Last Days Of The Haunted Big Bend Detachment






Veteran Windy Gale sent us this article which he transcribed from the 37th edition (1955) of the Vancouver Division’s Scarlet & Gold Magazine.






Map of the Big  Bend Detachment (Source of image - RCMP Vancouver Division's Scarlet & Gold Magazine.

Map of the Big Bend Detachment (Source of image – RCMP Vancouver Division’s Scarlet & Gold Magazine.

The Big Bend detachment, located in the Macleod Division in Southern Alberta, is probably one of the best known outposts in the West. For thirty years it was a focal point for intercepting whiskey smugglers, cattle killers and other miscreants. Today, the sharp hooves of cattle have eliminated any signs of civilization from the site; nothing remains to remind the modern world of the isolated post. For that reason, it should be of historical interest to hear the story of the last days of Big Bend. This was the end of an era – the last days of the horse as the Mounties’ most valuable means of transportation.

Big Bend was established during the summer of 1887, when the old Kootenai detachment was moved five miles south to a point where the Belly River once made a sweeping bend. This was in the middle of Senator Cochrane’s great cattle empire, while across the river was the reserve of the none too civilized Blood Indians. Quite often, during the latter part of the century, a couple of hungry or troublesome Bloods plus an unguarded herd of Cochrane`s cattle meant plenty of work for the small detachment. Then, the old trail from Montana, through the appropriately named Whiskey Gap, passed close to the outpost and required constant surveillance. After the turn of the century, Big Bend`s importance diminished as the Mormon town of Cardston became the centre of activities. So in about 1917, the old detachment was closed. However, it had one last fling to make before it passed into the pages of history.

During the winter of 1922-23, the R.C.M.P. had about two hundred horses in the Macleod Division. Some of these were kept at Lethbridge, Pincher Creek and other points, but most of them were located at Macleod, where a considerable expense was involved in feeding and maintaining them. The officer commanding the division reviewed the situation during the winter and decided that the Big Bend detachment should be re-opened and maintained as a camp for surplus and sick horses. So in February, Cpl. Don Forsland, Regt. No. 7479, was detailed to go to Big Bend and ascertain what repairs would be necessary to put it in shape.


That was 51 years ago, but Don Forsland remembers it as though it happened yesterday. At present the Superintendent of Game for the Alberta Government, Mr. Forsland attained the rank of sergeant before leaving the R.C.M.P. in 1939. He will be remembered by veterans of the force for his numerous awards as the champion pistol shot in Canada, and for his nimble fingers on the violin.

“I rode out from Lethbridge for Big Bend on a saddle horse,” commented Mr. Forsland, recalling the episode. “I stayed the night at Glen Wood’s place, near the present town of Glenwood, and got to Big Bend the following day.”

After being deserted for seven years, the detachment was a mess. The windows had all been knocked out; cattle had broken the doors from their hinges and left piles of manure on the floor; the ceiling of the old barracks room was ready to collapse; and generally the place was in a sad state. However, Cpl. Forsland went to work and recorded all the items which would be necessary to put the detachment back on its feet. There was paint, stove pipes, a stove, and dozens of other things required.


Upon his return to Lethbridge, Cpl. Forsland was given command of the detachment and ordered to put it in shape in the early spring so that it would be ready to receive the first shipment of horses as soon as the grass was green. Besides putting the buildings in shape, fences had to be strung around the 160acre police reserve.

While the corporal was getting his supplies and equipment together, an article appeared in the Lethbridge Herald that dogged him throughout his three-year stay at the isolated outpost. On March 10th, 1923, just ten days before he was to leave an article entitled “The Ghost of the Big Bend Detachment” was printed. The following is a copy of the major part of the story:

“Corporal Z., who with two constables was stationed at Big Bend detachment, was sitting one January evening, before a large roaring fire, smoking and chatting with a sergeant who had arrived that evening from the post at Macleod, with two constables and a bunch of supplies for Cardston, and had decided to stay the night at Big Bend and continue the journey in the morning.”

