The following are some of the stories about getting the David Thompson Highway built from Rocky Mountain House out to the Banff National Park.
Thank you to the Rocky Mountain House Museum for sharing their information and pictures with us.
“Rocky Mountain House was the end of the road west, literally, until local businessman Ernie Ross and a group of friends set out to prove that a car could be driven west of Rocky Mountain House to the Saskatchewan River Crossing and the Banff -Jasper Highway. Ernie Ross was certain that a road needed to be built, but proving the need to the Alberta provincial highways department in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s was a struggle. The minister of highways told Mr. Ross that the terrain was too rough, and Ernie claimed that he could already drive a motorcar out to the Banff -Jasper Highway. The minister replied that if you can do that, we will build the road.
It is noted that Ernie Ross had sold fifty automobiles – he had the Ford dealership in Rocky Mountain House – to residents of Nordegg by the 1930’s, even though they had only 2.5 miles (4 km) of road to drive on. The cars were shipped to Nordegg by train. Mr. Ross’ optimism must have been contagious.
The first trip west of Rocky Mountain House was taken in 1928 and Ernie Ross and Bill Bradshaw and a few others drove to Saunders, 64 km west of Rocky. In 1931, the Trail Blazers along with Mary Ross, Ernie’s daughter, accompanying the group, made it to Nordegg in three and a half days, arriving at 2:30 in the morning after running out of gas.
During the summertime, groups of volunteers brought together by Mr. Ross would go out and build pole bridges over the little creeks, and do whatever basic roadwork they had time to do. Although government money was in short supply during the Depression, relief camp workers did more road construction on the road west of Nordegg in the 1930’s.
In 1940, the Trail Blazers group included Ernie Ross, Captain Teddy Brett, Bill Ellenburgh, Magnus Oppel, and Bill Schierholtz. They made quick time to Nordegg, and then onto Windy Point, where the progress over the rocky, treed country was done bit by bit, as the Trail Blazers cut down trees, and used block and tackle to pull their vehicles up steep ridges. It took the Trail Blazers five days to clear the way to get to the Saskatchewan River Crossing from Windy Point. The truck axle broke on some rough ground.
One of those days was spent on a parts run to Banff for a new axle, and the fellows were quite hungry and cold after arriving in Lake Louise after midnight. Captain Brett had promised everyone a steak dinner, but the restaurant owners closed the doors to this dirty, unkempt bunch. After figuring out that they could sleep in the train station, the group was walking towards the station when Magnus noticed a light on in a house, and he was drawn to the light, looking for warmth. When he knocked on the door, he startled the lady of the house, who had fallen asleep over her needlework, and she screamed. Her scream woke her husband, and he was ready to protect her from the stranger at the door, but she realized that Magnus was in need of help. That lady and her husband asked the entire group to come in and she fed them sandwiches, and made lots of hot coffee for them.
After returning to Rocky Mountain House via the established highway from Banff to Calgary, the Trail Blazers’ success was celebrated with a dinner back in Rocky Mountain House hosted by the Board of Trade (forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce).
Survey work for the David Thompson Highway was completed in 1968, and the highway was opened officially in 1975. Ernest Ross passed away in December of 1963, but had a mountain named after him. Mount Ernest Ross can be seen from the Kootenay Plains, and is 8 km towards Banff National Park from the Cline River parking lot.
In the summer of 1980, seven volunteers from the Rocky Reunion and Historical Society built a rock cairn at Whirlpool Point to honour the Trail Blazers.”
Thank you to the Mountaineer newspaper in Rocky Mountain House for sharing their cover story celebrating the 80th anniversary of the 1940 trek from Rocky Mountain House to Highway 93 in the Banff National Park.
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