Long before any Europeans ever set foot in Canada, the area that would be Estevan was home to several different Indigenous nations and cultures, many long forgotten to time. By the time Europeans started to move in the area, the Indigenous groups were the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine and the Sioux people.
The bison were an important part of their culture, with huge herds migrating through the region. The region also provided ample game, places to gather food and to rest. As such, it was a frequent stopping point until Europeans migrated in and disrupted this practice that had been going on for millennia.
As with many other places in the Canadian Prairies, the birth of Estevan comes because of the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The original main line did not go through the community when it first passed through the area in the 1880s but in 1892, a branch line was created, which led to the establishment of Estevan. The name comes from George Stephen’s registered telegraphic address of Estevan. Stephen was the first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1881 to 1888.
This is not to say that the railroad was the only reason for settlement. Coal was discovered in the area and the first viable coal mine near Estevan was established in 1891. For the next several years, small coal mines would operate in the area as Estevan began to grow.
With the expansion of the main line of the railroad into the area, this led to many American settlers coming up to work homesteads. Estevan became a major point along the North-West/South-East trade route. Thanks to this fortunate placing, by 1899, Estevan was incorporated as a village. In 1906, it became a town as its population swelled to 600. In 1957, the community would become a city and today is the eighth largest city in Saskatchewan with a population of 11,000 people.
Coal mining was a major industry for the area, along with agriculture, and many farmers combined the two to have a coal-mining income that sustained their farms during hard years. These small coal mines thrived for decades until the 1930s when The Great Depression collapsed both the coal and the farm markets. By 1956, underground coal mining had come to an end in the area but one large coal mine still operates to this day in the area, digging eight million tons of coal each year.
New residents to the area also discovered something other than coal when they arrived in the area. They found that it was sunny, very sunny. In fact, Estevan gets more sunshine per year than any other city in Canada, 2499.9 hours. As a result, the community has been called the Sunshine Capital of Canada. In contrast, Prince Rupert, British Columbia only has 250 hours of sunshine per year.
In 1911, a small inn was built on 1.2 hectares of land along Long Creek just south of Estevan. This three-storey wood-frame house was originally on a homestead and became one of the most recognizable buildings in the community. The home was built by John Horne and after he retired in 1929, the home was briefly owned by the Staveley family. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the home was owned by James W. Adolphe. So why do I bring up this house? There are many houses in Estevan. Well, one of the relatives of Adolphe was a man by the name of W.O. Mitchell, who was one of Canada’s greatest authors and Mitchell frequently visited the house in the 1930s. The house would eventually be moved in 1997 and now serves as a bed and breakfast. So, you can sleep in a house that was once a favourite place for an iconic Canadian author to visit.
When the First World War broke out, many from Estevan enlisted to fight overseas. Many did not return. In 1915, so many people from Estevan wanted to serve in France that a special Battalion was created to accommodate them. The 152nd Battalion, made up entirely of Estevan and Weyburn residents, was authorized on Dec. 22, 1915. The Empire Hotel in Estevan served as the recruiting location and the third floor was rented out as a barracks for the battalion.
It would sail for England on Oct. 3, 1916. There, the members absorbed into the 32nd Reserve Battalion on Oct. 21. The battalion would serve until it was disbanded on May 21, 1917. The battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. S.B. Nelles. While in France, the Battalion would take place at the Battle of Arras and the Battle of Hill 70.
Those soldiers who gave their lives and fought overseas have been honoured in Estevan with The Soldiers Tree, carved by chainsaw sculpture artist Darren Jones. Carved from a 100-year-old cottonwood tree, it is located in a park in the centre of the community and features amazing artwork. The carving features several soldiers including one soldier who is pulling another soldier to safety amid an explosion carved into the tree. The tree also features a Royal Canadian Navy sailor, a female Royal Canadian Airforce Sergeant, and a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot and a Spitfire plane. At the bottom of the tree is a battlefield grave with poppies adorning it. There are also several Soldiers’ Tree Benches that feature soldiers on each of the armrests. It is a stunning work of art that truly has to be seen to be believed and no visit to Estevan is complete without it.
