For thousands of years, the Indigenous in the area of Weyburn migrated through following animal herds, especially the bison that covered the landscape in huge numbers before the arrival of Europeans. The land was occupied primarily by the Blackfoot and the Assiniboine, as well as the Metis who came through later in the 1700s and 1800s.
One of the most important Indigenous sites near Weyburn is Signal Hill, which was so named because it is the highest point for miles around and it was from here that signals could be seen by the Indigenous from a great distance across the landscape.
On Signal Hill, bison trails and bison rubbing stones are visible, as are the effigies of a medicine wheel. A medicine snake is also visible in all its detail, and the plants in the area are native plant species that are not found in abundance elsewhere.
Founding Of the Community
To find the origin of Weyburn as it is today, we have to go back to the late 1800s when the railroad came through. It was in 1892 when the line extended from Brandon, Manitoba, while the Soo Line from the US Border arrived one year later. With two major railroads coming through the area, it was not long before a community started to come up. At first, there was a station house and a freight shed. It was around these structures that the community would begin to grow.
A post office was opened in 1895 and the land office came in 1899 as the number of settlers were started to arrive. The beautiful Knox Presbyterian Church was built in 1906 and became major structure in the community. The community’s close proximity to the US Border also helped it grow as American investors started new businesses in the area.
The growth of the community was such that it became a village in 1900. Only three years later, a town was formed and in 1913 the town became a city.
Today, over 10,000 people live in Weyburn, and it is the 11th largest city in Saskatchewan.
What about the name? There are some theories. The first story states that it was named after a railway worker who supervised the laying of the steel through the area. The other theory, and the more likely one, is that it came from a Scottish man in the area who was walking through on a hot summer’s afternoon. He said, “Wee burn!” and from there the community became Wee Burn and then, Weyburn.
The Idaho Kid
Outlaws are not something Canada is known for, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t occasionally appear. One such outlaw was the Idaho Kid, who reportedly was in Weyburn at the turn of the 1900s. It was in 1903 that the man who was identified as the Idaho Kid was sitting in the King George Hotel, which was built four years previous. With his Colt 44 revolver, he started to shoot into the ceiling of the building, something that was not tolerated in the community for obvious reasons.
Soon enough, Constable Larry Lett of the North West Mounted Police arrives to deal with the party that was getting out of control in the hotel, and to arrest the Idaho Kid. He soon ventures to the hotel and finds that the Idaho Kid, real name Bill, is in his hotel room with his wife and a bottle. Constable Lett then bashes through the door of the room and as the Idaho Kid reaches for his gun, Lett jumps him, while the Idaho Kid’s wife jumps on the constable.
Residents outside the hotel can hear the commotion but eventually Lett emerges carrying the Idaho Kid’s gun, and with the outlaw in handcuffs as well. According to legend, the constable is promoted to corporal for his actions and the Idaho Kid realizes that crime is not something he should be involved in, and he soon settles down in the area with his wife.
How true is this? Who knows really but it was written about by Pierre Burton in his book The Promised Land: Settling the West, and I liked the story, so I wanted to share it.
Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital
Did you know that for a time, the largest building in the entire British Commonwealth was found in Weyburn? Or that this same building was the most expensive building erected in Saskatchewan at the time? Well, Weyburn has that claim to fame with the Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital.
When it opened in 1921, it could hold 607 patients and was seen as a leading hospital in experimental treatments for people who had mental health issues. The facility also had a reputation for being a leader in therapeutic programming. In 1954, recreational therapy was introduced at the facility that included dancing, card playing, sing-a-longs and skating. The use of LSD also began that year in studies done on volunteer staff and then patients. LSD was used to treat patients with chronic alcoholism and the studies found that it helped 50 per cent of alcoholics overcome their disease. Erika Dyck, a University of Saskatchewan historian has stated that the experiments at Weyburn in the 1960s helped to change the view of alcoholism as a disease
At its peak, the facility housed 2,500 patients before it closed down in 2006 and was demolished in 2009. There were many attempts to save the building after it had closed but the city finally made the decision to demolish the buildings. A documentary, Weyburn: An Archaeology of Madness was made about the facility.
Soo Line Historical Museum
If you see a building in Weyburn with a large smokestack, then you should head over to it as it is a great museum that you can explore. Inside the museum, you will find the Wilson Silver Collection, the largest collection of silver in the world with over 5,000 items dating back to 1750. The collection was donated by a Mr. Wilson in the community who lived as a bachelor north of the community. He would attend auction sales throughout his life to build up his collection.
Also, in the building there is the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital Display, and artifacts from the past that explore the community’s history from the Indigenous all the way up to today. If medical curiosities are your thing, you can check out the eight-legged calf on display in the museum as well.
As for the building itself, it was built in 1909 and served as the power generating station for the community through a 75-kilowatt generator that could give power to 50 customers in the community. By the time that it was taken over by SaskPower in 1960, the plant was providing power for 2,500 customers. The building itself is made completely of Estevan brick. Today, the building is a Municipal Heritage Property.
