Long before the Europeans arrived, the Indigenous roamed though the landscape and the future location of Pincher Creek. Often, they were following the massive herds of bison that moved through the area.
The Indigenous nations that lived in the area were the Blackfoot, Pe-kawny and the Kootenai.
According to the History of the Early Days of Pincher Creek, written in 1920, the Indigenous name for Pincher Creek was Little Spitzee, with spitzee meaning a stream with trees along its bank.
One of the most notable Indigenous men to live in the area was White Bird, who came from eastern Oregon into Montana and then up into Canada during the Nez Perce War in 1877. Following the Battle of Bear Paw in Montana, White Bird and his fellow warriors were attacked at night by General Nelson Miles and his force. After a five-day fight, many of the warriors surrendered but White Bird refused. He would leave in the night of Oct. 5, 1877 with 100 people, many women, and children, slipping through the American lines and coming into Canada. He would arrive at the camp of Sitting Bull at first, before moving out to Pincher Creek to settle and live out their lives. White Bird would never return to the United States and was murdered on March 6, 1892 by an Indigenous man named Charley
Has-en-aha-mah-kikt, who was sent to Stony Mountain Institution to serve out his days.
Today, Pincher Creek sits on Treaty 7 land and the Piikani Nation and Kainai Nation live nearby.
Also in the area were the Metis, who began to settle further west as Canadians and Europeans pushed in from the east. The Metis settled in the area as the bison trade was beginning to decline and it was through the Metis that the legendary Father Lacombe would come to the area. For many of the Metis who were displaced followed the 1885 North West Resistance, they would settle in the Pincher Creek area and many Metis remain in the area.
Founding of The Community
The history of Pincher Creek dates back to 1868, or at least the name does. It was in that year that a group of prospectors, Joe Healy, Red Rock Jim, Mart Holloway, John Nelson, and William Lee, were in the area. While there, they lost a pincer, what we would call pliers today, in the small creek nearby. These pincers were important, as they were used to trim the feet of horses and it was not something you wanted to lose while in the middle of nowhere. Hence, the name of Pincher Creek was born, but not quite yet.
In 1874, the North West Mounted Police conducted their March West, and arrived in southern Alberta. They would set up their headquarters at nearby Fort Macleod and patrols through the area soon began. Soon after, one North West Mounted Police officer happened to discover the rusting tool that the prospectors had lost six years previous, in the creek. From there, Pincher Creek was the name given to the creek. In 1880, that name appeared on a Geological Survey Report.
Two years after naming the creek, the North West Mounted Police set up a horse farm, and it would operate for the next five years. It was from those officers that the community would begin to spring up. Several of the officers chose to stay in the area.
Before the community of Pincher Creek was ever formed, it received a very well-known visitor when in 1881, the Marquis of Lorne, the Governor General of Canada, arrived. At the time, Colonel MacLeod of the North West Mounted Police had a ranch called Kylackin at Pincher Creek. It was at that ranch that the Governor General would visit. According to MacLeod, the viceregal was impressed with the entire district.
In 1882, the townsite of Pincher Creek was laid out and the next year, James Schofield would open a store in the community. In the store, people could buy everything from canned goods and chewing tobacco to spurs and cowboy hats. Schofield also served as the first postmaster. One year later, he and Harry Hyde were co-owners of the store. A blacksmith shop was also set up around this time, and a schoolhouse was built. The community of Pincher Creek was beginning to take form.
The small community began to grow and on Aug. 18, 1898, the Village of Pincher Creek was incorporated.
One early business in the community was the merchandising business of T. Lebel and Company, which became the largest merchandising business in Southern Alberta.
On May 12, 1906, the Town of Pincher Creek was incorporated.
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Without a doubt, the most notable historical attraction in the Pincher Creek area is the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. This is no small museum, but two museum buildings and 27 heritage cabins that will allow you to delve into the fascinating history of the area.
