The History Of Yellowhead County

Play episode
Hosted by

Yellowhead County is a vast stretch of land that runs from Evansburg in the east, to the Rocky Mountains in the west. With Highway 16 running straight through it, the county is a very important transportation corridor in Canada, and has been so since long before the county, or even Canada, ever existed. In all, the county covers an area of 22,293 square-kilometres. If it were a country, Yellowhead County would be the 147th largest country on Earth, ahead of El Salvador, Israel, Slovenia and Kuwait.

The area that is today Yellowhead County was long the territory of a variety of Indigenous groups, primarily the Stoney or Nakoda people, the Cree and the Dane-zaa.

For centuries, these Indigenous groups would occupy the land that Yellowhead County sits on now and would follow game and harvest the natural food that grew abundantly through the region.

Today, Yellowhead County sits on Treaty 7 land.

The name of the county comes from Pierre Bostonias, also known as Tete Jaune, who was an Indigenous trapper, fur trader and explorer. Working for the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company in the late-18th century and early-19th century, he would gain the nickname of Yellowhead because of his blond hair. In the early 19th century, he would cross through Yellowhead Pass in the Rocky Mountains. In December 1819, it was recorded that he led a brigade of Hudson’s Bay men through the pass to meet with the Indigenous. He would pass away during an altercation with the Dunne-za people in 1828 at the Smoky River headwaters.

Only a few years prior to the death of Yellowhead, a man named Thomas Drummond would come through the area to catalogue the flora and fauna. As a botanist, he was part of an expedition that moved from Ontario to Cumberland House. It was there that Drummond quit sand he would leave the main party to explore the Rocky Mountains. In 1827, he would travel from Fort Vancouver to York Factory in future Manitoba. Along the way, he collected samples for the Royal Horticultural Society. During this time, he would journey through future Yellowhead County.

As settlers started to come into the area, they wanted a place to come together for their religious needs. This would lead to the establishment of the Ukrainian Baptist Church congregation, which was established in 1907. Many of the early settlers to the western area of Yellowhead County were from the Ukraine. Together they would build a church in the 1930s, using materials that were found in the area. The church, which is smaller than other churches, represents a glimpse in the past when the church was the central place for a growing community of settlers who were so far from their homeland. This church, while not used today, is still standing and can be found near the community of Park Court.

In 1908, a group of 20 Black settlers came up from the United States during a brief period of immigration for African Americans who were fleeing the extreme racism of the American South. Originally, the community was named Junkins. This name was chosen based on an alphabetical system used by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Junkins was a vice president of a consulting company of engineers for the railroad. In 1910, the first train would arrive in the area. By 1922, Junkins was encouraging new settlers to come to the community. A colonization society was formed to help get more people to arrive.

The name would eventually change as many of its residents found that its name was unattractive and in 1928, the decision was made to change the name. A community contest was held, and the name Wildwood was chosen. This would become the new name of the community the following year. The community is still a thriving one to this day and the descendants of those first Black pioneers have made significant contributions to Canada in the past century.

As you cross into Yellowhead County from Parkland County, driving between Entwistle and Evansburg, you will find the Canadian Northern Railway trestle. This trestle was built between 1910 and 1912 as a railway construction boom was reaching the area. The bridge’s construction was no small task. There were no cranes big enough to carry steel, so the false bridge and scaffolding were all built from wood. The bridge itself was built in pieces in Scotland, assembled and tested there, and then dismantled and sent to Canada in pieces. 

The pieces then arrived in Entwistle via the railroad and was reassembled in 1910. The measurements made the engineers of the bridge were so accurate, that no modifications at site were needed. The bridge rises to 214 feet and runs 910 feet. It is the fifth highest railway bridge in Western Canada.

The bridge is still in operation today, connecting Canada to the Pacific Ocean through the Canadian National Railway. On average, the bridge sees 20 trains a day cross it.

With the construction of that bridge, settlement would begin at a rapid pace throughout future Yellowhead County.

In 1910, the community of Edson was founded under the name of Heatherwood. The name would change in 1911 to honour Edson Joseph Chamberlin, the vice president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Established as an important community along the railway route, Edson would begin to grow and by Jan. 9, 1911, was a village, and a few months later in September, was a town.

