camp itself to be one mile south of the boundary, though he couldn’t say for certain because he couldn’t locate any mounds, a reference to the earthen mounds which were supposed to mark the frontier.  Another camp 65 miles farther west was rounding up 20,000 cattle, at least half of which were in Canada.  And east of Coutts, the St Louis Cattle Company had 10,000 head, all in Canada north of the Sweetgrass Hills.


On February 24, 1891, Allen seized 30 gallons of liquor on car No. 288 of the Alberta Railway and Coal Company.  On April 18 he found 4 bottles of liquor in the water tank in the caboose of Train No. 6.  In August, he exchanged posts with WJ Cooper of Killarney,Manitoba, because there was no school for his children in Coutts.


Henry Tennant took over as customs collector in 1893.  He was former Conservative MP for West Lynne, Manitoba, and was also the postmaster, keeping the mail in an apple box beside his customs desk.  The Americans in adjoining Sweetgrass, Montana, Coutts’ U.S. counterpart, also picked up their mail from Tennant.  Tennant had even more trouble than Allen with living conditions.  In December, 1895, he reported that the wind blew through and under his rented house.  He blamed the draughty house for his wife’s illness and sent her to Winnipeg for treatment.  He sent the rest of his family to Lethbridge to live.


On April 28, 1896, Tennant reported to George H. Young inspector of ports at Winnipeg that he had ridden to the south fork of the Milk River to collect duty and on cattle and horses belonging to the Mormons James Cunningham and William McIntyre, who had bought one and a third townships on the north side of the Milk for ranching.  The 2 Americans had 3,809 head of cattle and 42 horses.  He had allowed them 32 head duty-free as settlers and collected $6,319.70, accepting a Cheque drawn on the Union Bank, Lethbridge, which he had immediately sent to the collector at Calgary.


On August 6, Tennant reported the arrival of another party of “refugee Canadian Indians” under an escort of one troop of the 10th U.S. Cavalry.  There were several cases of measles among the Indians and he had telegraphed for a doctor.  “This makes the fifth party of Indian refugees, 526 all told, brought home by U.S. Troops”, Tennant wrote.


Later that month Tennant said 100,000 head of US. cattle were roaming in Canada: “The whole country seemed to be alive with cattle.”  The NWMP were driving them back across the border but they had difficulty getting enough horses, and Canadian settlers’ cattle had to be cut out of the herd.  The police were taking a man from each detachment along the border as range riders.   On April 27 1897, Tennant said a line rider named Thompson stationed at Writing-On-Stone had just resigned: “He got the winter through very easy and now the actual work begins as he leaves.”


An appointment to Coutts could present its incumbent with the drawbacks of the frontier well into this century: On November 4, 1921, WB. Rose, inspector-in-charge at Coutts wrote to his superior in Winnipeg: “I presume nothing has been done yet in the way of having a lavatory installed. I built a temporary one myself, which blows over every time we have a windstorm, which is often in this part of the country.  There was no lavatory of any kind on the premises when I came here.  Will you please give me authority to purchase a Sanitary Chemical Closet, at a cost of about $12, which may be connected to the chimney flue leading from the furnace.”  The request was granted.


Coutts and Sweetgrass, like so many other border communities, have been close to each other by inclination as well as geography.  The first private dwelling in Coutts was occupied by a US customs officer.  The water tank for both communities was in Sweetgrass.  The first school in Sweetgrass had Alberta pupils, and the hospital, Alberta patients.  Once when a US president died, the Stars and Stripes was flown at half-mast at Canadian Customs because the US. Customs house had no flag pole.  There have been or still are an international service club, international oilfield male chorus, international study club, international Campfire Girls, and international drum and bugle corps.  Oil refineries were built in Coutts in the early 1920s but vanished in the depression of the 1930s.  Families moved – and their houses moved with them.  But Coutts became an important port of entry when the Alaska Highway was built in 1942 and the modern highway is part of the Alaska system.  A new Canadian customs house was opened in 1952, and remained in operation until being replaced by a $40 million dollar combined American / Canadian border crossing in 2004.  This border crossing is the third largest border crossings in North America (with 1.3 million travelers and 413,000 shipments passing through each year).  The border crossing facility includes a three-story main building and six ancillary buildings that are designed to the highest environmental standards.



