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History of Cochrane Ranche

This statue, entitled "Men of Vision," is located on the site of the Cochrane Ranche, the first really big ranching operation in Alberta. This site commemorates the role of the cattle industry in the settlement of southern Alberta. In 1881, the North West was on the brink of becoming the great Canadian frontier. The Canadian Pacific Railway was building its link across the continent to join Eastern Canada with British Columbia. The treaties with the plains Indians and control of the plains by the North West Mounted Police(NWMP) meant that colonization and settlement were both possible and desirable.

Development in the Canadian West did not follow the pattern of rowdy and unruly roughness that was experienced in the American West. The Conservative Party policy of Sir John A. MacDonald was directed toward a controlled settlement of Western Canada, as befitted a nation committed to British ideals. Part of this policy was directed toward creating a ranching elite through the granting of grazing leases up to 100,000 acres under an amendment of the Dominion Lands Act in 1876.

However, it was not until 1881 that the first grazing lease was issued to the Cochrane Ranche Company Limited, incorporated by a powerful group of eastern capitalists under the leadership of Senator Matthew Cochrane of Quebec. The economic potential of this event was significant. Never before was there so great a demand for food in the west. The bison were on the verge of extinction. The Indians and the North West Mounted Police needed food, and the railway would bring more people as agriculturalists and ranchers, all of whom would be interested in raising cattle for food and stock.

The first individuals or companies to take up a grazing lease had many advantages. The construction of the railway and the great influx of people it would bring, there would be an increasing demand for land and a rise in property values. To be the first to obtain a grazing area meant the company had a wide choice of land locations: the possibility of choosing land that had access to the railway, to populated centres and major Indian Reserves. Obtaining the first lease also meant that an area could be chosen with good ranching and agricultural potential.

The Cochrane Ranche Company was to capitalize on their advantageous pioneering situation. After paying $500,000, the company was granted a huge lease that straddled the proposed route on the Canadian Pacific Rail line in the valley of the Bow River, as well as good grazing land in the surrounding hills. The ranch was close to the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) Post and the growing town of Calgary, to Morley, a mission settlement, and from there on to both the Stoney and Sarcee Indian Reservations; all of which provided potential markets. The climate of the Bow Valley was known to be advantageous too, for the frequent Chinook winds provided periods of moderation to otherwise long cold winters.

The first ranch manager was James Walker, who retired from the NWMP with the rank of Superintendent. He chose the building site west of the "Big Hill" beside Big Hill Creek where the creek valley joined the major Bow Valley. The north slope of the valley protected the site from the harsh north winds and reflected the sun onto the south-facing buildings. The salt valley floor and higher terraces were covered with the long grass of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The steeper slopes were covered with tall straight pines. This site was to be the heart of a grazing lease which covered close to five townships.

The ranch then needed but on ingredient, cattle. In the fall of 1881, the I.G. Baker Company contracted to move 6,800 head of cattle from the American border to the ranch. The cattle were driven hard to reach Cochrane Ranche before the onset of winter. Unfortunately many head died on the move and, although the cattle arrived before the snow fell, many more were fatally weakened by the trip. Lack of winter fodder and poor herding practices, combined with a severe winter, led to the loss of considerable stock. The herd was augmented in 1882 by yet more American cattle but similar severe winter conditions, as well as cattle sales, reduced the total of 12,000 head to only 4,000 by the spring of 1883.

The number of cattle on the ranch can be summarized as follows:

      Approximate Total Head on Ranch
Fall 1881 from the U.S. 6,799 6,799
1 April 1882 estimate of stock loss 1,000 5,700
19 Oct. 1882 from the U.S. 4,290 9,900
June 1883 estimate of stock loss 3,000+  
1881-1883 Sales (approximately) 2,000  
Spring 1883 estimate of stock remaining 4,000 4,000

Of the cattle sold, approximately twenty head a month were supplied to the police barracks and the company's butcher shop in Calgary. The Sarcee Indian Reserve was supplied with about twenty-five head a month, the Stoney of Morleyville took about twenty head, and the Blackfoot at Blackfoot Crossing about one hundred and thirty, which made a total of two hundred head a month.

The losses of cattle during the two winters of 1881/1882 and 1882/1883 were significant. The winters were exceptionally cold and the effects of the Chinook winds were discovered to be less favourable than anticipated. Only limited amounts of hay had been put up for the winters. In addition, the herd was bunched rather than allowed to wander freely over the range, as fences were few and there was some fear of depredations by Indians and rustlers.

As a result of these losses, the company decided to seek new pastures farther south. The Cochrane Ranch Company obtained a new lease on the Belly River and relocated her herd there in 1883. The lease on the Big Hill was re-incorporated under the name of the British American Ranche Company and restocked with horses. In 1884, 8,000 sheep were introduced as another component of the ranch in the hopes that sheep ranching would be more viable.

The completion of the railway and the tremendous influx of homesteaders led to considerable pressure to break up such large parcels of land. As the lease on the Bow Valley was so close to the railway and Calgary, additional pressure was exerted towards its being opened to settlement. In 1887, the ranch was divided along the Bow River and the horses were moved to the south side of the river. In 1888, 7,000 sheep and 41,000 acres of the original leased ranch were offered for sale.

From Roderick J. Heitzmann "The Cochrane Ranche Site." Alberta Culture Historic Resources Division. Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper No. 16, 1980. Reprinted with permission of Alberta Community Development, Historical Resources Division.

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