Alberta Ranching History at the Bar U Ranch

Compared to the mileages we’ve been putting on in recent days, Day 32 of the trip – Wednesday, May 25th – was a fairly long one, with a historic site stop that was much longer than I’d expected.

We needed to drive a total of 258 km (160 mi) – 142 km (88 mi) from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump to the Bar U Ranch, and then another 116 km (72 mi) to the campground we had reserved for 5 nights in Cochrane. This is the maximum mileage I like to drive in a day with the motorhome – I set 240 km (150 mi) as the limit when I planned the trip, though a few are above that for various reasons. Clicking on the map will open an interactive version in a new window.

Map - Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump to the Bar U Ranch, and then to Cochrane
The overflow parking lot at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was a magnificent place to start the day off. This wonderful light was shot at 06:02.

Dawn at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
In the dawn light, the large interpretive centre almost disappears into the hillside among the cliffs. When we went to bed, we weren’t sure whether or not we’d go through the interpretive centre or not. We were ready to hit the road by 7:30, though, and given what she’d seen on the trail below the cliffs and what I’d told her from my visits to the centre, Cathy didn’t feel that we needed to stay for 3 hours or so for her to go through it.

Dawn at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
Heading west towards Bar U Ranch on Highway 540 just before 09:00. This country has a really good feel to it – any of the early pioneers who arrived on a day like this must have thought they’d reached their Promised Land.

Heading west towards Bar U Ranch on Alberta Highway 540
We had a bit of time to kill once we reached Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, as it doesn’t open until 10:00. A long dog walk and a look at the sculpture out front easily took care of that time, though.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site
“A Question of Survival” is a larger-than-life-size bronze by neighbour Rich Roenisch. It’s based on an encounter with a pack of wolves by George Lane, who bought the ranch in 1902. It was dedicated on June 27, 1997.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
The ranch headquarters was built out of the wind along Pekisko Creek. The ranch was established in 1882, and at its peak, the ranch, operated by the North West Cattle Company, held 157,960 acres of leased grazing land. The park is now 148.43 hectares in size (367 acres), and has 35 historic structures. It was purchased by Parks Canada in 1991, with assistance from the Friends of the Bar U Historic Ranch Association, and Bar U Ranch National Historic Site opened to the public in 1995. Canadian Cattlemen magazine has published a good summary of the ranch’s history.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
As Cathy and I left the visitor centre, a cowboy asked if he could walk with us. Of course! The cowboy, Don Wilson, is a long-time interpreter at the Bar U, and we quickly learned that he and his wife spent many years in Dawson City! We ended up spending an hour and a half with Don, and I have no doubt that he could have continued telling us stories about the ranch for another few hours.

Interpreter Don Wilson at the Bar U Ranch
In 1909, George Lane started a Percheron draft horse breeding operation after importing stud and brood mare stock from Le Perche, France, and the Percherons, which were exported in large numbers to Great Britain in particular, were a significant factor in making the ranch world famous. At one point, over 1,200 Percherons were on the ranch.

Percheron draft horse at the Bar U Ranch
The quality of the construction of some of the buildings at the ranch is notable – this is the Pekisko post office.

The historic Pekisko post office at the Bar U Ranch, Alberta
Other notable work is being done by park interpeters today – the harnesses and saddles made in this shop are works of art.

Harness shop at the Bar U Ranch, Alberta
The bunkhouse has been restored to really look like it would have in the ranch’s heyday, with the area around each bed being heavily personalized by the ranch hand who was based there.

The bunkhouse at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
Among the many famous visitors to the ranch from around the world was Edward, Prince of Wales, who visited the Bar U in 1919. He was so impressed that he bought an adjacent ranch, which he named the EP (Edward Prince) Ranch – it’s listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
A back corner of the main ranch complex.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
We were invited to join a group of students at the chuckwagon for some cowboy coffee.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
In charge of the chuckwagon, and the artist behind making exceptional cowboy coffee (and bannock as well, we hear), is Don’s wife, Myriam Wilson. She was an interpreter at Dredge #4 in Dawson City in the 1990s when I was running regular bus tours there. I wish I could say that I remember her well, but I have only a vague recollection – we met a lot of people, and had little direct contact with the interpreters. She and Don have been here since 2001, though, and are both extremely good at what they do – Myriam is a powerhouse 🙂 One of the things that I noticed was that the kids are told that this is their ranch – when asked “whose ranch is this?”, the correct answer is “mine!”. I like that a lot.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
As Cathy and were walking back to the RV just after 1:00 pm, another pair of Percherons came by with a wagon load of kids. Look at the hooves on those horses – almost the size of a dinner plate, and with no “hoof feathers” like Clydesdales have, and which cause lots of problems.

Percheron draft horses at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta

Spending over 3 hours learning about the ranch’s history, I’m rather saddened by the fact that I knew almost nothing about it, and Cathy had never heard of it. The ranch played a pretty significant part in Alberta history, and it should be much better known. “The Bar U and Canadian Ranching History” by Simon Evans looks like a worthwhile read to get more in-depth.

Taking Bella and Tucker for a walk, I had a look at some of the horse-drawn equipment that’s used around the ranch.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
Looking east from the parking lot as we prepared to leave. Pretty country.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, Alberta
Heading north towards Cochrane on Highway 22 at 2:00. It’s probably faster to take the freeway, Highway 2, but Highway 22 offers much better scenery and a few small towns.

Highway 22, Alberta
The first stop when we reached Cochrane was Crystal Glass to have them check out the windshields. The manager said that the installation had been so poorly done in Whitehorse that they both had to be removed and re-installed. That made me very nervous – if one was to break, we’d have a real problem. But with the windshields now barely hanging on and with heavy rain forecast that night, the crew duct-taped the windshields and I said that if the weather forecast was decent, I’d have it back first thing in the morning.

Just after 4:00, we checked in to the Bow RiversEdge Campground, which ranks very high on the list of our favourite campgrounds, for 5 nights. The next days would be full of family visits and activities in the Calgary area.


Alberta Ranching History at the Bar U Ranch — 2 Comments

  1. I love the look of that ‘country’, Murray. With the beautiful soaring and snowy mountains all around…
    So glad to be able to share this journey with you all. Thank you for the links as well. More good lunchtime or rainy day reading for sure. Ivan Doig has written some very poignant books about his life growing up on a USA western ranch, quite a different scale than this one.

    You mentioned Edward, Prince of Wales but the pic does not fit the year you mentioned or was that generic to the ranch?