The Winnipeg Tribune would write of the new town quote:

“Edson was born under favorable circumstances. Vigorous young city looms large in west. All eyes now turned to Edson as one of the most profitable fields for investment in sunny Alberta.”

The original townsite for Evansburg dates to 1910. This original townsite, which was more of a mining camp, was made up of eight houses, an office, a barn and a boarding house. While little coal was found in the original shaft, the arrival of the railroad surged the population of the community. By 1912, there were 30 houses, including large houses for the mine engineer, pit boss, doctor and more.  Around 1914, Evansburg was established. It was named for Harry Marshall Erskine Evans, the future mayor of Edmonton and head mining engineer who found a little bit of coal in the area. By 1918, a school opened in the community, followed by a high school in 1923.

You can learn more about the history of Evansburg by visiting the Tipple Park Museum, which explores the coal, train, pioneer and agricultural history of the community and the surrounding area. The name of the museum comes from Tipple Park, where a coal mine once stood near to the community. Within you will find several exhibits, as well as various historical buildings on the property of the museum, including the Mazeppa House, which was built in 1911.

In 1909, John Gregg and his wife Mary discovered coal along the slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It was there, south of Cadomin and Hinton, they would establish Mountain Park the following year. The Mountain Park Coal Mine would build its own rail line to the community from Coalspur and at one point the community had a thriving population of 1,500 people with a hotel, churches, library, school, restaurants and hospital.

The coal quality was considered to be some of the best in the west. The Edmonton Bulletin reported quote:

“The quality of the coal, a matter at least as important as its quantity, has been proved both by analysis made by government experts and by actual use to be sound and high-grade, valuable, not only as a steam or engine coal, but also for domestic use.”

The mine would close in 1950, along with many others in the area. The mine company gave notice to the residents of the community that they needed to move their home, or the home would be destroyed. Today, nothing but the Mountain Park Cemetery remains but portions of the spur line of the railroad is still found in the area of the former community. As for the cemetery, it sits at 6,200 feet and is the highest elevation cemetery in Canada.

In 1911, the community of Hinton would be formed as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway arrived in the area. It was named for William P. Hinton, the vice president and general manager of the railway. Originally, the community was nothing more than a station house, built at Mile 978 west of Winnipeg. It was in this spot that an Indigenous group had left members stricken with smallpox in 1870, while the rest of the group travelled to Lac Ste. Anne to get medical aid. For some time after, this area was known as Smallpox Camp. In 1888, a trading post was established nearby, but settlement would kick into high gear when the railroad arrived. Hinton would begin to boom in 1931 when the Hinton Coal Mine was opened, but The Great Depression would cause the population to fall to just 100 people and Hinton seemed to be fading away and into the category of a ghost town. I’ll talk about what brought it back from the brink in just a little bit.

In 1912, Brule was established to take advantage of the abundant coal in the area for the Canadian Northern Railway. The community would see a huge boom when the First World War caused the need for coal to increase, and this would continue until the 1920s when it had a population of 500 people. The community not only featured a golf course, but a race track and a modern theatre as well. Sadly, the coal would eventually be played out and with the shutdown of the mine in 1928, families started to leave the area. By 1932, the community was a ghost town, with over 100 buildings sitting empty. Those buildings were eventually dismantled and used elsewhere, including as far away as Edmonton where several cottage-type houses were built with the lumber. Today, Brule still exists with a few residents and makes a great trip for anyone interested in ghost towns, even though Brule today seems to be rising from the ashes as people come there to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

In 1913, the one-room Carrot Creek School was built just to the south of Carrot Creek in the county. The school would operate for 40 years until it was closed in 1953. Among one-room schools, it was quite small for its size but unlike many other schools of its type, it still stands to this day and can be seen surrounded by trees. While you can’t go into the building anymore, visiting it will transport you back to the days when students from across the area come out to learn in the small building.

In 1913, the Edson Cemetery would be established but there were some burials at the site as early as February 1912. The cemetery would only be used until September 1918. Many of the people buried at this cemetery were the first settlers to come to the area. Over time, the Old Edson Cemetery would have graves exhumed and moved to the Glenwood Cemetery but not all would make the move. There are at least 18 known grave features at the Old Edson Cemetery, and you can visit this cemetery to this day and take a step into the past.

