In 1957, Saskatchewan became the first province to complete its section of the new Trans-Canada Highway across the southern prairies. And ever since then, millions of travellers have complained about the mind-numbing hours spent driving between Manitoba and Alberta.
A century earlier, people would have used another equally famous route — the Carlton Trail — for travel within and through the region. But unlike today’s No. 1, there was nothing boring about the route or the trip along it.
The 900-mile Carlton Trail ran from the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) northwest to Fort Edmonton.
Known by a variety of names depending on the district, the broad trail entered present-day Saskatchewan (from Fort Ellice) near Welby/Spy Hill, continued northwest (just south of Melville) through Ituna to Touchwood Post (near Lestock, south of the Quill Lakes) and then continued (passing near Lanigan and Humboldt) on to Batoche, where it crossed the South Saskatchewan River before reaching Fort Carlton; from Carlton, the trail ran north of the North Saskatchewan River (just south of Edam and Turtleford) to Fort Pitt and ended at Fort Edmonton.
It took on average 22 days to travel its length at a rate of about 40 miles per day — but only if the weather cooperated. The trail was also heavily rutted in places from the constant freight traffic and presented something of a nightmare because of the mud holes, some deep enough to swallow a wagon up to its box.
Despite these challenges, the Carlton Trail functioned for several decades as a major transportation artery in the western interior.
Indeed, most visitors to the region in the mid-19th century invariably travelled a section of the road by foot, horseback, or cart.
On the other hand, those who depended on the trail for their livelihood quickly learned its ways. Among them was James Clinkskill, a Scottish merchant who set up a general store in Battleford in the early 1880s.
Mail service left Winnipeg for Edmonton every three weeks, and Clinkskill would sometimes tag along with his supplies shipment, even during winter. The fare from Winnipeg to Battleford was $75. But passengers had to feed themselves and be prepared for “a spell” every four hours when the animals were rested and fed and a great kettle of tea was made.
For the uninitiated — in other words, first-time users of the trail — it was a different story.
That included Erastus Lawrence, his wife Lydia and their three children, Susan, Fred, and Fenwick, who travelled the trail in the late spring and summer of 1879.
The Lawrence diary of the trip, available today at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, is full of references to never-ending mud holes, especially one section of trail called “emigrants’ terror.” The frequent thundershowers — what Erastus jokingly called camping “by electric light” — only made matters worse.
Then, there were the mosquitoes (“eight times larger than commons one”), the “fearful bulldogs” (horseflies), and “black flies in clouds.” At one point, the horses were “so used up by the flies” that they “acted drunk” and could “hardly manage” their loads.
But the Lawrence hardships were tempered by wild strawberries and the “panorama of loveliness” along the Saskatchewan River.
The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882-83 sealed the fate of the trail. The railroad introduced a new metropolitan pattern across the southern prairies, while providing more dependable transportation and communication.
The trail continued to be used for local freighting until branch lines and roads took its place. Homesteaders also ploughed up sections as they brought their pioneer farms into production or blocked off access by fences.
Professor R.C. Russell of the U of S Department of Plant Pathology, and author of a 1955 book on the Carlton Trail, recalled from his childhood days in the Lipton district that the trail was “almost entirely deserted” when he first saw it.
But the trail didn’t completely disappear and can be found today here and there by looking for the telltale ruts on the ground.
Russell thought about asking the Saskatchewan government to mark the trail route as a diamond jubilee project, but dropped the idea.
Instead, near the end of his book, he claimed the wandering trail had its own charm and cautioned against “plung(ing) doggedly ahead in a straight line.” It’s good advice.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: William Hind made a series of sketches along the Carlton Trail in the late 1850s.
Photo source: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA C-009585
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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.