Before European settlement, journeying First Nations used the rock as a marker to find the river crossing situated at Okotoks. The tribes were nomadic and often followed large buffalo herds for their sustenance. David Thompson explored the area as early as 1800. Soon trading posts sprang up, including one established in 1874 at the Sheep River crossing on the current Okotoks townsite. This crossing was on a trade route called the Macleod Trail, which led from Fort Benton, Montana to Calgary.
In 1879, the area saw the killing of the last buffalo. Government leasing of land for one cent per acre ($2.47/km²) began in 1880. This created a major change in the region. The first settlers arrived in 1882.
A community grew up around a sawmill that was established in 1891, and it would grow in size. The last stagecoach stopped in Okotoks in 1891 when rail service between Calgary and Fort Macleod replaced horse-drawn travel. By 1897 the community name had changed three times: from Sheep Creek to Dewdney to Okotoks, assigned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The rail line is still a main line south to the U.S. border, but the last of the passenger service (Dayliner unit) ended in 1971.
The town celebrated its centennial in 2004.
Okotoks, like much of southern Alberta, suffered major flooding in June 2005. Virtually all lands adjacent to the Sheep River, including the central business district, were at least briefly flooded, with the most serious damage being inflicted to riverside pathways, parks and campgrounds. Prior to this event, the last major flood in Okotoks and the surrounding area occurred in 1995.
Numerous old buildings have been restored, and one house was even resituated blocks away to avoid destruction by the widening of the highway through the townsite.
Average hours of sunshine per day: 6.34
Chinook average: 25 days
Frost free days: 112
Mean rainfall per year: 11.8 in (300 mm)
Mean snowfall per year: 60 in (153 cm)
Mean total precipitation: 16.7 in (424 mm)
Number of days with precipitation: 113
Although the Sheep River runs through Okotoks year round, artesian wells near the river supply the town with its water. In September 1998, Okotoks became one of the first communities in Canada to recognize its environmental limits to growth were restricted by the carrying capacity of the local watershed. In concern for the supply of water, the town announced a unique and controversial suggestion of capping its population at 25,000 residents. In an interview on The Current, Mayor Bill McAlpine stated that this objective may be politically difficult due to the surrounding region.
The Town of Okotoks' 2013 municipal census counted a population of 26,319, a 5.4% increase over its 2012 municipal census population of 24,962. At its current population, Okotoks is the largest town in the province and is eligible for city status. According to Alberta's Municipal Government Act, a town is eligible for city status when it reaches 10,000 residents.
In the 2011 Census, the Town of Okotoks had a population of 24,511 living in 8,423 of its 8,704 total dwellings, a 42.9% change from its 2006 adjusted population of 17,150. With a land area of 19.24 km2 (7.43 sq mi), it had a population density of 1,274.0/km2 (3,299.5/sq mi) in 2011. The 2011 census also indicated that Okotoks was ranked as the municipality with the tenth-highest population growth between 2006 and 2011.
In 2006, Okotoks had a population of 17,145 living in 5,927 dwellings, a 46.7% increase from 2001. The town has a land area of 18.55 km2 (7.16 sq mi) and a population density of 924.4 /km2 (2,394 /sq mi). The 2006 census also indicated that Okotoks was ranked as the municipality with the third-highest population growth among municipalities in Canada with a population of 5,000 and over between 2001 and 2006.
The sawmill that was established by John Lineham along the Sheep River in 1891 operated for 25 years and was a major part of the local economy. At one time it employed 135 people, producing an average of 30,000 feet (9,000 m) of lumber per day. The growth of the Canadian Pacific Railway created a demand for railway ties and the mill helped meet that demand. Logs were brought down from the west via the Sheep River. The mill has long since disappeared but one building (one of the oldest remaining in the township) still stands. It housed an award-winning (butter) dairy from the 1920s to the 1940s. It currently houses a law office and restaurant.
In 1900, just west of Okotoks, four brick-making plants were opened. Many of the first brick buildings in Okotoks (of which a number still exist) were constructed using locally-made brick. The industry reached its peak in 1912, when twelve million bricks were manufactured. The outbreak of World War I caused the shutdown of “Sandstone” as it was known.
By 1906 the population had hit 1900, a figure that would not be reached again until 1977.
Oil was discovered west of Okotoks in 1913. Okotoks became the supply centre. In its heyday, from 1913 to the 1960s, Okotoks was busy with horses, wagons, and transports hauling all types of equipment to the oil fields, and crude oil back through town to refineries in Calgary.
The Texas Gulf sulphur plant (known as CanOxy) opened in 1959, employing 45 people. It was not unusual to see the bright yellow, three-story high, block-long, block-wide sulphur storage waiting to be melted or ground up and poured into railway cars.
Since 1974, Okotoks has been hosting a collector car auction in late May. It is the longest running collector car auction in Canada.
Okotoks was one of the few communities its size to have its own airport. A number of small air shows were held there over the years. It was the home of an aircraft charter company, flight school, and a helicopter flying school. The site has now evolved into an airpark community called the Okotoks Air Ranch, where the property owners, if they wish, can build homes with attached hangars for their private planes.
Sports and recreation
In July 2004 Okotoks, High River, and the Municipal District of Foothills No. hosted the Alberta Summer Games. More than 3,200 athletes competed in 17 sports. In the three-day competition, the largest in its 30-year history, 512 medals were handed out.
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