Harry Longabaugh, ‘The Sundance Kid’, worked briefly at the Bar U Ranch.
The Cowboy Trail is 700 KM (437 miles) of historically significant highway through high ranching country in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains between lofty mountains and big blue sky, endless prairie. Rich history, dating back through 11,000 years of aboriginal habitation, expanded the trail which settled the West along the Cowboy Trail between Cardston and Mayerthorpe, Alberta. It is a fascinating story and today, as I drive north on Hwy 22, from adventures in Waterton Lakes National Park, I am looking forward to exploring one of the icons in the development of the Canadian West.
The Bar U Ranch is a National Historic Site of Canada. The entrance is 1 KM (0.6 mile) west of Hwy 22, and 13 KMs (8.1 miles) south of Longview, Alberta. Through the clearly signed entrance gate, the ample parking area hosts a traditional covered wagon and an impressive bronze statue with interpretive plaque. The Bar U Ranch was chosen as a singularly unique resource to represent the history of ranching in Canada.
The well-appointed Visitor Information Centre contains several interesting exhibits which provide in-depth information about the rich history of the Bar U Ranch between founding in 1882 and sale in 1950. There is also a cafeteria, a washroom and, I discover my annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass covers admission. Bonus! The development of the Bar U Ranch began as the Northwest Cattle Company and has roots in Québec.
The National Historic Site is preserved and maintained on 367 acres (148.43 hectares) of land containing the original Bar U Headquarters and immediately surrounding ranchland. The Bar U Ranch covered 157,960 acres (63,184 hectares) at its maximum. Out the back door of the Visitor Centre there are benches where those who choose may wait for a horse-drawn wagon, complete with a knowledgeable interpreter/driver , which provides an option to walking the circuit. An interpretive Visitor Guide booklet also helps to bring the buildings and exhibits to life. This is a fascinating place and the detail in restoration is truly impressive. The view from the back of the Visitor Centre, out over the predominantly red buildings of the Bar U Ranch complex, past vast prairie land on foothills, to the majesty of the Rocky Mountains beyond, is visually impressive and powerful. It personifies the power of the land and the importance of maintaining it.
A short walk down the hill on gravel road and a right turn begins my walking tour at white, mobile, bunkhouse wagons parked in front of the Chop House with the Stud Horse Barn behind.
Old, horse-drawn wagons are parked in the east alcove of the Chop House.
The well-preserved Stud Horse Barn is divided into two exhibits. One side hosts an impressive collection of historic, perfectly preserved and maintained horse-drawn carriages. Several come with interesting stories of their use and famous occupants. The other side informs about the breeds of horses raised at the ranch.
Photographing the inside of the horse-drawn bunk houses is a similar exercise to showering at the Bear Mountain Motel or at the Rising Sun, however these exhibits are an excellent example of the depth of detail taken to preserve the nature of early twentieth-century ranching. Each wagon housed up to eight persons.
The Bar U Ranch Headquarters hosted a well-appointed Ranch Office and Post Office complete with bulletin board announcements of significant events of the time.
Adjacent to the Ranch Office and Post Office is the restored building used as the Harness Repair Shop.
Further west along the gravel road, three small buildings, across the road from the Cookhouse, served as storage and utility buildings. The cook could cross the road for dried or canned food as well as cutting meat from beef quarters hanging in the ice house.
A short distance past the Storage Sheds, a wide, heavily constructed, wooden bridge crosses Pekisko Creek. The Dairy Barn is on the left in shade under huge trees. It was a major part of the infrastructure which supported the significant number of women and men who operated and maintained the Bar U Ranch.
There are several examples of old vehicles, horse-drawn wagons and farming equipment on the north side of Pekisko Creek. Large fenced areas contain the Squeeze Corrals and the Wintering Pens.
Directly across the road from the Dairy Barn is an example of a Round-Up Camp with wooden block chairs around a roaring fire heating a huge cast iron pot of boiling water in preparation for the making of Bannock, to be served later. The site also displays a fully equipped, horse-drawn chuckwagon, a bed roll wagon and large tents which provided remote accommodation during round-ups between 1884 and the 1920s.
Back across the bridge, and a bit further west on the opposite side of the gravel road, the Saddle Horse Barn built in 1882, and the Work Horse Barn built in 1885 represent the oldest and largest log structures on the premises.
On my right, a wagon parked in a man-made ditch demonstrates how a loading ramp is used to fill the wagon from a ground-level surface.
Building at the end of the road are allocated to Park Administration and inaccessible to the public. I swing around the Workhouse Barn and walk behind the buildings for the opposite perspective and to investigate the large display of ranching and farm equipment surrounding the Equipment Shed.
The fascinating Blacksmith Shop is an organized mayhem of tools, fixtures and iron implements. The log structure contains wood from the first cookhouse and bunkhouse which burned down.
This Cookhouse was built in 1910 after the original cookhouse burned down. The cook lived on the main floor. The biggest Lazy Susan I have ever seen is integral to, and half the size of, the dining table in the dining room. The artifacts displayed here are reminiscent of the times. They include clothing, dishes and game tables. Ranch hands would overnight in the upstairs dormitory.
As I reach the end of my walking circuit, there is a little log cabin, constructed in 1919 for the foremen and their families at the Bar U Ranch.
From the little log cabin, I walk back to the main road where my self-guided tour began. The Chop House and the Stud Horse Barn are visible in the distance.
The only thing that has changed, in the view from the top of the hill near the Visitor Centre, is the angle of the light. There are significant displays inside the Visitor Centre.
The Bar U Ranch is a step back in time. I am impressed with the attention to detail and the sheer volume of historical content. I have learned a lot today but only a small fraction of the possibility. The Bar U Ranch deserves to be a National Historic Site. It is a monument to the pioneers in Alberta and the work they did to establish many of the benefits we enjoy today. In my humble opinion, the Bar U Ranch is very impressive and a completely viable day trip from Calgary. There are lots of things for children to see and learn. I will return here again to learn more than I have given myself time for today.