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.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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



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.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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




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 – http://homepages.slingshot.co.nz/~yetiboil/tregilgas/album/album05.html















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.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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.



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



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

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



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)



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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.



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











Posted in Galt Blog

The Crowsnest Pass Train Robbery

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

On August 2nd, 1920 three passengers boarded the day-coach of an westbound Canadian Pacific Railway Train #63 in Lethbridge, Alberta and calmly took their seats. Before they got off, they had initiated one of Alberta’s most audacious and sensational crimes. The conductor, Sam Jones, was only concerned for schedules, delivery of freight, and the safety of the passengers. Mundane was the expected norm – on the Lethbridge to Cranbrook run, nobody expected surprises or excitement. By 1920, rail travel was a safe and reliable utility, time and settlement having conquered the vagaries of its wild frontier days.

That is why train #63 wound westward through the string of coal-mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass and as it approached the Sentinel train station, Jones could only look dumb-founded when one of the passengers stood up and pointed an Mauser automatic pistol at him. Train hold-ups were a thing of the past, not in the living memory of Canadian railway men! Jones dismissed the gunman as an idiotic prankster, and reached to pull the emergency brake cord. But before he could pull the cord, the gunman’s nervous finger pulled the trigger. The train did brake, but only because it had reached its regular stop at the Sentinel train station. The locomotive engineer and brakeman were oblivious to what was happening a few cars back, but outside an road worker by the name of Charles Uresenbach seen the raised hands through the windows, and ran ahead to warn the crew. The crew scoffed Uresenbach’s attempts until shots rang out. The bullet only grazed the conductor’s forehead, but two other gun-wielding passengers joined the lone gunman. The railway baggageman entered the coach to investigate, and much to his surprise three fugitives were waving their pistols wildly, and yelling in a thick foreign accent for the stunned passengers to be quiet.

Within minutes, the three gunmen were moving down the rows of seats, reliving the passengers of watches, wallets, jewelry, etc. An executive by the name of Donald, was the manager of the Alberta – British Columbia Power Company, and upon seeing the incoming bandits, he rolled up his money and hid it in a fold in the seat. Female passengers and children were left untouched. One of the gunmen approached Conductor Jones and admired his watch, which he soon took for himself! As quickly as they started, the trip ended the event. They stepped off the railway car, fired an warning shot to not follow them, and ran off into the surrounding trees. The passengers on board could only watch as they left with a sackful of valuables, and $400 in cash.

Subsequently, the law arrived on the scene – the combined forces of the newly-formed Alberta Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the CPR’s own police force. Interviews with the victims exposed the criminals were not exactly careful in their plot – they didn’t wear masks, and that several on the train knew who they were – they were Russian migrant laborers who were working at one of the local coal mines in the region. They were; Tom Bassoff (who shot the Conductor) was 45 years old, with an large black mustache, and had an glass eye; George Arkoff, and 20 year old that was clean shaven and had an shock of white in his hair, and; Alex Arloff another 20 year old.

As news relayed of the daring daylight robbery, rumors began to start that the robbers missed their intendant target – the wealthy rum runner Emillo Picariello (Emperor Pic). Tongues wagged that Emperor Pic (known to carry $10,000) was the actual target of the gunmen, and had sneaked the money in the train seat cushion while the gunmen robbed the passengers. We know that it wasn’t Pic on board who did this trick, but the manager of the power company! The Russians appeared not to know what to do next. Despite the nearby mountains or the vast prairies to the east to hide in, they lingered nearby the crime scene. Four days later, they were spotted in Coleman, Alberta. The trio had argued about escape plans and it was decided that Arloff would take most of the loot and head south to the United States. They never saw him again. Bassoff & Arkoff decided to head east but for reasons unknown, they weren’t too fast in leaving and were often spotted at local bars and dances in the area. The local labor clubs were loyal to their patrons, and many times didn’t tell the law that they were hiding the two criminals.