“On account of the severe cold, the six men had arranged their beds in one room, and about 10:30 p.m. they decided to retire for the night. Before going to bed, Corporal Z went on to the verandah in front of the detachment to see if the blizzard that had been raging all day had ceased, and he was rather surprised to find the night was beautiful and clear, with a nearly full moon shining on the carpet of snow that had fallen a few hours previously, making it almost as light as day.”

“About 12:30 a.m., Corporal Z., who was a very light sleeper, was aroused from his slumbers by the jingling of spurs and champing of the bit of an approaching horse and rider who were evidently coming along the trail from the river. They stopped at the front of the house and the rider, dismounting, came along the verandah and gave three raps on the door. The corporal told the visitor to come right in and, reaching for some matches, proceeded to light a lamp that stood on a chair beside his bed.”

“The light of the lamp and the voice of Corporal Z awakened two of the constables who enquired what the trouble was, and after being told, waited to see who the late nocturnal visitor could be. Again the footsteps with spurs jingling could be heard walking up and down the verandah, also the whinnying of a horse, and three more raps were given on the door. One of the constables replied this time:”

“Hurry up and come in, the door is undone. You’ll freeze to death out there!” But still the invitation to enter was unheeded or unheard, for shortly after three more raps were given. By this time, Cpl. Z was getting a little mad, thinking at the time that perhaps the visitor was an Indian who had been taking too much firewater, or maybe something had happened on the Reserve. So he sprang out of bed and throwing a quilt around him, threw open the front door.”

The night was still beautiful and clear and there was no need of the lamp to see anything, so Corporal Z rubbed his eyes, stepped out onto the verandah and looked again. But there was neither sign nor sound of man or beast. He called one of the constables, who immediately jumped out of bed and came to his side. They both looked around to find out who the visitor was, when suddenly the constable called the corporal’s attention to the fact that the snow all around the place had no track or trace of anything coming or going from or to the detachment.

“The two somewhat scared and mystified policemen looked at one another in astonishment and quietly and quickly stepped back into the detachment, locking the door behind them — a thing that had not been done for years. They talked the matter over for quite a long while, each one of the three assuring the others that he had distinctly heard the visitor knocking at the door, also tramping up and down the verandah, and the whinneying of the horse.”

“The next morning, the corporal told the sergeant and the other two constables what had happened that night, but although the two constables laughed heartily over the episode, the sergeant said that one or two other men who had stayed at Big Bend on different occasions had told a similar story, although he himself had never put any faith in the yarn. But now it seemed very peculiar, more so as three of them could vouch for the arrival of their ghostly visitor and his walking on the verandah. The sergeant then suggested the best thing to do was to go outside and look around to see if there was any trace of a nightly prowler or whether one of the gates had been left down. This was done and the whole detachment, stables, barns, fences and gates were closely examined, but not a single sign of man or beast could be found, also not a single track was found anywhere in the snow.”

“The men decided to keep their eerie experience a secret in case they would be laughed at by their comrades in the post or on other detachments, but nevertheless both Corporal Z and the two constables secured their transfers from Big Bend detachment shortly after this.”

The story of ghosts and eerie sounds at Big Bend was common knowledge in southern Alberta, but this was the first time it had been given so much credence. The detachment had been closed some seven years, and while the author of the article likely had no inkling of its re-opening, it was a strange co-incidence that he should write the story at such a memorable time.

Luckily, Cpl. Forsland was not a superstitious man, although the next three years gave him plenty of cause to wonder about the supernatural. In any case, he took plenty of ribbing from the men at Lethbridge, who claimed the spooks would soon drive him out.

“I was given authority to chose a man to go to Big Bend with me to help build fences,” continued Mr. Forsland. “I selected Cst. William Harrison to remain with me, while Cpl. Stephens and Cst. William Mowat came along as teamsters. On March 20th, we loaded our supplies into two wagons drawn by two-horse teams and pulled out from Lethbridge. Cst. Harrison rode on one of the wagons while I took my saddle horse. We reached Macleod that night and next morning we set out for Standoff detachment. We stayed at Standoff for the night and picked up a third wagon which was bringing a load of soft coal to Big Bend for us. Sgt. Webb, who later became a sergeant-major in “K” Division, drove this last team. We got to Hillspring at nightfall and, although we probably could have reached Big Bend that night. we preferred to get there in daylight.