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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission



Warning Sign at the International Border – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1915. Glenbow Museum & Archives photo NA-1293-2












Customs officers examining American luggage on the Train Station platform – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1918. Glenbow Museum & Archives photo NA-4611-61












Train Station & Customs staff – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1890s to 1900s. Galt Historic Railway Park photo












View of International Train Station from Canadian side – 1912 – Galt Historic Railway Park photo










Posted in Galt Blog

Victorian Prairie Christmas 2014



Posted in Galt Blog

The UFA vs. The Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


In 1909, the United Farmer’s of Alberta or the UFA, came to a civil disagreement with the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company over the issue of rail car demurrage.


The typical practice was for the railroad company to set grain cars on a siding for the farmer to load, but the company charged extra if this was not accomplished in under 24 hours.  This overly challenging time constraint made it difficult for the farmers, who hauled grain by horse and wagon, often from long distances, and then hand loaded the boxcar by shovel.


The Cardston Farmer’s Association and various boards of trade took legal action, but had to withdraw for lack of funding.  With no love for railroads, LH Jelliff, UFA director for the Lethbridge district, pluckily took on the whole work himself.  Backed by a resolution from the UFA board, Jelliff pleaded the case all the way to the federal Railway Commission in Ottawa.


“Late in July a decision was rendered by the Commission and a splendid victory has been gained, a victory which is further emphasized by a later decision rendered in the latter part of the year, and your directors feel that this victory is mainly responsible to Mr Jelliff, who sacrificed a large amount of time and money to carry on the fight, and who then steeped aside in order that the association may get credit for the victory.”


United Farmers of Alberta, Official Reports for the Year, 1909.



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Tregillus family photo – the man on the left is William John Tregillus who was one of the key people within the United Farmers of Alberta party – photo taken in 1908












Caricature of William John from the Calgary News Telegram – 5th May 1913 – from this webpage –















Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company mixed train crossing the Spring Coulee bridge in 1904 – Galt Museum & Archives Photo 19731722017










Posted in Galt Blog

The NWC&NR Shareholders: Donald Alexander Smith (Lord Strathcona)

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.

On August 6th, 1820 the person who would become Lord Strathcona was born, in a small cottage next to the old Castle Bridge over the Mosset Burn in Forres Scotland.  After attending school at Anderson’s Institute (now Anderson’s Primary School), he worked in the town clerk’s office unit 1838.  His uncle, John Stuart, a Canadian pioneer and fur trader who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a great influence in his life.  And it was he who persuaded the young Smith to go to Canada and take up employment as a clerk with the HBC Company at Hamilton Inlet Labrador.


In 1869, now a “Special Commissioner”, appointed by the Canadian Government, Smith was dispatched to the Red River area of Manitoba, to quell the uprising of the Louis Riel and his provisional government rebels.  This event had been caused by the transfer of rights to “Rupert’s Land” for the sum of £300 000 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the government of Canada.  Smith was imprisoned by Riel at Fort Garry until February 1870 but it was not until two years later that he was officially thanked for helping to avert bloodshed in the area.


In 1870, as a member of the Northwest Council, he passed the “Smith Act” prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors because of Indian problems.  In 1871, the year when the Manitoba Act was passed, bringing the province into the Dominion, Smith was elected member for Selkirk in the Canadian House of Commons.  The same year he was also appointed Chief Commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company affairs in the Northwest.


In 1874, Smith was determined to complete the “St Paul and Pacific Company” railway to the Canadian border and he hoped that the Dominion Government would pay for its completion to Winnipeg.  In 1877 he perused his cousin, George Stephen, later to become Lord Mountstephen (or Mount Stephen), to join his railway group.  In 1879, the “St Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway Company” was incorporated with George Stephen as President and Donald Smith as principal director.


In 1880 a syndicate was formed with the aim of completing a Canadian transcontinental railway.  On December 10th the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s contract was presented to the House of Commons with George Stephen as one of the eight signatories.  Donald Smith was not one, at his own request, but was still deeply involved.


On May 2nd, 1881 building of the railway commenced and averaged 2.6 miles per day.  On November 7th 1885, at 9:30am, the railway was completed when Smith drove the last spike at Craigellachie British Columbia.  In 1886, Queen Victoria bestowed Donald Smith with a knighthood in the Orders of St Michael and St George.


In 1887 Smith returned to politics as well as continuing his charitable and benevolent works.  He lobbied for protection of the bison, and at one point owned one of the last herds.  In that same year, he and his cousin George Stephen, set aside $1 000 000 to erect a free hospital in Montreal, commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee.  Situated on the flanks of Mount Royal, the Royal Victoria Hospital was completed in 1893 and both men later endowed it with a further $800 000.


