The Prairie Provinces, Canada – September 2001

Hiding-Out, Prairie-Style

What do Butch Cassidy, Al Capone, and Sitting Bull all have in common? Well, when things got a little hot for them down in the States, they headed on up to the Prairies for a reprieve from the law. With few people to bother them and easy access to the States, the Prairies were an ideal place to hide when authorities to the south wanted a word with you.

The Outlaw Trail

Castle Butte

Castle Butte is the most important point of reference in the Big Muddy

In the south of the province of Saskatchewan there is an area of badlands known as the Big Muddy. The result of glacial retreats from the last ice-age, the Big Muddy is an undulating valley of gulleys, caves, and eroded erratics stretching for 35 miles through Saskatchewan and down into Montana.

Besides being a geological wonder, the Big Muddy was also home to Station No. 1 on the infamous Outlaw Trail, created by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford to you and I). The Outlaw Trail stretched all the way from the Big Muddy to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Cassidy had modeled the trail after the Pony Express, and had established a network of friendly ranchers who kept fresh horses every 10 miles of the route. Thus, if an individual was feeling some heat from the law, he could head off on the Outlaw Trail and easily keep well ahead of the pursuing authorities until reaching either Mexico or Canada.

The numerous nooks and crannies of the badland valley proved to be a perfect hideout for the bandits, ruffians, and others who wanted to make themselves scarce. The relatively harsh geography meant that Canadian authorities rarely patrolled the area, even though there was a Mountie post nearby. The Sundance Kid was a regular visitor to the area, though no one has substantiated if Cassidy himself made it this far north.

Shortly after the demise of the Wild West, the Big Muddy became home to a number of horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and rum smugglers. Sam Kelly and his Nelson-Jones gang (aka “The Wild Bunch”) used caves in the Big Muddy as a base for stealing horses. With great bravado the gang would steal horses in the US, drive them into Canada, alter their brands, and then often sell them back to the same people they stole them from.

Today the area is as sparsely populated as it was during the bandit days, and is an ideal trip if you are looking to combine viewing a unique landscape with cultural interest. Conorach and District Tours (306-267-3312) run a number of tours through the Big Muddy area. Tours run for about five to seven hours and cover around 100 miles. You pay for your private guide ($30.00 CDN) with a supplement of $10.00 per person. Pack a lunch. The Big Muddy is about a two-hour drive south of Regina.

Prohibition Tunnels

Moose Jaw, a small Saskatchewan city, held the dubious honor of being the hub of Al Capone’s bootleg operation during American Prohibition (1920-1933). Easily connected to Chicago through the rail system, Capone would run imported and locally distilled booze through Minneapolis to his home base, and would allegedly come up by train himself to check on the operations. The majority of activity occurred underground in a series of secret tunnels that were only recently acknowledged by the city.

Many locals still remember anecdotes about old Al, from haircuts in the tunnels to his purported generosity to local paperboys. Diamond Jim Grady, Capone’s right-hand man, was often seen in town; he was easily recognized as no one else in Saskatchewan had diamonds set into his front teeth.

Visitors can take tours of the extensive tunnels that lie beneath Moose Jaw. There is a website giving more information on the tours available, although it doesn’t give you much background information. The one-hour tours, complete with role-playing actors, run $11.00 for adults and $8.00 for youth and seniors. You can combine The Chicago Connection tour with the Passage to Fortune tour for $18.00 per adult. Children under 5 are always free.

Promises Broken

Not everyone who fled to the Prairies from the United States was necessarily a hardened criminal. Sitting Bull and his Sioux followers took refuge in Southern Saskatchewan after the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

October 17, 1877 saw a meeting between Sitting Bull, General A.H. Terry (US troop Commander) and Major James Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Walsh. While Terry tried to convince Sitting Bull to return to the States, the Sioux had been British allies against the Americans during the War of 1812, and with a warning about crossing the border to raid settlements Sitting Bull and his band were allowed to stay in Canada.

By 1880-1881 however, years of starvation drove Sitting Bull back to the United States where he surrendered to the US government.

Fort Walsh, site of the original negotiations with the Sioux, was designated a National Historic Site in 1924. The park is part of the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, 55 km southwest of Maple Creek Saskatchewan. It costs $6.00 for adults to visit the park.

Much of the area inhabited by Sitting Bull during his stay in Canada is now located in Grasslands National Park. The park is separated into two separate areas: the West block runs along the Frenchman River Valley, and the East on the Killdeer Badlands. To get to the West Block, travel along Hwy #18 for 9 miles from the Visitor Reception Centre; you’ll see a park sign. Access to the east block is limited. Check with the Grasslands National Park staff for information on open access routes.

Camping is available at both sites for free.