PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF THE HIGHWOOD. An image of High River photographed before 1900. Museum staff members were unable to locate a railway station or tracks as these came in 1892-1893. Thus, it’s difficult to date this image. One can see the McDougall House on the right, Buck Smith’s second Stopping House and Drew’s Saloon, which was built in 1886 on Fourth Avenue SW (near the new provincial building). The wooden bridge in the bottom right could be the first built in 1887 or the second built in 1897. Macleod Trail sweeps immediately to the right past the bridge.
The origin of High River’s name, often wrongly associated with floods, comes from the Blackfoot word for an ancient camping place—the land the town now resides on—according to a local historian.
Irene Kerr, curator and director with the Museum of the Highwood, noted volunteers and staff find it important to correct visitors who believe the town was named due to a rising Highwood River.
“It’s important people know the truth,” she said. “I think the real story is way better than the other one. I love that story and it pays tribute to our First Nations people who were here.”
The word Aapattohsspitsii translates to ‘tall trees along the river,’ Kerr said. She later informed the Times this fact had been confirmed by Alvine Mountain Horse, a respected educator from Kainai.
The word was later translated to Spitzee in English.
“When they got to (what would become) High River and they were coming across the prairie, in the distance, they would see the line of cottonwood trees along the Highwood River,” Kerr said.
The First Nations followed the buffalo herds for thousands of years and these people, those who camped at the Highwood River, would follow a herd from Yellowstone to Edmonton, she added.
“We come home from Calgary and we see the lights of High River,” Kerr said. “Back then, they would come across the prairies and see the trees along the river. It’s the same (idea) of ‘we’re almost there.’”
The land the town now resides on was the best place to cross the Highwood River for the First Nations and settlers, she said. Kerr noted High River’s first name was The Crossing.
She said rancher George Emerson once referred to a massive Blackfoot encampment in the region.
med surveyor, referred to the area as ‘Spitchee’, while others named it as Ispitsi and Ispitsayay, she noted. John Lorie noted the river as Highwood in 1870, Kerr said.
European settlers could have named the town Tall River, but instead came to its current name, she said.
“We don’t really know who actually named it High River,” Kerr said, noting High River became a town in 1906, after years of it being referred to as the village of High River.
She added Buck Smith operated the river ferry for years, and later became the owner of the second stopping house. The first was built in 1878 by Lafayette French and OH Smith, Kerr said.
The first wooden bridge was built in the same location as the current traffic bridge in 1887, she added. Wiped out by flooding in 1897, it was replaced by steel in 1913 and then the current bridge in 1964.
“We take bridges for granted now,” Kerr said, referring to the fact First Nations and early settlers knew this area to be perfect for river crossings. “We don’t even think about going across a bridge.”
The first white couple to settle in the High River area was the Quirks in 1882, she said. John, along with wife Kate, had been driving cattle from the United States into the Northwest Territories at that time, Kerr said.
After they stopped to rest in the area surrounding present day Nanton and Mosquito Creek, ranch hands from the Bar U Ranch told the couple their next stop should be the Crossing, she said.
Upon their arrival, Kerr said Kate’s words were, “John, I’m going no further.’ Together, the couple would later have Catholic church services in their home, which was on Fourth Avenue SE.
She added the Blackfoot were no longer camping at the river at that time as Treaty 7, signed at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877, had been enacted five years prior to their arrival.
People started arriving, and businesses emerged. Even as others settled outside the community, the town became the place for local goods and services, Kerr said.
“Bill Holmes’ grandfather had a general store here in 1886,” she said. “High River was a service place. A few people lived in High River, but not that many. It was a village for a long time.”
Once the railway was completed, farmers would visit High River with their grain that was later shipped across the country, Kerr said. The community became a hub for the surrounding ranchers, she added.
Flooding has always happened in the High River area, but it occurred in Calgary—a city built on the confluence of two rivers—as well, Kerr said. People just carried on during those days, she added.
Even as people will often attend the museum, hear of the town’s floods, and say, ‘no wonder it’s called High River,’ Kerr said she continues to set the record straight with visitors and school children alike.