Not long after the robbery, Bassoff & Arkoff arrived in Bellevue – ambling past the local court house and pausing at the window to look at their own wanted posters, before heading across the street to the Bellevue Cafe. Inside the courthouse, justice of the peace J.H. Robertson was alarmed by the pair’s curiosity towards their own wanted posters, and watched them from his window cross the street to the cafe. He then quickly phoned the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) detachment in Blairmore to get the police out to arrest the two. As the two sat down for breakfast in the cafe, Constable James Frewin commandeered a train for the short trip to Bellevue. In minutes, he was met by Constable Fred Bailey of the APP, and Corporal Ernest Usher of the RCMP. The policemen met at the courthouse where Robertson confirmed the fugitive’s identity. Approaching the cafe slowly, Frewin, out of uniform, offered to enter the cafe first to check out the situation. He walked into the cafe, and nonchalantly walked over to the booth were the two fugitives were sitting and pulled back the booth’s curtain, oblivious to the pair sitting there. Bassoff & Arkoff looked up from their breakfast – Frewin apologized for disturbing them, re closed the curtain, and retreated from the cafe.

Quickly a plan was formed – Bailey would enter the cafe from the rear, and Frewin & Usher would enter from the front. What happened next only took seconds, but became a moment of terror. With gun drawn, Frewin whipped back the booth curtain and informed the fugitives they were under arrest, and to have them raise their hands. Bassoff holding a coffee cup, feigned disinterest. But instead of raising his hands, Bassoff dropped his cup and pulled the muzzle of Ferwin’s gun down, as Arkoff went for the pistol in his coat pocket. His life now threatened, Frewin fired, his gun wounding Arkoff in his neck. For some reason Usher never fired his weapon, as Frewin emptied his. Hearing the shots, Bailey rushed into the rear of the cafe – and knowing his gun was empty, Frewin backed away to let Usher take over. In that split second, both bandits were armed and began shooting back, with Bassoff shooting with two guns. Usher, badly wounded, retreated through the front door but was hit in the back and fell dead into the street. Bailey was following Usher, but in backing out tripped over Usher’s body and knocked himself out on the concrete sidewalk. As both Usher and Bailey fell, the fugitives both wounded slunked along the wall of the cafe to the front door. Arkoff was the first one out of the door, and ran 86 feet down the street before collapsing under the weight of seven bullets in his body. Bassoff, wounded in his legs, was the last man standing in the doorway of the cafe. At this time, Bailey was waking up and seeing this, Bassoff turned and shot him fatally in the brain. Confused and angry, Bassoff emptied his gun into Usher’s body and then limped off towards Frank Slide. Justice of the Peace Robertson exchanged some shots with Bassoff from behind a telephone pole, but the killer managed to get away. Before he did, one of the newspapers reported that Bassoff shot Arkoff in the head to put him out of his misery.

Frewin, unhurt, was unable to stop Bassoff. As he tried to reload his gun, Frewin was struck with ‘Shell Shock’ (now known as Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disease) which Frewin got from serving in the First World War. In mere seconds, the situation went beyond a trivial stick-up to an gruesome capital crime. Bassoff escaped into the woods, as the manhunt for the robber-turned killer escalated. The police put every available man on horseback into the back country, searching for a wounded and desperate fugitive. A trained dog tracker from Washington State, an sheriff Lee, gave chase with his three bloodhounds through the limestone rubble of the Frank Slide. The trail through the rubble led towards the Holloway Ranch, but an sudden thunder shower washed away the scent. The sheriff didn’t realize that he was within feet of apprehending his prey. Bassoff recalled later that the trackers came close enough for him to almost reach out and touch them. Nerves in the Crowsnest Pass, with the Bellevue Cafe riddled with bullets and blood was fragile. That evening, an pair of special APP Constables by the name of Kyslik & Hudson were searching some abandoned houses nearby the crime scene. Kyslik entered the front door of one building, and for reasons unknown jumped out the rear main floor windows startling his partner enough to accidentally shoot him dead. Bellevue’s death toll mounts.

On August 9th, Bassoff left his hideout in the Frank Slide and walked to the Holloway Ranch cabin, where he walked in on the ranch owner’s wife and child. Mrs. Holloway didn’t panic, as she fed Bassoff who soon left. As soon as he left, she alerted the APP who renewed the manhunt for Bassoff. Still Bassoff eluded his trackers, but a break came on the evening of August 11th. A CPR train engineer by the name of Hammond was driving a westbound train near the Pincher Station siding, when he noticed a man fitting Bassoff’s description lurking near the train station. As soon as the train stopped at Lundbreck, he got on the phone with the Canadian Pacific Railway Police on his find. Four railway detectives were dispatched to Pincher Station on an eastbound train. Upon arriving at Pincher Station, one of the detectives noticed movement an slight ways behind the depot by an boulder. From his vantage point in the moonlight he yelled out ‘Throw down your hands’ – but the figure didn’t move, although it brought the other detectives over. The figure reached into his pocket but only pulled up some food. As the detectives closed in, Bassoff weak from his wounds, began eating and then surrendered. He was then handcuffed and turned over to the APP.

The prisoner was remanded at Fort Macleod – after an hearing on August 17th, Tom Bassoff was charged for the murder of Constable Fred Bailey, in which he plead not-guilty. Bassoff was then transported to Lethbridge for his trial, where witnesses stated that Bassoff shot Bailey six times, but the autopsy only showed one bullet in his brain. As well, witness stated that the police failed to identify themselves and fired first. But no matter, as Bassoff emptied his gun into Bailey’s body! It took the jury only an hour to determine Bassoff’s fate – an verdict of guilty! On December 22nd, 1920 Bassoff was taken to the Lethbridge Jail gallows and hanged for his crimes – the 5th to die from the August crime spree in the Crowsnest Pass.

The death of the bandits left one member unaccounted for. The APP flooded the continent with descriptions of Alex Arloff and the description of the missing CPR conductor’s watch. But not an trace was found until January 18th, 1924 when an man walked into an Portland, Oregon pawnshop seeking quick cash on an CPR conductor’s watch. The pawnbroker was wary and checked the serial numbers – and sure enough it was the same watch! The officials were notified, and the APP tracked the sale of the watch to Butte, Montana where Arloff was finally arrested. He was extradited back to Alberta, and was sentenced to seven years in the Prince Albert Penitentiary. He would die in prison in 1926.

The Bellevue Café still stands – it was originally built in 1917 by Joe Mah, who had emigrated from Canton, China to Canada in 1908. Mah lived originally in Vancouver Island, but moved to Bellevue in 1909 to operate a restaurant. The original building was a small shed-roof wood framed structure with clapboard siding. It burnt down in the fire of 1917 and Mah was one of the many Bellevue resident’s forced to rebuild its businesses. The Café remained in the Mah family until being sold in 1975. The bullet holes from the shootout remained visible for several years afterwards. In December 1989 the building was designated an registered historic resource by Alberta Culture. The original clapboard siding and window details of the front elevation were reconstructed in 1990 by the Alberta Main Street Program.







If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net. 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.


NA-1146-1 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Portrait of Tom Bassoff – 1920











NA-1146-2 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Portrait of George Arkoff – 1920












NA-1146-3 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Reenactment of Shooting at Bellevue, Alberta – 1920









NA-2814-10 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Gun side salute of Ernest Usher at Fort Macleod Cemetery – August 11th, 1920








PA-956-1 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Gun side salute of Ernest Usher at Fort Macleod Cemetery – August 11th, 1920





Posted in Galt Blog

Galt Railway Shareholder Profile – Charles John Brydges

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

While Charles John Brydges shares in the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC), appear to not be bank breakers (as he sold them around 1891), it is significant enough with his name on the shareholder’s list to make mention in an web blog post.  Brydges was the moving force in the Hudson’s Bay Company transformation from an feudally-run fur venture into an modern corporation.  And he knew an few things about politics, and railroads too.

Brydges was born in London, England on February 23rd, 1827 into an middle-class family.  The names of his parents are unknown, but during his successful middle years he claimed a connection with the barony of Chandos, then much in dispute.  His father died before he was two, and his mother five years later.  With no siblings or close relatives, he entered boarding-school for nine years – dependent for his future upon only a small legacy, driving ambition, and an extraordinary capacity for work.  As he entered his teens, C.J. apprenticed as an junior clerk with the London & South Western Railway Company, beginning an lifelong relationship with railroad administration.  As he rose in the company, Brydges viewed the railroad as the coming technology, one of the first in management to view railroad workers as specialized employees.  Brydges was probably one of the industries first ‘human resources officers’ and established workers libraries, company schools, and many progressive programs on behalf of the employees.  Though his idealism often flew in the face of the industrial revolution, and he clashed with his superiors, Brydges results came out of productivity, and later on C.J. was made the London and South-Western corporate secretary.

He was not content, however, to await indefinitely the final promotion possible from within company ranks.  In 1852 he was offered the post of managing director of the Great Western Railroad Company of Canada (GWRRC).  Notwithstanding a hasty offer of the secretaryship and efforts by the directors to obtain his release after he had accepted the overseas post, Brydges was off to Canada.  Although only 26, he was determined to strike out afresh, putting his apprenticeship to the test in a promising managerial challenge.

