The History Of Black Diamond

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The area of Black Diamond, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, was the land of the Blackfoot for centuries. The Blackfoot would follow the bison through the area, and were the dominant group in the area since long before Europeans ever arrived in the area.

The bison were the most important animal and resource for the Blackfoot in the area. They would hunt the bison to get food and supplies for clothing, shelter and more. For a time before Europeans arrived, the area was covered with immense herds of bison.

Addison McPherson, a very early pioneer in the area would say quote:

“One cannot conceive of the millions of buffalo. You could travel for days and never be out of sight of the herds, right up to where the present town of Wetaskiwin is now located.”

As the bison were hunted to near extinction by Canadians and Americans, it would lead to near starvation for the Blackfoot. This would result in the Blackfoot being forced to sign Treaty 7 so they could receive rations on the reserves set aside for them. The treaty was signed on Dec. 4, 1877 to the south of Black Diamond at Blackfoot Crossing.

The most important part of the Indigenous culture in the area was without a doubt, the ohkotok, which is the Blackfoot name for “rock”, located to the east of Black Diamond.

The rock was an important stopping place for the Indigenous as it served as a marker to find the river crossing.

The story of how that rock got there is an interesting one, especially from a history perspective.

Around 12,000 to 17,000 years ago, there was a massive landslide in the Rocky Mountains near present-day Jasper, which dropped millions of tonnes of quartzite rock onto a glacier. That glacier would slowly move through the Rocky Mountains, and then join the giant ice sheets that covered the landscape during the last ice age. These ice sheets flowed across the Okotoks area, all the way down to Montana and for eons those rocks sat in the glacier.

As the ice age ended, the ice sheets melted and as they did, those rocks that had been deposited so long ago began to fall onto the landscape, along a path now known as the Foothills Erratics Train. This train stretches for 930 kilometres but is only 22 kilometres wide. Many of the boulders are small, as small as just one foot, but the largest of them all is the big rock near Okotoks. Measuring at nine metres tall, 41 metres long and 18 metres wide, while also weighing 16,500 tons.

The Big Rock is split down the middle and the Indigenous have a story to explain that.

It was on a hot summer day that Napi, the trickster, rested on the rock because he was tired. He put his robe over the rock and asked the rock to keep the robe in return for letting him rest there. Then, it grew cold and windy. Napi asked for his robe back, but the rock refused. Napi took his robe nonetheless and as he walked away, he heard a loud noise and saw that the rock was rolling after him. Several animals including the bison tried to stop the rock but failed. Napi then called on the bats for help, who dove at the rock, hitting it and splitting it in two pieces. Hence, how the rock appears to this day.

In 1978, the Big Rock Erratic was made a Provincial Historic Resource and is now protected due to its geological and cultural importance. There is public parking at the site, as well as interpretive signs that detail the history of the area, its importance to the Indigenous and the geological history of the rock. If you do visit, do not climb on the rock. It can damage the rock and you can definitely hurt yourself.

In 1899, the aforementioned McPherson and his friend J.J. Cooper had opened a coal mine near to where Black Diamond is today. The mine was very successful, with 650 tons of high-grade coal being produced annually and shipped out of the area.

As the mine grew in size, so to did the number of workers that began to live in the area and call it home. Before long, the number of workers and their families necessitated the establishment of a store and post office, which were established by Herb Arnold in 1907.

With a post office, a name was needed. There were two names that were put forward. The first was Arnoldville in honour of the postmaster, and Black Diamond, in honour of the coal mine that had created the town. To decide which name would be used, both names were put in a hat and Black Diamond was chosen.

The heritage of Black Diamond is honoured in the giant Black Diamond roadside attraction, which sits above an original reconstructed coal cart located on the main street of the town to the front of the municipal office.

In 1929, nearby Turner Valley became the first place in Alberta to have a major oil boom and before long that would stimulate a construction boom in Black Diamond, which saw its population balloon to 1,000 people, most of it families living in shacks and tents. On May 8, 1929, Black Diamond would become a town, something it would remain as until Jan. 1, 1956, when it once again returned to village status.

For the next two decades, the area was the centre of the oil industry in Alberta but that would change in 1947 when Leduc No. 1 was hit and the oil industry shifted to the north in the province.

It was also in 1929 that Black Diamond received a very famous visitor when Winston Churchill, future British icon and prime minister, visited the area to see the oil fields that were booming. He would be joined by Pat Burns, one of the founders of the Calgary Stampede, and Mayor F.E. Osborne of Calgary.

On April 25, 1949, there was a terrible fire that erupted in Black Diamond that would reshape the entire community. At 4 a.m., the fire began and quickly burned through the community destroyed six businesses, partially destroying another shop and driving many people from their homes in the early hours of the day. One woman was injured in the fire and was taken to hospital to be treated for shock and burns to her feet that occurred when she fled her burning suite in her bare feet. In that same building, 25 people, including one child, escaped the flames without being injured. The fire was fanned by high winds blowing in from the west, allowing the fire to quickly spread. The buildings destroyed were the Winston Theatre, the Black Diamond Transportation building, a garage, the Calgary Power Limited building, a Style Shoppe and a photography studio. The Welcome Inn was heavily damaged in the fire as well. Throughout the community, the roofs of many other buildings and homes were damaged by cinders landing on them, requiring residents to climb onto the roofs to dump pales of water on them.

Fire Chief Ken Atkins would state quote:

“We don’t know where the fire started. It was either the theater or the transportation garage. Probably the latter.”

The fire was fought by 10 members of the Black Diamond volunteer fire brigade, as well as 100 other firefighters from Okotoks and Turner Valley.

A Mr. Webber would say quote:

“The fire department worked hard and deserve credit for saving the town. They handled the tough job well.”

In all, the fire caused $200,000 in damages, or about $2.5 million today.

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