Folklore shrouds early NWMP camps in mystery
Yet within this southwestern corner of the Canadian Prairies there were several more obscure outposts — in some cases little more than temporary camps — that the NWMP set up during the 1890s and early 1900s. The chronologies of many of these are shrouded within our local folklore and historical details are often sketchy at best. Here are some of their tales.
North Fork outpost
One such outpost was that of North Fork, which operated for a 16-year period following its 1888 establishment. This was during the height of the necessity of such remote operations of the Mounties, patrolling on horseback the vast, sparsely populated landscape of corporate and family ranches recently established.
Their job was to maintain the peace, ensuring that cattle rustling was kept to a minimum and working closely with the ranching community. It may have been a lonely task but the work and physical surroundings were interesting.
Historical and archeological studies have had a difficult time pinpointing the precise location of the North Fork outpost. It is understood that it stood somewhere in that vast open district along the North Fork of the Oldman River, with the rustic Porcupine Hills to the east and the Livingstone Range to the west.
A reference in 1894 indicates that it may have been situated at or near the Mead ranch along Todd Creek, situated nearly three miles west of the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the Oldman River. It notes that both the NWMP men and their horses were boarded and stabled at this location.
Beyond that, the outpost’s location was even less clear. The previous year (1893), men and horses may have been kept at the M.B. Heath ranch, and for the two-year period following 1894 a similar arrangement was made with H.G. Nash. For the final four years of its operation, an arrangement for boarding and stabling was made with E.G. Smith and Robert Henry Burn (1848-1919), both of whom ranched in the Gillingham district.
Yet in spite of research into the Mounties’ intriguing past, little further is known. It remains a mystery as to where any official lodgings or stables associated with the North Fork outpost may have been placed, nor is much known in regard to the manpower strength or old-time personalities associated with the outpost.
Kootenai Pass outpost
Similar historical scenarios are connected with other remote or temporary outposts. Many were located in truly remote locations, even by the pioneer standards to the day. Some may have been established on a short-term basis to handle temporary law-enforcement situations, and may have consisted of little more than a cluster of tents and corrals set up in a camp situation.
Patrols were completed on horseback, and the men, usually few in number, would attempt to report whenever possible to a nearby outpost or the horse ranch in Pincher Creek.
One such camp was the Kootenai Pass outpost, which operated during 1891. Its location was most likely at the South Kootenay Pass, situated in the Kootenay Forest Reserve, known as Waterton Lakes Dominion Park after 1911, rather than at the Middle or North Kootenay passes farther north.
Three men were stationed there to keep a careful eye on the traffic using the pass. The eye-catching route over the Continental Divide was close to the international boundary and was popular with early travellers coming through the mountainous terrain. Close to a decade later, the area just to the east saw renewed activity associated with the oil exploration boom of Oil City.
Even though this was just a camp, the Mounties maintained a presence there at least as late as October 1891, taking their chances with any harsh weather associated with the early arrival of winter.
Middle Fork and South Fork camps
Many miles to the northwest was the NWMP camp known as Middle Fork. In operation during 1888, this short-lived camp may have been located near what a decade later became the hamlet of Burmis, closely connected with the development of the Crowsnest branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Board and stabling were contracted out to W.J. Eddy, an important rancher from the area.
Here again the camp’s exact location is not known, but it may have served as a stopping-over point for members of the force between those NWMP points farther east, such as the North Fork outpost and the Pincher Creek horse ranch, and the Police Flats outpost, located just inside the Crowsnest Pass, a short distance to the west.
In operation for at least three years after 1895, the South Fork camp of the NWMP may have been situated upstream from the point where Mill Creek flows into the South Fork of the Oldman River. Here the force’s constables patrolled not only the Mountain Mill area — the first logging operation in the Pincher Creek area, dating back to 1879 — but many miles farther upstream into the rugged terrain drained by the river.
This location brought the Mounties into close proximity with the remote mountains to the west. Particular attention was paid to the safety of both travellers and cattle, and regular stops were made at local ranches. NWMP reports on local conditions were sent directly to Pincher Creek.
Although located in distant locations and generally temporary in nature, these often-forgotten camps served valuable functions for the North West Mounted Police, who patrolled the countryside and secured it for ranching operations and local settlers.
The force’s annual reports and centennial studies from 1973 and 1974 were some of the historical research sources used for this article.