The History Of Wainwright

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Indigenous and Early Explorer History

For thousands of years, the Indigenous moved through the Wainwright area following the bison herds. The land was the traditional home of the Cree and Blackfoot, with the Metis coming to the area later after Europeans had settled through much of the Canadian West.

In the 1870s, a man named Walking Coyote would gather two bison bulls and two bison cows and move them to Montana. That herd would grow in size to 13 and was then sold to two ranches and became the one of the last wild Great Plains Bison Herds. This is important because the bison will have an important impact on Wainwright later in its history, which I will get to in this episode.

The first European to come through the area was a man by the name of Anthony Henday, who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and reached the area in 1754. He became the first European to pass the boundary of what would one day be Alberta and he would spend several days in the area with his Cree guides. Three decades after Henday came through, Peter Pond would come to the area for the North West Company, followed by Alexander Mackenzie. By the mid-1800s, more people were coming through including missionaries like Reverend George McDougal and Father Lacombe. In 1858, the Palliser Expedition arrived and would see that the area was excellent for agriculture and ranching, shattering the myth put forward by the Hudson’s Bay Company that the land was barren, so they could keep their fur trade monopoly going. From there, settlers would start to arrive and the area would change forever.

Town Founding

The story of Wainwright, after the Indigenous, begins in 1905 when the homesteaders began to arrive in the newly formed province of Alberta. The original townsite would be established by James Dawson two years later but the original name would be Denwood. It is not know why that name was chosen but it didn’t quite matter as the name didn’t stick.

One year after the founding of that townsite, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which today is the CNR, would arrive in the area. They would establish a new townsite four kilometres west of the townsite established by Dawson. This new site would be named Wainwright, in honour of William Wainwright, the second vice-president of the railway company. William Wainwright had come to Canada in 1862 to serve as the chief clerk in the accountant’s office of the railway. He would eventually rise up in the company and after 52 years as an employee, he would pass away on May 14, 1914.

The original plans for the town were to make it a major divisional point, with branch lines going out to North Battleford, Medicine Hat, Calgary and Peace River. This would result in a huge influx of people moving into Wainwright. By the end of 1908, there were 450 people living in the community and by 1900, the village reached 1,000 people and could become a town. The divisional point plans didn’t come to pass but Wainwright remained a major railroad centre for that area of the province.

The Stampede

While COVID-19 put a stop to it this year, the Wainwright Stampede is one of the biggest events in the area. Held in June, it runs for four days and is one of the top five largest rodeos in Canada and it includes a stampede parade, a midway, agricultural fair and more. Easily the biggest event of the year for the community, it also features four days of Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association races over the course of the four days.

The Stampede started over six decades ago and has grown to become one of the most important tour stops for rodeo participants from around the world.

The Stampede may have been postponed because of the pandemic, but it will be returning in 2021, bigger and better than ever.

Battle River Train Trestle

When you go to Wainwright, another important part of the railroad history is the Fabyan Trestle Bridge. This bridge was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1908 and at one time was the longest in all of Canada, but today is the second longest behind a viaduct near Lethbridge. The trestle runs for 2,775 feet and is 195 feet long. Located just 3.5 miles northwest of Wainwright, the trestle overlooks the Battle River.

When the Trestle was first built, it was the longest freestanding one in Canada and a man was required to walk across it previous to the train every time there had to be a crossing. The first train would officially cross it in Jan. 1909 and the total cost of building the trestle was $600,000, or $13 million today.

The trestle offers a great lookout point as well for seeing the entire structure and getting some great pictures for Instagram.

Memorial Clock Tower

When you go into Wainwright’s Downtown, you will see a large clock tower made of rocks, beautifully crafted as a centerpiece for the community. The memorial clock dates back to 1925 to commemorate the men who died in the First World War from the area. Sitting at the intersection of Main Street and Second Avenue, it was the only structure left standing after the 1929 fire destroyed 70 businesses and eight homes in the community. It was designed and built by Frank Bailey and is described as a Roman Tower. In relation to its designation as a pillar of honour for the soldiers who served in the First World War, it should be noted that more men from Wainwright and the surrounding area enlisted during World War One than in any other district area of comparable size.

Buffalo Capital of Canada

When you visit Wainwright, you will notice that not only does it have the largest buffalo statue in Canada, but it is also billed as the Buffalo Capital of Canada. The statue itself was erected in 1965 on Main Street in memory of the buffalo herds that roamed the area. Before the settlers and homesteaders arrived, the bison would sweep over the landscape and were a vital food source for the Indigenous people. Unfortunately, when Europeans began to arrive, the bison populations started to crash. I did an episode on this several months ago, looking at the loss of the bison and its impact and I encourage you to check it out.

Amazingly amid all the destruction, a small herd of bison were isolated from the destruction of their species. Protected by the mountain ranges in the Flat Herd Valley near where the Pablo Ranch was found, this small herd would slowly grow to reach 600 head by 1907. The herd was then offered up for sale to the US government by the landowner who had protected the species for the previous two decades. The offer was turned down, and the Canadian Government would come in and purchase the bison and move them to Wainwright.

