History of Rocky Mountain House
Rocky Mountain House draws its rich history from the North Saskatchewan River. Fur traders used the River to transport goods east that were found west, within and over the great Rocky Mountain range. It was the prominent location of the confluence of the Clearwater and North Saskatchewan River where the two competing fur trading companies of the 1800s, the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company decided to set up trading posts. Both companies had the idea of using this site as a jumping off point for exploration of routes to the Pacific Coast, as well as for fur trading.
Prior to the establishment of the two posts, the Cree and the Blackfoot had traded at Edmonton House, but conflict between the two was always imminent. The Rocky Mountain House posts were in Blackfoot territory where it was unlikely the Cree would come in great numbers, and yet close enough to the mountains so that the trading Companies hoped to attract the trade of the Kootenays from across the mountains where the beaver was more plentiful. The Blackfoot, however, had other ideas. They did not wish to see their traditional enemies armed with guns, and therefore blocked the Kootenay from coming to the trading post, and blocked the explorers from crossing the mountains.
It was customary to man these forts only in winter, abandoning them in spring for the better supplied base at Edmonton. Spring break-up was also the time the furs were loaded in the York boats and the long trek to York factory started.
Life for the traders at Rocky Mountain House was adventurous for two reasons. Game was often scarce and starvation a real possibility. The traders also had to live in close proximity with the Blackfoot, who were unpredictable and dangerous when they believed that the traders were trying to attract trade from some of their enemies.
Safety was the first consideration in the construction of the fort. A high stockade surrounded the buildings with loop-holed bastions at the four corners. The river acted as a protected trench on one side, and trees had been cleared on all other sides. The stockade enclosed living quarters, black-smith shops, store-rooms, and a trading shop.
For 76 years the trading post in Rocky Mountain House was abandoned, re-built, and re-opened as demanded by competition with other companies, inter-tribal hostilities, and the needs of early explorers, the most notable of whom was David Thompson.
At 14 years of age, David Thompson came to Canada in 1784 in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He studied the art of surveying and map making under the able tutoring of Philip Turner. The Hudson’s Bay Company had many misgivings about letting him explore new country, so in 1797 he left their employ and joined the North West Company. It was with his latter company that he earned his place in history. David Thompson spent several years in Rocky Mountain House searching for a passage west to the Pacific Ocean. This search led to the extensive surveying and mapping of the west. Some of his better known achievements include the mapping of the 49th parallel between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains, the discovery of Howse Pass and Athabasca Pass; as well as being the first white man to travel down the Columbia River.
Perhaps the most fascinating story of David Thompson was his relationship with his wife, Charlotte Small. When David Thompson first met Charlotte Small, he was 28 and she was 14. Charlotte was Metis and her father abandoned her family at Isle a la Croix after “retiring” to England. At the time, the lack of a formal, legal marriage contract often resulted in abandonment of Native wives of company men. It is admirable to note that the marriage of David Thompson to Charlotte Small lasted for over 59 years. David Thompson taught Charlotte to read and write, and they wrote letters back and forth whenever he was away. David Thompson was very protective of his wife and children and the family was inseparable for the greater part of their marriage.
Due to it being burned once, and abandoned for large periods of time, there existed at least three different forts at Rocky Mountain House in all. They were all in the same general area, and all bearing the name Rocky Mountain House; as well one fort was called Acton House. That area today is preserved in what is Alberta's only National Historic Park.
In the early 20th Century, the land was surveyed for homesteads, and slowly, settlers began to trek into Rocky Mountain House, driving the 60 to 100 miles with horse teams from the Calgary - Edmonton C.P.R Line. In 1909, the first Post Office was opened, situated two miles south of the present town's site. In 1909 and 1910, the Alberta Centre Railway survey passed through Red Deer, 60 miles east, to a point 60 miles west of Rocky Mountain House, to tap the coal at a point called the Brazeau Coalfields, now called Nordegg.
As soon as it was certain the railway was coming, the town started to expand, and in August of 1912, the first Rocky Mountain House post office was opened. In the same summer, the railway started a bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. It took two years to freight in the cement for the pillars from surrounding town sites. Their material was hauled over twisted trails, through thick bush, muskeg and dangerous fords across the rivers.
In 1912, the present town site was bought from J. F. Bertrand and surveyed. Stores, a bank and the first newspaper were started.
In 1939, Rocky was given the status of a town with a population of approximately 800. Mr. W. H. Teskey became the first mayor.
Rocky Mountain House Today
Today, Rocky Mountain House is well known as the place of "Where Adventure Began" with the story of the Rocky Mountain House trading fort and David Thompson. The highway dedicated in his name passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Western Canada and still is the place of “Where Adventure Begins!”