“As soon as we arrived, we all set to work. The manure was shovelled from the floor, the stove was set up, and the supplies unloaded. Mowat and Stephens got to work on an old steel cell, which they were to dismantle and take back to Lethbridge. They unbolted it and piled the sections on one wagon, leaving the other outfit for use by the detachment. Sgt. Webb returned to Standoff at the same time, leaving Cst. Harrison and me to put the post in shape.

“The first task was to make the detachment liveable. The buildings included a large log barracks room, which had been modernized with siding, a lean-to building, a six-horse barn, a small office, a building for storing rations, and a tiny log building where oats and harness were kept. At the end of the barracks was another room, which had to be entered from the outside, while the lean-to had a doorway leading into the main room. During the next few days, the barracks became the general living room, the lean-to was transformed into a kitchen, and the isolated room became a storehouse. The office was outfitted with a desk and filing cabinet, with a bed and regimental kit being installed for use by the inspector when he stayed overnight.”

As soon as the frost was out of the ground, the two men set to work to fence the reserve. In all, about six miles of fences had to be strung. This meant that Cpl. Forsland was continually making trips to Cardston for spools of wire and cedar fence posts. By the time they were finished, the men had placed a four-wire fence on three sides of the reserve and a two-wire fence all along the river. Besides that, fences were placed all around the detachment buildings. These were well built fences, as evidenced by the fact that much of them still stand. They were designed to keep out the cattle of the Church Ranch (which had bought out the Cochrane Ranch in 1905) and to keep the horses inside. The fact that the Blood Reserve was just across the river meant a major search every time any horses broke out, for there was hardly a fence on the 541 square miles of Indian lands. Mrs. Forsland and their child joined the corporal late in April, when the detachment was considered liveable. Then, early in May, the Indian scouts drove the first herds of horses from Macleod.

From then on, life at the detachment should have been monotonous and humdrum – but such was hardly the case. It had received a reputation for being a spooky place and soon began to live up to it. During the next few years, Cpl. and Mrs. Forsland heard many strange noises and saw weird bobbing lights, but both being of hardy stock, they were able to find explanations for almost all of them. And for that matter, Cpl. Forsland probably did as much as anyone to keep the stories alive, as it was always a source of amusement to watch the unfortunate and superstitious members of the Force who had to spend the night there.

There was one incident that sounds amazingly like the one reported in the Lethbridge Herald – minus the horse and footsteps.

“In February, 1925,” recalled Mr. Forsland, “Cpl. Bob Charlton was the driver for the inspector during his tour of the detachments. When they got to Big Bend, my wife was in Lethbridge, so Cpl. Charlton bunked with me in the barracks while the inspector slept in the office. It was bitterly cold and during the night one of those gusty prairie winds started to blow. It would blow hard for a few minutes; then slacken off. About 3 a.m. Cpl. Charlton woke me up and asked me who was knocking. I listened for a few seconds and was mystified until I remembered that we had a side of frozen pork hanging by a string outside. Every time the wind blew, it would spin the pork around and bump it against the wall. I thought this would be a good chance to play a joke on the corporal, so I told him I couldn’t figure out what was making the noise. I suggested that one of the horses might have broken through the fence and was bumping against the building.

“By the time I got up, the wind had stopped blowing. I went outside and everything was quiet. I came back in and told the corporal that the horses were down by the river and that there were no footprints visible in the snow. I went back to bed and slept for about half an hour. Then the wind started to blow the side of pork around again and Cpl. Charlton woke me up. This time I picked up a big poker from under the pot bellied stove, supposedly for protection, and went outside. It was quiet again, so I waited for a while and went back in.

“I can’t see a thing,” I told him. “We must be hearing things.” When I told him that, the corporal quickly got dressed and sat beside the table for the rest of the night. The next day he was glad to leave for Waterton Lakes with the inspector.”

Mr. Forsland went on to describe another incident that took its place as a ghost story. It appears there was a pack-rat living in the attic of the house and every time it scampered over the rafters, the sound was magnified until it sounded “like a pack of greyhounds chasing a rabbit. After they had figured out what it was, the couple paid little heed to the unexpected wanderings of the animal, although Mr. Forsland attempted several times to locate its nest.

