River crossings, stopping houses and one big rock have contributed to Okotoks’ unique character and fascinating history.
Our Historic Past
Historic Past, Sustainable Future
First Nations people led a nomadic existence in the Okotoks area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The First Nations left us with a legacy in the name of Okotoks, which is derived from the Blackfoot word "Okatok", which means "rock". Plains First Nations, like the Blackfoot, did not use rivers as a means of transportation; instead they were often an impediment to travel and a good river crossing was important. There were safe river crossings at the present day Town of Okotoks. The Blackfoot may have referred to this area as "Okatok" because of the Big Rock which they used as a reference marker in their journeys. The Sarcee called this area "chachosika" meaning valley of the big rock. The Stoney name is "ipabitunga-ingay" meaning "where the big rock is".
Among the earliest European settlers in Okotoks were Kenneth Cameron and Alexander McRae, who settled on the banks of Sheep Creek after their oxen drifted away in a snowstorm in 1882. Cameron established a stopping house on the north side of Sheep Creek, uphill from where the Macleod Trail crossed river. Cameron Crossing, as it became known, is believed to be near the present-day walking bridge south of the library. There was a second river crossing which existed prior to Cameron's arrival. It was named after John Macmillan who ran a stopping house near the present-day recycling depot. The Macmillan stopping house also housed the Okotoks post office in 1884.
From approximately 1892 to 1896 the fledgling community was called Dewdney, after the Lieutenant Governor of the North West Territories. However, it was changed back to Okotoks because there was another Dewdney in the North West Territories. Okotoks incorporated as a village in 1893 and officially became a town on June 1, 1904.
In 1906 Okotoks enjoyed telephone service and electric lights. Natural gas arrived in 1912, but it wouldn't be until 1952 that residents were able to enjoy a public waterworks and sewer system. Like many small prairie towns, fires and floods plagued Okotoks in the early years. The Sheep River flooded its banks in 1902, 1915, 1940, and 1963, among others. Many of the town's early buildings were lost to fire and whole blocks burned at times. When oil was discovered in Turner Valley in 1914, Okotoks quickly became a regional oil distribution centre. It earned the title "Heart of the Oilfields" because equipment stopped on the rail line in Okotoks before completing its road journey to Turner Valley.
For the most part, Okotoks remained unchanged through the first half of the century, with the population settling around 600 people. Wooden sidewalks and hitching posts were removed in the late 1920's; men left to fight in the first and second world wars, and residents endured the Depression. The economic upturn came in the late 1970s. The population doubled to 1,928 people in 1976 and it has continued to double approximately every 10 years.
In 2004, the Town of Okotoks celebrated its 100th anniversary. That year, Okotoks was home to 12,187 residents. The most recent municipal census, conducted in 2014, shows the population has more than doubled to 27,331.
Trails, Trains and Trade
Stagecoaches, bull trains, and horses and riders were a common sight in this area in the 1880s and ‘90s as they travelled on the Macleod Trail. This wagon trail was the only transportation corridor between Fort Macleod and Fort Calgary. The trail forked south of the Sheep River and travelers could choose between two suitable river crossings, one near the present train bridge and one close to the Southridge Drive bridge. The trail then angled up the escarpment. Two early settlers, Kenneth Cameron and John Macmillan, each established stopping houses to serve the travelers along the trail. These two stopping houses laid the foundation of what would become ‘Okotoks.'
Prior to the advent of the automobile and high-quality roads, the railway was a life thread for the community, shipping and receiving supplies and forming a central focus of community life. The first train station was built in Okotoks in 1892.
This wooden station was destroyed by fire in 1928. That fire also burned the second floor balcony off the general store across the street. A new station rose from the ashes in 1929 at a cost of $19,871, and was the only brick station on the CPR. The last passenger train stopped in Okotoks in 1971 and the station closed a year later. After eight years of being abandoned, the station was purchased by the Town in 1980 and was re-opened in 1981 as a cultural centre. It now serves as the Okotoks Art Gallery and Visitor Information Centre.
Established in 1891 by John Lineham, the Lineham Lumber Company was a mainstay of the local economy for 25 years. At one time it employed 100 people and produced an average of 30,000 feet of lumber per day, partly to satisfy the CPR's demand for railway ties. Logs were harvested on timber leases in the foothills during the winter and then floated down the Sheep River during spring run-off to the company's sawmill at Okotoks.