For a long time, the Grand Trunk Pacific Station dominated Main Street in Edson and there were plans to turn it into a museum. Unfortunately, this plan did not come to pass, and the station could not stay in its original location.  Too expensive to move or repair, the decision was made to move the Dandurand Station, located west of Edson, into the community. In October of 1975, it left its original home and found a new home in Edson at the RCMP Centennial Park. In 1981, the building would become the Galloway Station Museum. In 2011, when the Town of Edson was looking to celebrate its Centennial, the choice was made to expand the museum.

The museum features a large exhibit space as well as the visitor information centre. Inside you will not only find some artifacts from early history of Edson, but also two large stuffed grizzly bears engaged in a turf war and a cougar watching as visitors come into the museum.

The same year that the Edson Cemetery was established, the Red Brick School had its cornerstone laid in the community on Sept. 17. The school would be finished in 1914, and it would serve as the only school for students in Edson until 1951 when the Central School was finished. It would remain as an elementary school until 1967.

After that, the school was used as a maintenance shed and bus barn by the Yellowhead School Division until 1984 when it was faced with demolition.

Due to its heritage in the community, a committee was formed to save it. In July 1984, the Yellowhead School Division sold the ownership of the building over to the Red Brick Aid Committee for one dollar.

In 1986, the school was designated as a Provincial Heritage Resource. Today, it houses the Red Brick Museum which features a 141-seat theatre, an art gallery, a school room museum and several artistic organizations including a dance company.

Also, that same year, at Marlboro to the west of Edson, the Marlboro Concrete Plant was opened by the Edmonton Portland Cement Company. The plant was opened there, and the community itself got its name, thanks to the marl, a mineral rich mud used in the production of concrete. The plant would operate for nearly 20 years before changes in the cement industry and high overhead caused it to be closed down in 1931. Today, you can still see the plant, what is left of it, as several structures and the chimney have been left to degrade over time. The location is now a heritage site for the county, thanks to its importance in the early industrial development of the area.

In 1914, another small school was built in the county, just south of Wildwood in Yellowhead County. It was built by volunteer labour and those who gave their time to build the school were rewarded with a tax exemption on the school tax for that year. The school served the needs of the students but was also so cold in the winter that no school was held until things warmed up. The school would operate for just over two decades until 1935 when it was closed, and a new school was built in 1936 to accommodate the growing needs of the area. The school would continue to operate until 1957 when it was finally closed due to declining enrolment and the consolidation of school districts. Thankfully, the school still stands to this day and is now used as a local community hall.

In 1917, a series of cabins were built along the edge of what is now Jasper National Park. These cabins were built for surveyors and forest rangers and were typically one day’s journey apart. One cabin that still stands and is located south of Hinton is the Gregg Cabin, named for John Gregg, one of the earliest surveyors in the area. The cabin was the primary picnic shelter in the area for many decades, and while it still stands to this day, a larger picnic shelter was built on site in 1999 to protect the cabin from overuse.

By the time the 1920s came along, the western portion of Yellowhead County’s economy was fueled by coal. Coal was the dominant industry and that meant a lot of towns popped up because of coal. Mercoal is one such town, which literally has the word coal in it. The Mercoal Mine was established in 1920 by the McLeod River Hard Coal Company. Over the next few decades, the mine would grow and with it Mercoal. By the time the 1950s arrived, the community had a hospital, hotel and several businesses that were thriving with a population of 800 people. Unfortunately, the mine would close in 1959 due to the declining coal market and that would lead to the decline of the community. Today, only a few summer residences are found in the community, and it is classified as a ghost town. Within the community, you can still find several of the original buildings remaining as part of the Mercoal Cultural Landscape. If you have an interest in ghost towns, Mercoal is the perfect place to visit.

Another similar place in the county to visit is the Brule Mine Landscape, located west of Hinton near the entrance to Jasper National Park. Brule was established by the Mackenzie and Mann Coal Mining Company in 1912 and it would operate until 1928 when the coal mine shut down. Today, little remains but there are still several of the mining building that stand and can be explored to this day.

