It’s a golden autumn afternoon, but given the ominous forecast of major snow on the way, I decided I should have a stroll through the Historic Cochrane Ranche Site before the blazing fall colours vanish beneath a blanket of the white stuff. And it’s just a 10-minute walk from downtown Cochrane.
The first thing I see at the entrance to the park is a bright yellow sign stapled to a post that reads, WARNING, MOOSE IN AREA PLEASE USE CAUTION. Well, alrighty then! Onward!
This 136-acre piece of Alberta’s first large-scale livestock operation – which encompassed about 144,000 hectares of rangeland at its peak – is my favourite of Cochrane’s parks and perhaps the most famous. Tucked in my back pocket is a map I’ll use to guide me along a series of interpretive trails that highlight the human and natural history of the site. At a leisurely pace, the whole trip will take about an hour. History whilst hiking. What could be better?
East heads west
In 1881, senator Matthew Cochrane from Montreal was granted the first of the huge western grazing leases – which cost half a million dollars, big bucks back then but worth more than $13 million in today’s economy. He had his pick of where to put down stakes. He chose what appeared to be the ideal location, about 35 km west of Fort Calgary, straddling the proposed route of the CP Rail line in the valley of the Bow River, with verdant grasslands crisscrossed by plenty of creeks. Good grazing was available year-round, thanks to the warm chinook winds of winter that would routinely blow away or melt the snow to expose the highly nutritious fescue grasses beneath.
But bad luck was to plague the cattle operation. The winters of ’81 and ’82 were brutally cold with very few chinooks. Cattle have rounded hooves not equipped to paw away the snow, unlike the cloved hooves of bison or deer. Unable to access food and proper shelter, the vast herd was decimated. Cochrane eventually pulled up those stakes in 1888, but many uses of the land followed.
From beef cattle to dairy cattle, creamery, stone quarry, and brickyards
My first stop was at a large cairn whose four sides tell the story of what became of Cochrane’s ranch. At one point, the Shelley Quarry produced the sandstone blocks required for buildings by law, after the Calgary fire of 1886. Then there were two brickyards, making some 25,000 bricks a day for the booming construction in the city prior to World War One. Bricks were also used in the building of the famed Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. From 1919 to 1949, part of the land was used as a dairy farm, shipping milk to Calgary by train. A creamery sprang up in 1912 and was in operation for more than 60 years.
And on October 5, 1977, Cochrane Ranche was designated a historic site. High on a hill with a commanding view of the valley and the town below stands the iconic bronze statue of an old cowboy atop his horse – a tribute to all the wranglers and cowboys, the men of vision who gave their best to this land.
Mother Nature at her finest
I wandered the pathways – paved on one side of the fast-moving Big Hill Creek, packed dirt on the far side – stopping at the map markers along the way. I was swept away by the beautiful vistas, prairie grasslands, and sandstone outcrops. I had paused to look up at the 300-year-old Grandfather Tree (# 9 on my map) when a loud horse-like snorting coming from just across the creek made me jump. Mr. Moose – awfully close – was telling me to mosey along. Needless to say, I did.
Guest Journalist – Jane Usher