In 1907, with the bison population nearly gone, the Canadian Government would create Buffalo National Park on 160 square miles. This area would be fenced and stocked with 700 bison purchased from the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. The entire herd was transported to the park by train, along with a small population of elk and moose. Over the next 15 years, the herd would continue to grow, to the point where in the 1910s, there were sanctioned slaughters of the bison, which brought a public outcry. Beginning in the early 1920s, bison were transported out to parks and countries around the world. This included sending 6,000 bison out to the new Wood Buffalo National Park in the 1920s. The park would continue until 1940 when the animals were removed from the area and the former park was turned over to the Department of National Defence. By the time the bison were shipped out, 39,000 had been produced in the park, literally saving the species. In addition, 3,000 elk and 300 moose had been produced at the park over the course of its three decades of existence.

Thanks to the park full of bison, the Hollywood movie The Last Frontier was filmed in Wainwright in 1923. The movie was released on Aug. 16, 1926 as a silent western film starring some of the biggest stars of the day including Frank Coghlan, John Hoxie, Marguerite De La Motte and William Boyd.

Another film shot at Buffalo National Park was The Calgary Stampede in 1925, which starred Hoot Gibson, one of the leading actors of his day.

In 1980, on the 75th anniversary of the formation of Alberta and to celebrate the legacy of the Buffalo National Park, four bison from Elk Island National Park were moved to Wainwright.

The four bison that were moved to Wainwright would be housed at the Bud Cotton Paddock, named for the first park warden of the Buffalo National Park, who cut the ribbon at the paddock when it was opened. In honour of Walking Coyote, who likely saved the species from extinction, two bulls and two cows were chosen to be part of the memorial herd.

Today, a dozen bison reside at the paddock on CFB Wainwright.

CFB Wainwright

With the bison now out of the park, Camp Wainwright could be established as a training establishment for the Canadian Army. While it started out as a training facility, Camp Wainwright would operate as a prisoner of war camp from Jan. 29, 1945 to May 24, 1946, which interred 523 captured German officers, soldiers and civilians on the day it opened. It would reach a peak of 1,100 POWs. Through the 16 months that the POW camp operated, only two prisoners would escape, only to be captured later.

In 1980, several POWs returned to Wainwright and related their time in the POW camp.


In 1946, the camp would be reverted to a Canadian Army training facility. It would see rapid expansion during the Korean War with buildings constructed to house and train three army battalions on the grounds.

Today, CFB Wainwright houses 1,000 personnel at any given time and serves as the main training base of the First Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, which includes the famous Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The facility covers 609 square kilometres and has 25 weapons ranges, as well as an airfield.

Wainwright Museum

The original train station that brought so many people to Wainwright, including those aforementioned prisoners of war, still exists in the town. Today, it houses the Wainwright Museum, which features photos, movies and collections related to many things in the community. Many of the artifacts relate to the Second World War, the Internment Camp and the bison that once roamed the area. The museum also features a reconstructed post office as it originally was in 1900.

For the first decade it existed the Alberta Government Telephone building was its home until the building became too crowded to hold all the artifacts. In 1983, the museum was provided with the basement of the RCMP building rent free for two years and in 1983, the Battle River Historical Society was incorporated, which the museum would be under the banner of.

Wainwright Downtown

The Wainwright Downtown area has many places that have been registered as either municipal or provincial historic resources.

I’m going to go through some of the buildings still found downtown and the history behind those structures. Throughout my relation of the history of some of the buildings you can find in the Wainwright Downtown you will hear me mention a fire that happened in 1929. Needless to say, it was a big one that would alter Wainwright forever.

