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Carlton Trail—First Western Highway

by Frank Hall

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, Volume 14, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from The Bison.

The Carlton Trail, the first highway west of Winnipeg, was the only overland route between Upper Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton during the latter days of the fur trade and the early days of settlement. It was a long and busy trail, but its life was cut short in its heyday by that snorting intruder, the railroad, which thrust its main line across the prairies in the 1880s and shot out its branch lines in the 1890s.

Long before the Carlton Trail was used by fur traders, explorers, missionaries, settlers, soldiers, and surveyors, it was an Indian trail, and long before it was an Indian trail, it was the migration path of aboriginal hunters who tracked wild game along its primal contours. These first became established some 6,000 years ago when the waters of Lake Agassiz slowly drained away and the highlands became the runways of wild game and the stalking paths of primitive men.

At certain places along this ancient trail, usually on high wooded land beside a lake or stream, the Indians and their ancestors pitched their camps and left behind the remnants of their occupancy. Many artifacts of various periods have been unearthed at such places as Upper Fort Garry, Deer Lodge, Whitehorse Plain, Portage la Prairie, Neepawa, Minnedosa, Shoal Lake, and Fort Ellice—all on the Carlton Trail.

The distance between Upper Fort Garry and Carlton House on the North Saskatchewan River was 479 miles. It was another 381 miles beyond Carlton to Fort Edmonton, a total distance of 860 miles. Fur traders usually reckoned the distance between Upper Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton as an even 900 miles. At Fort Edmonton one fork ran northward to provide an overland link with the waterways to trading posts in the Athabasca and Mackenzie districts. Another fork ran westward through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. In Manitoba the length of the Carlton Trail between Upper Fort Garry and Fort Ellice (St. Lazare) was approximately 215 miles.

The chief vehicle on the trail, the Red River Cart, was used by fur traders to carry trade goods and supplies inland and to bring back furs and hides. Its normal load of 500 pounds was roughly the equivalent of five 90-pound bales of furs or trade goods. The 90-pound packet was the standard weight for a man to carry over a portage, and when Alexander Henry built the first Red River Cart at Pembina Post in 1802, he made it large enough to hold five 90-pound packets. Its total capacity was therefore an even multiple of the standard weight of a unit of freight.

The Carlton Trail was used extensively by traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company when their old water route from York Factory on Hudson Bay to their inland posts diminished in importance during the mid-years of the 19th century. When the southern route by the Great Lakes and thence by westward flowing waters came into general use, and later, when the Pembina Trail between Upper Fort Garry and St. Paul, Minnesota provided a short route to a railhead, the tortuous Nelson-Hayes route was abandoned. At the same time the connecting waterway to the west, the North Saskatchewan River, diminished in importance as a fur trade route.

Across the prairies in the 1880s and 1890s, as branch lines sprouted northward from the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Carlton Trail fell into disuse. Later on, however, as if in ironic protest, portions of the main line of the Canadian National Railway were built along its old route. Later still some segments of several provincial highways and a twenty-mile stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway were to follow the way of the Carlton Trail.

Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, cut swiftly across the Carlton Trail on horseback in 1829, but it was not then a well defined cart trail. Twelve years later, however, when he went on his famous trip around the world, he found the trail to be deeply rutted by the tracks of the Red River Carts.

The “Overlanders” of 1862 went over the Carlton Trail to the Cariboo goldfields. Later on, after the Red River Uprising of 1869-1870, many metis, in order to escape the press of white civilization at Red River, moved westward along the old trail to form new settlements at Batoche and St. Laurent.

In Manitoba the early settlers on the Portage Plain went in by the Carlton Trail. Some who ventured beyond Portage la Prairie by a south branch (Yellow Quill Trail) went on to Squirrel Creek, there to found the settlement of Austin. Others took an intermediate fork west of Austin and then cut northwest through Oberon to join the main trail again at Minnedosa. Many went directly north from Portage la Prairie then veered westward to found the settlements of Westbourne, Woodside, Gladstone, and Neepawa at the four crossings of Whitemud River. By the late 1880s the movement of pioneer settlers over the Carlton Trail to Palestine and Beautiful Plains (Arden Ridge) had been consolidated.

Some families who went on beyond Arden Ridge pressed through the boulder-strewn till of the Neepawa pothole country, then down into the lovely valley of the Little Saskatchewan (Minnedosa) River. Here at old Tanner’s Crossing they established a thriving community, and here it was that Canada’s first great Cattle King, (Senator) Pat Burns of Burns Foods Limited, raised and sold his first cattle.

The Reverend Robert Rundle, the first Wesleyan missionary to the Stonys of Alberta, took the gospel westward over the Carlton Trail, accompanied by his black cat on the pommel of his saddle, much to the amazement of the Indians who had never seen a domestic cat before. George and John McDougall, pioneer Methodist missionaries in Alberta, used the Carlton Trail. So did Father Lacombe.

Captain John Palliser led the British Exploring Expedition over portions of the trail in 1858, and in the same year, Henry Yule Hinde, leader of the Red River and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition, took his Canadian party over some of the route. Both parties made valuable contributions to our early knowledge of the prairies, and extracts from their reports on the suitability of the grasslands and parklands to support agriculture and settlement, though at variance one with the other, are still quoted with respect (and qualifications) among scholars and research people.

