Things to Do in Fort Macleod
Sitting about 40 minutes west of Lethbridge, on the #3 Crowsnest Highway and the banks of the Oldman River, the prairie town of Fort Macleod serves as a testament Canada’s frontier past. Boasting odonyms honouring the local plainsmen that built southwestern Alberta- such as Jerry Potts Boulevard, Chief Red Crow Boulevard and Colonel Macleod Boulevard- Fort Macleod acknowledges its important role in the formation of the Canadian West.
The original ‘Fort Macleod’, the Northwest Mounted Police headquarters after which the city was named, played a crucial role in bringing law and order to Canada’s western frontier. The town itself, which was established in close proximity to the fort, has made its own unique mark on Alberta over the years.
In accordance with its rich history, most of Fort Macleod’s attractions are historically themed. Below is a list of 7 things to check out if you ever find yourself in Fort Macleod.
1. ‘The Fort’
The original ‘Fort Macleod’, the namesake of the town, was built in 1874 on an island in the Oldman River about two miles downriver from the present day townsite. Named after Colonel James Farquharson Macleod, the Northwest Mounted Police Commissioner at the time, Fort Macleod was established in order to secure Canadian sovereignty in the West, namely by putting an end to the illicit and destructive Montanan-Blackfoot whiskey trade (which took place at nearby whisky trading posts such as Fort Whoop-Up).
Fort Macleod was not only the second headquarters of the Northwest Mounted Police (after Fort Livingstone, Saskatchewan, 1874-1876), but also the first permanent NWMP post, making it, in a way, the birthplace of Canada’s iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police (which was an amalgamation of the NWMP and the eastern Dominion Police; formed in 1920). Due to flooding problems, the fort was rebuilt on higher ground in 1884.
In addition to terminating the American whiskey trade in Canada, the NWMP of Fort Macleod helped to quell Riel’s North West Rebellion of 1885, and to regulate the Yukon-Alaska border and maintain law and order in the frozen North during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890’s.
Today, a replica of the 1884 fort houses the ‘Fort Museum of the Northwest Mounted Police’. Open from May until early October, the museum features a number of displays that include authentic uniforms, weapons, photographs, dioramas and tools that tell the stories of the Northwest Mounted Police, the early days of Fort Macleod, and the local Blackfoot people.
2. Main Street
If you walk down historic Main Street (a.k.a. Colonel Macleod Boulevard) in Fort Macleod, you may get the impression that the buildings that line it haven’t changed in a hundred years. In fact, most of the buildings on Main Street were built between 1906 (after a huge fire destroyed the original wooden shops and businesses on Main Street) and 1914.
From 1911-1914, many people believed that Fort Macleod would become the commercial centre of Southern Alberta.
Subsequently, the town experienced an influx of Scottish, English and Irish immigrants whose influence can be seen in the architectural styles of the brick and sandstone buildings that line Main Street. However, after the advent of World War I in 1914, expansion in Fort Macleod ground to a halt. Gradually, Fort Macleod fell from importance, was superseded by growing Southern Albertan cities like Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, and largely receded into oblivion. Today, the stone buildings of Main Street survive as relics of an exciting and prosperous past.
3. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of Canada’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, lies about 15 minutes west of Fort Macleod, among the Porcupine Hills that mark the beginning of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The buffalo jump, or pis’kin, is a natural sandstone cliff that the local Blackfoot Indians used for thousands of years to hunt buffalo. Using their knowledge of animal behavior and local topography, Blackfoot hunters would trick wild buffalo herds into stampeding off the edge of the cliff to their deaths.
Today, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the largest and best-preserved buffalo jumps in the world. A magnificent interpretive centre, cleverly designed to blend in with the surrounding prairies, is built into the hill just left of the buffalo jump. Tourists from all over Canada, America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and China flock to the site every summer to marvel at the natural edifice that serves as a testament to the ingenuity of the Blackfoot people.
4. The Empress Theatre
The Empress Theatre, the only theatre in Fort Macleod, has been in operation since 1912, making it the oldest continually operating theatre in Western Canada. Complete with 1930’s love seats and original tiffany-style hanging lamps, the Empress regularly stages programs, films, concerts, festivals, drama and musical theatre productions throughout the week.
The Empress Theatre is home to a number of strange sightings and experiences reported over the years by both employees and visitors alike. Lights frequently go on and off at will, popcorn buckets will find their way out of garbage cans without any apparent cause, and footsteps will be heard when there is no one around. Some actors have seen a man appear on and offstage during performance, and some patrons have reported seeing a face in the mirror behind them when they were alone in the bathroom. These unexplained incidences are largely attributed to the Empress’s oldest and most touted resident, a supposed supernatural entity known as “Ed” the ghost. According to local legend, Ed is the ghost of a former janitor of the Empress. The rumour that the former janitor had a second job at the local auction market and enjoyed cigarettes and the occasional whiskey- along with the allegation that many people who claim to have seen Ed simultaneously smell alcohol, tobacco and manure- lends credence to the theory. Some, however, maintain that the Empress is haunted by a number of ghosts, or by the spirit of Dan Boyle, the former theatre owner.
5. Northwest Mounted Police 1884 Barracks
Due to flooding problems, the original NWMP Fort Macleod, built on an island in the Oldman River, was torn down and re-erected in 1884 in what is now the present-day townsite. After the formation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920, the new fort largely fell into disuse and subsequent decay. However, the fort’s barracks were eventually partially rebuilt and, in August 2005, opened to the public. Today, the partially-rebuilt remains are a Provincial Historic Site, and include the saddlery, prison, gallows, armoury and infirmary.
6. River Valley Wilderness Park
In a deviation from the other historically-themed attractions of Fort Macleod, the Oldman River Valley Wilderness Park is a natural phenomenon. Located on the banks of the Oldman River just north of Fort Macleod across the MacKenzie Bridge (6th Avenue), River Valley Wilderness Park is a 120-acre park home to white-tail and mule deer, rabbits, beavers, fish and the rare narrow-leaf cottonwood tree once typical of Albertan river valleys. The park’s extensive pathway system allows visitors to fully enjoy and appreciate the flora, fauna and unique geography characteristic of the Oldman River Valley.
7. Alberta’s First Golf Course
With its first game of golf in 1890, the Fort Macleod Golf & Country Club green is the oldest golf course in Alberta, as well as the oldest golf course west of Winnipeg. The hillside about 250 yards from the first tee was used for years by the Northwest Mounted Police as a firearm range, and shells can still be found on its slopes. The Club charges $22 for a 9-hole weekend game, and $32 for an 18-hole weekend game.