Where to Experience Alberta's Wild West Heritage

Where to Experience Alberta's Wild West Heritage July 28, 2018 · 9 min. readWhile the thoughts and opinions are my own, this article was brought to you by a third party. Also, this article may contain affiliate links.

Just over a year ago I wrote an article about the glockenspiel that once stood in downtown Regina. I had fond memories of the glockenspiel as a child and was sad when they took it down to renovate the park. I was even more sad when they didn't put it back up, and I was angry when I discovered it was sitting in a junkyard (sorry, outdoor "storage facility") for the past ten years. That article got a lot of attention, from both the public, the city and the press. Today, efforts are being made to restore the bell back to its original location.

I'm telling you this because preserving heritage – may it be a 25-year-old bell, or a fourth century building – is important. Without heritage, we lose who we are. Often, the desire to move society forward steps over the heritage and causes it to get lost. As impressive as tall glass buildings might be, nothing is better than a smoky red brick structure.

 Saskatchewan is beginning to realize how important this is – and thankfully it's happening now and not in a few decades after everything is gone. But, our neighbours have been on the heritage preservation band train for several years now, especially in Alberta.

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One of the most well-known examples of this is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This buffalo jump has been used for over 6,000 years by the local Blackfoot people. They would work together as a community to drive the buffalo towards the cliff, and then over to their death below. This technique was not only very successful, but provided them with enough meat, bone and sinew to survive the harsh winter.

Today the jump is not longer used, and the Blackfoot have moved away. Instead, an interpretive centre is built into the side of the cliff, and the heritage of the area and the people's that once lived there is preserved through exhibits, demonstrations and storytelling. This interpretive centre can lead visitors through the lives of the Blackfoot, how they lived, what they ate and how they hunted.

Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump

In the mid 1800s this part of the country changed. Pioneers, settlers and explorers came from the east out into the untamed west and were promised land, money and a future. But before the west was settled, it needed to be tamed. The North-West Mounted Police arrived with the sole purpose of policing an area around 40 times larger than Ireland. Throughout the land they set up forts, many of which still exist today.

Fort Macleod

One of these forts was Fort Macleod. The purpose of this fort, like so many before and after it, was to be a camp for the mounted police. It was here they would rest, relax, mingle, work, parade and practice. It was here they were trained and where they went over surveyor's findings of the vast wilderness beyond the horizon.

Fort Macleod

By the time the 20th Century rolled around, a need for these iconic forts was no longer necessary, and many of them closed. Fort Macleod, then a city struggling through its own economic hardships, needed the fort to remain open to bring in tourism. In the 1950s the fort was reopened as a museum for visitors to visit, explore and learn about the NWMP, now the RCMP. Four times a day actors mount horses and perform their Musical Ride, a re-enactment of their original ride in 1876.

Fort Macleod

Half an hour away from Fort Macleod is the bustling city of Lethbridge. In 1912, the railway was moved from Fort Macleod to Lethbridge, withering the economy of one community and blossoming the other. One hundred years later, both communities have worked on similar heritage development projects, with Lethbridge's answer to Fort Macleod being the historic Fort Whoop-Up.

Fort Macleod's Fort Whoop-Up

In the late 1800s, Fort Whoop-Up was the original destination of the NWMP. They were to travel across the country, arrive at the fort and begin policing the province. This iconic moment set the groundwork for taming the Canadian Wild West, and the town of Lethbridge wanted to keep that history alive. Today you can visit a recreation of the fort and learn all about the Blackfoot people and their initial contact with the settlers, the policing efforts of the NWMP and what changed once settlers arrived.

For those looking to relive the "outlaw" way of life, Lethbridge is also home to their very own gun range. Here you can pick up old revolver, manually load six bullets into it and fire it at off into a target. While it might not seem like much, it was these guns, and these bullets, that once terrorized the west and forced the hand of the government into play.

Once the guns were quieted and the settlers arrived, towns began propping up all over the countryside. Some communities were able to survive the centuries, but others were forced to disappear. Pincher Creek's Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village was created to prevent these town from disappearing completely. With 24 heritage buildings, two museums and a gift shop, this village embraces a wide range of different pioneer perspectives.  

Pincher Creek's Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village

The oldest property in the village is the cabin of Kootenai Brown. Brown was the first pioneer to settle what is today Waterton Lakes National Park, close to the Rocky Mountains. Since the addition of his cabin, the village has since grown to include stores, workshops and even a school. Each building offers a unique glimpse to turn of the century lifestyles in the west.

Kootenai Brown's Cabin Inside Kootenai Brown's Cabin

Beyond the pioneer village, Pincher Creek also hosts The Cowboy Show, the oldest ranch rodeo in Canada, and has various walking trails that showcase the roughness of the Alberta terrain.

Heritage is important not only for Saskatchewan, but also Alberta and beyond. Losing it is like losing the stories that set the groundwork for our current society, and once it is gone, it can never be reclaimed.

Is there anywhere in Alberta you would like to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!

 

If You Go

Fort MacLeod is around two and a half hours south of Calgary.

Lethbridge is around two-hour drive south of Calgary.

Learn more about BucketlistAB here.

Grab an awesome itinerary and start your Southern Alberta adventure.

Check into Alberta Parks to start planning your trip and other activities in the area.

Travel Alberta also has lots of great information about things to do and places to see in Castle Provincial Park.

Canalta Hotels has partnered up with a collection of destinations across Southern Alberta.  Stay a Night & See a Sight. They're set to help you plan your trip.

Images by Matt Bailey and Chris Istace Mindful Explorer.

Don't forget to pin it!

Where to Experience Albert’s Wild West Heritage Where to Experience Albert’s Wild West Heritage

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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