While you are driving down Highway 16 and coming to Carrot Creek, there is a general store that is in a building that has stood since 1928. Built by Herbert Robinson, the building also served as the first post office for the community. Eventually, Herbert’s son Sam took over and he would serve as postmaster until 1934. For the community, the store was extremely important as it was where they got all their necessities for living on homesteads, but it also had the only telephone in the area. The best part of this building is that it is still standing to this day and serves as a general store in the community and a great place for a quick stop to get some supplies for your road trip through Yellowhead County.

Northeast of Edson, near the current Yates Natural Area, there are two homesteads that were established around the same time. The Smith Homestead was established on land purchased by Charles Smith of Arizona, which he bought in 1925. He would put up a home there, costing $400, along with a chicken coop and a storehouse. The house still remains today and is a glimpse into the early homesteading past of the county. Nearby, there is the Ciciarelli Dance Hall, which was built by the Ciciarelli family in the 1930s. They operated the dance hall throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, where dances were held every Saturday night with the family playing live music. The dance hall was an important social centre for the area, including Edson, and it still stands today but three-quarters of its maple dance floor has sadly been removed.

One fascinating story about the Edson area comes from Prince Leo Golitsyn. A member of Russian nobility, he would flee from Soviet Russia during the Second World War as the Bolsheviks upended the country during their revolution. He would decide that his place would be in Canada and in 1929, he made his way to Edson. It was here, along with his wife who was said to be an Egyptian princess, that he purchased 420 acres of land along the McLeod River. He and his wife soon become important members of the community and even started up a charter air company. The couple’s home was built of logs and furnished with linens bearing the family crest, furniture, books and other items you would not find in a typical log home at the time. The prince would only stay in the area until 1934 when his wife sadly died during a vacation in Europe. At that point, he moved to Hollywood and would act as an extra in movies. He would pass away in 1969.

One of the most fascinating men to live in the area around the mid-part of the 20th century was Flash William. Called a One-Man Movie Industry, Shewchuk had spent his life working in the oil fields and at any other place he could find a job. He arrived in the area in 1937 and after serving in the Second World War, he opened up his own photography studio in the community. Known for his skill playing hockey, he earned the nickname of Flash. When the local mine closed in 1950, Shewchuk was one of the few residents to remain. He would then purchase a 16mm camera and began to make movies. As the writer, director, cinematographer, actor, editor and sound mixer, as well as the projectionist and ticket taker, he toured the province with his films. Eventually, the National Film Board would make a film about him in 1978. Over the course of his filmmaking career, he would make three feature films, sometimes with just himself on the set. He would pass away in 2000.

In 1941, Evansburg, which had been suffering a downturn in its economy, would get a shot in the arm thanks to the Evansburg Creamery. Built that same year, this business thrived and helped grow the businesses of the area.

The creamery would eventually close and today, only an empty lot remains of this once important business in the community.

Today, Evansburg is a thriving community with a very unique tradition. Each year at the Pembina Valley Family Daze Festival, the community elects an official Town Grouch. This has been going on since 1979 and the winner is licensed to pester, harass, antagonize, criticize, complain and grumble without fear of reprisal for the entire year. For this reason, Evansburg is known today as The Home of The Grouch.

The grouch dates back to 1974 initially when John Lauer created it but didn’t expect it to become a tradition. Tasked with creating a sign for the town, he had it say Population 603, 29 dogs, 41 cats, 1 grouch.

He would say quote:

“That caught a lot of attention.”

When the town started to vote on a grouch, people were not interested in being the grouch but that would slowly change. In 1995, Lauer was named the town grouch for the first time. The grouch would even be referenced by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show during the 1990s.

Lauer would say quote:

“I thought, that’s my moment of glory. I didn’t ever think it would get to this point. I’m just so pleased.”

During the Second World War, many camps were set up around Canada to deal with German Prisoners of War. Two such camps, Camps 132 and 133, were set up outside of Brule.

Another camp was set up near Granada where two large buildings were built side-by-side on the hill. In all, the camp held about 125 Germans and five guards who watched for any escape attempts. One of the men at this camp was said to be one of the top officials around Adolf Hitler. For the most part, he kept to himself, but he would often be seen at the camp and in town wearing a polished uniform, walking with a cane and his black dog next to him. Eventually, the prisoners would be shipped out following the end of the war.