In 1897, Donald Smith earned the name Lord Strathcona when he was created a Peer of the Realm in June, taking the title “Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal of Glencoe, Argyllshire and Montreal Canada”.  Concerned about Britain’s efforts in the Boer War, in 1899, he created the “Strathcona Horse”, a mobile force of 600 Canadian Roughriders (or Rough Riders) led by Colonel Steele.


Lord Strathcona never forgot his home in Forres.  Amongst his many deeds was a contribution of some £8238 towards Leanchoil Hospital in that town, which admitted its first patient on April 24th 1892, and was named after his mother’s birthplace.  He was given the Freedom of the Royal Burgh of Forres in 1900.  In 1902, he laid the foundation stone of the Forres United Free Church and also that of the new St Lawrence Church.


Lord Strathcona died on January 21st 1914 at 28 Grosvener Square in London.


Editor’s note: Donald Smith held 200 shares of the North West Coal & Navigation Company, Ltd, as of February 1891. He was also a close friend and confidante of Sir Alexander Galt. Likely the connection of Smith and George Stephen introduced Galt to many English shareholders in the Southern Alberta ventures.



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Lord Strathcona photograph from January 1st, 1890. Library & Archives Canada C-5489















Donald Smith drives the Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway, November 7th, 1885 at Craigellachie, British Columbia. Library & Archives C-003693













Lord Strathcona and his daughter leaving the Quebec Tercentenary military review July 24th, 1908. Library & Archives Canada PA-024777
















Cartoon of Donald Smith scanned from the ‘Canadian Yesterdays’ book by Edgar A. Collard (1955)





Posted in Galt Blog

The Alberta Railway & Pincher Creek

Article by Jason Paul Sailer & Chris Doering

I had a chance to attend the trains event at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village (KBPV) on August 23rd, 2014. It included a talk by curator Farley Wuth, children’s crafts and photo displays of local area railways. The bus tour in the afternoon, which followed the former Kootenay & Alberta Railway route from Pincher Station to Beaver Mines, was also very interesting. Approximately 20 people, including myself and my wife, departed from the museum heading west. We stopped where the old rail beds could be seen and a number of wooden trestles were once located. As well the locations of local ranches, coal mines, schools and churches were pointed out to us.

But back to the Alberta Railway connection to Pincher Creek!

As Farley described in the talk, there were at least six different proposals to bring railways into the Pincher Creek area. We do have to remember that when these plans were being formulated (1900 – 1930) Alberta was in the middle of a railway building boom. Anywhere there was a town, no matter how small, a line would be constructed to it. In fact, in some places, a rail line was built with hopes that the towns would soon follow. As we know several of these lines would see limited service and would eventually be closed down and the tracks torn out.

One of the earliest railways to express an interest in Pincher Creek was the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&RC). It was agreed the Crowsnest Pass should be the route of a rail line connecting the newly developing ranching industry on the east side of the continental divide with the coal fields to the west. Most locals could see the benefits. The debate that raged during the 1880s & 90s however, was who should build the line. The Galts, owners of the AR&RC, were given the charter in 1892, yet for reasons unknown to this author, the company decided not to purse the project and instead sold it to the Canadian Pacific Railway. At the same time, AR&RC converted the Lethbridge to Dunmore narrow-gauge line to standard gauge and would lease it to the CPR, who would then buy it outright in 1897. With these two pieces of the puzzle in place, CPR began planning of the Crowsnest Pass route. For more background information please read the blog post ‘Whoop-Up Railroad”.

A full generation after the AR&RC charter, the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC) arrived on the scene. Pincher Creek was still without railway access although at that time the CPR had established a rail connection at Pincher Station, approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) to the north.

At that time the Kootenay & Alberta Railway was almost in operation, although it would run from Kandary west of Pincher Station, bypassing Pincher Creek altogether, on its way to Beaver Mines. In 1911, AR&IC officials proposed a scheme to extend its subsidiary, the St. Mary’s River Railway, from Cardston to Pincher Creek (not Pincher Station), a distance of 79 kilometres (49 miles). Initial plans called for the line to begin at an point between Spring Coulee and Mountain View. This was later revised to an location between Mountain View and Cardston. From there the line was supposed to travel northward and cross the Waterton River.

In an interesting twist company officials decided that once the line approached Pincher Creek it was to bypass the town by several kilometres and would instead connect with the Crowsnest Branch of the CPR not far away! Why the AR&IC decided to change their minds and not enter Pincher Creek is a mystery, although this author feels that engineering costs were at least part of the reason it never happened. Pincher Creek is in a valley and a railway line in would be circuitous and expensive to build.

