Category Archives: Galt Blog

Canadian Cree Deportation at the International Boundary

As discussed in our previous web blogpost about the Galt Sternwheelers and the Riel Rebellion, with the surrender of Cree Chief Big Bear on June 25th, 1885, those hostilities came to a close. Several Cree families and warriors then made a dash to the United States to escape any possible persecution from the NWMP. Some ended up in the state of Montana, where they settled.  However, it wasn’t easy for his followers as they often had to move around to look for food, or escape from grumbling white settlers who accused them of committing crimes, etc. The American Natives didn’t give them any sympathy either and lobbying the government there for legal status went nowhere.

On the Canadian side of the border, many Natives had settled down on the reserves, and the most effort the NWMP had to exert was to urge those camping in the river valley below Lethbridge or wandering about the town, to go back home. Pretty quiet considering the rebellion and the tension that came with it just a few years earlier!

Back to Montana – after extensive lobbying that these ‘Canadian’ Natives were regularly being blamed for lost cattle or looted homesteads, the American government sent a representative out to investigate the situation. After reviewing it for about a month or so, he discovered that many settlers, far from being anxious to get rid of the Cree, were inclined to think they were rather useful than otherwise! The federal agent submitted his report and the matter was dropped until State politicians got a hold of the report and the matter became an issue again. Back and forth negotiations between Washington and Montana led to the decision to deport the Cree out of the state and back to Canada in the spring of 1896. By May, Washington set aside $5000 for this purpose and arranged for the railways (Great Northern, Great Falls & Canada Railway, and the Alberta Railway & Coal Company) to take them to the International Train Station at Coutts / Sweetgrass, where they could be processed. From they’d be forwarded to Lethbridge and later still north towards Edmonton or east to Regina.

In charge of the operation was Lieutenant John Pershing, commander at Fort Assiniboine near Havre, Montana with Major Sanno of the 3rd Infantry as the point man at the ground level. The American military had their work cut out for them and as soon as the Cree heard the rumors of the impending deportation, they’d scatter into the wind. In June 1896 Canadian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Mr. Amedee-Emmanuel Forget and interpreter Hourie accompanied NWMP Superintendent Richard B. Deane as they went to the Montana capital of Helena to meet with the state officials to review the details of the Cree deportation.  When they arrived, they met the governor who admitted he didn’t know any of the details of the deportation! The governor said they better go to Fort Assiniboine and talk to the commander there. On arrival they were told that the details were still being hammered out by the American military, so the group returned empty handed back to Canada, awaiting word. A month later, Deane got a telegram from the Americans that the first group of Cree was being assembled and would arrive at Coutts within 3 days.  As Deane was reading the telegram, to the south in Montana the Great Northern Railway was bringing a group from Havre to Shelby, where a waiting Great Falls & Canada Railway narrow gauge train was waiting. It was reported that the American soldiers refused to help the Cree transfer their belongings from the GN train to the GF&CR train, and that after finding this out the Cree refused to move their own belongings.  The railway employees ended up doing all the work!  Several telegrams from both GF&CR and the GN were sent to Fort Assiniboine asking for the commander to instruct his soldiers to help with the transferring process.  Meanwhile, Deane and a few NWMP sat at Coutts bidding time and twiddling their thumbs waiting for the train to arrive. Finally, the railway employees were able to transfer everyone to the narrow gauge train and it set off towards Coutts, arriving a couple days later with 110 Cree, 170 horses, and 30 wagons onboard! For the next 36 hours, Deane and his men sorted through the mess, dividing the Cree into two groups; one going to the Bobtail reserve south of Edmonton and one to Regina.

While they were reloading the narrow gauge train to take the Cree north, Deane received word from Major Sanno that another group of Cree was being assembled in Great Falls, and would be heading northwards within the week.  Deane replied back that he would only accept the Cree in the daylight only, so the GF&CR had to slow their trains to meet his request! The next train would arrive at Coutts around 6 in the morning, allowing the NWMP and the Canadian customs agent to do their work. The Canadian government veterinary was brought down from Lethbridge to inspect the Native horses.

There was an incident with the second group of deported Cree – as they were being loaded onto the narrow gauge train at Great Falls. Many in the group did not think they would be deported to Canada, and had actually hired a lawyer to advocate for them on their behalf with the State. Meanwhile as the lawyer was at the courthouse, a troop of US Cavalrymen surrounded the camp to prevent anyone from leaving early. It was announced that the Cree had to board the train that would take them to the International border tomorrow. The Cree refused to leave initially, as they were waiting for word from their lawyer, however the lawyer failed to mention to the Natives that the American federal government had jurisdiction over the State government, and the Natives attempt to stay in Montana would be futile! The next day the US military began loading the Cree onto the railcars, a warrior by the name of Day Bow grabbed one of the soldier’s guns and shot himself dead. Understandably after the shooting, more soldiers were sent to assist in the loading and escorting the train to the International border and many of the Cree became agitated over the state of affairs. Fearing trouble between the Cree and the Canadian Natives, the Alberta Railway & Coal Company requested that additional NWMP be added to the northbound train to keep the peace. Superintendent Deane instructed Inspector Williams at Coutts to supply men to accompany the train. Fortunately, no incident occurred and a few days later the Cree boarded an eastbound CPR train to Regina. A small portion of the group left Lethbridge by wagon to head north towards Edmonton and were accompanied by 3 NWMP.

Meanwhile the trains continued to arrive at Coutts with more deported Natives. The next train brought 71 Cree and 340 horses – several who were sick and had to be put down. Additional NWMP were brought in from nearby Milk River to assist. It was decided to move the horses separate from the train and trail them to Lethbridge. At first the Cree were nervous on hearing they’d be separated from them, but the NWMP assured them they would be reunited in Lethbridge. A few days later, just that happened. It was rumored that on the next northbound train that two Cree warriors would be on it – these two were suspected to be part of the Frog Lake Massacre, where 9 settlers were killed. Superintendent Deane issued a warrant for their arrest as soon as the train arrived at Coutts. The two warriors, Lucky Man & Little Bear, were escorted by the NWMP to Regina where they were questioned by the authorities. It was later determined that since several years have passed since the Riel Rebellion, it would be impossible to obtain enough evidence to justify their commitment to trial, so they were released.

In early July, Major Sanno telegrammed the NWMP in Lethbridge that the remainder of the Cree in Montana would be brought to Coutts within the next week or so. Deane reminded him that money set aside by the American federal government had been all spent and that additional money was needed before they could keep the operation moving. While the money was being raised, the 10th US Calvary escorted a train full of Cree northwards from Great Falls and arrived at the International Border on July 22. This group only had 57 Cree and 143 horses, which made things a bit easier for the NWMP working at the Train Station. After a couple days of processing, the group was split and headed north towards Lethbridge. The sixth and final train was brought to Coutts at the evening of August 1st and consisted of 53 Cree. It was discovered that several Natives had contracted measles and the entire camp had to be quarantined on the border. The main doctor in Lethbridge, Dr. Mewburn, was brought down by carriage to assess the patients. After a few weeks the camp was relocated to Milk River and after another month they were given a clean bill of health. They were loaded onto the train and headed to Lethbridge, with this group’s final destination being Regina.