Brydges new appointment illustrated the problems inherent in the development of huge ventures by colonial promoters who were heavily dependent upon external capital.  GWRRC’s project (connecting the urban centers of Toronto and Hamilton with Niagara Falls, New York) depended upon private British investors for more than 90 per cent of its capitalization, however, and the Canadian board was shadowed by a London corresponding committee.  Brydges was the committee’s appointee; this factor, combined with his youth, compromised his position.  Yet, with characteristic energy and confidence, he soon played skilfully to both sides of the house – but it was not without controversy.  He would often clash with the Canadian Board over his decisions in improving administrative efficiencies, and his authoritarian way of conducting GWRRC business.  But C.J. held out, and by December 1861 anticipating an future merger between rival Grand Trunk Railway and GWRRC (which didn’t occur until 1884), he accepted the position as superintendent at Grand Trunk, making the acquaintance of Alexander Galt.

Though he ran operations at Grand Trunk, Brydges never lost sight of his interest in the workers, and established education and benifit programs that were the envy of the industry.  As Brydges continued on, he became an very political animal, becoming good friends with John A. Macdonald.  In the Fenian Raids of 1866, he organized railroaders into an military regiment (the Grand Trunk Regiment) to stave off the threat of Irish-American republic invaders.  After Confederation, Brydges relationship with Grand Trunk soured, as he faced accusations of profiteering from the company.  By March 1874, he resigned his position, and was asked by Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie, to organize the National Railway as an government project (later to became the Canadian Pacific Railway).  But Mackenzie lost the federal election to Macdonald in October 1878, so C.J. lost his new job.

Seeing the west as the promised land, Brydges moved out to Winnipeg and took an new job in May 1879, as the powerful land commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  That post saw Brydges involved in every faucet of western Canadian business, including steamboats, hotels, mills, furs, and the entire transportation network.  He oversaw supply contracts for the Northwest Mounted Police, and was involved for moving the HBC Canadian administrative offices to Winnipeg from Montreal in November 1880.

Brydges held that the Hudson’s Bay should erase the image of the old fur-trading company which was speculative and passive in its social and regional concerns – intent on incremental profits from the industry of others.  It should instead identify with the northwest, even at the risk of offending vested political and economic interests.  This boldness would eventually prove his undoing.

Brydges himself assumed a leading role in the rapidly expanding town of Winnipeg.  As in Montreal, he was prominent in civic activities: energetic chairman of the general hospital, president of the Manitoba Club, president of the board of trade and of the Manitoba Board of Agriculture, an outstanding diocesan figure, and a determined advocate of retrenchment in municipal proliferation, and taxation throughout Manitoba.  Although a supporter of the property owners’ association, he acted independently of the “Citizen’s Ticket” urban reform movement – perhaps because it was dominated by CPR figures.  He was determined to make HBC a part of the growing regional consciousness in Manitoba and the west.

His forthrightness exasperated many people and he could not escape charges of partisanship.  But when Alexander Galt talked to him for an proposal for an mine and coal contract on the far flung Belly & Bow Rivers, Brydges purchased 20 shares of Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) for himself, and 20 shares for his son Frederick.   This involvement alarmed the CPR, particularly in view of the old Grand Trunk connections of Galt and Brydges.  As well, Brydges petitioning of Winnipeg over Selkirk for CPR business earned him gratitude of the church and Winnipeg business interests, but further alienated CPR personnel like Sanford Fleming, and others higher up in the company on doing business in Winnipeg.   Although pressured to establish policies for the promotion of immigration as well as for the development and sale of land jointly with the CPR, he demurred, for he foresaw inherent complications and competition.  He felt that the Hudson’s Bay should remain free to criticize the CPR’s monopolistic rates and branch lines policies, thereby lining up with western interests.  Inevitably, these tactics alarmed CPR supporters such as George Stephen, and Donald Smith.  Smith’s rising power in both Hudson’s Bay and CPR caused more concern for Brydges.  The suspicions of the railway and the government were exacerbated by unfounded rumors that he was helping the Grand Trunk Railway undermine the CPR’s bond sales prospects by feeding information critical of the CPR to agents of the Grand Trunk who used it on the money markets in New York and London.