Already angered by the fact that the CPR never constructed a line through the community the apparent slight by the AR&IC was further aggravated by the rumour that was nothing but a subsidiary of the bigger railway. The AR&IC had filed survey plans with the Town of Pincher Creek, but they didn’t conform to the original 1892 charter granted to the AR&RC by the federal government (which would of included Pincher Creek on the railway line).

Two town council meetings held in early November 1911 brought the AR&IC issue to the forefront, and this clearly illustrated the local frustration in being treated poorly by yet another railway company. The first session, held on November 1st, passed a council resolution strongly protesting the fact that the proposed line did not match the 1892 federal government charter, and thereby missed connecting the town to the outside world. This resolution was forwarded to the federal government minister of railways for his consideration. Less than an week later, at the second council meeting, the AR&IC issue was again thoroughly discussed. Most members agreed that a town representative be sent to Ottawa to lobby government officials on their behalf. Alderman Charles Kettles, supported by Aldermen Allison & Watson, argued strongly that the town solicitor Arthur C. Kemmis, should take the stand for Pincher Creek’s position, in the hopes that the proposed railway route changes would be approved. Aldermen Ross & Fraser agreed that the government lobbying was required on the issue, but it should of have been done by the former Member of Parliament John Herron working with his successor Dr. David Warnock. Eventually, the council agreed that most of the lobbying work should be undertaken by Kemmis but that both Herron & Warnock should be asked for assistance whenever requested. Both government politicians cooperated on this issue in spite of their different political ideologies.

In the end Pincher Creek’s efforts were only partially successful and by early December 1911 the federal government Minister of Railways had ruled in the town’s favour. A letter was sent advising AR&IC officials that new surveys through the town would have to be completed before further work was undertaken. This would have guaranteed the community a direct rail link with the outside world, yet it was not to be. The AR&IC officials eventually lost interest in the route, partially due in part to political issues, and the fact that the railway was in talks with the CPR who was interested in purchasing the company outright. In the end the AR&IC link between Pincher Creek and Cardston never became a reality.


The History That Almost Wasn’t – Chronicles of Pincher Creek’s Ill-Fated Railway History (2008) Farley Wuth
Civilizing The West: The Galts and the Development of Western Canada (1986) A.A. den Otter



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Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company engine #13 (formerly Engine #1 of the North-Western Coal & Navigation Company) leading an construction train reaching Cardston in 1903. Train crew identified L to R as: J.W. Tennant – conductor, Alexander McKay – brakeman, Waldren McKay – fireman and James (Smoothy) Wallwork – engineer. Galt Museum & Archives photo 19754324000










AR&IC passenger train at Cardston, AB on the St. Mary’s River Railway in 1910. Galt Museum & Archives photo – P19760234092










Kootenay & Albert Railway route outlined in red overlaid an Google Earth image – Map courtesy of University of Alberta Press










Kootenay area coal mines & railway charters – Alberta Railway & St. Mary’s River Railway outlined in red, Canadian Pacific Railway outlined in pink, Kootenay & Alberta expansion route outlined in green, and AB Railway expansion route outlined in blue. Map overlaid an Google Earth image – Map courtesy of University of Alberta Press












Posted in Galt Blog

The NWMP & the Railways

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.


There was an unwritten rationale for the implementation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) force in 1874, and it is not a surprising one.  British Columbia was owed a railroad, as terms for entering Confederation.  But those rails had to cross the newly opened territories of the plains, a wild land where the Canadian government had yet come to terms with the First Nations residents.  Sir John A. Macdonald’s western policy required a civilizing force; not only to deal with American traders, but to preserve law, and to show the flag when required.  The Police were there to prepare peaceful conditions for the laying of tracks across the prairies.


The fact was apparently short after the NWMP’s arrival to Fort Edmonton in 1874.  Residents of Fort Edmonton believed that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) would come through their vibrant fur-trading community, but in 1875, when Inspector William D. Jarvis received authorization to build an NWMP fort nearby, he chose not to build it anywhere near the Hudson’s Bay Company fort.  With a keen eye to engineering demands of a coming trans-continental railroad, Jarvis had the fort built 20 miles downstream from Fort Edmonton where the river cliffs were gentler.  As the Fort Edmonton resident’s fumed, Jarvis built Fort Saskatchewan purely with trains in mind.  But by 1881, with the transcontinental railway under construction, northern settlements like Edmonton, Prince Albert, Fort Saskatchewan, and Battleford were disappointed to find the actual route was modified again to not run anywhere near their communities.  For Fort Saskatchewan, the only railroad they would get was the Canadian Northern Railway, and that didn’t occur until 1905!