Under terms set down by the federal government, none of the relocated Cree could actually be forced to stay on the reserves, as they didn’t have official ‘status’. Many chose to stay in Canada, though it was later determined a quarter of the deported Cree would return to Montana. In 1916, under pressure from humanitarians such as the western artist Charles M. Russell the American federal government agreed to allow the Cree their own reservation (reservation in US, reserve in Canada).  The Cree, along with a group of Metis, would join a band of Manitoba Ojibwa, led by their chief Rocky Boy, at the newly created Rocky Boy Agency near Box Elder, Montana.

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 Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission. Special thanks to Gord Tolton for contributing, and Chris Doering for reviewing & editing!  Another article to check out on this topic is Benjamin Hoy’s writeup on the deportation of the Cree as well;


Group of Stony Indians @ the Coutts / Sweetgrass Train Station – taken on June 30th, 1906. Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives











Cree chief Little Bear with Cree at the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana in March 1909 – Montana State University – Northern Archives #FM-1-134

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New Marketing Video!

Sit back and enjoy the video – a introduction to the Railway Park and some of our future plans! Thanks again to – Symbol Syndication – Video Production


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Upcoming Father’s Day Event @ the Galt Historic Railway Park!

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Rob Lennard the History Wrangler Performing at the Galt Historic Railway Park!

Rob Lennard, also known as the History Wrangler (follow him on Twitter at @AlbertaHistory), is a musician, singer/songwriter, and award winning historical fiction writer based out of Calgary, AB.  He has received both the Alberta Centennial Medal and the prestigious Heritage Awareness Award for his efforts of promoting the history of Alberta.


He is kick starting his Cowboy Trail 2016 tour at the Galt Historic Railway Park on June 1st, 2016 (Wednesday) over the noon hour.  His hour long performance will include great classic western songs from the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Ian Tyson, and also include historical based songs!  Additionally, Rob will be sharing some amazing stories of the railways in Alberta, and how they helped in the creation of the province!  There is no cost for the event, although donations to the Galt Historic Railway Park is appreciated!


The Galt Historic Railway Park is located 20 minutes south of Lethbridge on Highway 4, just north of the Village of Stirling.  At the Stirling turnoff, follow the black train station signs to the Railway Park (where the large red train station is located).  For more information, please contact or phone 403-756-2220.  As well check us out on Facebook & Twitter (@gcprs1890)

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Snowplows and Winter Scenes

With the winter weather outside, the Great Canadian Plains Railway Society thought to share some photos of winter’s past with the railways dealing with the white stuff!

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 Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


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Galt’s Southerly Expansion

The worldwide 1887 – 1888 recession struck the Galt family’s Lethbridge based coal company almost as soon as it went into production, necessitating finding new markets quickly if they were to survive. Their major customer was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but this meant the colliery was subject to the whims of that firm – sometimes much coal was ordered, and the next time very little. To remain profitable the Galt’s installed modern machinery and expanded mine operations, and the search was on to find 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, in that state, to exploit these new markets. However, the economic downturn in the United Kingdom shattered investor confidence forcing Galt, through two years of tenacious negotiations (and the cutting back of the railway line to Great Falls), in order to underwrite this 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. Railway yards and a 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 3,800 square foot International depot 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 structure was run by Donald Grant who brought 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 within days the first coal train leaving Lethbridge, Northwest Territories entered Great Falls, Montana in early October 1890. Great Falls reacted in much the same way as Lethbridge had when the railway first entered their limits. 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 fare was announced, to augment the passenger traffic. For $10, 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, that same distance can be covered easily, by automobile around 3 hours! Almost from its inception excursions were popular on the narrow gauge line. “Officially” opened to traffic on December 8th, 1890, and by 1893 four trains a day were running between Lethbridge and Great Falls.

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 Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.  Special thanks to Chris Doering for reviewing & editing!


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







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










Joint timetable of the AR&CC and GF&CR – May 1898





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Galt’s Expansion Dreams and the CPR

On November 27th, 1893, the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC) leased the narrow gauge line from Dunmore, near Medicine Hat, to Montana Junction, just outside of present day eastern limits of Lethbridge, to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Part of the agreement would include upgrading the track to standard gauge to accommodate the CPR rolling stock. The portion mentioned would include a third rail, so narrow gauge trains could still access the line that ran south to Great Falls, Montana. The CPR would purchase the entire line from Dunmore to Montana Junction in December 1897.


Construction of the narrow gauge line by the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) occurred in the spring of 1885 and ran from Coalbanks (present day Lethbridge) to Dunmore, 110 miles to the east. By August 25th, work was complete, and the next day Engineer Thomas McPherson, pilot of the sternwheeler Alberta, drove the first narrow gauge locomotive in from Dunmore. The arrival was commemorated with a photograph of the Baldwin locomotive and tender, with McPherson peering from the engine’s window. Jack Callahan was stoking the fire; as engineer on the CPR’s Countess of Dufferin, Callahan was the first locomotive pilot in western Canada. A few days later, McPherson’s train returned to Dunmore with twenty full gondolas of mined coal which was unloaded via an overhead coal dock to the waiting CPR standard gauge cars below. On October 19th, the thin iron road was officially opened up for traffic – just months before the CPR finished its transcontinental railway with the hammering of the last spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia on November 7th, 1885.


The NWC&NC’s original intent had always been to extend the railway line west to Fort MacLeod  and even beyond – they applied for and received a federal charter that would take them straight to Hope, BC via the Crowsnest Pass, which if played out, would give the firm additional revenue from shipping cattle from the numerous ranches in that district. With the discovery of coal and other hard rock minerals in the Crowsnest Pass and Kootenay areas, the stakes were raised considerably as other competitors were eyeing up the region – CPR of course, as well as the US based Great Northern Railway, the Grand Trunk Railway and also the Canadian Northern Railway. With the recent discoveries, CPR seriously considered building a second line into the mountains. With that being said, they began pushing south from Revelstoke, British Columbia and connecting with Nelson via steamboat.


Despite having the charter, the government dragged its feet on giving Elliot Galt the final approval to proceed. The hesitancy of the government added to the straining relationship the Galt’s had with CPR – trying to stave their main competitor away from dueling rail ambitions, while retaining their own coal business. By penetrating the coal rich Crowsnest Pass and Elk Valley, Elliott hoped to exploit these new fields and increase his company’s usefulness to the CPR. Armed with the government’s blessing, all he needed was money. And lots of it!