Brydges’ success in recovering Hudson’s Bay land and maintaining payments between 1882 and 1889 was perhaps his finest managerial achievement.  By carefully pressing for payments when economic conditions improved and relaxing demands during hard times he countered the effects of the Manitoba land bust (caused by massive speculation on the arrival of the CPR), and retained many original settlers on company lands.  The HBC would realize nearly $900,000 in collections and recoveries of unpaid early instalments, while retaining its reputation for efficiency and fair dealing. Brydges obviously expected warm commendation for his efforts. Instead, he soon faced Smith’s most effective attack yet.

Miscalculating Smith’s strength on the HBC board, he pushed the directors to grant an American line, the Northern Pacific Railroad, access to company land in Winnipeg to provide competition for the CPR, and to improve Hudson’s Bay property in the center of the city. The deal was rebuffed by the board (due to Smith), and he lobbied HBC officials to have Brydges removed as land commissioner.

On February 16th, 1899 the fight was out of Brydges – he died of an stroke in Winnipeg, while making an weekly inspection at the Winnipeg General Hospital, and is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in the city.  He left behind his wife Letitia Grace Henderson, and his three children; Frederick, Charles, and daughter Margaret.


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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.

C.J. Brydges – March 9th, 1889 – Library & Archives of Canada – Mikan# 3531393

Presentation to Mr. C. J. Brydges, Late Manager G.T. Railway – Cdn. Illustrated News (Sept. 1874) – Library & Archives of Canada Record 1583

Posted in Galt Blog

History of Coutts in relation to Narrow Gauge Railway & NWMP

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.

History of the Border Country of Coutts 1965 & 2000 editions
Sweetgrass Hills: A Natural & Cultural History – Johan Dormaar (2005)
Alberta’s 49th Parallel: A Natural & Historical Journey – Johan Dormaar (2009)
Tales of a Mounted Police Officer: Supertindent R. Burton Deane of Lethbridge NWMP Division – William Baker (1999)
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   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.

NA-1167-15 (Glenbow Museum) – Alberta Railway and Coal Company Station on boundary at Coutts. NWMP Barracks in background – No Date

NA-2436-4 (Glenbow Museum) – View of the interior of the NWMP Barracks at Coutts – Christmas 1901



NA-1254-4 (Glenbow Museum) – View of the exterior RNWMP Barracks at Coutts – 1912

NA-2578-12 (Glenbow Museum) – RNWMP personnel at Coutts – May 1915

Posted in Galt Blog

Macleod’s Railroad Dreams…

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.  Additional information supplied by Chris Doering.

Fort Macleod was one of the oldest communities on the southern plains, older than Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Regina, Battleford, or Saskatoon.  So it’s not surprising that the town boosters of Macleod with its old Bull Trail connections to Montana and points north should not think itself as the hub of transportation and a potential railroad centre. But Macleod would always play the bridesmaid to the other cities whom railroads would make prosperous.  Even when the tracks did arrive, the town’s relationships with railroads were tempestuous.

The CPR veered north in 1883 and made Calgary the metropolis it is.  The North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) in 1885 showed more potential, but their tracks ended in Lethbridge.  Finally in 1892, the upstart Calgary & Edmonton Railway (C&E) extended its tracks south of Calgary towards Macleod, by then the center of ranching country.  The C&E was not without its characters – where Harry Longabaugh broke horses for the grading crews, before returning to the USA to resume his career as the ‘Sundance Kid’.  But when that 106 mile from Calgary did pull in, builders stopped on the north bank of the Oldman River some two miles west of Macleod.  Contrary to the expectations of Macleod’s residents, the railway company had no intention of extending the line across the river and into Macleod.  Instead the company promoted a new town at the terminus of the line and appropriately named it ‘West Macleod’.  And for five years Macleod had to be content with the wagons that brought passengers and freight to and fro the two settlements.

The Crowsnest Line, constructed by CPR in 1897-98, was yet another line to run within a short distance of Macleod (two miles south).  But that CPR line was a was a narrow gauge that ran haphazardly on rickety wooden bridges, crisscrossing several coulees and the St. Mary’s River south of Lethbridge and across the Blood Reserve. To add insult to injury, the CPR established a rival town just south of Macleod called ‘Haneyville’ (after one of the contractors of the Crowsnest Line), and then developed a divisional point there.  To read more on the background of the narrow gauge line, please read the previous blog post “Whoop-Up Railroad” on January 6th, 2014.