In the 1950s, land near Evansburg was purchased by Cliff Ross and it was there he would build three guest cabins, as well as the family home and then a ranch hand house. Taking a cue from years past, he built the buildings using factory cut logs that were assembled using interlocking tongue and groove joints. That is only part of the importance of these cabins and their heritage. The rest of the story comes courtesy of Cliff’s daughter Gail. It was at this ranch that Gail would learn to ride horses and she would develop her skills that would propel her to greatness in the sport both nationally and internationally. By the age of 20, she was being written about in Sports Illustrated for her skills in competition. She would become Jumper Champion at Edmonton Northlands six times between 1963 and 1978, and the Calgary Spring Meet five times. She won the New York Grand Prix in 1963 and was the North American champion that same year. For her skills and success, she would be inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.

During the 1950s, work began to upgrade Highway 16, also known as the Yellowhead Highway, which runs from Winnipeg to the coast of British Columbia and is called Canada’s Second Trans-Canada Highway. This upgrading would lead to a surging population for communities in Yellowhead County along the highway, especially Edson and Hinton. With that higher population, came more commercial opportunities and thriving local economies.

In 1955, a pulp mill was constructed near to Hinton, now a place with only a few people in it. This brought rapid growth to the area and a new village was developed and named Drinnan in 1956. The two communities amalgamated into one town on April 1, 1957, forming the present Town of Hinton.

On Feb. 8, 1986, Yellowhead County would suffer through one of its most tragic days in its history. It was on that day that a freight train was leaving Edson at 6:40 a.m., heading to the east. Around the same time, the Super Continental was at Hinton and left late from the track, heading to the west. At 8:40 am., the lead locomotive of the freight train collided with the Super Continental. On the passenger train, one coach was crushed by the freight car after it was thrown in the air by the collision. Two sleeper cars were thrown on their sides, while the mid-train locomotive was severely damaged. The disaster killed 23 people and injured 71, making it the deadliest rail disaster in Canadian history at the time. After 56 days of testimony, it was found that the collision was caused by the freight head end crew failing to stop their train due to unknown factors, and the conductor failing to use the emergency brake to stop the train. The inquiry also highlighted serious flaws in Canadian National Railway’s culture and safety practices.

Wildwood sits along Chip Lake, and it is within there we learn the story about Dippy, the Chip Lake Monster. This lake monster is a bit more recent than its siblings The Ogopogo and the Loch Ness Monster. In the 1980s, Wildwood wanted to drive up its tourism a bit and they came up with the idea of Dippy the Lake Monster.

Dippy has made it in the news occasionally as well. Don Smith wrote about visiting the area of Wildwood in September 1987 and he would write quote:

“It’s home to Dippy, the Chip Lake Monster. His Chipness was hiding the day we visited.”

At one point, there was a life-sized version of Dippy that sat on the lake but after some locals started shooting at it, the statue was taken off the lake, but the story of Dippy, the relative of the Ogopogo, continues to this day.

In 1990, a municipal copper and nickel token was created to honour Dippy, and you can find some still on eBay.

Dippy has also become the subject of a children’s book called Into the Wilds of Chip Lake, which follows Bucky and Chippy on an adventure as they discover what friendship truly is. You can find a copy of it at the Galloway Station Gift Shop.

If you would like to explore the history of Yellowhead County, a great way to do it would be through the Heritage Self-Guided Tour. This tour, which is a full day if you do the entire look, takes you to the historical highlights in the communities of Marlboro, Hinton, Brule, Cadomin, Mountain Park, Mercoal and Robb. The tours provide a lot of information about the coal mining history of the area. For more information about the tours and when they are happening, contact the Heritage Coordinator of Yellowhead County.

You can also learn about the history of the area at the Northern Rockies Museum of Culture and Heritage. Located in Hinton and housed in the original Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Station, you can immerse yourself in the history of the area through its portable tablet displays, and tactile displays that look at the human, industry and natural history. There are also many artifacts from the community’s history to explore in this wonderful museum. 

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: