Step into the past with historic tours
Museum offers tours through St. Albert's history
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Wednesday, Jul 11, 2012 06:00 am
Historic Walking Tours
Join the museum's educational programmers for tours of St. Albert's interesting and historic past. Archival photographs, stories and historic buildings will all help to add colour to the stories of the city in its early days, bringing the past right into the present.
The walking tours of Mission Hill and the Perron District start at the Little White School at 6:30 p.m. and will run every two weeks starting tomorrow, and then on July 26, Aug. 9, Aug. 23 and Sept. 13.
For more information or to register, call Toomey at 780-459-4404 or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year’s sesquicentennial gave St. Albertans many wonderful opportunities to delve into the city’s long, rich history. It could be said that our past had so much presence.
We were repeatedly reminded of it with floats in the Rainmaker Rodeo parade, exhibits at the museum and special events like Meet the Street or Interview History with Father Albert Lacombe, in which local actor Paul Punyi played the man who helped to start it all.
History had started to become alive.
According to Roy Toomey, the educational programmer at the Musée Héritage Museum, it’s always been that way. Comparatively speaking, he said, people in St. Albert have always cared more about their history than in most other places that he’s familiar with.
“Before this, I was in Prince George for three years at the museum doing this same work there, and I did quite a few summers working at different museums,” he began.
“At the time I didn’t really know anything [about the city] but since coming here, one of the things I really appreciate about St. Albert – being a history buff that I am – is how much this city actually cares about its history and its heritage, and how much they put into it to preserve it.”
He added that the city’s “long and storied history” helps to make it easier to talk to people about it and keep their interest alive.
Because of this history, the museum’s heritage sites department offers historic walking tours throughout the summer months. These two-hour tours through the Mission Hill, Perron District and Founders’ Walk areas offer participants the rare chance to walk with Toomey, see some old photographs and hear some of the best stories that helped to put St. Albert on the map.
Archivist Rene Georgopalis says that there is a lot of value in people getting to see historic photographs outside of the museum and in the same environment where it was taken.
“To view an archival photo at the place where it was taken years earlier provides an opportunity to imagine what St. Albert looked like long ago.”
Toomey says that to have the photos along with the live tour guide really brings everything together.
“That’s the neat thing about vocal hi you get some of the neat stories that you don’t necessarily get from reading the history books.”
“I appreciate that the museum is doing that because it now affords an opportunity for citizens to get a glimpse into the history of St. Albert,” said Ray Pinco, the chair of the St. Albert Historical Society, the group that unveiled Founders’ Walk from the top of Perron Street to the St. Albert Parish last year.
He added that walking tours and historic signage might have helped to prompt a recent spurt in attendance at the Father Lacombe Chapel.
“My guess is that people read the sign and then turn around and see the chapel, and say, ‘Oh! There it is!’ and go visit it.”
A city of firsts
There was the time that Father Lacombe had quite a party.
“We know lots about Father Lacombe, such a great historic figure. In 1899, on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, they had a big open mass outside on Mission Hill.”
The event was attended by First Nations people from all across Alberta who came and camped out for the festivities.
“There were tipis set up all around the church. At that time, it was apparently the first fireworks display in all of Alberta. There’s no photos so you wonder if some of this stuff is a bit apocryphal.”
It’s a good thing that Toomey is a history buff: it makes him the best kind of tour guide. His stories often have colour and grand descriptions so you can almost see events from a century or more ago happening right in front of you.
As he walks down the hill from the Little White School, he fills in the holes of history, like how the site of École Father Jan and the NABI building was originally the location of a fine pond. That hole had to be filled in too so that progress could continue.
St. Albert also had the first telephone service in the province in 1885, creating a connection between it and Edmonton to the south.
“That’s pretty early,” Toomey emphasized. “It was just basically a line that ran from Edmonton to St. Albert so the Oblates could keep in contact with the fort.”
In a strange twist of fate, this put it way ahead of the times, as the village didn’t acquire the telegraph until five years later.
Another important element in town that helped bring people together was the Bruin Inn. It was the first place near Edmonton where men and women could drink together, and it was indeed a popular stop, especially in the 1940s.
“On a Saturday night, they could host 600 to 700 people, which almost doubled the population of the town at the time. The lineup would go from the front door all the way across the bridge to where the chapel is.” Toomey stated. “During a normal week, they would use up five kegs of beer. They could go through 50 kegs of beer on a weekend.”
He added that people had to be seated in order to be served, so many people would simply buy cases of beer and use them as chairs.
Since its earliest days as a mission, St. Albert was always a kind of suburb, providing a rich swath of farmland for many new settlers to live as they worked with the Hudson Bay Company as traders at Fort Edmonton.
In order to get from the top of Mission Hill to the road going south, you either had to get your feet wet in the then mighty Sturgeon River, or pay the toll across Father Lacombe’s 60-metre bridge built in 1862. It was the first bridge west of the Great Lakes, and it was made of sturdy wood and craftsmanship. It was free to those who helped to build it, or those who used it to reach the church to attend services.
A city of danger and peril
Time and elements proved to be great foes, however, and the bridge suffered flood damage. The wood weakened, especially on the bridge deck, resulting in a tragedy more than 50 years later.
“A big steam tractor fell through the bridge deck,” Toomey related. “It was a guy from Montana named McAuley. He had been warned.”
“At this time they already knew that the bridge timbers were kind of rotten and it was fine for people to walk across. They knew it couldn’t take a heavy load like this. He said, ‘I’m going to do it anyway’. Tragically as it fell through it flipped upside down and landed on top of him.”
Ironically, a new steel bridge deck had already been ordered and was within a few months of being installed.
There was also a fantastic but failed bank heist at the Banque d’Hochelaga building. Two men – again from Montana – tried using nitroglycerin to blast through the door of the safe. Instead, it was merely damaged. The two were caught empty-handed and red-faced in Edmonton.
The safe was burglar proof, and the building itself must have been so as well. It went through various incarnations, including one as the Rainbow Hotel, but is now known as the Art Gallery of St. Albert.
As Toomey walks back across Mission Avenue to approach the Little White School, he related one last story about Seven Hills, the centre of many fireworks celebrations and much recreation, usually when the grass was covered in a good blanket of winter snow.
“Before 1967 it was just a hill but of course it was quite steep and people used it for sledding and tobogganing and they always have. They had this great idea that they would add these seven terraces to it and make it less steep,” he laughed. “They added these terraces to make it safer but they actually made it a lot worse. People caught air and broke limbs. In the 1980s they ended up flattening it back out.”
Interestingly, one of his former co-workers in British Columbia went to high school in St. Albert in the 1970s. Toomey said that he used to ride cars in neutral going down the hill with his friends, just to see how far into town they could get.