Alberta tour reveals unexpected Yukon connection

"I'd know you if you had your hat on!" That was the way that Bill Dunn introduced himself to me when he shook my hand outside of the Claresholm Library last week.

“I’d know you if you had your hat on!”

That was the way that Bill Dunn introduced himself to me when he shook my hand outside of the Claresholm Library last week. Dunn is short and stocky, with a ruddy complexion, a smile from ear to ear, and wears the ubiquitous Stetson. Dunn is just one of the many industrious and dedicated history-lovers I met during my short visit to the province where I was born.

Trisha Carleton, executive director of the Claresholm and District Museum, had jointly planned with the library to host my talk on Prairie cattle drives to the Klondike in 1898 in this small farming community, 125 kilometres south of Calgary. It was Friday afternoon, and Claresholm was the last stop on a speaking tour that took me through southern Alberta.

Dunn, now 79 years old, has been on a one-man campaign to preserve the memory of the old MacLeod Trail. Once known as the “Old North Trail,” it is said to have been an aboriginal route from north to south, skirting the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In early historic times, it was the main supply route for trade goods, up the Missouri River by steam boat to Fort Benton, in Montana, and then north, into what later became known as Alberta, by ox cart.

In 1875, after Fort Calgary was established, the trail between there and Fort MacLeod, to the south, became more commonly known as the MacLeod Trail. Over the years, the trail fell into disuse, but the wagon ruts are still visible in numerous places between the two cities.

In the 1980s, markers were put up along the trail to remind people of the old route, and Dunn has been restoring these and adding more. There are now 17 markers. The ones that I have seen consist of brightly painted wagon wheels set in a wooden frame, on posts, above the ground, with a sign, simply stating, “Old MacLeod Trail,” across the top.

Dunn has been active in Alberta history ever since he arrived in the province in 1987. His first historical project was building a scale model of the old stockyards at Cayley, Alberta. He then helped create a historical sign to mark Cayley as the largest cattle shipping point in Western Canada. The sign went up on Highway 2A in 2001.

Next, he became involved in the Bar U Ranch, a national historic site located south of Longview, where he promotes western values and the western lifestyle. He has also taken school groups on tours of Cayley, especially the Cayley stockyards, and has talked about the MacLeod Trail. For all of this, he was awarded, in 2011, the Calgary Stampede Western Legacy Award for Innovation for sharing the “stories of the old west with his community, and mak(ing) it exciting to learn about western history.”

Doug Wilson, whom I met after giving my first talk at historic Fort Calgary on Tuesday evening, is another man who is not only fascinated with Calgary history, but part of it. Four generations of Wilsons worked for Burns and Company, a historical institution in the Stampede City. He may be able to help me unravel the story of the Burns cattle drives to the Yukon, from the Alberta end of the trail.

A few days later, I attended the Heritage Weekend activities at the Calgary Public Library, where Wilson showcased his informative new documentary Wings of Change: A History of Aviation in Calgary. I learned that the neighbourhood in northeast Calgary where I lived was once the site of the Calgary Airfield, before it was moved to its present location. I also learned that Wilson footed the bill for the production of this interesting piece of Alberta history from his own pocket.

Donna and Terry Zwicker were my wonderful hosts during my visit to Alberta, demonstrating Alberta hospitality and acting as guides as we travelled along the sun-drenched foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across a broad, treeless, sienna-tinted fall landscape, on Highway 22. Along the way we passed the historic Waldron Ranch, forests of windmills, and signs warning drivers of the strong winds that blow out of the Crowsnest Pass. The Waldron Ranch, initially formed in 1883, includes 12,357 hectares of native grasslands straddling the historic Cowboy Trail south of Calgary.

In 1968, not far away in the eastern limit of the Porcupine Hills west of Claresholm, I gained my first experience in archeology, working on a dig along the banks of Willow Creek. In my first five weeks on the job, I uncovered what must have been a ton of bison bone before exposing my first artifact.

Prior to my talk in Pincher Creek on Thursday night, Farley Wuth, curator of the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, took time to show me around the grounds of their wonderful assemblage of two dozen heritage buildings, and historic exhibits. For a small community, they have done a marvellous job of preserving their history.

Farley later gave me a copy of Where the Rivers Meet, a history of the local area written by historian Barry Potyondi. Here is where my trip became interesting. I wasn’t having much luck tracking down leads to the Pat Burns cattle connection with the Klondike, but in the Potyondi book, I found reference to someone else of interest: D.W. Davis, the first member of Parliament elected to the House of Commons from Alberta back in 1887.

In 1896, Davis was appointed as customs inspector in the Yukon and distinguished himself during the gold rush by maintaining order while other government officials were either overwhelmed by their duties, or corrupt. Davis remained in the Yukon after the gold rush, in a mining partnership with J.J. Rutledge on Gold Run Creek until he passed away in June of 1906.

Davis was a whiskey trader in the early days of Alberta history, and was well acquainted with other Albertans with a Yukon connection, like Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police, and John J, Healy, of old Fort Whoop-Up, who established a trading post at Dyea and another at Fortymile before the Klondike was discovered.

So my trip to Alberta yielded historical dividends where I hadn’t expected any, and the clear, sunny skies and warm fall weather made it all the more enjoyable.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at