The CPR’s general superintendent, William Van Horne, was wary of his smaller rival’s shortcomings and their new Montana connections and told the Prime Minister of his concerns of “granting of a charter through the Crowsnest Pass to any company that may possibly fall under American control.” That was a veiled threat to Great Northern Railway and its president Canadian J.J. Hill – Van Horne’s cross border rival and personal enemy. Van Horne was playing the Dominion heartstrings to scare the Canadian government, but of course, he wanted the Crowsnest as a jewel in the CPR crown.


By 1893, financial circumstances were assaulting the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC) on all sides. At both Dunmore and Great Falls the narrow gauge railway restrictions bottle necked coal deliveries. The narrow to standard gauge coal transfer facilities were unable to feed the hungry Canadian Pacific Railway & Great Northern Railway’s needs fast enough. These circumstances revealed that Elliott Galt was not going to have the means to build the Crowsnest line. As a result, he then negotiated with CPR President Thomas George Shaughnessy to lease the Dunmore – Lethbridge line to them. As a sweetener, the CPR agreed to purchase more coal. Recall, a third rail was retained between on the one section, so the AR&CC narrow gauge rolling stock could still access the American line.  As well, the 1890 Crowsnest Pass charter was included as a lease to the CPR – the actual sale would take place four years later in 1897.


On Nov 23rd 1893, CPR cars entered Lethbridge for the first time.  Despite being a partial surrender of its transport control, the AR&CC benefited through the increased carrying capacity of the full size unit cars and a decrease in carrying costs, culminating in an increase in market share. However, the control the AR&CC had on the local railway scene loosened and a new era of railway development would be soon take place.

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 Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.  Special thanks to Chris Doering for reviewing & editing.

Fireman Andy Staysko stands in the gangway of Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company Engine 25 in Lethbridge – 1908. Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives 19760234102









Canadian Pacific Railway Engine 5058 and crew at Medicine Hat in 1913. Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives 19760234107


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The Galt Company Sternwheelers

In the fall of 1879, Elliot Torrance Galt was the government’s assistant Indian commissioner, a job he would never have obtained had it not been for the name of his father, Sir Alexander Galt. Though competent enough, he was not content with a safe patronage appointment and longed for some adventure to give him a chance to make his own mark. While riding through the present day location of Lethbridge, Alberta he encountered an American trader by the name of Nicholas Sheran who was picking coal out of exposed outcrops along the Belly (Oldman) River valley and was also operating a ferry operation. Galt was impressed with the abundance of the coal and mentioned it to his father. He was instructed by Sir Alexander to return within a year to get samples of the coal for analysis.


The test results proved that the coal was very high in carbon, suitable for steam generation and making coke, the fuel used in steel production. Another market was the railway; something Sir Alexander knew would be coming to the Canadian West soon enough. He was well aware of the government involvement with the CPR on the transcontinental railway and its approximate route would be within the area of these coal discoveries. A mine location would be selected across the river from Sheran’s workings and with that the face of the Canadian west would change with this coming wave of industrialization.


As Canada’s High Commissioner in London, England, Sir Alexander Galt was the most powerful Canadian in Britain. This prestigious appointment connected him with the most influential of elite London capitalists, those who had the cash to help start large scale mining operations on the remote Canadian prairies. After canvassing several wealthy individuals and families (including William H. Smith, William Lethbridge, William Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts, and the Baroness Burdett-Coutts) Galt was able to raise 50,000 pounds sterling (approx. $100,000 Canadian) to form the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC). Their goal was to exploit the coal deposits in the Belly river valley and transport it downstream to market and the fuel hungry Canadian Pacific Railway.


A contract was hammered out with the CPR to supply 20,000 tons of coal per year, and on October 13, 1882 shovels and picks attacked a seam of coal in the side of a coulee on the east side of the Belly River. Soon afterwards the settlement of Coalbanks was established around the mine in the valley. With a transcontinental railway creeping across the prairies, the coal in Coalbanks was of national significance, but to be of any value it had to be at the market, the closest point being 100 miles east where Medicine Hat was to be established, on the South Saskatchewan River. The link between Medicine Hat and Coalbanks was the South Saskatchewan River which connects into the Belly River. The ‘navigation’ reference in the NWC&NC name would become clear now.


The firm’s engineers developed a plan to build Sternwheelers to move barges down the river to market. They consulted the best technical people at the time in the town of Fort Benton, Montana to the south, and in 1883 Elliot Galt was able to lure sternwheeler captain Joe Todd northwards to Coalbanks to build his first boat for the firm. For raw materials, Todd and his crew went westward into the foothills to the Porcupine Hills where the NWC&NC had purchased a 50 square mile timber limit. A sawmill built in 1882, was employed to cut shoring for the new coal mine tunnels, and to also provide wood for the sternwheeler and the barges. As the wood was cut, mule & bull teams freighted them out of the hills down to Fort MacLeod by the river’s edge. There, twelve flat-bottom scows were assembled to move the lumber down the river to Coalbanks where the new sternwheeler was to be assembled. It took most of the spring to move the lumber and barges from Fort MacLeod to Coalbanks, although issues arose with the varying current heights and sandbars which slowed their progress. At the Coalbanks boatyard the first sternwheeler named Baroness took shape, mimicking the Missouri-style riverboats – 173 feet long x 30 feet wide. Any materials not available on site came from Fort Benton via Bull trains.


As the barges that brought the lumber to Coalbanks were modified to carry coal, a wharf was built and a short line track laid from the mine to the river to facilitate their loading. The CPR demanded Galt coal which replaced expensive Pennsylvania carbon it was purchasing in large quantities, and to assist in recovering some of the initial start up costs of the venture. With investors knocking on the door, Sir Alexander put the pressure on the boatyard to get the coal moving. From May to June, the scows were rafted down the river towards Medicine Hat. Each had four crew members on board to assist in the rafting.


Accidental beachings occurred frequently and the crew would then have to use brute strength and block & tackle to wrestle the scows free. Working in the ice-cold water was difficult and one man actually perished from pneumonia and was the first one buried in the Medicine Hat cemetery.


On June 25, 1883 Captain Todd launched the Baroness into the Belly River. She arrived in Medicine Hat one week later, just in time for town’s first ever Dominion Day celebration. However the joyous tone of the day was marred by a quick windstorm that damaged buildings within the town and also the flotilla on the river – two scows full of coal capsized under the driving winds and their precious cargo was sent to the bottom of the South Saskatchewan. Newspapers reported “their loss cannot be less than four or five thousand dollars” a fortune in 1883, and a setback in a fledgling operation that yet to see any true profits. Shrugging off the ordeal, the NWC&NC employees set to finish off the Baroness with the recently arrived steam engines and to build the crucial sternwheeler. The steam engines were state-of-the-art 49hp manufactured by Rees & Sons of Pittsburgh. Finishing up the ship took about a month to complete.


