Three Historical Alberta Forts You’ll Want to
Without the problems associated with the vibrant whiskey trade in southern Alberta around 1873, our history books would very likely tell a different story. But whiskey and fur trading together were profitable businesses back then and both presented problems, some significant like the Cypress Hill Massacre. In addition the American flag was caught flying over Canadian soil – a disturbing fact that hastened the establishment of the North West Mounted Police (today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police) by Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald. To that end approximately 300 men including 22 officers along with horses, livestock, wagons and ox-carts left Manitoba in the summer of 1874 for the long journey to Fort Whoop-Up in southern Alberta. Their mandate – shut down the whiskey trade and establish Canadian sovereignty.
Today history comes alive when you visit present day Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge. Likely taking its name from either telling the oxen “whoop it up” with a whip or “whooping it up” with whiskey – you choose – the fort you visit is a replica of the original fort built at the junction of the St. Mary and Oldman Rivers.
Start the self-guided tour with a 20 minute video. Then travel back in time through all 13 authentic period rooms starting with the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) jail through to the Indian room – where buffalo robes and pelts were traded for American goods including flour, salt, tea, canned goods, lead shot and cartridges. Here too alcohol changed hands – to keep the Blackfoot people coming back. This room, like the others, looks and feels authentic.
End your visit with a walk outside, stopping to say hello to chickens (which provide dozens of eggs for sale every day) and two resident goats.
Next head 50 kilometres west to Fort Macleod, built first on the Oldman River as a North West Mounted Police barracks. Time your visit to coincide with the Musical Ride – run every summer four times a day, weather permitting. The first ride happened in 1876 and preparing for it was a welcome break from the drudgery of drills and life in the barracks. Now it’s local students aged 16-22 who participate, with all but two of them female - at least in 2015. Have a wander through the present day fort before or after the ride and check out the NWMP memorabilia that’s been collected.
End your tour of the forts with the largest of them all – Fort Calgary. Located at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, it’s considered to be the birthplace of Calgary. Originally built in 1875 and named after Calgary House at Calgary Bay in Scotland, it has gone through several iterations to become what you see today with only one part of the original building, a sandstone block, in evidence. Never were any battles fought or shots fired in Fort Calgary. Instead it was a place where the North West Mounted Police came to stop the whiskey trade, befriend the First Nations people and provide for peace and order as well as good government.
Incredibly the fort was undamaged by the flood of 2013 because of a rail berm, so you can wander beautiful grounds (some under renovation) that include a garden harkening back to the original fort. Across the Elbow River by way of a new pedestrian bridge, you can check out the Deane House named after Captain Deane, Calgary’s longest serving NWMP Superintendent and the Hunt House – once part of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Calgary’s oldest building in its original location. A variety of exhibits inside the Fort including many that are family friendly, ensure this fort is a dynamic destination that delivers history in an engaging manner.
A visit to all three forts will leave you with a rich understanding of the history of both the whiskey trade and the establishment of the North West Mounted Police. Ideally visit in summer to take advantage of special programs that only run a few months of the year.