The City of Red Deer takes its name from the river that flows through it. The Red Deer River was important to the First Peoples of Central Alberta. For thousands of years its watershed teemed with a wide range of wildlife. Buffalo, deer, moose and elk were hunted for food; and beaver and other fur-bearing animals provided warm clothing and later pelts to barter for European trade goods. By the mid-nineteenth century, the region was inhabited by the Blackfoot, the Plains Cree, the Stoney and Metis hunters and traders.
Because elk were always found in abundance along its banks, the Cree referred to the river as Waskasoo seepee or "Elk River." Early British fur traders often misidentified the elk as a type of European red deer. They mistranslated the Cree name as "Red Deer River." Later settlers applied the name Red Deer to their growing community. Waskasoo Creek, which runs through Red Deer, reflects the former Cree name.
The Settlement at the Crossing
A native trail ran north from Montana across the Bow and Red Deer rivers to Fort Edmonton. With the establishment of Fort Calgary by the North West Mounted Police in 1875, traffic increased along the trail, which became known as the Calgary and Edmonton Trail. The trail crossed the Red Deer River at a point known today as the Old Red Deer Crossing. It was about seven kilometres upstream from the present City of Red Deer. With the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Calgary, traffic over the trail increased even more, and in 1882 a trading post and stopping house were established and a permanent settlement began to develop at the Red Deer Crossing. During the Riel Rebellion of 1885, the Canadian militia constructed Fort Normandeau at the Crossing. It was one of three forts to be built in Alberta during a time of war. This post was later taken over by the North West Mounted Police who used it until 1893. When the Calgary and Edmonton Railway bypassed the Crossing entirely, its settlers abandoned the Crossing and moved east to the area of present-day Red Deer.
Founding a City
With the near extinction of the buffalo, the fertile lands around the Red Deer River began to attract farmers interested in grain growing, ranching, and dairy farming. The site of the future City of Red Deer was the result of one man's vision. Rumours were in the air about the path to be taken by a new railway to join Calgary and Edmonton. Surveyors for the Calgary and Edmonton Railway were looking for an inexpensive place to build a bridge across the Red Deer River. Reverend Leonard Gaetz, one of the early farmers and speculators in the Red Deer area, saw an opportunity to profit from shifting the site of that bridge away from the Crossing. He pointed out a place, which was coincidentally next to his land. He gave a half-share to the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in some 1240 acres of his own land to develop as a town site. The railway agreed; and in 1891 the first train from Calgary to Edmonton passed through Red Deer.
Reverend Dr. Leonard Gaetz (1841-1907) was a native of Nova Scotia. A retired minister in the Methodist Church, he moved west with his large family because of poor health. He decided to homestead on the west half of a section on the Red Deer River, and one of his sons, Halley Gaetz, took up the other half section. Leonard Gaetz acted as the local land agent for the Saskatchewan Colonization Company and purchased parts of three other sections from his employers. By 1890, the Gaetz family owned vast land holdings along the south bank of the Red Deer River around the mouth of the Waskasoo Creek. Leonard Gaetz's deal with the Calgary and Edmonton Railway gave his family unaccustomed financial stability. The family continued to play an active role in the growth of Red Deer. In 1895, Rev. Gaetz returned to the active ministry in Manitoba. Once again, this proved detrimental to his health. He retired back to Red Deer in 1901, and resided here for the remainder of his life.
Boom and Bust
At the turn of the century, the community experienced a surge of massive growth as large numbers of settlers flooded into the area to take up homesteads. In 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town, the population stood at 343. By 1913, when Red Deer was incorporated as a city, the population had jumped to nearly 2800.
Red Deer developed primarily as an agricultural service and distribution centre, enhanced by its location midway between Edmonton and Calgary in an area of profitable mixed farming. Red Deer continued to grow with its selection in 1907 as a major divisional point for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1911, two other railways, the Alberta Central Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway, entered the community. Red Deer underwent a large land boom as almost everyone speculated on the future growth of the community.
The outbreak of the First World War brought a sudden end to the boom. After the War, Red Deer had become a small, quiet, but prosperous, prairie city. In 1922, the provincial institution for the care of the mentally handicapped, currently known as the Michener Centre, was established in the City. Prospects looked good for slow but steady growth.
The Depression of the 1930s brought hard times to The City of Red Deer, as it did for the rest of Western Canada. Red Deer fared better than some communities. Central Alberta was not hit by severe drought. The City was virtually debt-free and profited from its ownership of the local public utilities.
Growth returned to The City with the outbreak of the Second World War. Red Deer was chosen as the location of a large military training camp (the A-20 Camp). The Commonwealth Air Training Program built two air bases to the south of The City at Penhold and Bowden.
The Oil Boom
After the War, the discovery of significant oil and natural gas fields in central Alberta pushed Red Deer into a prolonged boom. The petroleum service industry became an increasingly important part of the local economy. In the late 1950s, Red Deer claimed to be the fastest growing city in Canada.
A Modern City
After a lull in growth in the early 1970s, another boom for The City accompanied the construction of world-scale petrochemical plants east of The City at Joffre and at Prentiss.
Currently, Red Deer is a very modern city with a population approaching 90,000. It has excellent recreational facilities, a college, a large regional health care centre and extensive convention and exhibition facilities.