The Lineham legacy lives on in our street names - Lineham, Martin (father-in-law), Elizabeth (daughter), and Elma (daughter).
Lineham Lumber Company Interpretive Site
An interpretive site is located south of the library on the north side of the river, which was the original location of the Lineham Lumber Company's sawmill. The site features a vintage head saw as well as interpretive signage.
On the Lighter Side
“Mrs. Bonniman went out and caught a rooster, wrung its neck and plucked it. She left it on the porch step for a minute while she went into the kitchen for something. When she came out, it was gone. She blamed the neighbour's dog until she heard a ruckus in the hen yard. The poor rooster had all the hens upset as he streaked around the yard." (Nel Noonan, Century of Memories)
"One of Dad's stories of early Okotoks was about a local carpenter who fell from a building he was working on and his helpers gathered around him. One offered a drink of whiskey. "Oh no thanks" said the carpenter, "I can't go to heaven drunk." (David J. Morrison, Century of Memories)
Many firsts were celebrated in the early years, including the first local wedding in 1892, the first hotel constructed in 1892, and the first town school constructed in 1900. The first Okotoks Fair was a reflection of the agricultural focus of the early years. The Fair in 1900 attracted 600 horses for horse races, shows, and pulling contests. In town, one could also compete on a polo, cricket, or football team. The first and last gold rush in Okotoks was created when Mrs. Tillotson, while preparing goose for a meal, discovered a gold nugget in the bird. Many claims were staked as far as 1/4 mile east of the Sheep River bridge, but no gold was discovered.
We were lucky living in Okotoks in 1906, because we had telephone service. Phone service operators in Okotoks were dubbed the "hello girls", who said "good-bye" to Okotoks in 1963 when the switchboard closed. Electricity arrived in 1906, and by 1912 we were heating our homes with natural gas. Though we don't think about getting into our cars to go to the corner store today, the arrival of the first car in Okotoks in 1909 (driven by Ed Hayes) was a major social event. Many of the buildings constructed during our town’s early history were destroyed by fire due to the lack of water. It wasn’t until 1952 that Okotoks residents enjoyed a public water and sewer system. Finally, indoor plumbing!
- The last bison in the Okotoks area was killed in 1879, one mile north of Okotoks.
- Okotoks was renamed Dewdney from 1892 to 1896 in honour of Lieutenant Governor Lord Edgar Dewdney of the North West Territories. The name reverted back to Okotoks due to confusion with a Town of Dewdney in British Columbia.
- A flood in 1915 covered the main street with water. In 1916, 200 flat cars of rock were brought by train from Frank Slide in the Crowsnest Pass and placed on the north side of the river one mile west of town to prevent further flooding in town.
- From initial settlement to the 1940s, women were expected to quit work once they were married.
- In the early 1900s, land sold for $2.00-$4.00/acre.
- In the early 1900s, a staple food was "sow bosom" - a salty fat pork stacked in stores like cordwood.
- Oats grown in Okotoks took the highest award at the Paris Exposition in 1902.
- Before the invention of fridges, local people used to cut ice from ponds created by the Sheep River, and haul them to their storage house. The blocks would be packed with sawdust and would last through the next summer.
- In 1908 it was custom at the time to welcome newlyweds at the town train station with the Okotoks Band.
- Wooden sidewalks and hitching posts were removed in the late 1920s.
- Wages in the early 1930s were $600-700.00/yr.
- In 1958 there were no "mixed" (women & men) drinking establishments in Calgary, but there was in Okotoks. Needless to say, Okotoks became a popular drinking spot for Calgarians.
- Train passenger service to Okotoks was discontinued in 1971, ending 80 years of passenger service.
- U.S. Senator Bobby Kennedy visited the St. James Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s.
The Big Rock
The Big Rock was featured in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records as being the largest glacial erratic in the world!
The Big Rock has been published on the CyArk website since 2015. This link offers a 3D replica of the Big Rock, and further information about it. CyArk was founded in 2003 to ensure heritage sites are available to future generations while making them uniquely accessible today. CyArk operates internationally as a non-profit organization with the mission of using new technologies to create a free, 3D online library of the world's cultural heritage sites before they are lost to natural disasters, destroyed by human aggression or ravaged by the passage of time.
