Due to its location at the confluence of the Clearwater and North Saskatchewan Rivers, the area of Rocky Mountain House was an important stopping and meeting place for the Indigenous nations. Primarily in the territory of the Blackfoot, other Indigenous tribes who would go through the area on their way into the mountains to trade with the Indigenous British Columbia. These tribes included the Stoney Nakoda, Cree and Anishinaabe.
The area today sits on Treaty 6 land, signed in 1876.
The European history of Rocky Mountain House is one of the oldest in the Canadian West.
The first European to arrive in the area was Peter Pangman, who visited in 1780 and carved his name and date into the bark of a pine tree near the banks of the Clearwater River, five kilometres from the present townsite. The tree would become a landmark for the next 100 years and was called Pangman’s Pine.
It was in 1799 that the North West Company would establish Rocky Mountain House in order to trade with the Blackfoot. Previously, the Blackfoot and Cree went to Edmonton House, and conflict often erupted between the two groups. With the establishment of Rocky Mountain House, it was the hope of the company that any conflict could be avoided, while also positioning its traders close to the mountains to attract the trade of the Kootenai people from across the mountains. The fort had walls 120 feet long, that were 15 feet high with an eight-foot gateway.
It was from this post that the legendary explorer, David Thompson, would embark from several of his surveying journeys. He would winter at the site in 1801 and then came back in 1802 on further expeditions. It was from this location that he would cross the Rockies in 1807 to map out the interior of British Columbia.
At some point in the coming years, the fort was burned to the ground by the Indigenous.
When the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company merged in 1821 following the Pemmican War, the fort was rebuilt and then used only occasionally by the company. It was abandoned and rebuilt three times. The first fort would last until 1821 before it was abandoned. The fort would again be used from 1835 to 1861, and then again from 1868 to 1875. During those years, the fort was a well known producer of York boats, used by fur traders across Rupert’s Land. It was finally abandoned completely in 1875, ending its role in the fur trade that had lasted for nearly eight decades. During those eight decades, the fort did not always operate continuously, sometimes closing for a year or two during each incarnation of its existence at least seven times. While the forts were gone, the name would live on in the area.
Over the fort’s life, several famous explorers would stay there for an extended period of time. Along with Thompson, there was Alexander Henry, considered the founder of Vancouver, Jacob Finley and Finian Macdonald. Sir George Simpson also stayed at the fort prior to becoming governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Various missionaries stayed there including Reverend Robert Rundle and the famous Father Albert Lacombe.
Today, you can explore those early fur trade fort remains along the North Saskatchewan River at Brierly Rapids. The remains consist of establishments built between 1799 and 1875, as well as the footprints of the post sites. At the location, you can walk through exhibits and explore the archeological remains, as well as the artifacts that have been found at the site over the past 125 years. At the site, two stone chimneys are still standing from those early years. These two chimneys date from 1864. You can even camp in Indigenous trappers tents and tipis. You can also walk along the interpretive hiking trails. Today, the entire site is a National Historic Site of Canada. The site of the forts was previously on the land of the Brierley family, who donated the land in 1931 to the Canadian government.
One legend of the site states that a tunnel was built by traders during the fort’s operation, running to the river so they could escape if attacked. By 1949, it was believed that the old tunnel was causing some of the caving and community leaders were beginning to look at what could be done about the issue.
Rocky Mountain House would see increased settlement over the next several decades as Scandinavian settlers arrived in growing numbers.
In 1909, the first post office would open two miles south of the present town. One year later, the Alberta Centre Railway survey passed through Red Deer and then through Rocky Mountain House so that the company could tap into the Brazeau Coalfields. With news that the railroad was coming, the community started to expand. Also in 1912, the community would start to build a bridge over the North Saskatchewan River, a process that took two years to freight in the cement needed for the construction.
By the end of 1912, the present community site was bought by J.F. Bertrand and surveyed. From there, a bank and newspaper office was opened, followed by hotels, general stores and more. The modern history of Rocky Mountain House had begun.
On May 15, 1913, the hamlet of Rocky Mountain House became the Village of Rocky Mountain House.
A second railway would then be built through in 1914, further increasing the growth of the community. A roundhouse was built in the community as well, and the influx of money and settlers would help it prosper. A six-room school house was built to teach grades up to 11, and by the 1930s, there was a Canadian Legion Hall that was described as the best in the province, costing $10,000 to build.
In that Legion was a man who had earned the highest honour possible in the Canadian Army, Ray Zengel.
