Today, I am looking at Rocky View County, which borders Calgary on the west, north and east sides. Covering an area of 3,836 square kilometres, making it larger than Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Singapore.
For millennia, the land was occupied by the Indigenous, specifically the Blackfoot. The bison would dominate the landscape and formed a vital part of the life of the Blackfoot, who hunted the great beasts for centuries. The Blackfoot Confederacy was one of the most powerful Indigenous groups in the interior of the North American continent.
It was the Blackfoot that Anthony Henday would meet in 1754 when he came father west than any European before him. He would be followed by others including David Thompson, who arrived in 1799 and spent the winter in the area where Calgary is today.
The strength of the Blackfoot in the area delayed the establishment of fur trading posts in the area until the middle of the 19th century. By this point, the bison herds were declining and the way of life of the Blackfoot was being threatened.
Today, the entire area that Rocky View occupies is now part of Treaty 6.
In 1881, the Cochrane Ranch was established and named for Matthew Cochrane, who was a Canadian Senator and former livestock breeder who had lived in the area. Matthew Cochrane had established the ranch and when the Canadian Pacific Railway came through in 1885, the community was named in his honour.
The Cochrane Ranch was one of the most important ranches in the entire area for its time. It had been established when the Conservative government started a policy of granting large-scale grazing leases to bring in the ranching elite to what was then the North West Territories. Cochrane decided to take advantage of this and he would choose land that was along the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway route, where there was good land and a nice climate thanks to Chinooks. It also had access to cattle at nearby posts and various Indigenous reserves.
Unfortunately, the ranch suffered several losses in its first two years due to very difficult winters and poor herding practices. In 1883, the company decided to relocate its cattle and instead raised horses and sheep on the ranch. This did not work either and in 1888, the property was sold.
While the ranch was not successful, it played an important role in the initial settlement of the area. In 1976, the ranch was made a provincial historic resource. Today, the ranch is a large community park with several trails that you can take to see the beautiful landscape and to learn about the area thanks to various information signs. There is also a 110-year-old building at the park, along with a reconstructed corral. It is a great place to visit on a beautiful summer day as part of any road trip.
As irrigation projects in southern Alberta started to expand, it allowed a growing number of settlers to take up land. It was thanks to this irrigation that Irricana was formed in the eastern portion of the county. With settlers arriving, a post office was formed, along with a hotel and trading store that was operated by the Irricana Trading Company.
In 1892, the Calgary to Edmonton line of the railroad would establish a new community named Crossfield. The name for the community came from an engineer with the Canadian Pacific Railway survey crew. Two years previous, a Mrs. Hannington opened a stopping house at the spot, and it was there that the C and E Railway decided to create a new community.
The community would grow slowly, from a simple stop along the railroad to a place with its own post office, hotel, school and general store in 1904.
Albert Warren Bragg came from Nova Scotia with his brother John Thomas in 1894, and began to homestead on the western side of the future county. When the original land survey was conducted, the surveyors met with Bragg and they would name the new surveyed community in honour of him. The community was established between a forestry reserve, the Sarcee Indigenous Reserve and a provincial park. In 1910, the first post office was established near the Bragg homestead, but it would eventually move to the new hamlet in 1918.
In 1908, a large group of German settlers began to arrive in the region thanks to the work of a colonization company. That same year, Beiseker would be founded. It would grow slowly but the Canadian Pacific Railway’s arrival in 1910 spurred on settlement. The year the railroad arrived, the first general store was opened in a two-storey building that also housed the school and dance hall.
Another building that was constructed in 1910 was the Canadian Pacific Railway Station. The building was built on the west-end of the community and it quickly became the focal point of Beiseker. In the mid-1960s, the station was decommissioned and it sat empty for the next 25 years. Then, later moved from the CPR track-way, through turning it 180 degrees, and placing it on the Village of Beiseker property where it would become the municipal office, library and museum. In 2006, it was designated as a Municipal Historic Resource.
The area of Beiseker quickly became known for its ability to grow large crops of wheat and before long, it was known as the World Wheat King Capital.
As for the museum within it, a trip to it will teach you about the early history of the community. I visited it in the summer of 2021 and it has many great things to explore. You can look inside the vintage caboose that has several displays about the railroad history of Beiseker. A sod house, built in 2006, also sits on the museum grounds. The house was built by 23 volunteers, who spent 300 hours and used 1,400 rolls of sod to finish the project. In the museum itself, there are many artifacts that have been donated by the local families and put on display by the volunteers who run this wonderful museum.
If you go to Beiseker, you will come across Squirt the Skunk. This statue, which was created in the early-1990s to promote the community, is 13 feet high and sits in the campground of the community. I’ve seen it, and it makes for a great picture opportunity on any road trip through the county.
The same year that Beiseker was formed thanks to the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Balzac was formed due to the same reason. The train station was named by William Cornelius Van Horne, the president of the CPR, in honour of one of his favourite French authors. In 1912, a post office was opened nearby but it was under the name of Beddington. It would not be until 1925 that the name of Balzac would be adopted by the community.
The most famous resident of Balzac is without a doubt, Balzac Billy, also known as the Prairie Prognosticator. This man-sized groundhog mascot predicts if the area will have six more weeks of winter or not on Groundhog Day. The original groundhog was created by Merle Osborne and was then replaced with a mascot created by Jim Kunkel of the radio station CFAC.
