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History: Ottawa Letter

Reprinted from the February 1950 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Ottawa Letter
By Senator F.W. Gershaw

Residents of Medicine Hat may remember Mr. F.F. Fatt who relates the following story of how fires were fought in the early days.

“Our poor little town lay at the mercy of the fire fiend. What could we do? Our only salvation lay with the CPR and Mike Leonard. The CPR men were up and around all night and could give an alarm on the roundhouse siren. Mike Leonard, a baker, was up most of the night making bread and so in the watches of the night he would be the first to notice a blaze reflected in the sky.

“When this happened, as it did more than once, Mike would take his cornet in the middle of the road and blow the alarm. It wakened us up all right, I can tell you, and each one piled into his clothes and hiked for the fire.

“Once, Mike gave the alarm because Hugh McWhirter’s house was on fire. Away we rushed to help. Mike was among the first on the scene and I can yet see his disgust as he staggered from the burning house with the first piece of furniture he could reach and saw by the light of the blaze that he had rescued a large picture of King William crossing the Boyne. McWhirter was Grand Master of the Orange Lodge and Mike was a very devout Roman Catholic.”

A Ranching Experience — Ranching has always been an extremely risky business but perhaps the most tragic losses were made by the early British investors in the cattle business.

The records show that the winter of 1883 was a long and bitterly cold winter. The losses sustained by those who had cattle on the open range were very severe. In the springtime in many coulees there were heaps of dead bodies and Indians made wages by skinning the animals for 25 cents each. Of the 12,000 cattle placed on the Cochrane Ranch a scant 4,000 remained alive till spring.

In 1885 the Cochrane cattle were moved to the Waterton Lake district. The snow kept falling that year until it was six feet deep in places. There were no chinooks and even the best rustlers among the cattle could not get feed. The cattle finally crowded to the edge of the lakes browsing the willows to stubs and bawling constantly in their hunger. A loss of the entire herd threatened.

Frank Strong offered to save the cattle for $1,000. His offer was accepted and he rounded up about 500 cayuses. He hired a few experienced riders and without delay, driving the tough ponies before them, they struck out through the deep snow. Urged on by whip and spur the hardy little animals floundered for two days, cutting a wide swathe in the crusted snow. They then reached the lakes and imprisoned starving herds. Strong at once turned his band homeward and they went back at a gallop, reaching the starting point in eight hours. Right behind them came the great herd of bawling steers. They came at a fast trot as they seemed to know that open prairie and food was ahead. In 12 hours thousands of Cochrane cattle were feeding the cured grass of the Indian reserve.

The Buffalo — In 1754 Anthony Henday, who was the first man to write any records spent some months in the country drained by the S. Saskatchewan River. He saw great herds of buffalo at that time. In the springtime the ground would be almost covered with buffalo as far as the eye could see.

By 1880 the buffalo of the plains were almost extinct. Thousands had been killed by Indians and traders. Thousands had perished by breaking through the ice in early winters. Thousands were chased over cut banks and left to their terrible fate and others died of starvation as blizzard succeeded blizzard and the snow became deeper and deeper. Modern weapons completed the destruction of these great herds.

The records show that at one time the only “plains” buffalo were a small herd in Montana. The owner offered them to the U.S. Government but could not make a sale. Hon. Frank Oliver advised the Canadian Government to buy the herd. Sir Wilfred Laurier approved, saying in his eloquent way, “In so far as it is in the power of man the buffalo shall not perish from the earth.”

The herd was purchased and taken to Wainwright Park in Alberta and it rapidly increased in numbers. There were still some wood buffalo in their wild natural state away north in the Wood Mountain area.

It was the last feeding ground of buffalo not in captivity and when the natural pasture at Wainwright was becoming exhausted in 1925 about 2,000 of the young healthy buffalo were taken to the Wood Buffalo Park, west of Fort Smith. They went by train to Waterways. They were there unloaded, fed, watered and given two days’ rest. Col. J.K. Cornwall, then in charge, loaded them on barges and towed by steamer boats, they slowly reached their destination. Buffalo were moved north each year from 1925 to 1928 when over 6,000 had been taken from the Wainwright Park. Many of those left were old and unhealthy and when the park was required in 1942 for military purposes all the remaining buffalo were disposed of.

Fort Whoop-Up — In the late ’60s, traders from Ft. Benton crossed into Canada and built Fort Whoop-Up in Southern Alberta. This fort was the headquarters for the whisky traders and wild men of the times.

Rev. John McDougall on one occasion went into the fort to inquire about fording the river. He was dismounting when he was seized and a loud “How do pardner” sounded in his ears. Turning he saw a fellow far advanced in liquor who jerked him across the square and up to the counter of the bar.

This bar was made of two huge logs, one on top of the other with the upper side of the top log faced smooth. The new friend called for drinks and the bartender put two tin cups, all battered and rusty, on the log and poured liquor into them. The minister would not drink and the other cursed and abused him shamefully but finally took the two drinks himself.

A big fellow then ran up to the group with a long knife in his hand. He said he would like a fight as things were getting too quiet.

He had been on a prolonged drunk and looked wild, haggard, bleary eyed and swollen faced. He noticed the stranger and made himself very offensive in a drunken manner.

Suddenly it came out that the stranger was Rev. John McDougall. The wild man at once changed his conduct. He profusely apologized. He was very humble and ashamed. Nothing now was too good for the minister. He was given the best meat that could be obtained and before he left the fort he performed a Christian marriage ceremony and preached a sermon.

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