It was in 1966 that the Pioneer Village was established with the goal of preserving the pioneer heritage of the district. From those small beginnings, the museum has grown to include many buildings and 30,000 artifacts from the area.
The entire village is an outdoor heritage facility and visitors can walk into the historic buildings, view the artifacts, and guide themselves through the history of the area. On top of that, visitors can explore the six acres of beautiful gardens.
As there are 27 buildings that you can explore, I will not go through all of them, but I am going to touch on some of the most interesting here.
The Father Lacombe Hermitage was built in 1885 using logs that were hauled by horse from a nearby lake, then squared and notched with broadaxes. These logs were then erected into a place of worship. Father Lacombe was one of the most important individuals in the early history of Alberta, helping to get the railroad built through by working with the local Indigenous people.
The Fishburn School was dates from 1894 and was the focal point of the community as not only the schoolhouse, but also the place where dances, parties, concerts, and much more were held. The school would operate until 1948 when a new school was built for the growing population.
The Cox House was built in 1887 by A.E. Cox on an acreage near to Pincher Creek. The home would be moved 100 years after it was built, to the village. It had served as the home for the Cox family from 1887 to 1970 and it is believed to be one of, if not the oldest, homes under one founding family in southwest Alberta. As for A.E. Cox, he had arrived in Winnipeg in 1882, and then going to Regina during the construction of the CPR. He went the rest of the way with a wagon and cart until he arrived in Pincher Creek. It was here he served as the first teacher at the local school, from 1884 to 1891. In 1897, he was the Dominion Lands Agent, while also running his successful farm nearby.
The Walrond Ranch House was built in 1894 and was the living quarters of the ranch managers from 1883 until the 1950s. Inside there was a large parlour that was used by the elite on the ranch.
If you are interested in Indigenous history, the First Nations Gallery features a wide assortment of artifacts gathered over the years that showcases the 500 generations of Indigenous who lived in the area prior to contact with Europeans beginning in the 1700s.
One of the oldest structures in the area is the NWMP Horse Barn, which was built more than 138 years ago and has gone through several moves. Today, it sits in a preserved state within sight of its original location.
You can learn more about the village by subscribing to their YouTube channel, visiting their website www.kootenaibrown.ca or listening to their podcast RadioKBPV.
The Lost Lemon Mine
In the Rocky Mountains, there is rumoured to be a gold deposit of immense wealth but for over 150 years, no one has been able to find it. The story begins with Frank Lemon and his friend Blackjack, who apparently discovered the gold deposit in 1870 somewhere between the Crowsnest Pass and the Highwood River.
According to the story, Lemon and Blackjack got into an argument after finding the gold over whether to come back in the spring or camp where they were. After the argument, it is said that both men then went to bed, but Lemon would crawl out of his blankets and hit his friend in the head with an axe while he slept. After realizing what he did, he built a huge fire and left the area with his gun. Some say he was slowly starting to go mad at this point. Two Blackfoot apparently saw the murder and the gold strike and after speaking to their Chief, they were sworn to secrecy and a curse was put on the area where the murder happened.
After Lemon returned back to town and confessed to what he had done to a priest. The priest kept his secret safe but sent a trapper named John McDougall to bury the body of Blackjack. McDougall would later be hired to lead a group of miners to the spot where the mine was but as he journeyed with them, he stopped in Fort Kipp, Alberta near Lethbridge and drank himself to death. Lafayette French, who had funded Lemon and Blackjack initially, went looking for the mine several times over the next 30 years. After apparently finding the mine he wrote his friend to tell of his success. Unfortunately, the cabin he was staying in soon burned to the ground, killing him.
As for Lemon himself, as soon as he began to approach anywhere near the area where the mine was reported to be, he would be overcome with anxiety and could journey no further. As the years went by, his mental health continued to decline as he slowly lost his mind.
The priest that Lemon had confessed to would organize an expedition in 1883 to find the mine given what Lemon had told him. Before he could venture out though, a forest fire blazed through the area and rendered the route impassable.