Turner Curling Museum
Curling is something that Canadians love, and it is something that we have been playing as a nation for over a century now. While curling clubs are found across the country, Weyburn can lay claim to having something no other community can lay claim to. The Turner Curling Museum was, at least according to the city, the first curling museum in the entire world.
Today, the museum features rare historical curling items and has the largest collection of curling pins in the world with over 18,000.
In the collection you will find a rare set of circular curling irons that were used in the Ottawa Valley around 1800. There is a rock sharpener that was used by the Queen City Curling Stone Company of Regina from the 1930s to 1950s. There is also a collection of curling programs from around the world, and books from the Saskatchewan Curling Association.
During the Second World War, Weyburn not only had several men and women who aided in the war effort, but also a corvette that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean. This small warship was built on Feb. 1, 1940, and was laid down at Port Arthur, now Thunder Bay, on July 26, 1941
Over the course of its time at war, it served as part of the Gulf Escort Force, escorting convoys from Quebec to Nova Scotia. At the time, U-boats were patrolling the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would also serve in the rescue of 42 sailors from the British ship Frederika Lensen.
In 1942, it was assigned to Operation Torch, which was the invasion of North Africa.
On Feb. 22, 1943, the Weyburn struck a mine east of Gibraltar that had been left there by U-118 three weeks earlier. The mine tore through the ship, bucking the decks and causing the pipes in the engine room to burst. After the initial explosion, all but two firing pins from the depth charges were removed. This was done so that if the ship sank completely, the depth charges would not explode.
The HMS Wivern came to the rescue, allowing the crew to jump from the Weyburn to the Wivern. Unfortunately, 20 minutes later, the Weyburn finally sank and as it did, the two depth charges exploded, killing several of the sailors in the water, while also damaging the Wivern, which had to be towed back to port as a result.
Of the 77 crew members on the Weyburn, nine were killed.
One of the most famous Canadians in history, Tommy Douglas, is tied directly to the community of Weyburn. Douglas will have his own episode down the road, so I am glossing over his life a bit.
While he was born in Scotland and grew up in Winnipeg, he would come to Weyburn to serve as the minister of the Calvary Baptist Church when he was 25, with his wife Irma. As the Great Depression arrived, he soon found himself becoming a social activist and in 1935 was elected to the House of Commons.
In 1939, he would enlist in the Canadian Army and volunteered to serve overseas but a medical examination would omit him from service. If not for a leg problem from years ago, Douglas would have been shipped out to Hong Kong, and would have either been killed or taken prisoner by the Japanese and Canadian history would have been altered forever.
Instead, he would look to provincial politics and became the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF in 1942, leading the party to power on June 15, 1944. He would serve until 1961 as premier and would bring in Canada’s first publicly owned automotive insurance, he created several Crown corporations, started the first North American program for taxpayer-funded hospital care, passed the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights and created the Saskatchewan Power Corporation. His medical insurance reform would move Saskatchewan into universal health care and that would lead to Canada having universal health care in the 1960s.
Following his election loss in 1961, he turned to federal politics, serving as the leader of the New Democratic Party from 1961 to 1971, and in the House of Commons from 1962-1968 and 1969 to 1979.
On Feb. 24, 1986, he would die of cancer.
There have been many tributes to Douglas. A statue in Weyburn was unveiled of Douglas in 2010 by his grandson, actor Kiefer Sutherland, many schools have been named for him and in 2004, Canadians voted him as the Greatest Canadian in history.
Today, the T.C. Douglas Calvary Centre, the church built in 1906 and which Douglas served as pastor of from 1930 to 1935, honours his impact not only on the community but Saskatchewan and Canada as a whole. The building has been moved from its original location, but still retains its connection to the most famous resident of the community.
One of the most historic buildings, and one of the most stunning, is the Weyburn Courthouse. Built in 1928 just before The Great Depression swept through the area, the courthouse shows the confidence of the province in Weyburn being an important centre for the southeast corner of the province. The structure was designed by provincial architect Maurice Sharon, who built it in the Colonial Revival style that was inspired by buildings in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was done as a way to show the close ties of Weyburn to the United States.
Sharon also wanted to design the courthouse to be an architectural landmark within the community.
The courthouse is no longer operating as the Court of the Queen’s Bench anymore, but it still remains an important part of the provincial court circuit.
The building became provincial historic site on Feb. 15, 1988.
Weyburn and Area Heritage Village
If you would like to see how people lived at the early part of the 20th century, then you can visit the nearby Heritage Village, which is a replica village community from the turn of the century to the 1940s. The buildings and artifacts in the village provide a glimpse into that time when the pioneers and people like Tommy Douglas lived in the area.
The village operates between May and August and is like a trip to the past, much in the same way that other living history museums create an entire landscape of the world decades ago.