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Volunteers work to preserve story of Old Macleod Trail

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Historian Bill Dunn gave a talk on the Old Macleod Trail on Thursday at Fort Macleod RCMP Centennial Library.

Bill Dunn never tires of talking about the Old Macleod Trail.
Dunn and other volunteers are working to ensure the trail between Fort Macleod and Calgary — so vital to early settlement in what is now Alberta — is not lost to time.
“It is a story about transportation,” said Dunn, who was guest speaker Thursday at Fort Macleod RCMP Centennial Library.
Dunn told the 17 people gathered for the talk that thousands of tons of freight travelled the Old Macleod Trail during its heyday from 1870-’85.
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.
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 the dawn of a new era for the Canadian west,” Dunn said.
It was more economical to ship from Eastern Canada supplies to what in 1882 became the District of Alberta in the North West Territories 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 that 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 eight to 10 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.
“Profanity seemed the only language the oxen understood,” Dunn said with a smile.
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.
“You can see it was no small affair,” Dunn said. “In fact, many times they (bull trains) would stretch out for more than a mile.”
Stage coaches also followed the Macleod Trail, carrying passengers and the mail, pulling up at five strategically located stopping houses along the way.
The stage coaches, whose primary role was mail delivery, could cover about 30 miles a day.
Passengers would pay $15 for a trip from Fort Macleod to Fort Calgary, with an additional $5 fee for a trunk.
The glory days ended for the Old Macleod Trail with the coming of the railway.
“The last bull team left Fort Benton bound for Fort Macleod in 1885,” Dunn said.
Guy Weadick, one of the founders of the Calgary Stampede, planted the seeds before his death in 1950 of putting markers in place to commemorate the Old Macleod Trail.
In the 1980s, Weadick’s idea came to fruition.
In 2003 Dunn’s friend George Sorkilmo told him about the Old Macleod Trail and the markers that mad been placed to mark the route.
“Bill, the markers could use some paint,” Sorkilmo told Dunn.
Dunn set out to paint and repair each of the weathered markers, and has expanded the work to include putting new markers in place.
The addition of a wagon wheel marker in Okotoks in December 2012 brought to 17 the total of markers on the Old Macleod Trail between Fort Macleod and De Winton.
The Old Macleod Trail markers can be found using a global positioning system (GPS).
In 2014 Dunn intends to get markers in place in key points in Calgary, including the Fort Calgary site.
“With continued interest and dedication, the course of the famous Old Macleod Trail will be preserved for future generations to come,” Dunn said. “I count it a special privilege to have to have a part in preserving the history of the old trail.”
For information or to get involved in the project contact Bill Dunn at 403-601-0212 or