An elegant two-story frame station was built at Haneyville in 1898.  Certain design details indicate that this plan is, perhaps, a predecessor of later masonry stations.  Incensed Macleod townsmen feared a connection to the CPR Crowsnest Line and the C&E may occur at the new station, and grew even tenser that Haneyville should spring into a separate and rival town.  Town boosters begged, pleaded, and even offered to pay the CPR to bring the tracks into town, and talked of building a street car line to Haneyville to bring passengers into town.  But Haneyville never budged.  In return, the CPR tried to persuade the residents of Macleod to move over to Haneyville, but Macleod would have no part of it.  With only minor commercial activity, Haneyville could barely sustain itself.  A scant seven years passed before the CPR bridges between Lethbridge and Macleod literally began falling apart forcing the trains to run slower and to run half empty – forcing bottlenecks on the line.  Thus, Haneyville remained an railway-only town, occupied completely by railway employees.  By 1905, the CPR proposed an plan which eventually saw the railway enter Macleod.  In 1906, C&E spanned the Oldman River and the line was extended into Haneyville.  A spur line was built from the C&E line into Macleod, and CPR began planning to make preparations for the development of divisional point facilities in Macleod.

With the increase in railroad activity, the residents of Macleod were determined to take advantage of any potential growth that would result.  A sub-committee of the Board of Trade went to Calgary to solicit support of the proposed Calgary – Montana Railway charter, with Macleod sharing in the expense to obtain the charter.  The charter was granted, however, a simultaneous charter was granted to the Alberta & Great Northern Railway for a parallel line, wiped out the chances of the development of the Calgary – Montana Railway.  The lack of capital, despite the grant of ten thousand acres per mile of track, prevented the construction of the Alberta & Great Northern railway.  The Board of Trade approached other rail lines; the Grand Trunk Pacific, Great Northern, Alberta Railway & Irrigation, and even Canadian Northern.   It seemed the Board was not content to connect with anything less than every set of tracks on the western half of the continent.   Lot prices boomed and the town extended its limits to accommodate the influx of speculators.  Such dreams abounded in those days when a land boom threatened to transform southwestern Alberta into an agricultural & industrial heartland.  But the bubble would burst, pricked by the realities of prairie farming, a glut in grain production, and the advances of World War One – which would make iron scarce for new railroads.  Canadian Northern was the closest to building a new rail line, but only got as far as a rail bed…nothing more.  Macleod would have to be content in the 20th century with two rail lines; the CPR Crowsnest line and the C&E (which would be later purchased by CPR in 1913).

However, changes were coming on the horizon.  The CPR later revealed that it was planning to construct an standard-gauge diversion that would run west from Lethbridge through Macleod (following the present-day route), and that the original plan of having divisional point facilities in Macleod was nixed and divisional point operations were moved east to Lethbridge.  Jobs were lost in Macleod, and some of the rail facilities were downsized.  Around the same time the Haneyville station, along with the related railroad buildings, were relocated to the south end of 2nd Avenue in Macleod in 1907, and West Macleod was soon deserted.  The new diversion began with the opening up of the High Level Bridge in Lethbridge in August 1909 and the old 1896 narrow gauge line was torn up.  Not long afterwards Haneyville was then abandoned.  The station stood at its new site in Macleod until January 31st, 1967 when a fire completely destroyed the structure.

Today the majority of the former C&E rail line is gone (from High River south to Macleod), as well as the majority of the rail yards in the town.  But the Crowsnest Line ironically seems to be one of the few rail lines that will remain in southwestern Alberta in the 21st century.  As a railroad centre, Macleod had its growing pains, but served rail travel well, and continues to see freight from all over the world pass through the back door.  Fellow blogger Chris Doering has done some interesting posts on some of Fort Macleod’s railway history – the remains of the turntable & roundhouse and the unfinished portion of a Canadian Northern rail line near Fort Macleod!

Fort Macleod Turntable & Roundhouse Remains – http://www.bigdoer.com/6431/exploring-history/fort-macleod-turntable-and-roundhouse-remains/

Unfinished Canadian Northern Railway Line – http://www.bigdoer.com/9465/exploring-history/unfinished-canadian-northern-railway-line-fort-macleod/


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.  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.


CPR station in Macleod (former Haneyville) around 1908 – J.A. Virtue Stationer & Confectioner (Macleod) – PC003608 – Peel Library, University of Alberta









Dignitaries, including members of the Michigan Free Press Association, prepare to cross the newly finished High Level Bridge in Lethbridge – August 1909 – Galt Museum & Achives P19760234015


Posted in Galt Blog