A serious flaw in the ship’s construction arose when it was discovered that the six inch diameter copper pipe conducting steam to the engine was half a foot too long! Scarcely believing he made such a rookie mistake, Captain Todd carefully re-measured the Baroness length and was shocked to discover the boat was actually 174 feet – six inches long, not the 175 feet he believed it was! A solution was derived to cut the pipe down to size – something that was hard to do, considering there weren’t many precision tools available in town. They made do with what was available and the pipe was cut to length. Additional problems arose attaching the said pipe to the steam engine, but it was done as best as they could. The lack of proper tools was evident when the engine was started and pin holes appeared in the connection causing the steam to hiss and spit out. The timing could not have been worse, as standing on the boat was his boss Sir Alexander Galt (who had come out west for the inaugural maiden voyage of his vessel) and standing beside him was the white-bearded tycoon Donald Smith, in town to inspect the CPR construction progress and to congratulate Sir Alexander on his endeavor! However at the last minute, a NWC&NC employee stepped up to fix the leaking connection and the day was saved. He was warmly congratulated by both Sir Alexander and Donald Smith.


On August 6, 1883 the maiden voyage of the Baroness took place. With the boilers & engines performing flawlessly, the 200 ton sternwheeler drew only 18 inches of water. On board were Sir Alexander, Donald Smith, and a large party of corporate executives, newspaper reporters, and local politicians. Cargo included a large shipment of farm machinery built by the Fairbanks Morse company, which would be unloaded at Coalbanks after the trip (where a bull train would take the shipment to Fort MacLeod). A few days later the Baroness returned to Coalbanks with the scows in tow. The big issue for the 1883 season was the temperamental river currents – despite only drawing 18 inches while in motion; the fully loaded sternwheeler would narrowly miss having its hull scrape the bottom of the river! The river height fell after June 20, and the Baroness was unable to travel fully loaded in the river and was reduced to pushing scows instead of towing them as initially thought.


Despite the problems faced, approximately 200 tons of coal was delivered to the CPR in 1883, lower than planned due to low water and that short season. The Galt’s were undaunted and persuaded shareholders to have another go at it. A second sternwheeler was approved to be built, and a third to be purchased. Construction began on the second in the fall of 1883, to be christened Alberta, after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. It was 100 feet long by 20 feet wide, much smaller than the Baroness and incorporated imported American oak shipped in from Minnesota. Unlike the Baroness’ flat bottom, the Alberta included an actual keel that reduced the draft height by six inches. Again Rees & Sons of Pittsburgh were contracted to supply the engines, with a combined rating of 30 hp. The maiden voyage was on April 15, 1884 and the Alberta weighed 86 tons and had a cargo capacity of 150 tons. The reduction in size made the vessel more powerful and more maneuverable when navigating temperamental river waters. The third vessel was to be the ‘tugboat’ to assist the larger two vessels – such a ship was found at the boatyards at Rat Portage (present day Kenora Ontario) and was quickly purchased by the NWC&NC. A mere 75 feet long by 10 feet wide, the Minnow was loaded onto a CPR flatcar and shipped to Medicine Hat. Four days after the Alberta touched the water, the Minnow was launched.


The Sternwheelers arriving at Coalbanks in the spring of 1884 aroused the curiosity of as the local Blood natives. Seeing these ‘fire canoes’ on their home river, many expressed a desire to see them up close. Their arrival at the boatyard created a great deal of excitement among the workers, many of which had never seen a native up close! Many Bloods came to Coalbanks to set up camp and to watch the work on the boats and at the coal mine.


With 17 scows, the fleet prepared for the first full season of coal transport. The Baroness and Alberta could each transport 500 tons between their cargo space on board and the barges that were pushed, pulled, or lashed alongside. The stat of the 1884 season revealed how horribly flawed the whole scheme truly was. The trips took too long and the water levels were low and unpredictable. Suitable water depth wasn’t achieved until the end of May – Sir Alexander fussed and fumed that for all his money and power he couldn’t control the river. As soon as conditions allowed, the boats were quickly put to use, but the shipping season was short: only 33 days! As water levels dropped, sandbars threatened the fleet. While a sternwheeler could make the trip downriver to Medicine Hat in 8 hours, it often took up to five days to return back from Coalbanks. Fighting the upstream currents burning what scarce firewood could be found or even portions of the coal cargo. In the 1884 season, the steamers and their barges made 17 trips between Coalbanks and Medicine Hat. Less than 4,000 tons were delivered on a contract that stipulated 20,000. Competition was looming for a fuel contract the firms seemed incapable of fulfilling. The answer was clear; to feed a railway the Galt’s would need a railway. In light of the company’s need to fulfill their contract and to expand and take new orders, the NWCN&NC announced in January 1885 to build a narrow gauge track from Coalbanks to the CPR rail head at Dunmore. The boats would be tied up for the remainder of the 1884 season with their crews laid off.


The Northcote was built at a cost of $53,000 and was launched August 1, 1874. The namesake of the previous Hudson Bay Company’s governor, Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (later known as the Earl of Iddelseigh) who persuaded the Hudson Bay Company to implement steamboats on the inland rivers and lakes of Manitoba and Northwest Territories (present day Saskatchewan and Alberta). The Northcote was capable of carrying 150 tons, drawing 3.5 feet of water fully loaded.


As it was with any prairie river network, the navigation season was short, usually late May to September, with a highly erratic schedule depending on the weather, snow pack accumulation and how long the spring and summer melt could sustain river levels. For ten incredible summers between 1874 and 1883, the Northcote was as much a fixture on the North Saskatchewan River as the old fur forts that lined its shore once were. The boat accompanied incredible change, with the establishment of towns like Fort Saskatchewan, North Battleford, and Prince Albert. In 1878, the Northcote suffered damage while running the boulder-strewn Cole’s Falls. The HBC used its new position as transport mogul to have its land commissioner lobby the federal government for capital improvements to the river; building dams, deepening channels and the dredging boulders. If the government would help with this, if promised, the HBC could provide bigger vessels. But Ottawa took no action, and the boatyards lay silent save for the refitting of the existing HBC fleet.


In 1882, an agreement between HBC and the Winnipeg & Western Transportation Company (with a minority of shares held by HBC), leading both the Northcote and its sister ship the Lily to be paper-sold to W&WTC.  W&WTC was organized by a group of Manitoba merchants, lawyers, and bankers to provide transportation on the Manitoba lakes and rivers. However increased competition from the railways, no support from the federal government, and continued low water levels hurt the Manitoba stern-wheeler fleet. The Lily was regulated to running between Prince Albert and Medicine Hat, but was lost on August 28th 1883 to a submerged boulder. In minutes, as the ship’s crew and passengers abandoned ship, the vessel settled into 3 feet of water. No lives were lost, but the wrecks location in a valley with steep banks made recovery impossible. Some machinery was salvaged, but the rest of the vessel was left abandoned. Undaunted, W&WTC had the flagship Northcote transferred to the South Saskatchewan River. The Northcote‘s first run on the south branch wasn’t until July 15, 1884 – held back due to a possible sale to the Galt’s NWC&NC. Two and a half weeks later the ship reached Medicine Hat, where the season was over and the potential sale terminated. With no other home in site, the ship was winched ashore to await its fate along with the beached Galt boats. In winter of 1884 became the spring of 1885, war drums further downstream summoned the Sternwheelers into service.


