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Archival Highlights: Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies

By Kate Skelton, Processing Archivist

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In 1923, John Murray Gibbon invited several friends on a packing trip expedition along the Columbia River. John’s outing was a hit, and it quickly developed into what is now a well-known organization ─ the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies.

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With the help of their official sponsor, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, the Trail Riders expanded over the following two decades to include multiple yearly trips with dozens of riders. By 1947, over 2,000 people had attended at least one trail ride.

Expeditions with the Trail Riders quickly became a cherished annual tradition, with new routes picked each summer. In its early years, the Trail Riders’ trips attracted mainly locals, including some well-known names from the Banff community. Participants included the Whyte Museum’s founders, Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte; artists Carl Rungius and R. H. Palenske; outfitter and guide, Walter Nixon; members of the Brewster and Moore families; and botanist and photographer, Mary Schäffer.

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Part of what attracted so many people to the Trail Riders was the lasting sense of community and companionship which riders felt. Trail rides were multi-day experiences that offered entertainment, comforting food cooked over a campfire, shared interests, and a sense of camaraderie. Trail rides were an opportunity to step away from everyday life and appreciate the wilderness and rough terrain of the Canadian Rockies.

One photograph album in the Whyte Museum collection, which was compiled by trail rider Jeanne Nelson in 1943, captures the spirit of these trail rides. Along with over 110 photographs which she took during her two rides that summer, Jeanne also included complete lists of the participants on each trail ride. These lists contain dozens of signatures which she collected from her fellow riders during their short time together.

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The Trail Riders adopted several traditions over the years as their popularity continued to rise. One big tradition during their packing trips was music. In the early days of the Trail Riders, live performances often filled the evenings once the day’s riding was done.

Canadian country musician Wilf Carter (1904 – 1996), also known as Montana Slim, performed for the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies for several years starting in 1932. Carter grew into a Western music icon over the following years, ultimately recording over 40 albums during his career and gaining a spot in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In later years, the Trail Riders also created song books which held a mix of popular camping tunes and new songs written by the riders and staff.

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For photography lovers, another special tradition was the Townsend Trophy competition. In 1929, Reginald Townsend (one of the Trail Riders’ original founders) donated a silver trophy as a prize for the best photograph from the year’s excursion. From then on, the photo competition became a much-anticipated yearly event, highlighting wildlife, Rocky Mountain landscapes, and riders’ personal antics.

Other camping traditions included “Stunt Nights”, which gave riders an opportunity to showcase their talents- these ranged from musical performances to comedy skits, complete with makeshift costumes. When the year’s rides were done, annual “pow-wow” and “roundup” events were held to celebrate the end of another successful season.

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Today, nearly one hundred years since John Murray Gibbon and his friends went on that first packing trip, the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies continues to welcome riders from around the world. The organization is no longer sponsored by Canadian Pacific, and trail rides have since expanded to include some areas outside of Banff National Park, among other changes; however, the fundamental spirit of these trail rides has remained the same.

Between 1990 and 2015, the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies donated an incredible collection of original materials to the Whyte Museum Archives, including over 3.3 metres of textual records, 10 albums, and nearly 1200 photographs. These materials were recently processed via the Archives Society of Alberta Access to Holdings grant received in December 2020.

The ASA Access to Holdings grant program has been instrumental in helping to fund the processing of archival records in the Whyte Museum Archives since 1995. Unfortunately provincial funding towards this program was cancelled in 2020/21. We thank the Archives Society of Alberta for their ongoing support, and hope that this important grant program will resume in the future.

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The Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies collection and more can be accessed online through our website. For in-person access, the Whyte Museum Archives and Special Collections is currently accepting appointments from 1 - 5p.m., Tuesday to Friday. Information about upcoming projects celebrating the Trail Riders’ 100th anniversary in 2023 will be released closer to the date ─ stay tuned!

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Image 1: Unidentified trail rider with horse, ca. 1960. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/III/PA–303)

Image 2: Carl Rungius with camera during trail ride through Wolverine Plateau and McArthur Creek, 1940. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/III/PA–35)

Images 3 and 4: Passenger list from Jeanne Nelson’s Mt. Assiniboine trail ride album, 1943. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/I/PD–2/1)

Image 5: Musician Wilf Carter performing for trail riders, ca. 1934. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, George Paris fonds (V484/96/PA-1100)

Image 6: “O Lake O’Hara”, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies song book, ca.1950-1960. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (M545/I/6/3)

Image 7: Stunt night performance, ca.1960. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/III/PA–330)

Image 8: “Trail Riders Wind Up with Big Pow-wow on Tuesday”, 1936. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/I/PD-1/5)

Image 9: Trail riders crossing river on horseback, 19