First Nations petroglyphs located in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai'pi National Historic Site.

There’s More to the History of the Canadian Badlands than Dinosaurs

Ever since the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened its doors in 1985, the Canadian Badlands have been famous for dramatic landscapes and dinosaur bones. Less well known is that Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the museum’s name sake, wasn’t looking for dinosaur bones when he discovered the first Albertosaurus skull in 1884; he was looking for coal deposits. The Canadian Badlands has a well-known history of fossil finds, but that’s only a small portion of its past. Read on to experience a historical journey starting thousands of years ago.

Stories That Transcend Time (up to 2,000 years ago)

Considered a sacred place to members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park/Áísínai’pi National Historic Site contains the largest concentration of First Nations petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the North American Great Plains. While rock art cannot be directly dated, images depicting bison herds being followed on foot date back almost two thousand years ago, while others, showing the return of horses and the arrival of guns circa 1730, may be less than two hundred years old.

At Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a park guide interprets for visitors the stories carved or painted on the hoodoos by First Nations hundreds of years ago. credit: Kelly Koizumi.

Before the Mounties Rode into Town (about 150 years ago)

When The Hudson’s Bay Company turned control of the Northwest Territories over to the Dominion of Canada in 1869, American whisky traders began traveling north to the Canadian Badlands region where they could trade their product with the Blackfoot Nations without interference from any local police force. Fort Whoop-Up was one of the earliest and largest illegal whisky trading posts, and quickly developed a reputation for lawlessness and violence. The trading post was so notorious that it was one of the reasons the North West Mounted Police was created in 1874.

The Fort Whoop-Up interpretive centre in Lethbridge, Alberta is a replica built as a centennial project and is located downstream from where the abandoned remains of the original fort were washed away in the 1915 flood .


A Legendary Trailblazer (135 years ago)

Considered to be one of the first cowboys in Alberta, few personalities stand out in ranching history like John Ware. An African-American born into slavery around 1845, Ware was part of the first cattle drive to the Canadian Badlands in 1882 and helped establish Alberta’s beef industry. Although very little was written about him at the time, Ware was highly respected in the ranching community and inspired legendary stories that are told to this day. He has been credited with inventing steer wrestling when he jumped off his horse to run down a stray bovine and discovering the Turner Valley Oil Field by simply flicking a match in the right place, at the right time. The John Ware Cabin in Dinosaur Provincial Park was originally built by this legendary trailblazer in 1900 and has been restored numerous times with the most recent restoration completed in 2002 when new interpretive displays were also installed.

John Ware posing for a photo with other Alberta ranchers.

An Engineering Marvel (more than a century ago)

When it was erected in 1914, the Brooks Aqueduct was the largest concrete structure of its kind in the world. Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) irrigation division built the structure so that CPR could turn the arid land it had acquired from the Government of Canada into valuable farmland. Stretching the limits of engineering, design and technology at the time, it spans a shallow 3.2 km wide valley, suspending a concrete sling 20 meters above the prairie.

Although the aqueduct itself is no longer structurally sound and has been fenced off since the 1970s, it stands as a testament to one of the most ambitious engineering feats in Canadian history. It’s also a photographer-favourite for capturing breathtaking Alberta sunsets.

Brooks Aqueduct. credit: Dax Justin (@daxjustin) June 13, 2016.

When Coal was King (about 80 years ago)

Established in 1936, the Atlas No. 3 Coal Mine was the last of the 139 mines that once operated in the Canadian Badlands. When the mine closed in 1979, the legacy of coal mining and its crucial role in the economic development of the area might have been lost were it not for the Dinosaur Valley Heritage Society, who saved it from demolition. Over the years, the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site has become Canada’s most complete historic coal mine and is home to the country’s last standing wooden coal tipple.

Specialty tours give visitors personal insight into the harsh realities of working on a coal mine; from climbing 125 feet to the top of the tipple where young boys started their careers, to walking underground in the footsteps of miners, to touring the site with Bob Moffatt, a fifth-generation coal miner who started working at the Atlas Coal Mine when he was 16 years old.

Bob Moffatt shares the stories he has collected from his grandfather, his father, and his own experiences when he tours visitors around the Atlas Coal Mine. credit: Susan Johnston.
Canadian Badlands