For centuries, the area of Okotoks was an important place for the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot had occupied the region long before Europeans arrived, following the bison as the herds moved in massive numbers through the entire area. Due to the proximity of the area to the mountains, it also served as an important link to the mountains and the Indigenous tribes within the interior of British Columbia.
The most important part of the Indigenous culture in the area was without a doubt, the ohkotok, which is the Blackfoot name for “rock”
This refers to the immense glacial erratic that sits just to the west of the town, and it is from this rock that Okotoks gets its name.
The rock was an important stopping place for the Indigenous as it served as a marker to find the river crossing that was situated near the present-site of Okotoks.
The story of how that rock got there is an interesting one, especially from a history perspective.
Around 12,000 to 17,000 years ago, there was a massive landslide in the Rocky Mountains near present-day Jasper, which dropped millions of tonnes of quartzite rock onto a glacier. That glacier would slowly move through the Rocky Mountains, and then join the giant ice sheets that covered the landscape during the last ice age. These ice sheets flowed across the Okotoks area, all the way down to Montana and for eons those rocks sat in the glacier.
As the ice age ended, the ice sheets melted and as they did, those rocks that had been deposited so long ago began to fall onto the landscape, along a path now known as the Foothills Erratics Train. This train stretches for 930 kilometres but is only 22 kilometres wide. Many of the boulders are small, as small as just one foot, but the largest of them all is the big rock near Okotoks. Measuring at nine metres tall, 41 metres long and 18 metres wide, while also weighing 16,500 tons, its often stated to be the largest glacial erratic in the world but that may not be the case. One glacial erratic in German measures three kilometres by six kilometres and is nine metres tick. The Cooking Lake megablock, near Cooking Lake, Alberta, covers 10 square kilometres. While those are impressive, the Big Rock is the most noticeable and the best for getting pictures and visiting.
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The Big Rock is split down the middle and the Indigenous have a story to explain that.
It was on a hot summer day that Napi, the trickster, rested on the rock because he was tired. He put his robe over the rock and asked the rock to keep the robe in return for letting him rest there. Then, it grew cold and windy. Napi asked for his robe back, but the rock refused. Napi took his robe nonetheless and as he walked away, he heard a loud noise and saw that the rock was rolling after him. Several animals including the bison tried to stop the rock but failed. Napi then called on the bats for help, who dove at the rock, hitting it and splitting it in two pieces. Hence, how the rock appears to this day.
In 1978, the Big Rock Erratic was made a Provincial Historic Resource and is now protected due to its geological and cultural importance. There is public parking at the site, as well as interpretive signs that detail the history of the area, its importance to the Indigenous and the geological history of the rock. If you do visit, do not climb on the rock. It can damage the rock and you can definitely hurt yourself. I visited the Okotoks Erratic this past summer and I have to say it is something that has to be seen to be believed.
It is believed the first European to come through the area was the legendary explorer David Thompson, who visited between 1787 to 1800, while he was looking for a pass through the mountains into the interior of future British Columbia.
The area around what would be Okotoks then became an important crossing on the trade route that ran from Fort Benton, Montana, which grew in importance when Fort Calgary was established by the North West Mounted Police in 1875. When the railroad came through in 1883, that link, called Macleod Trail because it ran through Fort Macleod, only grew in importance again and with it, the area around the Big Rock. There is evidence that shows this trail was used long before Europeans as well and could have been used as a pathway for Indigenous moving along the route from the Yukon to New Mexico as much as 10,000 years ago.
The Macleod Trail Cultural Landscape can actually be explored in Okotoks. A parcel of land north of Elma Street and south of Mountain Street was once used by settlers to journey along the Macleod Trail. You can walk in the steps of settlers and traders from over 100 years ago long this path in Okotoks. This parcel of land is one of the last remaining undisturbed and consolidated lands of the Macleod Trail in all of southern Alberta. The path is located in Linehan Park and in 2020, it became a Municipal Historic Resource.
Government leasing of land began in 1880, and by 1882, the first settlers were arriving. A stopping house was established near Sheep Creek by Kenneth Cameron in an area that would become known as Cameron Crossing. John MacMillan would also set up a stopping house for travelers, which would become the post office in 1884.
The community would slowly begin to grow over the course of the next decade. One interesting fact about Okotoks is that was not its original name. Prior to 1892, the small community was known as Sheep Creek, after the waterway that goes through the area. In 1892, the name was changed to Dewdney, to honour Edgar Dewdney, who was the Lt. Governor of the Northwest Territories at the time. That name would remain until 1896 when it was discovered there was an older settlement called Dewdney located in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. During those four years, the community would become a village. Finally, businessman John Lineham, who was also a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, suggested the name of Okotoks, after the Blackfoot word for the Big Rock. Lineham was an important part of the early community, and he would run the Lineham Lumber Company that employed 100 people and produced 30,000 board feet of lumber per day. He also played a role in Alberta’s history when he made the first oil strike in the history of Western Canada in 1902 at the Waterton National Park.
Amazingly, you can still visit a building from that very early history of the community when Okotoks went by a different name. The Okotoks Post Office was built in the fall and winter of 1890 and opened in 1891 with Herbert Bowen serving as the postmaster. In 1892, the building was purchased by John Paterson, who served as the postmaster until 1909 when he died. Today, the Okotoks Post Office building is one of the oldest in the entire community, and one of the oldest business locations in the community as well. The building was also the first building in the commercial district along North Railway Street and it was around this building that the commercial nucleus of Okotoks would develop. Due to its historic nature in the development of the community, the building was made a Municipal Heritage Resource in 2019.
