The History Of Crossfield

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CraigBaird

Long before Europeans ever came to the land that would be Crossfield, the Indigenous occupied the area. The primary Indigenous group were the Blackfoot, whose territory stretched across southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as the northern United States. The Cree would eventually come to the area as they were pushed from the east by settlers, which would create conflict between the two nations. Peace was eventually achieved through the help of Father Albert Lacombe in the late 19th century.

The bison migrated through the area and provided the Indigenous with an incredibly important resource.

Just to the west of Crossfield, there is a small buffalo jump where animals were sent off a cliff of about 20 feet high. This allowed the bison to be killed easily by those below. The harvesting of the animals allowed the Blackfoot in the area to have extra leisure time, helping them create a complex culture. The Buffalo Jump site also features pictographs, giving a glimpse of what life was like centuries ago before Europeans arrived.

As the 19th century progressed towards the 20th century, the bison were slowly hunted to near extinction by Canadians and Americans. This would lead the Blackfoot to near starvation, which forced them to sign treaties to cede land to the Canadian government.

It was the Blackfoot that Anthony Henday would meet in 1754 when he came father west than any European before him. He would be followed by others including David Thompson, who arrived in 1799 and spent the winter in the area where Calgary is today.

The strength of the Blackfoot in the area delayed the establishment of fur trading posts in the area until the middle of the 19th century. By this point, the bison herds were declining and the way of life of the Blackfoot was being threatened.

Today, Crossfield sits on Treaty 7 land.

For several decades, settlement was slow in the area despite the proximity to what was Fort Calgary and became Calgary when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the 1880s.

Crossfield would spring up thanks to its own railway, the Calgary and Edmonton line, which was built in 1891.

In 1892, the Calgary to Edmonton line of the railroad would establish a new community named Crossfield. The name for the community came from an engineer with the Canadian Pacific Railway survey crew. Two years previous, a Mrs. Hannington opened a stopping house at the spot, and it was there that the C and E Railway decided to create a new community.

The community would slowly grow and by 1904 it had a post office, hotel, general store and a school. The first post office was operated by James Sutherland, and it was located in a boxcar near the train station.

In 1905, the CPR train station was built and would stay in the community for 75 years until 1980 when rather than demolish it, it was moved to Carstairs and renovated, then turned into a private home that still stands east of that town to this day.

In 1906, the first grain elevator was built  by Alberta Pacific, followed by a privately owned one soon after. One year later Crossfield was incorporated into a village with a Dr. Bishop serving as the first mayor.

Bishop was the first doctor in Crossfield, and he would leave to serve in the Canadian Army. Other doctors would come but it was Doc Whillans who made the deepest mark on the community. For over 50 years, he would serve the community of Crossfield and its medical needs. Many residents had fond memories of seeing him in his buggy, pulled by his horse named Captain. No matter if it was day or night, he would be found journeying to someone’s home to help. He would later have a Ford that allowed him to get to rural homes easier in time of emergency.

On May 2, 1919, Crossfield and the entire area was hit by a severe blizzard that was described as the worst in a generation by old-timers in the community. The blizzard suddenly hit almost out of nowhere. At the start of the day, the sky was clear but by mid-morning the sky was filled with snow and for the next three days snow blew, covering roads and farms. Anyone who left their window open in the morning came home to find snow piled high in their house. One person stated quote:

“The wind blew and the snow flew for three days, never have seen anything like it since. Drifts around the buildings were 20 feet high. Cattle out in the storm drifted with the wind until reaching a coulee where the snows from the storm swirled over them.”

Hundreds of cows were killed in the storm, devastating many ranches. There were some good stories out of the storm though. Herbert Stewart and his son Jim saved 100 cows by riding on horseback, bareback, to keep from freezing and following a fence west to the willow bush where the cattle were located. They were able to drive them back to the road and into buildings for safety.  

The year 1924 was a tough one for the community of Crossfield. That year would see not one, not two, but three fires tear through. The first fire happened on Jan. 1, 1924 when a fire destroyed a hotel, two banks and several other buildings along a city block. Unfortunately for those fighting the fire, the water supply gave out almost immediately after the fire started. The Calgary fire brigade quickly responded to help fight the fire and found that the fire was out of control. Fighting the flames in bitter cold weather, it would take hours to finally put it out. Soon after, citizens began to pressure the municipal leaders to bring in adequate fire protection for the community. The final tally for damages caused by the fire was $175,000, amounting to about $2.7 million today.

One week later, another fire hit, burning another set of buildings in the commercial area of the community. J.P. Conrad was especially hard hit as his hotel, valued at $16,000, burned to the ground but he only had $6,000 covered by insurance. This second fire did a further $75,000, $1.1 million today, in damages to the community.

In 1924, Crossfield would go through a terrible fire when a blaze broke out at McKay’s garage at 1 p.m. on Nov. 25, 1924. The fire would soon spread and eventually destroyed the Chinese laundry next door, and then the UFA store. The volunteer fire brigade would respond and get the blaze under control but it will still cause a total of $12,000 in damages, amounting to about $190,000 today.

In 1930, the children’s park was officially opened in the community courtesy of the local board of trade. The opening of the park was a big event with hundreds of people coming out to enjoy the maypole, slides, putting green and other amenities built by volunteers. By far the biggest event though, and the reason I’m talking about this park opening, was the arrival of the Chicago Colored Athletics. The two teams played a double header even as the clouds began to gather and rain started to fall. At a time when teams of Black Americans could not play against teams with white players, Crossfield welcomed the Black Americans to their community to play the local baseball team.

In the first game, the Athletics won easily 8-1 but the second game was closer, with the game finishing 4-2 after five innings due to rain falling and ending the game. The Calgary Herald reported quote:

“Stead play, not relieved by any heavy hitting, featured the afternoon game, with the local nine getting only one tally and that in the sixth inning. The colored team scored once in the first frame, three in the second and ran riot with four in the fourth.”

Pitching for the Athletics was Lefty Brown, who easily held Crossfield’s players to only a few runs.

Around this same time, Pete Knight was making a name for himself on the rodeo circuit. Born in 1903 in Crossfield, Knight quickly became one of the best rodeo performers in North America after being invited to compete at the Calgary Stampede in 1924 by Guy Weadick himself. He took second in the Canadian Bucking Horse Championship and a legend was born. In 1927, he took the Canadian and North American Open bucking championship and earned the Prince of Wales Cup. In the 1930 Calgary Stampede, he won the Canadian Championship Bucking event and then won the bucking event at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. In 1931, he would win the World Series Rodeo bucking event at Madison Square Garden.

For the next several years, Knight continued to dominate on the rodeo circuit, once again winning at the Calgary Stampede in 1933 and even going to England to tour with the Tex Austin Rodeo Troupe, followed by a trip to Melbourne. After winning the bucking event at the World’s Fair Rodeo in Chicago, Wilf Carter stated that Pete Knight was the King of the Cowboys.

In 1936, Knight became a founding member of the Cowboys Turtle Association and he was named the World Champion Bronc Rider in 1932, 1933, 1935 and 1936.

Sadly, on May 23, 1937, Knight was trampled to death by a horse at a rodeo in California.

In 1958, Knight was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, followed by the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1980, he was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1981.

In Crossfield, the arena is named for him and each year, the Pete Knight Days Rodeo is held in his honour.

I’ll end this episode by talking about something very unique about Crossfield. It is called STEVE, or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. This phenomenon is caused by a ribbon of hot plasma that stretches for 25 kilometres at a height of 450 kilometres, where it is heated to 3,000 Celsius and moves at a speed of six kilometres per second. It has been observed since at least 1705 and have been found throughout the world, including the United Kingdom, Alaska and New Zealand. The area of Crossfield is one such place to have the phenomenon. The phenomenon typically lasts about 20 minutes and is quite random for when you will see it but if you do see it, it is truly something amazing to witness.

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