Word of the Duck Lake battle sent the country into a panic. Through only dispatch riders and a telegraph line connected the prairies to the outside world; details of the defeat were on the Prime Minister’s desk in Ottawa the next morning. Government officials and military advisors met with Prime Minister MacDonald to draft a response. Major General Fredrick Middleton realized the rivers would be the key in defeating the rebels. Supplies, troops and ordnance could be moved to Swift Current by rail, and shipped by river the remainder of the way. Assembling a river flotilla seemed to make sense. In Montreal, a powerful financier and former government official agreed with the general’s reasoning, for he happened to have 3 dormant Sternwheelers Sir Alexander Galt saw an opportunity to employ his out of work and unprofitable coal boats and rubbed his hands in glee at the prospect of war revenue.


Medicine Hat, where the Galt ships Alberta, Baroness, and Minnow sat, the town’s hopes of becoming a centre of navigation had been dashed by the CPR. Why depend on a fluctuating river when a dependable all-season connection to the rest of the country existed? The CPR trestle, which spanned the river at the right angle, formed a psychological barrier to riverboat progress. Still the railway was accommodating and an installed a swinging span that would allow the boats to pass unimpeded.


Suddenly the idle fleet, deprived of economic significance, acquired military significance. The same fate that heartened the Galt’s was shared by the HBC, although more guardedly in true company fashion. Combined with three other HBC vessels, the Northcote, and the Galt vessels a total of seven ships could be made available to the Canadian military – if they could only get out of port!  A series of telegraphs between HBC commissioner Joseph Wrigley, Sir Alexander Galt, and defense minister Caron over engaging the fleet for military service took place. The telegraphs reveal the caginess of the executives to influence the government decision to use the boats.  While Galt was eager to sign his boats to the government, Wrigley was far more cautious in signing away his company’s property. Galt proudly declared Medicine Hat to be free of any winter ice that might stall the launch of the fleet. He then wired the Prime Minister’s office to get the ball rolling on the scheme. When the defense minister wired the HBC to get things going at their end, they were flatly told the river was full of ice at Medicine Hat and it would not be opened for at least a week!


While waiting for further details on the ice situation, a more immediate concern reached the PMO, relating the extreme paranoia in Medicine Hat. Rumours of the town being attacked by natives with no arms to defend themselves. The pressure was on the minister of defense to get the boats moving was great.  Repeated telegraphs back and forth between HBC, Sir Alexander and the government suggested that April 2nd was an anticipated date the boats could be launched.  At Medicine Hat, work began on refurbishing the dormant vessels to operational status. Sir Alexander sent telegraphs to both Prime Minister MacDonald and minister Caron to ensure his boats were not left out of the battle and that HBC would not get all the glory. Minister Caron instructed General Middleton to begin his arrangements of transporting the troops and supplies from Swift Current. The boats would leave as soon as the ice cleared. However, with few policemen around to guard the boats, or the town for that matter, the rumors and gossip escalated that the boats could be targeted by the rebels. The minister of defense instructed the NWMP Superintendent William Herchmer to take 200 men to Medicine Hat to guard the boats and the CPR bridge. (This was before the Rocky Mountain Rangers was formed – see Part 1)  The CPR took them by rail west to meet the purported threat head on, but if there was a threat it was invisible!


With the riverboats engaged and in place, fuel had to be found. Though there were supplies of coal on the prairies they could not be utilized at the time. Coal from Galt’s mines could not be shipped from Coalbanks as the Sternwheelers were unable to make the journey upstream through the ice and low water flow. The narrow gauge railway construction just started and the bull trains couldn’t possibly haul the required volumes needed. Minister Caron instructed the CPR general manager William Cornelius Van Horne to send 150 tons of coal to Medicine Hat and to Swift Current to be used by the Galt boats.  It was later decided to haul all the coal to Medicine Hat and to use the barges to move part of it up the river when the boats were to leave. But they hadn’t left yet and it was a concern to all involved.  Organization at ground level for the boat launches was left to Elliot Galt. He left Montreal for Medicine Hat to personally oversee the relaunch of the fleet. Finally on April 5, the word everyone was waiting for was issued via telegraph “ice just started to run – all clear in 12 hours”.  The NWMP men, bored with daily patrols, assisted the workers in getting the boats in the water. Herchmer intended to have the Northcote transport his contingent to Saskatchewan Landing to join the fighting. But when the telegraph wires buzzed with rumors of an impending attack at Swift Current by rebels, Herchmer and his men jumped onto a special CPR train to speed east before the boat was even ready.  Fortunately, there was enough weapons and ammunition for the local settlers to arm themselves and patrol the area.


With his father’s political connections, Elliot Galt was able to secure a special CPR train to bring the laid off Manitoban river boat crews to Medicine Hat to assist with the final preparations. On the evening of April 8, the train arrived at Medicine Hat and some 70 ex-riverboat men stepped off ready to get the ships into the water. On April 9, the Northcote took to the river and with supplies and two coal scows in tow, began heading downstream towards Saskatchewan. Just a day later, the Galt ships were ready to set sail, but the water levels changed overnight. From a 22″ height on the 9th, the river shrank to a height of 13″ on the 10th – basically delaying Middelton’s plans for the ships. The three Galt vessels would be launched from Medicine Hat, but a normal trip of three days would take 25 days with reduced river levels.


As the Canadian army cooled their heels, the whereabouts of the ships became a national worry. Elliot Galt tried his best to push the boats along, but with low water levels and sandbars, all they could do was winch, shout, push, pull, and send telegrams on progress. To assist in the communication woes, Galt assigned a dispatch rider to report on the boats progress and river conditions. He had too much on his plate however, and besides riding along on the boats, he had a narrow gauge railway line under construction and a coal mine to operate – the family business was expanding and it needed young Galt, not crawling riverboats. He wired his concerns to his father in Montreal, who talked to minister Caron.  It was decided a military officer would be assigned to the river boats, and Middleton suggested Lieutenant Colonel Charles Houghton. Struggling with the low river levels, the Minnow progressed onward toward Swift Current with two coal scows leaving the larger boats behind to catch up. When Elliot wired his father just days later saying the larger boats were stranded on a sand bar, Sir Alexander had to sheepishly apologize to the defense minister on the ongoing delays and the possibility the larger two boats may not be able to assist with the war effort as much as hoped. On April 17th a spring blizzard buffeted the two boats on the river with heavy snow, wind, and bone-chilling cold which hampered efforts. The low water and the consistent sand bars were causing problems for the boats and the fear of possibly damaging them was great.  The wait was effecting the Canadian military, they needed a decision – wait for the boats or start a journey from Swift Current heading overland. It was decided to move on. The boats would have to catch up.