“Occasionally I had to build and repair the fence around the detachment,” said Mr. Forsland. “In the spring of 1924 there was some work to be done, so two men were detailed to help me. Cpl. Andy Ford was sent over from Waterton Lakes, while Cst. George Bell came down from Macleod. Of course, we boarded the two men at the detachment. Then one evening, we all sat down for supper after a hard day’s work. We were, about half way through when the pack-rat took a notion to run around the attic. Both men were superstitious, Cpl. Ford in particular, and had been told many tales about our ghosts. When they heard the noise, they both froze with forks halfway to their mouths. Then they lowered their forks and slowly gazed at the ceiling. Once again, Cpl. Forsland betrayed no sign of having heard the sound before, and the men could find no explanation for it.

“If I was stationed here,” Cpl. Ford commented after the sound had subsided, “I’d sit in that highboy of yours all day with a shotgun across my knees.” As expected, then both men suddenly discovered they had left a pile of important work unfinished in their respective detachments and quickly pulled out from the lonely outpost.”

It was the extreme loneliness which Mr. Forsland credits as being the cause of most of the ghost stories. Such sounds as a lynx sitting on a nearby hillside at night giving a piercing scream like a woman in distress, or the sight of bobbing will-o-the-wisps dodging through the trees near the river, would be enough to startle even the most seasoned trooper, particularly if he was the slightest bit superstitious and had heard the incredible tales attached to Big Bend.

Take this minor case, for example. Just before sunrise for several days, Cpl. and Mrs. Forsland were awakened by a knock on the door. But when Cpl. Forsland looked outside there was no one there. Early one morning, when the knocking came again, Cpl. Forsland picked up his revolver and opened the door. The yard was deserted! He crept around the side of the house and there, just beneath the eaves, a big red-headed woodpecker was hard at work. The logs had not been covered with siding at this point, so every peck of the bird vibrated along the side of the wall, giving the illusion of someone knocking at the door. A bullet through that “ghost” solved the problem.

“Big Bend was always a place of weird noises,” commented Mr. Forsland.

With the Blood Reserve being located beside the detachment, it would be expected that some of these Indians would frequently visit them. But no matter how the weather happened to be, none of them ever wanted to stay for the night. Apparently there had been a big battle in the early days between the Bloods and Kootenays nearby and the Indians feared the ghosts of the warriors who still lingered in the area. There was only one time that Cpl. Forsland was able to talk a Blood into staying for the night. Percy Plainswoman, a scout from Lethbrididge had come down for a team of horses. At first, Cpl. Forsland could not get the young Blood to stay. He had business on the reserve, relatives to visit, but he would be back in the morning. Finally, Cpl. Forsland put up a bell tent and convinced the dubious scout he should remain. Plainswoman put his horse in the stable and settled down for the night.

Next morning, Cpl. Forsland was up bright and early. He looked in the tent; the scout was gone. And so was his horse.

“I didn’t see him again for two years,” said Mr. Forsland. “I happened to be in Raymond where he was working in a racing stable. He told me that there had been an ominous clawing and scratching on his tent during the night, so he had pulled out. He had not even reported back to Lethbridge, but left the Force altogether.”

“I figured it had just been one of my barn rats which was prowling around the tent,” commented Mr. Forsland.

The day of the horse, as a means of transportation, was quickly drawing to a close in the 1920’s as the motor ear began to take over. During the latter part of 1925 and early in 1926, the poorer horses were taken from Big Bend and sold at auction in Cardston. The office was no longer needed at the detachment and was hauled to Cardston as a residence for the scout. Finally, on July 1st, 1926, when the last horses had been taken from the pasture, the Big Bend detachment was closed for the last time. Shortly after, the land was sold to the Mormon Church and the remainder of the buildings dismantled.

Today, little or no sign of the detachment remains. During a visit to the site four years ago, Mr. Forsland and his wife were able to find only the stones of the sidewalk. Even the spring which served the detachment faithfully for so many years had been blocked and obliterated by the cattle. As for the ghosts, most modern residents in the area have never heard of them.