General Middleton’s column, including units of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (Little Black Devils) and the Winnipeg Light Infantry, moved west from Fort Garry in 1885 over portions of the Carlton Trail on their way to engage Riel in the Northwest Rebellion at Fish Creek, Batoche, and Cutknife Creek. Carlton was also the route taken by the first detachment of the North West Mounted Police as they moved to occupy their new but short-lived headquarters, Swan River Barracks on the Pelly Trail.

An important stopping place on Carlton Trail was Shoal Lake, the last point of white habitation inside the 1881 boundaries of Manitoba. Beyond was the Northwest Territory. The North West Mounted Police had a barracks at Shoal Lake and here travellers moving westward were searched to make sure they were carrying no liquor into the western territory for illegal trade with the Indians. Shoal Lake was also a relay point on the prairie mail run.

The trail which is generally known today as the Carlton Trail bore a number of different names throughout its lifetime. At various times the whole route was referred to as the Saskatchewan Trail and the Edmonton Trail. However, because the trail between Upper Fort Garry and Portage la Prairie was well defined before it came into general use beyond that point it became known locally as the Portage Trail or the Portage la Prairie Road. It is, of course, from this source that Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue gets its name. And it is from the manner of the Red River Carts travelling in echelon—spread out like a fan—(and not from the foresight of an early city council) that Portage Avenue, Main Street, and Broadway (before its centre boulevard was laid down) get their superb width.

The trail also had local names. In the Minnedosa area it was sometimes called the Little Saskatchewan or Minnedosa Trail. Farther west at Shoal Lake it was known as the Fort Ellice Trail or the Touchwood Trail, the former being a reference to the Hudson’s Bay post above Beaver Creek, and the latter marking the passage of the trail through Saskatchewan’s Touchwood Hills. West of Fort Ellice it was sometimes called the Qu’Appelle Trail, as it passed near this lovely valley for a short span. In the present provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta it was generally called the Saskatchewan, Carlton, Battleford, or Edmonton Trail. Frequently, however, on the eastbound trip, travellers refer to it as the Fort Garry Trail.

Markers of the Manitoba Historic Sites Advisory Board which stand at Whitehorse Plain, Portage la Prairie, Neepawa, and St. Lazare bear the following wording: “The Fort Ellice Trail, also known as the Carlton Trail, Saskatchewan Trail, and Edmonton Trail led across the western prairies from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to Fort Edmonton, a distance of more than 900 miles. The route was used by Indians, fur traders, explorers, missionaries, surveyors, and settlers. The principal vehicle was the two-wheeled Red River Cart made entirely of wood.”

A fast Red River Cart brigade on the Carlton Trail, averaging about 20 miles a day in dry weather, would take approximately ten days to reach Fort Ellice (St. Lazare) and about forty-two days (six weeks) to reach Fort Edmonton from Fort Garry. A slow cart train, heavily laden or plodding through sodden terrain, would average little more than ten miles a day. That is why the stopping places on the trail were so relatively close together, such for example as Deer Lodge, Headingly, Whitehorse Plain, Poplar Point, High Bluff, and Portage la Prairie.

One of the earliest settlements on the Carlton Trail beyond Upper Fort Garry was Grantown (St. Francois Xavier) where Cuthbert Grant, Warden of the Plains, established his people following the Battle of Seven Oaks. Here on the White Horse Plain they farmed and organized their buffalo hunts, and from here they patrolled the Carlton Trail and its environs, posing a shield between the settlers at Red River and the Sioux at Portage la Prairie.

Another famous traveller on the trail, Archdeacon William Cochran, knew well its stopping places. He built St. Andrew’s-on-the-Red and St. Peter’s Dynevor (East Selkirk), and then, extending his mission westward, built churches at Poplar Point, High Bluff, and Portage la Prairie—each on the Carlton Trail. When Cochrane died at Westbourne, so great was the affection of his parishioners, that they carried his coffin all the way over the Carlton Trail to Fort Garry and thence by the River Road to St. Andrew’s, where he had asked to be buried.

The source of the name Carlton House, Fort Carlton, and hence Carlton Trail, springs from William Tomison’s custom of naming the trading posts he built for the HBC after the homes of the Company’s governors or after the royal homes or palaces of England. Between 1776 and 1802, Tomison built the following houses (trading posts): Brunswick, Cumberland (new), Manchester, Buckingham, Marlborough, Edmonton, and Nottingham, as well as Carlton itself. Carlton House on the North Saskatchewan River, about forty miles southwest of Prince Albert, was probably built about 1797 and named after the London house of George III. This royal house still stands in London, its familiar facade being known as Carlton House Terrace. Another source for the name of the Carlton Trail may be the first post of the HBC on the Assiniboine River—Carlton House, built in 1790, abandoned shortly thereafter, and thus of fleeting significance.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Fort Ellice Trail Crossing (RM of Wallace)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tanner’s Crossing (Minnedosa)

Page revised: 11 March 2012

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