On June 1, 1904, the Town of Okotoks was incorporated.
Two years after Okotoks became a village, the community would see the construction of the Okotoks Methodist Church on three parcels of land, one donated by the town and two by John Lineham. At the time, the community was booming, and it was felt that the church would be a great addition to the town. In 1917, the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations united into one congregation and since the Methodist Church was larger, it became the Okotoks United Church. The church stands to this day, and you can visit it and see quite a unique building that played a role in the history of the community. Due to its importance in the history of Okotoks, the church was made a Municipal Heritage Resource in 2019.
Around this same time that the community was starting to grow, an interesting event would happen. A Mrs. Tillotson was preparing a goose for a meal, and she would discover a gold nugget in the bird. This resulted in claims that there was gold along the Sheep River and several claims were marked near the Sheep River Bridge. This, extremely brief, gold rush was not productive, and the nugget found in the goose was the first and only nugget of gold found.
At the end of June of 1915, Okotoks would be hit by one of the worst floods in the history of Alberta when the Bow River rose five feet, at a rate of four inches per hour. In Calgary, the flood was so bad it took the Centre Street Bridge with it. In Okotoks, the flood caused a complete washout of the gas mains, which stopped all-natural gas going into Calgary. The CPR would also suffer a serious washout of its line near Okotoks, which would stop train service from going through the area. The Sheep Creek had gone over its banks and took the train tracks with it, and it was impossible to start work on the line until the waters receded. It would then take another two days after that to get the track repaired and to have service resumed. One interesting fact about this flood is that 200 flat cars of rock were brought in from the Frank Slide in the Crowsnest Pass, which had occurred just over a decade previous, in order to prevent further flooding in town.
The Vancouver Province would report, quote:
In 1929, the CPR had been around for some time in the area, with the first train station being built in 1892. By 1908, the community had developed an interesting tradition that included welcoming newlyweds at the train station with the Okotoks band.
That original station would sadly be lost to fire in 1928 but a new station, a bigger and better one, was built in 1929 at a cost of nearly $20,000, or $310,000 today. This new station, the only brick one along the CPR line, would operate until 1971 when the last train stopped in Okotoks. The station would close the following year, but it would find new life in 1981 when it became the cultural and tourist information centre. Today, it is the Okotoks Art Gallery and can be visited to this day so you can find a glimpse of the past and some great art.
In 1958, Calgary implemented mixed drinking, which allowed women to drink in the same bars as men. The decision to do that would result in a sharp drop-off of traffic leading into the city between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. as a result. The reason for this was that drinkers were now going to Okotoks, where mixed drinking wasn’t allowed, as well as the other communities of Cochrane and Airdrie. The decision to allow mixed drinking came about as a result of the 1957 Alberta liquor plebiscite as Question B. That portion of the plebiscite passed by a 4 to 1 margin to allow mixed drinking in the major cities. It would not be until 1967 that the Alberta government abolished gender-based segregation of bars for the rest of the province.
In 1966, one of the most famous men of the 20th century, Robert Kennedy, visited Okotoks while in the area to open the Calgary Stampede and attend a CFL game. Not only would he attend the St. James Roman Catholic Church, but he would also visit the Bell ranch near Okotoks where his children were presented with Canadian Centennial flags.
In 1998, Okotoks put in a population cap to hold its population at 30,000 people. That cap was put in place when the population was half the cap amount. By 2011, the population had reached 24,962 thanks to immense growth in Alberta from the oil industry. Originally, the Sheep River could only handle a population of 32,000 as a water supply but with a new regional water system that used water from other sources including the Bow River, that cap could be lifted, as it was in 2012.
Okotoks has had several hockey stars come from the community, and it has a long and amazing sports history. One of the most successful sports teams to come from Okotoks is, without a doubt, the Okotoks Dawgs. This baseball team got its start in 1995 as an elite youth travel team. In 2003, the team joined the Western Canadian Baseball League and within one year proved itself to be one of the best teams the league had ever seen. In 2004, the team won its first WCBL championship. It would then win three championships in a row from 2007 to 2009. Since the formation of the WCBL in 1931, only five other teams have accomplished the feat of winning three championships in a row. The team would win its fourth championship in 2019. Two players from the Dawgs have also gone on to play in the Major Leagues as well. Any visit to Okotoks is not complete without seeing one of the best teams in the history of the league play.
I tend to focus on the past with this podcast, but I’m going to look to the future a bit now. The Drake Landing Solar Community is a planned community in Okotoks that uses a central solar heating system and other energy efficient technology. The community features 52 homes heated through the solar heating system. The solar energy is captured by 800 solar thermal collectors and is the first solar powered subdivision in North America. In 2012, the community set a world record by covering 97 per cent of its space heating needs with solar energy and in 2016, it met 100 per cent of its heating needs with solar energy.
If you want to learn more about the history of Okotoks, then visit the Okotoks Museum and Archives. Established in 2000, the museum features many artifacts from the past of Okotoks. The museum features several ongoing exhibits along with other programs that bring the history of the area to life.