Zengel had actually been born in Minnesota in 1894 but he moved with his mother to Plunkett, Saskatchewan as a young boy. When the First World War broke out, he would enlist to fight overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In March 1918, he would take command of his platoon after his officer was put out of action. For that, he would be awarded the Military Medal. The honours didn’t stop there though. On Aug. 9, 1918, Zengel was leading his platoon forward in an attack when he realized there was a gap on his flank and that the Germans were firing at close range. Realizing what was happening, Zengel ran forward 200 yards ahead of the platoon and killed the officer and operator of the machine gun, and then killed the remaining Germans in the encampment. By doing so, he saved several of the lives in his platoon. He wasn’t done though, later in the day, his battalion was held up by machine gun fire again, and he would direct his own fire on the Germans, killing several before he was knocked unconscious by an exploding shell. When he came to, he once again started attacking the Germans. For his bravery, he would be awarded the Victoria Cross. Following the war, he would serve in the Calgary Fire Department from 1919 to 1927 and then spend the rest of his life living in Rocky Mountain House. Today, his Victoria Cross is at the Rocky Mountain House Legion, and many of his medals are on display. He is also buried at the Pine Grove Cemetery near to the community, after he died in 1977. Today, a lake in northern Saskatchewan is named for him, as is a mountain near Jasper.
Forestry was an important part of the community’s economy. From the 1930s to the 1950s, 40 to 45 million board feet of lumber were produced each year, along with the production of 250,000 railway ties, generating $24 million in wealth for the companies harvesting the timber.
In the 1930s, Metis couple Tom and Louise Fleury would move to the area, settling along the Baptiste River, northwest of Rocky Mountain House. The family would live at this site from 1930 to 1945, having moved from Frog Lake where they lived for 30 years. On the property, Tom and Louise lived with their daughters and their son, along with their grandchildren and children’s spouses. Eventually, due to not having ownership rights because it was Crown Land, they would move away to Crimson Lake, 23 kilometres to the southwest. In 1995, archeological surveys of the site would be conducted, where many items were collected including cooking pots, nails, stove parts, auto parts, glass and ceramics and leather and beads. Many of these artifacts are now found at the Royal Alberta Museum. The Baptiste River Metis Settlement now represents one of the only Metis sites from the 1930s and 1940s known in Alberta. The site contains the partially-standing remains of five log cabins and several other associate structures on an 80 acre designated area. Today, this site that you can still visit is a provincial historic resource.
By 1939, the village had grown to have over 700 people and the decision was made to create the Town of Rocky Mountain House on Aug. 31 of that year.
In 1942, two young boys were swimming a pool of water near the North Saskatchewan River near the town when they started to throw stones at what looked like a log in the river. When one stone hit the log, they said a creature made a dive for the bank and the boys fled up the hill. When they looked back, they saw a large creature with eyes like car lights and an ugly red mouth filled with teeth. The creature then stayed half in the water, half on the bank where they stated it, quote:
“breathed fire and made noises.”
After half an hour, the creature went back into the water. While several adults from the community went down to investigate after the boys went back to town, no trace of the creature was ever found again.
In September of 1957, a special visitor came to Rocky Mountain House. Charles Dalhousie Landell, the great grandson of David Thompson and his wife Charlotte Small, would visit the old fort chimneys at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. His visit came 160 years after his great-grandparents visited the site during their travels. Thompson and Small’s youngest child, Eliza, was Landell’s grandmother. They would also travel along the David Thompson Highway and address students at the David Thompson High School.
On June 18, 1966, a baby was born in Rocky Mountain House. No one could have known but that baby, named Kurt Browning, would go on to become a Canadian figure skating legend. Over the course of his skating career, Browning would represent Canada three times at the Winter Olympics. He would win four World Championships, including three in a row between 1988 and 1991. He would also win four Canadian Championships, in the same years that he won his World Championships. In addition to his championship titles, he would enter the Guinness Book of World Records on March 25, 1988. It was on that day that he landed the first ratified quadruple jump in figure skating history. In his career, Browning was named the top Canadian athlete in 1990, the Lionel Conacher award in 1990 and 1991 and the Order of Canada in 1990. He is also a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Skate Canada Hall of Fame, Canada’s Walk of Fame and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
To learn more about the history of Rocky Mountain House, visit the Rocky Mountain House Museum, which features several exhibits including the Killico General Store, an original 1917 Amherst player piano and the century-old Meadows Forestry Cabin. You can also visit the Glacier School House and sit in the desks to get a glimpse of what life was like decades ago for students in the area. Several artifacts including the items used by settlers in their homes, tools used by workers and much more are found in the museum.