Four days later the Minnow and the barges arrived at Saskatchewan Landing (north of Swift Current).  Despite its shallow draft, the stern wheeler had run aground many times on the long voyage from Medicine Hat, damaging its hull. The constant running aground or high centering had caused the crew to abandon the two barges. The mission for the Minnow was revised as a military freighter – it was to take the medical corps, the Gatling gun and the nine-pounder cannon ammunition and to proceed up river to catch up with the Northcote. Additional supplies of feed for the horses was also arranged to be carried in an additional barge behind the Minnow. Not even 15 miles down the river then the barges ran aground at the rapids of Swift Current creek. They were abandoned and the Minnow carried onward, although at a slow pace. Without a Canadian military representative on board, the civilian crew doddle along until reaching Batoche almost at the end of the conflict! Troops were then sent back to retrieve the abandoned barges which were damaged considerably. Materials and tools were then sent by the CPR to Swift Current and couriered northwards towards their locations where they were repaired.


As the barges were being repaired, the second wave of spring melt water lifted the larger two Galt Sternwheelers after weeks of paralysis. The Baroness pulled into Saskatchewan Landing on May 5th, after 25 days passage from Medicine Hat. The Alberta stumbled in the next day, each boat towing a barge. There was no point in catching up with the Northcote. With his ships landed but not loaded, Elliot Galt thought it was a good time to negotiate with the government for their cost of services. When the negotiations were finished, the NWC&NC received $1000 per day ($600 plus expenses) for all three steamers.


The remaining stockpile of supplies (354 tons) and 400 troops was loaded onto the two boats at Saskatchewan Landing. On May 11th, the two boats and their barges left and headed downstream towards the fighting at Batoche. The little navy would have no hope of getting in on the main fight though. As they headed north, the battle of Batoche was already raging and would be concluded by the time the Baroness and the Alberta would arrive. Nerveless, the supplies and troops they brought would be much appreciated by the others involved in the campaign.


On May 18th, the Baroness and Alberta were ordered to Clarke’s Crossing (east of present day Warman, Saskatchewan) to assist in ferrying troops across the river and then continue to Prince Albert.  The Baroness did not reach Prince Albert until May 23rd – there it off loaded supplies and troops and took on 38 tons of supplies, wounded troops, and a civilian newspaper reporter. The ship turned around and headed to North Battleford, where the Alberta was to meet, although that vessel was temporarily halted as it snagged a submerged tree and damaged its hull. Repairs were made and it limped into North Battleford with two barges in tow. General Middleton put the steamers into further war service for troop transport. Backlogs in the supply system meant the steamers often did double duty as a ferry.  The Alberta stayed behind at Fort Carlton doing such work, while the Baroness and the other ships were sent down the river. Rumors of retaliation by Chief Poundmaker’s band added tension to the atmosphere as the ferrying was hurried along. Ironically surrender was on the Chief’s mind not retaliation, and on May 26 Chief Poundmaker and a small band of Cree rode to where the boats were moored at North Battleford and a surrender ceremony was conducted. On May 29, with a new ferry established at Fort Carlton, the Alberta was able to sail to Fort Pitt (northwest of present-day North Battleford) to join the remainder of the fleet. Finding North Battleford short of supplies, General Middleton sent the Baroness back to Prince Albert for supplies. On May 30th, the ship pulled into port and loaded 63 tons of supplies and 13 sacks of mail for the troops. By the time the Baroness returned to North Battleford, news of the skirmish between a band of Cree led by chief Wandering Spirit and the Alberta Field Force led by Major-General Thomas Strange near the Frenchman’s Butte was emerging.  The battle was a victory for the Cree & the Metis, albeit a hollow one. It bought them time to escape from Strange, but the Rebellion was hopeless.


Regardless, troops were rushed out onto the ships to take them upstream towards the renewed search for Wandering Spirit and his band. The Baroness brought up supplies and more troops to Fort Pitt. On June 5, the Alberta joined the Baroness at Fort Pitt although the reunion was short lived – the Baroness was ordered to go to North Battleford and then on June 9 set sail to Prince Albert to pick up more supplies for the campaign and to re-stock the smaller detachments along the way. The Alberta was regulated to ferry duties at Fort Pitt.


With the surrender of Cree chief Big Bear on June 25th, the hostilities came to a close. The Alberta began transferring the wounded and non-essential troops to Saskatoon. The remainder of the naval fleet would take the troops to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, where after crossing Lake Winnipeg, the troops would be dropped off and take the CPR train back east. The Baroness took troops to Edmonton, while the Minnow returned supplies back to Saskatoon. Afterwards the Alberta and Baroness joined the other ships in the eastward trip to Manitoba that commenced in early July and wrapped up a month later. The Alberta was finally able to return back to Coalbanks on June 24, 1886 completing a circuit that started nearly two years earlier. Her wartime tour included stopping at Edmonton, northern Saskatchewan, and to the edge of Lake Winnipeg. The Coalbanks it left in 1884 was a different settlement in 1886 – it was now a town with a new name ‘Lethbridge’, and it was now located on top of the river valley at the head of the railway. Coal would now travel on rail cars instead of river scows and the grand experiment of Sternwheelers on the Belly River was finished. The Alberta‘s return was greeted not by brass bands, but by workmen armed with saws, hammers, and bars.  The boat was deconstructed; the steam engine went to a new sawmill, portions of the boat were relocated to be used as a boarding house, the remainder of the lumber was used to build two houses, and the boiler went to the Galt’s coal mine, where it was fired up for the benefit of a engine that pulled loaded coal cars up a inclined railway to the top of the valley. After that mine closed, the boilers were relocated to the town powerhouse where they were used to generate energy for the first electric lights in Lethbridge. All that was left was the hull that was used by locals as a playground and diving platform until a spring flood in 1902 washed away.  The brass bell was saved by the local fire department, where it was used to sound off the curfew each evening. It is now stored at the Galt Museum.


The Baroness never returned to Lethbridge – although it did try though in the summer of 1886 with a load of farm machinery destined for Fort MacLeod. Near Bow Island it got stuck on a sandbar in the river and after several unsuccessful attempts the machinery was unloaded and the boat turned back to Medicine Hat. The steam engines and boilers were then removed and shipped back to Lethbridge by rail to be used in the #3 Galt coal mine, and the remainder of the boat sat on the riverbank where it was stripped and torn apart by locals. The same flood that claimed the Alberta in 1902 also claimed the Baroness. The Minnow had little to do in the Rebellion, thanks to its lackadaisical civilian captain. The Galt’s returned the Minnow to Lethbridge, but in a couple years they sold it to the Lamoureux Brothers based out of Edmonton, who planned on using the vessel to float timber downriver to their sawmills.  In the summer of 1887, the two brothers Joseph & Frank arrived in Lethbridge with $1000 cash. They left via the river on the Minnow while Elliot Galt pocketed the cash. The brother’s sailed their new purchase and used it to tow rafts and float timbers down the North Saskatchewan River. It was renamed Minou and spent the next eleven years working until running aground in 1895 where the hull was damaged. They then sold it in 1898 to a man named Cunliffe who operated a flour mill in Fort Saskatchewan. He died unexpectedly, and the boat broke its moorings in a flood and then drifted away down river until beaching up a creek. It sat rotting away exposed to the elements.


