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Early Settlement and the Calgary - Edmonton Trail (Beginnings - 1900)

Leonard Gaetz

Rocky Mountain House was one of the first fur trading posts in Red Deer and area, and for a time, it was the most southerly and westerly post in the Northwest Territories. It was founded in 1799 by the North West Company. Shortly after, the Hudson’s Bay Company built nearby Acton House to compete with Rocky Mountain House. Rocky Mountain House served as major fur trading post in Blackfoot territory and also as the headquarters for David Thompson’s exploration of the North Saskatchewan and Columbia Rivers. Rocky Mountain House remained in operation until 1879, when it was burnt to the ground. Its remains are now featured at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.

The beginning of large scale settlement in the Red Deer area did not occur until the late 19th century when agents representing the Dominion of Canada surveyed the land around Red Deer. Even after the land was surveyed, the Red Deer Crossing remained largely a stopover point, rather than a place for permanent settlement. White and Métis freighters frequented the area transporting goods along the Edmonton-Calgary Trail.

This trail was carved out by Reverend John McDougall and his brother David in 1873, based on an old Aboriginal trail. Along the trail, settlements like the Old Crossing (Red Deer), Battle River (Ponoka), and Buffalo Lake (Lacombe) emerged, owing their prosperity to increased traffic between Edmonton and Calgary. The black soil in the area was ideal for farming and contained a number of natural resources like timber, coal, and fresh water. The opening of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in 1891 would bring new settlers into Central Alberta, turnings sparse settlements into hamlets, and hamlets into villages.

Log Schoolhouse

One of the most prominent settlements in Central Alberta near the turn of the 20th century was Red Deer, then known simply as the Red Deer Crossing. Before the 20th century, Red Deer was a very small town that owed its existence to the Calgary-Edmonton wagon trail. Freighters forded the Red Deer River at The Crossing, a shallow area along the river thus marking the initial location of permanent settlement in the Red Deer area.

Indian Industrial School

Some of the first permanent settlers at Red Deer Crossing were indeed freighters. Addison McPherson and Donald McLeod ran a successful freighting business, and later a stagecoach service, along the Calgary and Edmonton Trail. McPherson built a shack at the Crossing in 1869 to serve as a storage facility for their goods. The next settlers were largely homesteaders. Jack Little, a telegraph operator from Ontario, arrived in 1882 with 67 mares; however, most of them died from disease and he was force to abandon his claim the following year. Henry Meyer, another unsuccessful homesteader, arrived in 1882 only to have his newly-built house lost in a haystack fire. McPherson and another freighter, Robert W. McClellan, eventually successfully homesteaded in the area, as did William Kemp, George Beatty, and Jim Beatty.

1898 Townsite

The largest landholder in the area during the 1880s was the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company owned by the Methodist Missionary Society, based in Toronto. Attempting to capitalize on the fertile farm land readily available in Central Alberta, the Company attempted to buy huge blocks of land at Red Deer Crossing. Among the Company's settlers was Leonard Gaetz, a retired Methodist minister and one of the company's directors. Arriving in 1883, accompanied by his wife and ten children, Gaetz built a farm, bought a general store, and founded the first post office in the area. Plans to construct a Canadian Pacific Railway line across the prairies in 1883 brought an increasing number of homesteaders to the area, many of whom filed claims on Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company lands thus creating a series of land disputes with the company. Although the amount of homesteading in the area did not match expectations, Red Deer Crossing continued to grow throughout the 1880s, eventually becoming a warehousing centre. By 1887, Red Deer Crossing had a hotel, a few churches, and its first industrial venture, the Alberta Lumber Company's mill. In addition, Red Deer Crossing was temporarily home to a military fortification, Fort Normandeau, built by the Alberta Field Force during the Riel Rebellion of 1885. The fort had formerly served as Robert McClellan's general store.

Two-storey school house

When freighting and stagecoaches were supplanted by improved technology and methods, Red Deer Crossing's business community moved to the present site of Red Deer, three kilometers downstream from the Old Crossing.

Reinholt Quarry

Red Deer's new town site began developing in 1891. Townsite Company agents began selling lots in January, for $40 to $200 per lot. In the construction boom that followed, Red Deer acquired five stores, a hotel, and numerous residences including pioneer Leonard Gaetz's lavish $3000 home. Rapid development continued throughout the early 1890s. For instance, 1892 witnessed the building of the area's first brickyard, first church, and the Alberta Hotel, which would soon become Red Deer's most prestigious hotel. That same year, the Indian Industrial School was built on the old crossing. In 1894, a two-room schoolhouse was built in Red Deer. Although the area suffered an economic recession due to dry weather causing crop failures, Red Deer continued to grow, officially becoming a village in 1895. Red Deer was already diversifying its economy when a creamery was opened in 1894 and the Dominion Grain Elevator Company built its first grain elevator in the area in 1897. The first restaurant opened in 1897.

By the late 1890s, favourable weather returned to central Alberta and between 1898 and 1900, the number of homesteads in the area jumped from 21 to about 700, precipitated by the growth in its trading partners in Edmonton and Calgary. Sylvan Lake, the future tourism capital of the Red Deer and Area Region, was one of the regions benefitting from the arrival of new homesteaders. In 1898, Alexandre Loiselle, a Francophone immigrant from Michigan, arrived in the region to homestead with his family. They opened a sawmill in the area, and later a store and a hotel for new residents that were coming to the area. The name Sylvan Lake was adopted in 1903 when the first Post Office was established. Soon, Finnish settlers were also moving into the area new business developments.


Dawe, Michael. Red Deer: An Illustrated History. Red Deer and District Museum Society, the City of Red Deer Archives and the Red Deer Visitor and Convention Bureau, 1996.

Meeres, E.L The Homesteads that Nurtured a City: The History of Red Deer. Red Deer: E.L. Meeres, 1977, 1984.

Packhorse to Pavement. Buck Lake Historical Society, 1981.

Parks Canada. “Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada.” Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/ab/rockymountain/index_E.asp

Pioneers and Progress. Alix Clive Historical Club, 1974.

Sylan Lake Chamber of Commerce. “A Brief History of Sylvan Lake.” Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.sylvanlakechamber.com/history.htm

The Days Before Yesterday: History of Rocky Mountain House District. Rocky Mountain House, Alberta: Rocky Mountain House Reunion Historical Society, 1977.

Town of Rocky Mountain House. “Visiting Rocky.” Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.rockymtnhouse.com/visiting-history.htm

Town of Sylvan Lake. “About Our Town.” Retrieved March 27, 2009 from

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