To this date, the mine has not been found.
The Lebel Mansion
One of the major landmarks of Pincher Creek is the Lebel Mansion, built in 1910 by Timothee Lebel, a prominent local businessman who would live in the house until 1924. At that point, the mansion was donated to the Les Filles de Jesus for use as a hospital, eventually becoming the St. Vincent’s Municipal Hospital.
Lebel was born in Quebec but he soon felt the pull of the West, and would arrive in 1881 at the age of 24. Soon after arriving, he set up a small shop with Tim Hinton, and that business would form into the T. Lebel and Company business I mentioned before. The impact of Lebel in the area can’t be understated. As a private banker, he would often loan out money to struggling families, while also helping newcomers to the area.
Built between 1909 and 1910, at a cost of $22,000, or over $500,000 today. When it was sold to the Daughters of Jesus, it was sold for $10,000, or $150,000 today. Lebel would pass away in 1935.
In 1927, a chapel was added to the museum, and further additions were made in 1935, 1940, 1950 and 1955. In 1974, the building was named the Pincher Creek Health Care Centre.
In 1976, the building became a Historic Resource. Today, it is occupied by the Allied Arts Council. Inside you will find a public art gallery, gift shop and pottery studios.
The DU Ranchlands Cabin
Located near to Pincher Creek, this one-room log cabin dates back to the early-1900s and today serves as an excellent example of an early 1900s homestead. Around the time of its construction, the valley was used by ranchers and miners who were working in the Crowsnest Pass.
By the 1930s, the cabin was mostly used by families passing through, where they would briefly stay before going on to set up their homesteads. In the 1940s and 1950s, it became a gathering place for people to socialize, host dances and conduct meetings.
Today, the log cabin is a landmark of the lives of the early pioneers, and it serves as a gathering place for people in the valley.
On Sept. 9, 2008, it was made a Municipal Historic Resource.
Pincher Creek At Heritage Acres
Another great museum to visit in the Pincher Creek area is the Heritage Acres Museum, an open-air 180-acre site that offers you a glimpse at the early pioneer history of the community. Established in 1988, the museum is operated by the Oldman River Antique Equipment and Threshing Club, with the goal of promoting education and interest in the agricultural industry of Southern Alberta.
At the museum, there are several buildings you can explore. Like with the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, I will look at a few of these, but there are 23 different attractions and buildings to explore.
The Snyder House was one of the first buildings to be moved to Heritage Acres. Built in 1909, it was moved when the Old Man Dam and Reservoir was constructed. One of the interesting aspects of the house is that a few people have described interactions and encounters with ghosts. Today, it is the administration office and gift shop of the park.
The Jumbo Valley Knox Presbyterian Church was built in 1917 near Granum. It sat in its original spot for over 80 years until the church was closed due to a declining among of people in the congregation. The church was then moved to the village, where it is still used for church services. One fascinating aspect of the church is that the pews, cross and organ are all original from the building.
Ashvale School was built in 1909 and would spend the next 50 years operating as a school before it was turned into a recreational hall for the people of the Porcupine Hills. Today, it sits on the museum property, with its original school books, desks and chalkboard inside.
The Doukhobors came from Russia, fleeing persecution for their beliefs, at the turn of the 20th century. In Canada, they would set up lives, build communities and influence the history of the country. On the museum grounds, you will find the Doukhobor Barn, built in 1917 by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. In 1990, the building was moved to the museum and inside you can see a display of farm and horse dioramas, along with local brands. In July of 2019, it had the honour of housing the horses ridden for the RCMP Musical Ride.
Waterton National Park
Located only a short drive south of Pincher Creek is the stunningly beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park. The area is so beautiful that as early as 1886, it was suggested that the area be turned into a park reserve to preserve its beauty. That wouldn’t happen until May 30, 1895 when 140 square kilometres of unnamed forest was turned into a park under the Dominion Lands Act.