The final costs of running the Sternwheelers during the Rebellion was staggering to say the least – the Galt’s submitted nearly $79,000 worth of bills. Claims for lost scows, tarpaulins, lifeboats, and damage to the Alberta, Barroness, and Minnow were disallowed as the government felt the losses were part of the ‘natural obstacles of navigation’ or ‘incurred by the dangers of navigation’ or ‘inefficiency of the boat pilots’ and were not a fair charge against the Department. To add insult to injury, tonnages and specifications were used to compare their fleet with the rival HBC fleet, and by the accounting was done, another $18,000 worth of claims was disallowed. But the NWC&NC was fortunate enough through Sir Alexander Galt’s high-level negotiations, to carry many of their costs on the government hook. He had gotten a $20,000 cash advance from the Department of Defense before the boats left Coalbanks, and had charged more than $30,000 to the government during the campaign. The government accountants figured they only owed the Galt’s $10,000.

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.  Special thanks to Chris Doering for reviewing & editing.

The Cowboy Cavalry: The Story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers – Gordon E. Tolton

Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion – Gordon E. Tolton

Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives


Launching the “Minnow” at Medicine Hat – 1884 – Courtesy of the Galt Museum & Archives 19760238103








The “Minnow” and “Baroness” docked by the CPR bridge in Medicine Hat – 1885 – Note the swing bridge span in the foreground – Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives 19770217000










Former “Alberta” sternwheeler steam engine being used on inclined railway – note narrow gauge locomotive off to the side – Lethbridge in 1886 – Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives 19891046021-011










“Baroness” sternwheeler at Medicine Hat in 1883 – note original CPR bridge in background – Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives 19891046021-017





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Rocky Mountain Rangers


Original article by Jason Paul Sailer – additional information & editing supplied by Gord Tolton.

One of the volunteer militia units raised in the Northwest Territories (the name of the western prairies of Canada before provinces were established) in response to the 1885 Rebellion was the Rocky Mountain Rangers (RMR), a group of civilians / frontiersmen & ex-military men from the southern part of present day Alberta.

On the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, discontent among the mixed-blood Métis society, and those of their Cree and Assiniboine allies, erupted into armed conflict. The intents of Blackfoot nations closer to the Rocky Mountains and the United States – Canada border were still in doubt. To newcomers out on the western prairies, remote living brought fears and fueled rumors.  The main purpose of the RMR was to fight as a mounted Calvary against either discontented Canadian natives or border-jumping American warriors.  They were to supplement patrols of the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) and provide security to the railroad construction crews.

The unit was organized and commanded by John O. Stewart, a rancher turned militia Calvary officer who ranched near Fort Macleod.  On March 18th, 1885 an armed force of Métis seized the town of Batoche, Saskatchewan and demanded the surrender of the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Carlton.  At the time of the seizure of Batoche, Stewart was visiting family in Ottawa and he quickly contacted the Minister of Militia and Defense, Adolphe Caron, offering to raise a volunteer mounted unit for service as the Federal government seen fit. The Métis revolt spread to the surrounding communities including Duck Lake, where on March 26th, Métis led by their leader Louis Riel, clashed with the NWMP and a group of local armed volunteers.  The battle ended shortly afterwards with the police and volunteers retreating to Fort Calton.  Nine volunteers and three NWMP members were killed, with many more injured.  Five Metis and one native warrior died.  As the news of the Duck Lake battle hit the headlines down east, the government was forced to act quickly to end the fighting.  Stewart was directed in early March 1885 to organize “four units of Rocky Mountain Rangers”.  Stewart was in immediate communication by telegraph with former military contacts back home to begin the effort of organizing the units.  On the way back home to Alberta, Stewart stopped over in Winnipeg to order supplies and received word he was promoted to the rank of Major.  In the meantime, the Canadian Pacific Railway began arranging troops to be transported on the recently completed railway line, enabling them to reach the region where the fighting was occurring in a week and a half later.  Troops would be arriving from Ontario, Quebec, and as well as Nova Scotia.  Out west, many locals volunteered to fight under Major General Fredrick Middleton and the remainder of the Canadian troops.

As soon as Stewart got home he went about organizing the troops of Rangers, who would then report to General Thomas B. Strange’s ‘Alberta Field Force’ which was organizing and preparing to head east towards the fighting.  Stewart took over the local Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) offices to finalize the paperwork and weed through the volunteers in forming the troops.  He was also authorized to recruit Americans, who accounted for a large fraction of local population—robe traders, range riders and bull-team freighters working new homesteads—a rich resource of home-grown talent who knew the prairie, and how to ride and shoot.  Volunteers were expected to provide horses, tack and firearms, but as uniformity and quality of weaponry were problematic, Stewart distributed fifty Model 1876 .45-75 Winchester rifles.  Armed with these weapons, the Rangers had no identifiable uniform, just functional work clothing: “a sombrero, or a broad-brimmed felt hat with wide leather band, coat of Montana broadcloth or canvas lined with flannel, a shirt of buckskin, breeches of the same, a cartridge belt attached to which is a large sheath knife, and the indispensable leather chaps. Top boots with huge Mexican spurs completed the equipment.”  Ex-Mounties accessorized with yellow-striped breeches. Rangers were encouraged to pin the left side of the wide brim of their felt slouch hat up the crown.

After two weeks of quick training (often marred by the men not taking it seriously), one hundred men divided into three troops of Rangers departed Fort Macleod at the end of May; troops #1 & 2 headed east towards Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, while troop #3 was left to patrol Fort Macleod and the Pincher Creek regions and to bolster the diminished NWMP posts.  Troops #1 & 2 were to guard the narrow gauge railway construction, the Federal telegraph line, and the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge in Medicine Hat, and leading them east included famed western scout Kootenai Brown.  The areas south towards the Cypress Hills and the border country were of concern as well.  The Macleod Gazette reported “the corps is composed of a fine body of men, and as they marched past armed to the teeth with Winchester rifles and cross belts jammed full of cartridges – there was one opinion expressed regarding them and that was that they would make it extremely unhealthy for several times their numbers of rebel half-breeds or natives should occasion require action.”

