The area of High River has a deep history when it comes to the Indigenous. That history dates back thousands of years, and various cultures have occupied the area since then.
Most recently, the Blackfoot held the area as part of their territory. They would call the Highwood River that goes through High River, Ispitsi, which refers to the tall cottonwood trees along the river. For the Blackfoot, the cottonwood flats were very important as a place to spend the winter as it provided shelter, water and fuel for fires.
In High River, located at George Lane Memorial Park, there are two cottonwood trees that have become entwined. This is known as the Medicine Tree, and it was sacred to the Blackfoot people. Today, only the remnant of this tree remains, as part of the archway into George Lane Memorial Park.
Today, High River is part of Treaty 7 land.
The first Europeans to arrive in the area were fur traders, beginning with Peter Fidler in 1792, followed by my favourite historical figure, David Thompson, in 1800. Thompson would camp near the current location of High River.
For decades to come, there would be no Europeans in the area but things would change as the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred the area of Rupert’s Land over to the Canadian government and the era of settlement began.
The first settlement in the area of High River would be Fort Spitzee, which sat along the Macleod Trail, running from Fort Macleod to Calgary. For a time, illegal whiskey trading was conducted along the trail but the North West Mounted Police would put an end to that.
Today, the downtown Main Street of High River runs along what was once the Macleod Trail.
By the 1880s, a small community began to appear where High River is now found, as it was the halfway point between Fort Macleod and Calgary and a perfect location for a stopping house. This community became known as The Crossing, since it was where everyone crossed the Highwood River.
From this community, a village grew, aided by the creation of the Calgary Edmonton Railway in 1892. Two years later, High River was hit by the first of many major floods. From this point until 2013, the community suffered 12 floods, with the most in the stretch from 1902 to 1942, when seven floods happened. Today, High River has a canal system throughout the community to divert water but after this proved ineffective in the 2013 flood that left 150 people stranded on rooftops, and destroying 94 homes. I lived in High River from 2011 to 2013, and only moved three months before that flood happened.
In 1896, a small farm house was built out of locally quarried sandstone. The farm was owned by O.H. Smith and Lafayette French. Travelers along MacLeod Trail would stop here. Eventually, the men acquired a herd of cattle, broke sod and raised the first crops. The farm would be purchased by a series of individuals and in 1896, John McLaughlin built this small stone house. He would die in 1929, followed by his wife in 1938. The bank eventually took over the property, and by 1973 the property was owned by the Town of High River. Today, this building remains the only sandstone structure in the community. While it is vacant, it has become a landmark and is surrounded by a soccer field and community garden. In 1985, it was made a Municipal Heritage Resource.
On Dec. 5, 1901, High River was incorporated as a village, and became a town on Feb. 12, 1906.
In 1931, work began on a post office building for the growing community. Mail service had begun in 1885 out of the community’s first store, but as the community grew, new post offices would be built. As for this post office, it was built at the height of The Great Depression by the federal government, the post office was located on the main floor, and an armory was placed on the upper floor for storage of equipment belonging to the local militia unit. The building was constructed for $30,000 and it was said this was the only federally financed project during the Depression. Eventually in the 1970s, the post office moved out of the building and the Town of High River moved in, remaining for several years before a new town hall was built. In 2003, the building was made a municipal heritage resource.
On June 5, 1939, a child named Joe Clark was born to Charles and Grace Clark. Charles Clark was the editor of the High River Times. I was also the editor of the High River Times in the early 2010s and I saw the newspapers that he created, and which Joe wrote for as a child. Young Joe also delivered those newspapers for his father.
In 1956, Clark won a Rotary Club public speaking scholarship in grade 11 and he won a trip to Ottawa. Instead of going to museums, he went to the House of Commons and met Conservative leader George Drew and waited for hours for the chance to meet John Diefenbaker. As a young man, Clark was an admirer of John Diefenbaker, who was rising on the national stage and would soon be the prime minister of Canada.
While at the House of Commons, he was able to witness the Pipeline Debate and the Liberals invocation of closure to end objections from the Opposition. This would leave an impression on Clark, who would return home feeling that the government needed a strong and effective Opposition.
While at university, Clark pursued journalism and politics, two areas that greatly interested him. He would serve as the editor of The Gateway, the student newspaper, and was the National Progressive Conservative Student President. With the University of Alberta Debate Society, Clark would often have heated debates with Preston Manning, who would be a future political rival, and was the son of Ernest Manning, premier of Alberta.
Along with his time working at his father’s newspaper, Joe Clark would also work for CBC, the Calgary Herald, and the Edmonton Journal. For one summer, he worked for the Canadian Press in Toronto and seriously gave thought to becoming a journalist, but instead looked to law and politics.
In 1972, Clark was elected to the House of Commons in the Rocky Mountain riding.
As a young politician, his ideas and views were sometimes at odds with the party. He was the first Canadian politician to take a stand for the decriminalization of marijuana in Canada, and for a guaranteed minimum income for everyone. Many felt that his social liberalism was as bold in the 1970s as Pierre Trudeau’s were in the 1960s. For the right-wing members of the Conservative caucus, they saw Clark as a renegade within the party and many would confront him openly about it, even when he was leader.