One hot summer day, Napi, the supernatural trickster of the Blackfoot people, rested on the rock because the day was warm and he was tired. He spread his robe on the rock, telling the rock to keep the robe in return for letting Napi rest there. Suddenly, the weather changed and Napi became cold as the wind whistled and the rain fell. Napi asked the rock to return his robe, but the rock refused. Napi got mad and just took the clothing. As he strolled away, he heard a loud noise and turning, he saw the rock was rolling after him. Napi ran for his life. The deer, the bison and the pronghorn were Napi's friends, and they tried to stop the rock by running in front of it. The rock rolled over them. Napi's last chance was to call on the bats for help. Fortunately, they did better than their hoofed neighbours, and by diving at the rock and colliding with it, one of them finally hit the rock just right and it broke into two pieces. Not only does this story explain why the rock is in two pieces, but also why bats have squashed-looking faces. The tale provides helpful caution against taking back what you have given away.
The scientific explanation tells us the “Big Rock” is a glacial erratic left following retreat of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Erratics are rocks that are not native to the area where they are found, but were transported in the ice of a glacier during the ice age. Big Rock comes from the Wisconsin glacier (Jasper area).
Big Rock is located 7 km west of Okotoks on Highway 7. It measures 40 metres by 18 metres by 9 metres, and weighs 18,000 tons. It is North America's largest glacial erratic. Big Rock is the biggest among thousands in a 644 km chain called the Foothills Erratic Train. On May 16, 1978, the Big Rock was the first "natural feature" to become an official Provincial Historic Site under the Alberta Historical Resources Act.
If Walls Could Talk
Three historic buildings take on new roles as Okotoks Culture and Heritage facilities.
Built in 1905, this stately house was originally located at 126 Elizabeth Street on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Northridge Drive in Okotoks. Over the years, the house was home to several prominent families including Mayor George Welch and in later years, it served as a day care centre, antique store and law/government offices.
[The house when it was located on Elizabeth Street, ca. 1920s.] The house faced the possibility of destruction in 2000 due to the impending widening of the provincial highway located next to the house. The Okotoks community rallied to raise the necessary funds to have it moved to its present location on North Railway Street. Here it continues to make and preserve history as the Okotoks Museum and Archives. It opened its doors in 2000.
Various owners have replaced and modernized some aspects of the house, however, it still has the beautiful window casings and the original hardwood floors can be found underneath newer hardwood. A functional restoration was undertaken in the fall of 2009 to return some of the original character and charm to the house. Surrounded by trees and flowerbeds, it is difficult to believe that the house once existed elsewhere.
Prior to the advent of the automobile and high-quality roads, the railway was a lifeline for the community, shipping and receiving supplies and forming a central focus of community life. The first train station was built in Okotoks in 1892. In 1908 it was custom to welcome newlyweds at the train station with the Okotoks Band.
This wooden station was destroyed by fire in 1928. The fire burned the second floor balcony off the General Store across the street. A new brick station rose from the ashes in 1929 at a cost of $19, 871, and it was the only brick station on the CPR line. Okotoks bid an era good-bye when the last passenger train stopped in Okotoks in 1971. After closing in 1972, "The Station" was purchased by the Town in 1980, and was re-opened in 1981 as the cultural and tourist information centre. It was renamed the Okotoks Art Gallery in 2009.
For almost a century, the brick church on the corner of Elma Street and Centre Avenue served as a gathering place for the Okotoks community - a place to worship, gain inspiration and where music and praise filled the rafters. Although no longer a church, the facility continues to be a gathering place for celebration and inspiration in its new role as the Rotary Performing Arts Centre.
The building was originally the Methodist Church, built in 1906 at a cost of $5,100. It became the Okotoks United Church in 1917 when the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations joined together. As the town grew, so did the congregation and in 2002, members of the Okotoks United Church had outgrown their space and they made the difficult decision to put their beloved church up for sale.
The Okotoks Arts Council embarked upon an ambitious goal to purchase the church. Their goal was to preserve a much-loved historic building and also to provide a needed facility for the performing arts. After hundreds of hours of fund-raising and renovations, the arts council donated it to the Town of Okotoks. It was officially opened in April, 2005.
Extensive structural and stabilization work has been undertaken on the building since then including a $1 million investment in 2009 by three levels of government. The facility re-opened to the public in November, 2010 and since then has welcomed local, national and international performers to its stage.