While the area was turned into a park, the government approved reserving and selling of land in the park for the purpose of oil prospecting in 1898. In 1902, John Lineham would drill the first exploration well in Alberta near Cameron Creek, but little came from it. Today, that well and its surrounding area are now designated as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Within 10 years of forming the park, half of the sections of land had been sold or reserved for the purpose of oil exploration. In 1911, Frank Oliver, the Minister of the Interior, introduced an Act that designed all mountain parks as forest reserves. On June 8, 1911, 35 square kilometres of the Waterton Lakes Forest Reserve was turned into a Dominion Park, far below what park staff expected. Three years later though, that area was expanded significantly to 1,096 square kilometres.
Between 1926 and 1927, the Prince of Wales Hotel was built in the park, in the hope of bringing in Americans during the Prohibition era. The hotel would open in July of 1927, and was the only grand railway hotel to be built by an American company. As for the name, that was given to it as a means to encourage the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VIII, to stay at the hotel during a tour of Canada that year, but he chose to stay at a ranch nearby. In 1992, the hotel was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada.
In 1932, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was created, making it the first of its type to span a border in the entire world. In 1979, the park was named Canada’s second biosphere reserve and the first Canadian national park to take part in the UNESCO program. In 1995, the Peace Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 2017, a terrible fire swept through the park, but from that major discoveries were made. Over 250 Blackfoot camps were found, all dating to the last 300 years. Without the fire, none of these would have been found. At these camps, many stone tools, arrowheads and other artifacts have been found.
John George Kootenai Brown
All places have their unique individuals, but few were as colourful and unique as Kootenai Brown of Pincher Creek. He lived more in his life, than most of us do in five lives.
Born in Ireland in 1839, Brown would go on to serve in the British Army during the 1850s, including during the India Mutiny.
Eventually, he had the desire to travel out to North America and became active during the Caribou Gold Rush. While there, he would trade with the Kootenay people and it was through his work with them that he was given the name that stuck for the rest of his life, Kootenai.
After taking part in a gold rush, he then became involved with the legendary Pony Express in the United States. While there, he was arrested and tried for the murder of a North Dakota claim jumper, but was acquitted as it was deemed self defense.
By 1865, he crossed into his new home of Canada, through the Waterton Lakes. He quickly fell in love with the stunning beauty of the area and resolved that this would be where he would live. He wouldn’t settle there right away though, but came back over a decade later to enjoy the rest of his life in such a beautiful place.
For the next 40 years, he would live in cabins and on homesteads in the area. He would begin to trade with the Indigenous of the Waterton Lakes, while also hunting and taking tourists through the area to see the beauty for themselves.
Brown recognized that the beauty of the area had to be saved, and he would push for Waterton Lakes to be preserved for generations down the road. In 1895, when the park was created, he was made the first warden. A decade and a half later, he was made the Acting Superintendent.
He would pass away a few years later in July 1916 at the age of 77.
One of the most notable residents to come out of Pincher Creek was Matthew Halton, who was born in the community on Sept. 7, 1904 and attended school there. He would attend a teacher’s college in Calgary, and then went on to the University of Alberta where he began to gain experience in journalism. Studying at King’s College London and at the London School of Economics, he began to report on European affairs for newspapers in Canada. He would cover some of the most significant European events of the 1930s including the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the Spanish Civil War and the Munich Crisis in 1938.
In 1940, Halton worked for the Toronto Star’s Washington, D.C. bureau briefly before he was sent to cover the North African Campaign during the war. For the next two years, he would cover the campaign for the CBC primarily. In 1943, he was named the CBC’s senior war correspondent, and he covered the final two years of the war from London. He then remained in Europe, still working for the CBC, covering many notable events including the Nuremberg Trials, the funeral of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1956, the University of Alberta presented him with an honorary doctorate, but sadly he passed away following stomach surgery only a few months later on Dec. 3, 1956. Today, Matthew Halton High School in Pincher Creek is named for him.