Archival Highlights: Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies
By Kate Skelton, Processing Archivist
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.
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.
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.
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.