It was presumed that the railway would travel through the rich “Fertile Belt” of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and cross the Rocky Mountains via the Yellowhead Pass, a route suggested by Sir Sandford Fleming based on a decade of work.  However, the CPR quickly discarded this plan in favor of a more southerly route across the arid Palliser’s Triangle in Saskatchewan and via Kicking Horse Pass and down the Field Hill to the Rocky Mountain Trench.  This route was more direct and closer to the American border, making it easier for the CPR to keep American railways from encroaching on the Canadian market.  The sudden change of the route caused other changes as well – the newly formed North-West Territories in 1870 capital was even moved from Winnipeg to Regina.  Its location was chosen by Edgar Dewdney, the territorial lieutenant-governor. Dewdney had reserved for himself substantial land adjacent to the CPR line on the site of what became the town, and thereby considerably enriched himself.  This was the occasion of a considerable scandal in the early days of the Territories.


Constructing the railroad was an arduous process.  The influx of thousands of laborers to the plains, and the reality of boomtowns that popped literally out of the prairie, gave a new mission to the NWMP.  The ‘end of the track’ camp that moved with the railway’s progress west created special problems relating to gambling, liquor, labour disputes, and prostitution.  In response, CPR and the federal government were able to have assigned a special ‘end of the track’ detachment of NWMP that would enforce the rule of the law among the railway workers.  The contingent was led by Superintendent Sam Steele.  The NWMP drew upon the Canada Temperance Act, and the Public Works Peace Preservation Act to patrol & enforce a corridor of 20 miles (32 kilometers) on either side of the route.  Challengers to the authority ensued, as many wily bootleggers snuck liquor into the corridor; in baggage, cartons of eggs, canned vegetables, pork, barrels, and even locomotive boilers!  Though Steele thought it was an ‘detestable duty’, the need for peace and order along the route ruled over the worker’s need for an drink.  With the economic hazards that the CPR board of Directors had to deal with, the harsh reality that workers may occasionally go unpaid led to strikes, and threats of violence.  Construction money was tight, and that often held up railway construction materials being delivered to the work site.  The government recognized the political fallout if the railway would fail, which increased the pressure on the NWMP to keep the peace between CPR and the grumbling workers.  In 1883, Sam Steele acted against a labor strike of 130 laborers at Maple Creek, arresting the troublemakers while other prompt steps were taken to suppress the revolt.  The NWMP had to add to their many duties the role of ‘strikebreaker’.


That same year, economic conditions led to the CPR reducing the wages of locomotive engineers.  The engineers struck for wage restoration, and the NWMP was called in to protect railway property from being damaged.  But the Mounties ended up in other capacities, and some of them even ran trains during the strike!  When other workers tried to interfere and stop the trains, in sympathy for the striking engineers, they were surprised by the NWMP.  Superintendent William Herchmer surprised them at the rail yards, and the NWMP ‘proceeded to clear the premises with loaded rifles in hand’.  Despite the unusual role the Mounties performed, Sgt. Fitzpatrick reported ‘Our men took charge to some of the mail trains, and ran them from Winnipeg to Calgary.  It was strange, but our group seemed to possess men who could almost do anything when the situation demanded it’.  It was an odd relationship, but for CPR it was effective.  The engineers returned back to their jobs but the wage problem still lingered.


In April 1884 Steele was assigned to accompany the CPR into British Columbia.  He had no doubt that the completion of the railway was a work of national importance and that his job was to further that work by any means at his disposal. He increased his power by having Ottawa double the area of federal jurisdiction over the construction route, from 20 miles on each side of the track to 40 miles (64 kilometers).  In the spring of 1885, at Beaver (Beavermouth), B.C., in the Selkirk Mountains, a serious labour dispute developed over non-payment of wages by subcontractors.  Gravely ill with fever, Steele rose from his sickbed to read the Riot Act to an angry mob of strikers and, though he was armed, he dispersed them through sheer force of personality.  The action was pure Sam Steele, though it should be noted that major discrepancies exist between the official reports he wrote at the time of the strike and his published reminiscences many years later.  The strike had escalated to the point of violence in part because Steele’s detachment had been stripped of men to respond to the crisis on the prairies created by Louis Riel‘s proclamation of a provisional government in March.


