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Volunteers ensure trail’s history will be preserved

Old Macleod Trail marker

Bill Dunn and Gordon MacIvor beside the new Old Macleod Trail marker at Okotoks.

It has been close to 130 years since bull trains of about 130 oxen loaded with tons of goods lumbered on a trail between Fort Macleod and Calgary.
A group of dedicated volunteers is making sure what was known as the Macleod Trail isn’t lost to time.
An Old Macleod Trail marker was unveiled last month at Okotoks.
“One outstanding aspect of the Okotoks marker has to be the close proximity to the still visible trail ruts in the ravine,” historian Bill Dunn said. “This marker is definitely located ‘on the trail’.”
Dunn and other volunteers, including Gordon MacIvor of Fort Macleod, are labouring to refurbish the 15 Old Macleod Trail markers set in place in the early 1980s to commemorate the route, and add new ones.
Wheel No. 1 is in Fort Macleod.
Dunn said since the trail was abandoned in the late 1880s, nothing has disturbed the ground in the ravine.
“This coulee being the only natural access to higher ground north of the Sheep Creek valley bottom, meant everything on the trail had to go through this area,” Dunn said.
The arrival of settlers and the North West Mounted Police in what was then the North West Territories fuelled the growing need for supplies.
It was more economical to ship from Eastern Canada supplies for what is now southern Alberta on the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Mont.
Fort Benton was the furthest point steamboats hauling 200 to 400 tons of goods could travel on the Missouri River.
The I.G. Baker Co. in Fort Benton would assemble bull trains to move the goods north to Fort Whoop Up and then west to Fort Macleod.
Although called “bull” teams, the wagons were pulled by oxen which were powerful, co-operative and could live off the land.
The bull teams ran only in summer when grass was plentiful for the oxen to eat.
Wagons were hitched three in a row with 10 to 18 oxen in front. The three wagons could carry nine tons of freight.
Bull whackers as they were known guided the oxen 10 to 12 miles a day, making slow but steady progress across the prairie. They were known for the colourful language they used to encourage the oxen.
From 1870-’85 bull trains of about 130 oxen pulling 30 wagons carrying tons of goods from Fort Macleod to Calgary every summer made their way along the Macleod Trail.
Stage coaches also followed the Macleod Trail, carrying passengers and the mail, pulling up at five strategically located stopping houses along the way.
In its heyday the Macleod Trail was a lifeline for people depending on goods and mail that had made its way along the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Mont.
Those glory days ended for the Macleod Trail with the coming of the railway.
The addition of this Macleod Trail wagon wheel marker in Okotoks brings the total to 17 wheel markers on the Macleod Trail between Fort Macleod and De Winton.
The trail marking project which was begun in the foothills in 1980 is proceeding north to Calgary with more markers to be installed in the future.
“It is very exciting to at last have the trail remembered in this way,” Dunn added. “I’m very thankful for the overwhelming support of the Okotoks community in making this happen.”
For information or to get involved in the project contact Bill Dunn at 403-601-0212 or dunnpat@platinum.ca.

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