In February of 1976, Clark essentially came out of nowhere to win the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives, replacing his former boss Stanfield. He was up against several notable Conservatives, not the least of which was Brian Mulroney. On the first ballot, Claude Wagner took 531 votes, while Mulroney took 357 and Clark took 277. Amazingly, on the second ballot Clark moved ahead of Mulroney for second place, behind Wagner. On the third ballot, Clark tripled the votes of Mulroney and was only 50 behind Wagner by this point. On the fourth ballot, Clark edged ahead of Wagner, to claim the leadership of the party. One reason for this huge upset was Flora MacDonald, who was the favourite to win but she did worse than Clark on the first ballot. She dropped out on the second ballot and encouraged her supports to get behind Clark, which began to push him ahead.
With that leadership win, Clark became, and still is, the youngest-ever leader of a major federal party in the history of Canadian politics.
Clark was so unknown in Canada that many gave him the nickname, Joe Who? Cartoonists would also take shots at him due to his tall and slim figure, often portraying him as a walking candy apple, with an enormous head and floppy ears.
While many considered Clark to be unprepared to go up against someone as confident and intellectual as Trudeau, he quickly made a name for himself in Parliament for his ability to attack the Trudeau government, and his hiring of experienced staffers who would help shape his policy and help his office run well. Some saw him as, to put it in the words of the time, a square. The truth was that he had a biting wit.
On June 4, 1979, Clark was sworn in as the 16th Prime Minister, one day prior to his 40th birthday. To date, he is the youngest prime minister in Canadian history, and the first to be born in western Canada.
Unfortunately, Clark went about governing as if he had a majority government. While he was able to lure Richard Janelle over from the Social Credits to the Progressive Conservatives, he was still five short of a majority. He also chose to refuse to grant the Social Credit Party official party status, as they were below the 12 seats needed, and he did not pursue a coalition with them or co-operate with them in any way
His government would fall in a budget vote in 1979, triggering another election, which he and his party lost. He spent nine months as Prime Minister. In 1983, he would be replaced as leader of the party by Brian Mulroney.
With Mulroney as leader, Clark would remain in the government, which was now in power with a huge majority. Over the next six and a half years, Clark would sit as the Secretary of State for external Affairs, and he would steer the Canadian foreign policy. Clark, along with Arthur Meighen, is one of only two former prime ministers to return to prominent roles in Parliament. In his role, Clark would bring about several bold moves. In 1984, he became the first developed nation foreign minister to land in Ethiopia to lead the Western response to the terrible famine there. Canada’s response to the crisis was so large, it led the United States and the United Kingdom to respond in a similar manner.
He would also take a strong stance against apartheid and pushed for economic sanctions, even though the United States and the United Kingdom opposed the sanctions. He also pushed the government to accept refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, and he steered the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations to a final agreement. Clark would arrange for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees to be accepted into Canada. The program he initiated had the government agree to sponsor one refugee for each one sponsored privately.
He would lead the party once again from 1998 to 2002, before the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance to create the Conservative Party of Canada.
In 1945, the famous writer W.O. Mitchell moved his family to High River. Mitchell first visited High River in 1943 while writing an article for Macleans magazine about a fall cattle round-up. He quickly fell in love with the community and he and his wife visited the community for four days, before choosing to move there. At first, the family could not find suitable housing so they stayed at the St. George Hotel and then rented a home. Eventually, as his writing career began to take off, Mitchell purchased a bungalow in Turner Valley for $1,400 and had it transported to High River for $75. Mitchell and his brother hand-dug the basement, while Mitchell’s wife poured the foundation. The home was placed on the foundation and the family started to live there. The family would leave High River in 1947 but returned in 1951.
They remained in the home until 1967 when they moved to Calgary. Today, the Mitchell Residence has become a landmark in the community and in 2015, it was designated as a Municipal Heritage Site.
One fascinating aspect about High River is that it has been the location for many films including Superman III, where it played the part of Smallville. Within the community, one house is still referred to as the Superman House. As well, Fargo and Black Summer have both filmed in the community, but it is the show Heartland that has had the biggest impact on High River. The show films in the community, and Maggie’s Diner is found in the downtown area of High River, where it was flooded during the 2013 flood. Today, Heartland has run for 16 seasons, releasing 236 episodes and it is the longest running one-hour scripted drama in Canadian television history.
If you would like to learn more about High River, the best place to do so is at the amazing Museum of the Highwood. This one and a half storey sandstone building was previously the CPR station for the community and it still sits along the rail line in High River. Built in 1911, two sections of the older Calgary station were transported to High River and became the new CPR station. The building has since become a landmark and symbol of the community and can be seen in several of the productions filmed in High River. As the home of the Museum of the Highwood, it features artifacts from throughout the history of High River, and they offer some wonderful ghost tours during the Halloween season.