Your browser is out of date.
This site may not function properly in your current browser. Update Now

Waterton History

The history of Waterton Lakes National Park is as deep and rich as its natural beauty.

The history of Waterton Lakes National Park is as deep and rich as its natural beauty. Its story begins more than 10,000 years ago when alpine glaciers melted out of the main valleys, making way for the first signs of human habitation.

For thousands of years nomadic tribes camped, hunted and gathered plants along the Waterton Lakes and river in relative harmony. The introduction of horses and guns in the 1700's changed their relationship to the land and to each other.

European expeditions in western Canada led to an altogether new perspective on this area. In 1858 Lt. Thomas Blakiston, originally a member of the Palliser Expedition, embarked on an expedition of his own looking for a railway pass through the mountains. On his journey, he encountered members of the Kutenai tribe who told him of the South Kootenay Pass. Taking their advice, Blakiston re-crossed the divide, traveling along what would later be called Blakiston (Pass) Creek and out to a chain of three large lakes.

On September 6, 1858, he wrote:

"After two hours traveling on level ground along Red-stone creek (Red-Rock) we emerged on the Saskatchewan plains, just six geographical miles north of the 49th parallel and camped at the lakes...
The scenery here is grand and picturesque...."

Blakiston named the lakes "Waterton", after British naturalist Charles Waterton, although the locals continued to call them Kootenay Lakes for many years after.

Other trailblazers exploring the area at that time were British and American surveying parties sent to mark the International Boundary established by the Oregon Treaty in 1846. In 1874, they reached Waterton, but found working in the mountains so difficult that they managed to erect only two markers in the area. Today, these markers represent the longest undefended border in the world. Visitors to Upper Waterton Lake still marvel at the line, a 20 foot cleared swath through the forests and across the mountains.

An Order in Council in 1895 to protect Waterton as a unique forest park set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to its National Park status in 1930. John George 'Kootenai' Brown, Waterton's first park official, and American ranger Henry 'Death on the Trail' Reynolds (of Goat Haunt Montana) were the first to propose the idea of creating an International Peace Park with Glacier Park in Montana. As the parks shared the same geology, climate, wildlife and ecology, both Brown and Reynolds felt strongly that the lake and valley could not and should not be divided.

Reynolds wrote "the Geology recognizes no boundaries, and as the lake lay ... no man-made boundary could cleve the waters apart." Kootenai Brown agreed, saying, "it seems advisable to greatly enlarge this park ... it might be well to have a preserve and breeding grounds in conjunction with the United States Glacier Park."

The seeds for an International Peace Park were thus planted and taken a step further by the Cardston Rotary Club, who initiated a meeting of several regional clubs from Alberta and Montana. This first "annual goodwill meeting" convened in 1931 at the Prince of Wales Hotel, where the idea of establishing an International Peace Park in the Waterton/Glacier area was unanimously endorsed.

In 1932, Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and the United States Glacier National Park united to form the world's first International Peace Park. On June 18, 1932, this partnership was dedicated to world peace by Sir Charles Arthur Mander on behalf of Rotary International. Today, this park continues to symbolize the bonds of peace and friendship between the people of the United States and Canada.

Several different ecological regions meet in Waterton - with prairie plants of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain plants from northern areas, and coastal plants from the Pacific Northwest all overlapping. This means Waterton has an unusually rich and varied number of plants for its size; many of them are rare or threatened. More than half of Alberta's plant species can be found in Waterton. For this reason, Waterton Lakes National Park was designated a biosphere reserve as part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1979. Waterton was the first Canadian national park to receive this designation, the core zone covering the entire national park area.

On December 6, 1995, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising its significance in ecological diversity and its model of cooperation and good will, not as two separate parks, but as one.

Waterton is a global treasure that enjoys a unique, triple distinction:

  • International Peace Park
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Today Waterton remains a spectacular natural wonder - a blend of unusual geology, mild climate, rare wild flowers and an abundance of wildlife. Waterton offers an "all natural" experience like no other place in the world.

This is due in large part to the people who live here that have worked to preserve and maintain its magnificence. We are passionate about our community, our wildlife and the glorious mountains and vegetation that surround us. We think you will share that passion from the moment you arrive.