19811011003 | Bull teams transporting coal from Lethbridge to Fort Macleod, AB, about 1885

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Bull teams transporting coal from Lethbridge to Fort Macleod, AB, about 1885
About 1885, 19th century
Silver salts on paper
11.8 x 19.7 cm
This artefact belongs to : © Sir Alexander Galt Museum and Archives
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Keys to History

Although coal mining was the first industry in Lethbridge and southern Alberta, it was because of railway development that the mines existed at all. It was not until Sir Alexander Galt and his son Elliott learned that the transcontinental railway was to follow a route through the southern prairies that the coal deposits of southern Alberta assumed any value in their eyes. Even at that, the coal mined at Coalbanks still had to get to market, no easy task when the predominant form of transportation in the region was the bull team.

Bull teams - usually six oxen pulling a set of three wagons hitched in single file - had been travelling the Whoop Up Trail from Fort Benton, Montana, to the Northwest Territories since the late 1860s. After serving the whiskey trade with the Blackfoot people, and later the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), the bull teams began to stop at Nicholas Sheran's mine for coal shortly after he began to dig it. The coal was sold to households and small businesses in Fort Benton, and the quantity required was small. But bull teams could never deliver the amount of coal required by steam locomotives.

  • What

    Bull teams can be seen moving out of the river valley at Coalbanks, about 1885.

  • Where

    The main part of the Whoop Up Trail was between 338 to 370 km long, depending upon whether the dry or wet route was being travelled. From Fort Whoop Up, the trail branched out to places like Fort Macleod and Calgary. A one-way trip along the trail took two to three weeks.

  • When

    For many travellers, listening to the bull whackers was the only interesting thing about the trip. Charles Schafft, an American prospector, described the scenery along the Whoop Up Trail as "...rolling prairie, cut up occasionally by collies (coulees) - covered with short, dried up grass and prickly pear (cactus) - no other vegetation, and not a stick of wood between the Marias and Belly Rivers ..."

  • Who

    The men who kept the wagons moving along the Whoop Up Trail - "bull whackers" and "mule skinners" they were called - were a tough, colourful lot. More than one traveller wrote about the extensive vocabulary of curses employed by these men.