The RMR’s arrived at Coalbanks not long after.  It was a settlement located at the bottom of the Belly (Oldman) River valley.  In the fall of 1879, Elliot Torrance Galt was the government’s assistant Indian commissioner, a job he would never have obtained had it not been for the name of his father, Sir Alexander Galt.  Though competent enough, he was not content with a safe patronage appointment and longed for some venture to give him a chance to make his own mark.  While riding through the present day location of Lethbridge, Alberta he encountered a former US trader by the name of Nicholas Sheran who was picking coal out of exposed outcrops along the Belly river valley and was also operating a ferry operation.  Galt was impressed with the abundance of the coal and mentioned it to his father.  He was instructed by Sir Alexander to return within a year to get samples of the coal for analysis.

The test results proved that the coal was very high in carbon, highly used in steam generation and for making coke, the fuel used in making steel.  Another market was railway steam locomotives, something Sir Alexander knew would be eventually coming to the Canadian west.  He was well aware of the government involvement with the CPR on the transcontinental railway, and its approximant route would be within the area of these coal sources.  A mine location would be selected across the river from Sheran’s mine and the face of the Canadian west would change with the incoming wave of industrialization.

As Canada’s High Commissioner in London, England Sir Alexander Galt was the most powerful Canadian in Britain.  This prestigious appointment connected him with the most influential of elite London capitalists, those who had the cash to help start first large scale mining operations in the remote Canadian prairies.  After canvassing several wealthy individuals and families (including William H. Smith, William Lethbridge, William Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts, and the Baroness Burdett-Coutts) Galt was able to raise 50,000 pounds sterling (approx. $100,000 Canadian) to form the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC), basically to exploit the coal deposits in the Belly river valley and transport it downstream to market – which was to be the fuel hungry Canadian Pacific Railway.

A contract was hammered out with the CPR to supply 20,000 tons of coal per year, and on October 13, 1882 shovels and picks attacked a seam of coal in the side of a coulee on the east side of the Belly river.  Soon afterwards the settlement of Coalbanks was established around the mine in the valley.  With a transcontinental railway creeping across the prairies, the coal in Coalbanks was of national significance, but to be of any value it had to be at the market, and the closest point to the market was 100 miles east where Medicine Hat would be established on the South Saskatchewan River.  The link between Medicine Hat and Coalbanks was the fact that the South Saskatchewan River connects into the Belly River.  The ‘navigation’ portion of NWC&NC would now come into effect.

And it was here that Elliott and Nelson Todd launched the Baroness in 1883, the namesake of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts.  The Galt’s established a boatyard near the Coalbanks mine, and used wood from their Porcupine Plains sawmill. It was joined by the Alberta, another coal carrier, christened after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, launched April 15, 1884. The Minnow sternwheeler was loaded upon a rail flat car and shipped to Medicine Hat to be used as a tug boat for the larger two vessels. A scheme to float coal down river by barges & stern wheelers proved unreliable due to the unpredictable river water levels.  The three ships were moored at Medicine Hat in the fall of 1884 and were for sale or demolition.  However, the fighting in Saskatchewan would create a new role for these vessels.  These three ships would join other privately owned sternwheelers to assist in the Riel Rebellion in central Saskatchewan by transporting supplies and troops.

To feed the railroad, Galt had to build a railroad.  So in January 1885, the NWC&NC announced plans to build a 104 mile narrow gauge railroad from the mines at Coalbanks to the CPR junction at Medicine Hat.  William Cox, a NWMP constable from Fort Macleod stated in his report “construction on the Galt railroad from Dunmore to Lethbridge, otherwise known as the ‘Turkey Track railroad’ began.  This line and the accompanying telegraph line was going to be one of the main objectives of the RMRs.

Despite the federal government order to protect the railroad, the RMR felt obliged to the defense of the ranch country.  Upon the arrival at Coalbanks, Stewart sent 10 rangers north to assist NWMP patrols between Fort Macleod and High River, providing a line of communication between the isolated ranches.  This helped stem the tide of unsubstantiated rumors flooding the country and reassure the ranchers their concerns of protection were being heard.  Wasting no time, Major Stewart left a detachment of rangers at Coalbanks and proceeded eastwards towards Medicine Hat following the proposed route of the Turkey Track.  The troops were a welcome sight to calm the nerves of the jumpy workers.  Six days later they arrived into the railroad town of Medicine Hat.  It came into existence along the South Saskatchewan River in 1883, the chosen site of the strategic bridge that would carry the CPR to Calgary and the Rocky Mountains.  Crews building the bridge and laying the tracks made Medicine Hat a rough-and-tumble boomtown.

As battles raged to the north, the Bloods and Peigans were quiet, and the Blackfoot pledged neutrality.  Still, loose stories of marauders abounded. The locals heard unsubstantiated rumors of Blackfoot attacks – a motion was made to open the drawbridge portion of the bridge to prevent a mounted force crossing the river into town, but was rebuffed by the local NWMP superintendent who scoffed at the notion, and bravely boast that his detachment could easily stand and defeat Crowfoot and his braves.  The RMR set up a camp near the South Saskatchewan River for the region, but Stewart faced a morale problem in his ranks, his men wanted to fight natives, not protect bridges!

After settling in Medicine Hat, long, monotonous patrols were sent out into the Cypress Hills, strategic hunting grounds of the Métis, with sheltered trails leading to Montana. The Blood and the Peigan were quiet.  The RMR & NWMP escorted wagon trains, and patrolled the bull train trail between Macleod and the US Border, Galt’s railway, and the Dominion Telegraph construction projects.  Stewart felt that embattled Cree or Métis might regroup in the Hills or escape through the dense jack pines, into American settlements, and posted a $1,000 bounty for the capture of Riel. With the eventual Métis defeat at Batoche, Riel surrendered to government forces, but the Rangers failed to capture Riel’s military general, Gabriel Dumont, a legendary buffalo hunter whose knowledge of the country allowed him to slip across the border.

Like most of the other voluntary units formed in the Territories during the rebellion, the Rocky Mountain Rangers existed officially for three months.  By June 3rd, the troops began to wind down operations and began heading back to Fort Macleod.  By July all three RMR troops were back in Fort Macleod, and were officially struck off on July 17, 1885.  For exemplary performance and hardships endured, 114 Rangers were awarded the North West Canada Medal and became eligible for 320 acres of homestead land. These grants encouraged the veterans to become established as pioneer settlers in southern Alberta.


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.


The Cowboy Cavalry: The Story of the Rocky Mountain Rangers – Gordon E. Tolton

Prairie Warships: River Navigation in the Northwest Rebellion – Gordon E. Tolton



Edward N. Baker, Rocky Mountain Rangers – 1885 – Glenbow Archives NA-619-1









Scout ‘Kootenai’ Brown leading the Rocky Mountain Rangers at Medicine Hat, AB – 1885 – Glenbow Archives NA-619-3










Photo of Major John Stewart of the Rocky Mountain Rangers – 1885 – Glenbow Archives NA-1724-1













#3 Company of the Halifax Provisional Battalion at Medicine Hat, AB – 1885 – Glenbow Archives NA-1323-6








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Upcoming Victorian Prairie Christmas Event!

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