The year 1924 was a tough one for the community of Crossfield. That year would see not one, not two, but three fires tear through. The first fire happened on Jan. 1, 1924 when a fire destroyed a hotel, two banks and several other buildings along a city block. Unfortunately for those fighting the fire, the water supply gave out almost immediately after the fire started. The Calgary fire brigade quickly responded to help fight the fire and found that the fire was out of control. Fighting the flames in bitter cold weather, it would take hours to finally put it out. Soon after, citizens began to pressure the municipal leaders to bring in adequate fire protection for the community. The final tally for damages caused by the fire was $175,000, amounting to about $2.7 million today.
One week later, another fire hit, burning another set of buildings in the commercial area of the community. J.P. Conrad was especially hard hit as his hotel, valued at $16,000, burned to the ground but he only had $6,000 covered by insurance. This second fire did a further $75,000, $1.1 million today, in damages to the community.
While things would quiet down for Crossfield after that fire, a third fire would erupt in November of 1924. This fire, much smaller than the others, would still destroy a garage, a Chinese laundry and the NFA store, causing $12,000 in damages, or about $189,000.
Today, traveling around when you are young and staying in hostels is something thousands of Canadians do in their own country and abroad. One way they do this is through youth hostels, but the hostel is a relatively new idea. The first ever hostel in Canadian history didn’t pop up in a major city, or in eastern Canada, but right in Rocky View County in Bragg Creek.
It was in 1933 Catherine Barclay came home from Europe where she had used hostels that were set up for hikers. Coming back to Canada, she told her sister about hostels and they would speak with Tom Fullerton, the Fish and Game Warden for the Bragg Creek area. They received permission to set up a hostel on his property. One year later, with the Bragg Creek Hostel proving so successful, the Canadian Youth Hostels Association was set up with hostels established in rural areas of the country and in National Parks.
Unfortunately, the Bragg Creek Hostel would close in 1947 and the original hostel’s location only has parts of the cement rock fireplace still standing. It would not be until 1977 when a second hostel opened, but it would be destroyed by fire. In 2018, Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque to honour the creation of the first hostel in Canada. It says quote:
A great place to learn the history of Rocky View County is the Pioneer Acres Museum. This museum, located in Irricana, is one of the largest agricultural and industrial history museum in Alberta. Within, there are thousands of artifacts that share the history of the county from its earliest years, to the present day. There is also a wide assortment of operating farm machinery on display throughout the summer. The museum was established in 1969 when a group of farmers and agricultural producers decided to host an annual event that showcased the agricultural equipment of the early 20th century. This would evolve into the Annual Show and Reunion, which takes place during the August long weekend ever year. On the museum property, where it has been located since 1983, there are 20 buildings spread across 50 acres of land. Some of the buildings include a blacksmith shop, a steam building, two antique truck buildings, a historic house and a stationary engine building.
Speaking of that historic house, n 1914 a man named George Long came from North Dakota and bought land from the Canadian Pacific Railway in the region of Irricana. Built in the style of other homes built across Illinois and Indiana, the house was notable for its time in that it had five bedrooms and one bathroom, along with running hot and cold water. Running water at the time was not something most homes had. It also had its own source of artificial light through carbide gas. Carbon pellets were dropped into a pressure tank in order to create gas in the water that went up the pipes to light the lamps. The house stayed within the family until 1992 when it was prepped and moved to Pioneer Acres, where it continues to sit to this day.
Another great museum to explore in the county is Nose Creek Valley Museum. This museum was opened in 1988 and within only five years it outgrew its original size and an extension was built to add more local artifacts that explore the history of the area. The historical objects date back to as early as 1780. In all, the museum houses more than 25,000 items, including the largest collection of Indigenous arrowheads in Western Canada. Through 10 exhibits in the museum, you can explore the history of Rocky View County, and see how it has changed from the days of the Indigenous to the late-20 century. Some of the exhibits include a recreated barber shop, the military history of the area and an antique farm machinery display.
If trains are more your thing, then Iron Horse Park near Airdrie is the perfect place for you. The park houses miniature trains, track and landscape to represent the Canadian Pacific Railway that passes through the area on its way into the Pacific Coast. You can take a 1.6 kilometre journey on the 1/8th scale diesel or steam locomotives in the park, giving you the feeling of what train travel was like, at least on a small scale, during the early 20th century. The park was formed by the Alberta Model Engineering Society in 1971. In 1997, the City of Airdrie gave permission for an 11 acre parcel of land to be used, which would become known as Iron Horse Park. Over the course of the subsequent years, the park would build various parts of its landscape, including the Centennial Bridge Trestle, and the Mountain Subdivision portion that added half a kilometre on the main track.
I’ll end this episode by talking about something very unique about Rocky View County. It is called STEVE, or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. This phenomenon is caused by a ribbon of hot plasma that stretches for 25 kilometres at a height of 450 kilometres, where it is heated to 3,000 Celsius and moves at a speed of six kilometres per second. It has been observed since at least 1705 and have been found throughout the world, including the United Kingdom, Alaska and New Zealand. Rocky View County is one such place to have the phenomenon. The phenomenon typically lasts about 20 minutes and is quite random for when you will see it but if you do see it, it is truly something amazing to witness.