The breakout of the North-West Rebellion called forth troops to put down the revolt, and the Canadian Pacific Railway was called on to assist.  CPR general manager William Van Horne pulled out all the stops and spared no expense to move the troops on his tracks.  Before the main forces arrival, it fell to the NWMP and local militia to keep a lid on the situation.  Superintendent William Herchmer was instructed to organize an ‘flying column’ and gathered fifty of his best men to board an special CPR train that would take them from Calgary to Swift Current to guard the river crossing, to Medicine Hat where the CPR bridge and steamboat flotilla needed security, back to Swift Current to stem an rumored Cree invasion, to Qu’ Apelle, to Regina to pick up orders, to return to Swift Current, and join the Battleford column – all within weeks.  Van Horne’s cooperation in the troop movements were the railroad salvations.  Before the rebellion, they were almost broke – not being able to pay all their employees’ wages.  As Pierre Berton wrote “the CPR had saved the country…now the country saved CPR.”  Badly needed funds were forwarded to finance the final phases of construction, and CPR’s debt to the federal government was re-organized.  On November 7, 1885 the last spike was driven at Craigallachie, in British Columbia making good on CPR’s original promise to the federal government.  Present at the event was Sam Steele, even though he stood at the back, well out of the famous photograph.  Four days earlier, the last spike of the Lake Superior section was driven in just west of Jackfish, Ontario.  The successful construction of such a massive project, although troubled by delays and scandal, was considered an impressive feat of engineering and political will for a country with such a small population, limited capital, and difficult terrain. It was by far the longest railway ever constructed at the time.  The CPR was not the only railway that needed protection during the Rebellion.  At Lethbridge, the North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) was building a narrow-gauge line to Medicine Hat, to supply coal under contract to the CPR.  The NWMP and the local militia, the Rocky Mountain Rangers, accompanied the line to prevent attacks on the workers from any revolting natives, enforce the prohibition, and keep the workhorses from being stolen.


With the CPR completed, a new era of settlement in western Canada ensued.  The close of the Rebellion led to the doubling of the NWMP under Commissioner L.W. Herchmer.  With an new era, the NWMP though an still horse-bound force, was greatly assisted by the railroads, and set up detachments in towns whose existence was owed to the coming of the rail lines.  High profile manhunts brought the Mounties to the tracks.  The Almighty Voice incident on October 29, 1896 near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan was one as Almighty Voice was wanted for murdering NWMP policeman Sergeant Colin C. Colebrook.  After a year and a half of following up rumors and false leads, the NWMP obtained an accurate report: Almighty Voice and two companions had shot and wounded a local Métis scout near Duck Lake on 27 May 1897.   NWMP reinforcements, including a group of civilian volunteers from Prince Albert, with a seven-pound brass field gun, arrived shortly afterwards on the nearby railroad, and surrounded Almighty Voice’s position, and bombarded it.  Another example was the manhunt of train robbers near Kamloops at Monte Creek (then known as “Ducks”), although the NWMP had no mandate to operate in that area.  A trio of bandits had stopped a CPR train and robbed it, although only $15 dollars and some medicine were stolen.  But an unsolved robbery near Mission, was still on the books of the Provincial Police, and was believed to be the same gang.  The hunch was proven correct, and an combined search of the mountainous ranch country near Douglas Lake turned up the gang, led by the American-born Bill Miner, and his two accomplices, Shorty Dunn and Louis Colquhoun.  The Ernest Cashel case also brought an embarrassing chapter to the NWMP.  A Mountie escorting Cashel to Calgary on a nuisance case was shocked when his prisoner escaped through the bathroom window on a moving CPR train!  The escape was bad enough, but in the ensuing months Cashel led the NWMP on a 15-month wild goose chase.


The relationship between the NWMP and the railroads of Canada has provided a wealth of historic lore.  Anyone who considers the story of Canada dull, needs only to open the records of the CPR & the NWMP to get back on track, and back in the saddle!



Cowboy Calvary – The story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers (Gord Tolton)



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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Steele’s Scouts of the NWMP (1885) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-936-22









Col. Lawrence Herchmer, Commissioner of the NWMP (1895) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-354-3



‘H’ Troop Band of the NWMP at Lethbridge, AB (1888) Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-2328-2









Policeman on horseback at Barrack Square, in Lethbridge AB (1909) Galt Museum & Archives P20071043001-006











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