When the Hudson Bay Company gained a trading monopoly over all land and waterways within the Hudson Bay watershed in 1670 they set out to establish what was the extent of their holdings. To accomplish this feat they first set up posts around James and Hudson Bay.
Then they began to send a number of explorers to record the topography and to contact the various First Nations people with the goal of establishing trading agreements. The first explorer was Anthony Henday who made contact with the Blackfoot and is recorded as the first European to see the Rockies east face. Henday followed trails left by the migration of huge buffalo herds or aboriginal pathways. Most of these trails were the result of the geological formations that allowed easy passageway for travellers.
In 1795, over forty years after Henday had explored the area, The Hudson Bay Company established a Fort at Edmonton and hired David Thompson to explore, survey, map the area, as well record the history, and establish fur trading with the Cree and Blackfoot. Thompson would eventually find a pass through the Rockies and explore much of British Columbia and Northwest US.
Thompson established a base at Rocky Mountain House. He would travel north and south from his base looking for a way to cross the Rockies. The north south trail he developed is now known as the Cowboy Trail and extends from Mayerthrope in the north to Pincher Creek in the south. When one drives Highway 22 they are stepping back in time and following the path that once saw huge herds of buffalo followed by First Nations people and later by early explorers and missionaries.
When Thompson had to return to Fort Edmonton he would head east from Rocky Mountain House and pick up what he called the Wolf’s Track near the Red Deer River and follow it north to Fort Edmonton. When Methodist missionary Robert Rundle and later Father Lacombe began to venture south of the Red Deer River they would follow the Old North Trail, which could take them all the way south to northern US. This trail was basically an extension of the Wolf’s Track.
In 1873 Methodist missionary John McDougall with the help of his brother and father decided that there was a need for a better trail and they built a 450 km cart road from Fort Edmonton to spot near present day Wetaskiwin then extended it through the Bear Hills near Hobbema down to the Crossing at Red Deer River and on to Bowden ending at the mission at Morley, 80 kms upstream of the Bow River from Calgary. For a period of time this trail was called the McDougall Trail or the Morley Trail.
When the North West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary they built a wagon trail to Lone Pine just north and west of Morley in 1875. At this point they linked up with the Morley Trail. This new trail that linked Calgary to Edmonton became known as the Edmonton-Calgary Trail, which settlers would take until the completion of the Calgary-Edmonton Railroad in 1891.
In 1883 John Coleman and Addy MacPherson obtained a contract from the government to establish a bi-weekly mail service and made extra money by shipping light freight and occasionally passengers. By August of 1883 Donald McLeod was running a stage service by adapting a freight wagon with a canopy and extra seats. He charged $25.00 one way. Passengers could bring up to 100 pounds of luggage.
By 1888 individuals could pick four different ways to make the journey from Calgary to Edmonton. From heavy or light freighters to Red River Carts to enclosed light stagecoaches. A heavy freighter with all a settler’s belongings would take up to two weeks while the stagecoach could make the trip within four or five days.
A number of earlier settlers saw an opportunity in establishing stopping places along the trail. Ed Barnett’s Place eventually became Lacombe and Robert Telford’s Place was renamed Leduc.
When the railroad was constructed in 1890-91 it would generally follow the original trail with some exceptions. Once the rail line was completed to the south side of Edmonton the travel time was reduced to 12 hours from the four plus days of a stagecoach. The railroad also picked up the mail contract and by the end of 1891 the stagecoach line and freighters were out of business.
During the 1890’s a gravel road was developed to link the various communities that had sprung up along the rail line and ended the Calgary & Edmonton Trail as a primary route. In the 1930’s the gravel road was paved and named Highway 1. This road would wind its way through all the communities and was renamed to Highway 2 in 1945 when the federal government proposed the building of a Trans Canada Highway.
The Highway would again be renamed in the late 1950’s to Highway 2A when the province began the building of a four lane highway. This new highway would follow some sections of the original Calgary & Edmonton Trail, but skirted or used bypasses to avoid going through the various communities along the route.
The new highway further reduced the travel time between Calgary and Edmonton to three hours. With the increase in car ownership the railroad saw a dramatic reduction in passenger service and after ninety-four years of passenger rail service the last Dayliner made its final run on September 6 of 1985.
Today the province has been discussing the need and cost of developing a high-speed rail corridor between Calgary and Edmonton, which would reduce the travel time to less than 90 minutes. The corridor may never be built, but if it is you can be sure that it will not be too far away from the original Calgary-Edmonton Trail built in 1875.