During the First World War years, a daring robbery would occur on the highway near Estevan on Aug. 13, 1917. It was on that day when Jack Bloomfield, John Yovanovitch and Johnny Brown, began a robbery spree that set the entire area on edge. The target of robbery spree was a man named Percy Manning, who had skipped from the gang with his girlfriend Louise Connors for Winnipeg after obtaining money from the other men. The three men began to follow Manning and Connors until they reached them in Estevan where they went into the hotel and robbed Connors of her gold watch, chain, money and a revolver, and cut to pieces a suit of clothes owned by Manning. They then left in a car driven by Carl Berndt, with Manning following close behind on foot. The gang then decided to turn on Manning and beat him up, took $3,600 off of him and robbed him of all of his clothes except for one sock and one shoe. They then left for Moose Jaw. A person driving by in a car found Manning and believed him to be insane, and did not believe his story at first. He agreed to take Manning back to Estevan, wrapped only in a small rug. As for the four men, they were soon arrested in Moose Jaw but the money, amounting to a significant $63,000 today, was not recovered.
I have already mentioned that coal and farming were big industries in the early years of Estevan, but there was another big industry that had a heyday of only a couple of years. Beginning in 1920, as America started to ramp up its Prohibition Era, Estevan discovered a brand new industry for itself, bootlegging. Throughout the Canadian Prairies, boozoriums started to pop up. Essentially, these were warehouses filled with alcohol and Estevan, due to its proximity to the United States border, had two of them. At the time, there were no laws in Saskatchewan that prevented the exportation of liquor to the United States. As a result, people could come up from the United States, buy all the alcohol they wanted and not worry about being arrested until they reached the border. Once they reached the border, they needed to get back into America without being caught by law enforcement or even other alcohol traders who were looking to rob them to make a quick buck. This profitable era for Estevan would last only two years until American pressure led to changes in Saskatchewan laws.
A few years after the Prohibition Era ended in Estevan, a very unique creature would be found nearby, buried for millions of years in the ground. In November of 1926, an Ichthyosauri was found in the district, measuring at about 50 feet long. The fossil had been found by Reverend C. Harrington, who lived in the area after he developed an interest in some of the smaller fossils found in the region. He invited a Professor Thompson, who was a geologist with the University of London to come out and together they found the amazing fossil. In the region the fossil became known as The Lizard. For a time, it was the biggest news of the region. As for what the creature was, it first appeared around 250 million years ago and at least one species survived until 90 million years ago. A water-based dinosaur, it was similar to dolphins as it evolved in the water, went to land but then returned to water during its evolution. They also had a layer of blubber for insulation and large, bladed teeth to kill large animals.
One of the most significant events in the history of Estevan would occur on Sept. 29, 1931 on a day now referred to as Black Tuesday. Beginning on Sept. 7, local miners went on strike for better wages and working conditions. In a later commission on the riot, one woman would state that families lived in one bedroom, two beds in there, with a dining room, a kitchen with a bed in it, and 11 people sharing the home. Rain would come into the homes and in the morning in the winter, snow would be on the floor. The strikers wanted the mining company to improve the homes and end the company store monopoly as well. With the strike beginning on Sept. 7, Annie Buller, working with the Workers’ Unity League, spoke in Estevan in support of the strikers. Buller was a well-known union organizer and also the co-founder of the Communist Party of Canada. On Sept. 29, miners began to parade through the city and were confronted by the RCMP who blocked the parade. Violence broke out and the RCMP fired on the strikers, killing three and injuring several others. The next morning, 90 RCMP officers raided the homes of the miners an arrested 13, including Annie Buller who was sentenced to one year of hard labour. The RCMP involved in the killing of the miners were never charged. A total of 20 miners were charged with various offences. On Oct. 6, after meeting with a Royal Commission Counsel, the strike ended with the company agreeing to a $4 minimum wage, an eight-hour working day, reduced rent and an end to the company store monopoly. Today, the event is still controversial in Estevan. The three headstones for the miners still have “murdered by the RCMP” inscribed, which is sometimes erased and then restored by locals.
