Pincher Creek a century and a quarter ago certainly was a different-looking settlement than what we have today.
True, there were historical roots, planted in the 1880s or 1890s, which still can be seen today in terms of how the community functions. But in the intervening five or six generations, there have been many changes.
What did Pincher Creek look like during those bygone days on the western Canadian frontier?
Early land surveys
After the success of the North West Mounted Police horse ranch, established here in 1878, Pincher Creek quickly became established as a commercial centre for the expanding ranching industry.
During the next 20 years, numerous pioneer businesses sprang up to serve local economic needs. The settlement’s “business centre” was located less than a mile to the west of the Mounties’ detachment, on what was to become Pincher Creek’s dusty Main Street.
The selection of where the commercial outlets were to develop was made by ex-Mountie Charles Kettles, who in 1883 was commissioned to survey the streets and the business and residential blocks for the portion of town south of the creek.
The area’s proximity to the creek, with shelter offered by the valley, obviously appealed to Kettles in terms of where businesses could be built. His massive two-storey ranch house, located near what is now the west end of town, dated to 1890 or 1892.
Pioneer Albert Morden (1844-1907), patriarch of the first non-NWMP family to settle here, surveyed the portion of the settlement north of the creek. Many of these streets he named after members of his family. He tragically drowned in the rushing spring waters of the creek.
A few early businesses of the 1880s and 1890s
The first local business was the Schofield and Hyde General Store, established in 1883 as a log structure near what is now the corner of Main Street and East Avenue. Three years later, the outlet was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Co., with Henry Hyde remaining on as its manager.
Down the street was the old Arlington Hotel, also known as the Brick Hotel. Originally owned by the partnership of Mitchell and Geddes, William R. Dobbie purchased the latter’s portion of the business, and the hotel was greatly expanded during the 1890s.
Dobbie, who like Hyde later went on to become Pincher Creek’s mayor, also operated a livery stable next door to the east.
Farther to the west was Timothee Lebel’s Store, a series of log and frame buildings dating back to the mid 1880s. It was not until 1904 that his three-storey stone business block was constructed.
At the opposite corner was the old hardware store operated by William Berry and Sons. Established way back in 1886, this business flourished because of its connection with the local ranches.
On the south side of the street were several other early businesses. The old Union Bank, also housed in a majestic stone building dating from 1904, had been located almost directly across the street from Schofield and Hyde’s store since 1898. To its west was the Alberta Hotel, which dated back as early as 1885, and was closely connected with the ranching Connelly family.
Blacksmith businesses, such as the Allison family’s IXL Blacksmith Shop, and livery stables, such as the massive two-storey building owned by the Lynch brothers, were located farther east.
Local streets and long-distance travel
Pincher Creek streets during the 1890s were a far cry from what they are now. Pioneers often recalled that during wet weather they were little more than massive mud holes. During dry weather, they were at best simple trails, often very dusty when heavily trodden with horses or during frequent wind storms.
A few of the major thoroughfares, primarily adjacent to the businesses or in established residential areas, were adorned with wide wooden boardwalks. These state-of-the-art pedestrian walkways utilized local lumber harvested at the logging operation at Mountain Mill. Whenever the boards were replaced, children would scurry by, looking for loose change that had been accidentally dropped through the slats.
Regular travel to points beyond Pincher Creek was limited during those early days on the frontier. The railway did not arrive for a full generation after Pincher Creek’s establishment, and motorized vehicles were still a dream of the future.
Travel was on horseback or by stagecoach, and even a return trip to Fort Macleod, the closest centre to the east, was a major undertaking of several days’ duration. Such a trip was next to impossible during wet weather, when the local trail would become a massive mud hole. Winter travel was plagued by snow-clogged challenges.
The route left Pincher Creek east of the NWMP detachment, travelled along what is now Macleod Street, crossed the creek at Goforth’s Crossing and went northeasterly from there.
Similar cart trails headed west from town to the Pass, and south to Waterton Lakes. Travel was difficult at best.
Early bridges and fording the creek
Within town, the first bridge constructed across the creek was an old log one, located on what was to become Bridge Avenue, now Bev McLachlin Drive. It connected the frontier business core with the pioneer housing landscape on the north side of the watershed.
Before its construction just prior to 1898, there was little need for a traffic bridge. Most creek crossings within the settlement were handled through a series of fords, one located behind the Mounties’ detachment and a second set, according to local folklore, located farther upstream near Morden’s Grove. As far back as the 1890s, there was a log footbridge near the Morden property, an agricultural spread now occupied by the fire hall.
The old Bridge Avenue crossing was replaced circa 1906 by a sturdy metal structure, required when a much-too-heavy steam engine crashed through the wooden bridge to the creek below.
Some years later, shortly before the First World War, a second steel bridge was constructed at the far west end of town. This provided the ranches at Beauvais Lake, Mountain Mill and Beaver Mines with access to our pioneer business settlement.