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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