  • The Wainwright Hotel was built in 1929 to replace a hotel that had burned down, along with much of the downtown core of Wainwright, that same year. Prior to the fire, the previous hotel had been built with a wood-frame, while this new hotel would be built using concrete to protect it from fire. In the early-1920s, thanks to the thousands of bison kept at the nearby park, several Hollywood western movies were filmed in and around Wainwright. To accommodate the crew and actors, the hotel was built with 60 rooms, a restaurant and a beer parlour. The hotel building was made a Provincial Historic Resource on Jan. 30, 2009. While the original hotel was burned to the ground, Heritage Park in Calgary would build a complete replica of the building in 1968 based on photographs.
  • Union Bank of Canada Building was built in 1929, like the Wainwright Hotel, after the July 21 fire that destroyed the business section of the town. The 1929 Wainwright Fire, often called The Great Fire of 1929, was one of the worst fires to hit an Alberta town. Interestingly, most of the downtown core was rebuilt after this disaster and today, of the 51 buildings in the downtown of Wainwright, 28 are heritage buildings that date from when this disaster happened.
  • Washburn Building was also built in 1929 after the Great Fire. Built of brick, it has a strong association with the Washburn family of Wainwright who arrived in the community in 1908 on one of the first passenger trains to the community. William Washburn would quickly open a hardware store, which was destroyed in the 1929 fire and a new building, the one still standing, was built.
  • Carsell Building was built in, you guessed it, 1929 after the fire that would alter Wainwright forever. This building was used by William Carsell, a noted Alberta photographer, while he lived in Wainwright. His studio was in this building and he would take many photos of the area that give a glimpse into the lives of Albertans during the interwar years.
  • Watson/Mackenzie House is one of the oldest homes in the entire community, built in 1910 by Dr. W.A. Watson who came to the community with his family from Chicago in 1908. The home was built by E.C. Buckley, who built many of the important buildings in the early years of the community. Watson would stay in the community until 1914 when he left to serve in the First World War. His mother would livethere until 1931 when it was sold to the Sisters of St. Joseph to serve as a boarding house.
  • Old Town Hall: Built in 1929 after the Great Fire, the building housed the council chambers, municipal offices, jail cell, police department and fire station. The cultural value of the building is found in its association with prominent individuals in the community. When the town hall was being rebuilt, M.L. Forster was the mayor. He also served as the owner of the Wainwright Hotel and his daughter was the first baby born in Wainwright and was named Wainwright in honour of the momentous event.

Before I move on, I want to look at the fire that altered the core of Wainwright. In the July 24, 1929 of the Wainwright Star, it is stated that a fire in the Atlas Lumber Yard had started from sparks at a private woodshed next to the property. High winds resulted in the burning lumber sending sparks around town from the southwest to the northeast, even destroying the fire equipment because of the intensity of the blaze. The high winds made it nearly impossible to fight the fire and it would be over six hours before it was out. Thankfully, there were no deaths from the fire and no injuries. Town council met with merchants in the Masonic Hall to begin looking at ways to house and feed the families and persons who had suffered great loss from the fire. In addition, a special squad of police were sworn in to patrol the burned area to protect anything that may remain in the area. It was estimated that the fire caused $1.2 million in damages, or $17.9 million today. Food supplies were also down because of the fire and conservation measures were initiated to conserve food. Thankfully, it did not take long for bread and other supplies to come in from Edmonton.

Oil and Gas

Very early in the history of Alberta, Wainwright was one of the first places to see success in the oil and gas industry. While Leduc #1 wouldn’t be discovered until the late-1940s, kickstarting the huge oil and gas industry of Alberta, it was back in 1921 that oil and gas was discovered in the Wainwright area, with the first significant production of 6,000 barrels a year coming in 1926. The first find of oil and gas in the area actually dated to early 1914, making it one of the first places in the province to have oil and gas as a viable resource.

The history of the oil and gas industry in the community is seen through Petroleum Park, which has one of the first pump jacks ever built in Alberta. The first of many to come over the years.

The pump jack was actually made a Municipal Historic Resource in 2008 because of its heritage and cultural value to the community. Unlike other pumpjacks in the province that are made of metal, this one is very unique in the fact that it is made of wood and by 2009 the wood was worn heavily from exposure to the elements. The wood was replaced by a heritage consultant that year who took the resource apart and reassembled it.

Famous Residents

The community also has several famous individuals who were born or grew up in the community.

Frank C. Turner was born in Wainwright on June 2, 1951 and would begin acting in theatres across Canada before moving to Vancouver in 1983 and acting in films. He has appeared in dozens of films since then, most recently as Crazy Carl in the Sonic The Hedgehog movie. Other movies he has appeared in include Unforgiven, Needful Things, Air Bud, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Scary Movie 3 and Warcraft. He has also appeared in several television shows including two episodes of Highlander, two episodes of The X-Files, two episodes of Smallville and in Supernatural.

Lynn Seymour was born in Wainwright on March 8, 1939 and would study ballet in Vancouver. In 1957, she would join the Royal Ballet as a soloist dancer and then becoming a principal dancer in 1959. She would achieve international fame as the leading dance-actress of her generation in 1965 when she performed in the title role of Romeo and Juliet and has since gone on to perform with many ballet companies before returning to the Royal Ballet from 1971 to 1978. Today, the Lynn Symour Award for Expressive Dance is annually presented at the Royal Ballet School and in 1976, she was invested into the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Glen Sather was born in High River, Alberta but grew up in Wainwright. After spending time with the Edmonton Oil Kings, he would go on to play ten seasons in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota North Stars. He then joined the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA. In 1979, he would become the president, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oilers after they joined the NHL. During the 1980s, he would help guide the Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships and would win the Jack Adams Trophy as the top coach in the NHL in 1985-86. From 1976-77 to 1993-94, he would coach 842 games, winning 464, leading to 13 playoff appearances for the team. In 1997, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and on Dec. 11, 2015, a banner with his name was lifted to the rafters of Rexall Place.

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