The courthouse that stands in the community to this day was the location of the deadly strike action by the RCMP. It was also where the Royal Commission would investigate the incident, chaired by Estevan judge E.R. Wylie. The structure had been built only two years previous and was designed by Architect Maurice Sharon, the provincial designer from 1916 to 1930. He had designed ten provincial courthouses, and Estevan was his last one. Today, the courthouse is a now a Provincial Heritage Property for its role in the community, and its role in the strike.
In 1980, Estevan would be the site of a contentious byelection. Byelections tend not to be too interesting, but this one truly was and it involved a future premier of Saskatchewan. Grant Devine had lost in the 1978 election but he was chosen as the leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in 1979 nonetheless. When Robert Larter resigned due to health reasons from the Legislative Assembly, this opened up the riding and Devine looked to get elected there. The by-election would feature Devine, Jack Chapman and Ralph Goodale.
People in Estevan found themselves bombarded with phone calls, door-knockers and out-of-town MLAs descending on the community to promote their candidate. Many residents were also angry that Devine had parachuted into the riding in an attempt to get elected.
The election featured several attacks against Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister. Maclean’s would write a week after the byelection, quote:
“The two-ton flatbed truck that came rattling down Fourth Street, Estevan’s main drag, provided the action highlight of provincial byelection. Perched precariously on the back was a dilapidated privy crudely scrawled with such fiery messages as Trudeau and Blakeney – The Brotherhood and Western Federation. The seat of the two-holer had been removed and mounted up front, labelled Reserved for Trudeau. Estevan police, alerted by telephone call, swept into action to impound the privy and determine whether it all constituted a breach of the election act’s ban on voting day campaigning.”
In the end Devine would fail to win the by-election, losing by 97 votes to Jack Chapman. Devine would note that Chapman won with only 37 per cent of the popular vote and that he and Goodale had 63 per cent. He also blamed the NDP for low voter turnout. The election was so close that there was a chance at a recount, since 16 votes were spoiled at least. In the end, the recount found Chapman won by only 60 votes. Everyone involved in the election would have good careers afterwards. Chapman would represent the area until 1982, while Goodale would serve in the Legislature from 1986 to 1988, and then in Parliament from 1993 to 2019. He is currently Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. As for Devine, he would finally get elected in 1982 and became the premier of the province, serving until 1991.
On July 11, 1982, the community would be visited by a very special person when Princess Anne, daughter to Queen Elizabeth II, arrived in Estevan. After visiting several other communities, she would have lunch with 200 community leaders in Estevan and was presented with two furry dolls for her two children. She would visit the Royal Canadian Legion Hall as people called out her name outside the building. She would also visit the Utility Coal site at the Boundary Dam Power Station and inspect the earth-moving draglines. In all, she spent a few hours in the community before moving on with the rest of her tour.
If you want to learn more about the history of Estevan, you can visit not one, but two museums. The first is the Estevan Art Gallery and Museum. This facility is mostly an art gallery but it does feature historical collections from the community, including the North West Mounted Police Wood End Post Historical Site. The building was constructed in 1893 and used by the North West Mounted Police when they first arrived in the area. By 1892, there was one staff sergeant, 2 corporals and 15 constables stationed at the original building, leading to the construction of the much larger building. That building was abandoned in 1897 and would be used as a home by several families in the area. The building would finally be bought and moved to the art gallery property where it stored artifacts. In 1994, it became part of the museum in its own right.
You can also visit the Souris Valley Museum, which is a 5,000 square foot facility that houses several themed exhibits that highlight the history of Estevan and the surrounding area. Indoor exhibits include a post office, bank, general store, pioneer home and a display to honour the Indigenous people of the area. Outdoor exhibits include an original schoolhouse, a harvest cook rail car, a homestead and a heritage mining display.