History of Fort Macleod
Fort Macleod was founded in 1874 with the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, led by Colonel James F. Macleod. The North West Mounted Police force had been formed to protect Canadian sovereignty in the West. This interest was being threatened by the disruptive and unlawful practices of American whiskey traders who were trading deadly "firewater" for buffalo robes, wolf skins, and other items of value. The arrival of the North West Mounted Police put an end to the illicit trade in the Blackfoot, Blood, and Peigan Indian territory. Moreover, they established an official federal presence in the North West Territories of Canada, which were being eyed by the United States for possible annexation, and effectively opened the Canadian West to settlers. Fort Macleod was the first permanent police post in the British North-West.
The original fort was hastily erected of log walls and rough planking, sod roofs and dirt floors. It was located on an island in the Old Man River valley, about one mile east of the present town. The island, known as Macleod Island, was chosen for the site of the fort upon the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in mid-October 1874, as it was both a picturesque and defensible location. However, it diminished in attractiveness with the arrival of spring flood waters, which rendered the site practically inaccessible. Nevertheless, a town quickly sprang up around the fort.
By 1884, the North West Mounted Police relocated their quarters to the south bank of the Old Man River, west of the present Town of Fort Macleod. (Today, you may visit the partially reconstructed NWMP 1884 Barracks Provincial Historic Site which was officially Commissioned, under the Alberta 2005 Centennial Legacy Program, on August 25, 2005.)
The town soon followed, becoming a bustling settlement, complete with a boardwalk-lined main street and a variety of commercial interests providing services to the region's ranching industry. Development proceeded until 1906 when a fire destroyed most of the wood frame shops and businesses on Main Street. As a reaction to the fire, a bylaw was passed requiring future buildings to be constructed of stone or brick, thereby changing the look of Main Street forever.
Beginning around 1911, Fort Macleod entered a period of optimism fueled by speculation that the town would become a pivotal railway center the convergence point of no less than ten rail lines. Real estate prices soared, newly opened subdivisions rapidly sold out, and commercial building flourished. A Board of Trade promotional pamphlet advertising Fort Macleod as the hub of southern Alberta and anticipating its ascendancy as a major business and transportation center aided in attracting new settlers and businesses. Scottish, English, and Irish immigrants made up the majority of the town's population. A small Chinatown was the focus of a vital Chinese community. Other nationalities including French, Italian and Dutch were represented on a lesser scale.
Most of the two-storey brick and sandstone buildings lining the two main business thoroughfares were constructed during the pre-1914 boom years. Much of the material used was produced by local brickyards, lumber mills, and stone quarries. The masons and builders who erected the fine structures bestowed upon the town the legacy of building styles, traditional values, and craftsmanship brought with them from England. Residences of the 1897-1914 period show the same quality and attention to detail found in the downtown buildings, reflecting the availability of materials and craftsmen and an interest in predominant period styles.
Fort Macleod did not rise to its anticipated importance. There was a marked slowdown in construction in 1914, primarily due to the outbreak of the First World War. By 1920, it was apparent that the town had lost its place as the leading city of the south. Throughout the period of expansion, town officials borrowed extensively to provide the level of services expected by the optimistic townspeople. In 1924, the accumulated debt forced the town to accept a low interest loan with the caveat that the town refrain from borrowing money for improvements or expansion for fifty years. This commitment, combined with the depression of the 1920s and 30s and World War II, effectively halted significant new construction or development with the exception of the airport buildings constructed during World War II. As a result, Fort Macleod has been left with a collection of distinctive historic buildings - residential and commercial - which make an important contribution towards the preservation and interpretation of Alberta's history.
In recognition of the town's significance, Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism designated part of the commercial core as a Provincial Historic Area to promote and assist in the preservation and restoration of the Area's buildings. Thirty-four of the fifty-two buildings within the Historic Area were constructed before 1914. This is the period which defines the predominant character of Fort Macleod.
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