| Historian Kathryn Ivany has taken dozens of groups on walking tours through three of Edmonton’s municipal cemeteries. She loves digging up Edmonton’s past, and the graveyards are treasure troves of discovery about the lives of those who have gone before. |
“You can learn so much about a city by knowing the stories of the people who lived there,” she says. “Through their stories are built the history of the city.”
The Edmonton Cemetery, located around 107th Avenue and 118th Street, is the city's first and oldest cemetery. Many of Edmonton's original settlers and founders are buried here and some of their names now grace schools, neighbourhoods and roadways.
They include merchant and real estate developer John Alexander McDougall, who made a fortune supplying new settlers and those en route to the Klondike gold rush. His business partner, Richard Secord, is also buried nearby.
There is the grave of Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May, the famous bush pilot who fought the Red Baron in World War I and founded the first municipal air harbour in Canada. A few steps away is the resting place of Brigadier General William Antrobus Griesbach, who was elected mayor in 1906 at just 28, and commanded the 49th Battalion in World War I.
Other famous folks in the Edmonton Cemetery include Emily Murphy, Mayor John Wesley Fry, pioneer photographer Ernest Brown and Hon. Dr. John Campbell Bowen, who served as Alberta’s Lieutenant Governor in 1937 to 1950.
The Edmonton Cemetery has a Military Field of Honour, established in 1922. Marker stones are laid out with no distinctions between rank.
Many children were lost in epidemics of childhood illnesses such as measles, scarlet fever, and the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918. The cemetery has a section just off 107th Avenue that contains the smaller graves of children.
When the Edmonton Cemetery first started, 107th Avenue was little more than a wagon track, and the closest neighbourhood was blocks away. Later on, as demand grew, the cemetery expanded north across the avenue and the city mausoleum was completed in 1932.
“The Edmonton Cemetery took some of the load off some of the cemeteries that were already operating downtown,” she says. “There was one beside McDougall Church, and one at the Presbyterian Church, and those bodies were moved into the Edmonton Cemetery.”
Kathryn’s tours typically appeal to people looking at their genealogy, and those who have family buried in the cemeteries. But just being curious is also reason enough. She says more people are bringing their children, and last year three generations of one family showed up for a tour, all on motorcycles.
“Kids can pay attention because a lot of them, especially the ones that go to school here, know the John Walter story, and they know about Alexander Cameron Rutherford, so they can relate to the stories,” she explains. “If they get bored, they can wander around, look at the rabbits, pick flowers, and make tracings on the headstones.”
Situated with a commanding view, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery at 5420 106th Street was originally an advantageous lookout for native people. It tells the story of the south side, with graves of merchants including William Henry Sheppard, manager of the Strathcona Hotel starting in 1896, John Gaddes Tipton and Robert Ritchie, founder of Ritchie’s Mill.
Some north side movers and shakers you might not expect to find in a south side cemetery are also buried here, including William Magrath and Bidwell Holgate, developers of the Highlands neighbourhood, and Hugh Alfred Calder, whose name adorns the district of Calder. Among the famous leaders laid to rest here are Rutherford, Alberta’s first premier; Joseph Clarke, aldermen for four terms and mayor for five; and Henrietta Muir Edwards, one of the Famous Five who fought for recognition of women as persons.
Given the location and the subject matter, Kathryn says she heard all the bad puns over the years, too, and admits she’s told a few herself on the tours. “It depends on the audience, and how seriously they want to take it. And when you are talking about characters like Joe Clarke, how can you not crack a few jokes and celebrate his life? We take it seriously, with basic rules of etiquette, and we accommodate people’s beliefs.”
Established in 1914, Beechmount was the first cemetery started by the city rather than a private company. Over the years, a variety of ethnic groups have requested that sections be set aside for their members, and the cemetery at 12420 104th Street has a strong sense of Edmonton’s multicultural fabric.
“Beechmount is a much more diverse cemetery than the others,” Kathryn says. “People buried in there are of Chinese, German and Ukrainian ancestry, and it reflects the settlement trends later on the 20th century.”
The cemetery’s Military Field of Honour contains more than 1,300 graves of identical stone markers, honouring veterans of all conflicts after World War I. Stone inscriptions bear the military insignia, rank, birth and death dates.
It is also a place of civilian fallen heroes such as David Kootook, a 14-year-old Inuit boy who died while keeping injured pilot Martin Hartwell alive in the Northwest Territories in November 1972. The Meritorious Service Cross was awarded to Kootook's family in 1994.
Beechmount, too, has a dedicated Children’s Section, since many families had yet to arrange for family plots. Special sections were laid out on the edge of the cemetery to accommodate smaller graves.
To make way for Yellowhead Trail in the late 1970s, several rows of the departed were moved around Beechmount, and Kathryn says it’s not as unusual as one might hope. “It really drives home that the whole concept of eternal rest is hooey. Throughout the history of Edmonton, bodies have been moved all the time.”
Watch for cemetery tours this July during Historic Edmonton Week. If you’d like to go and wander on your own, self-guided walking tour brochures for the three cemeteries are available online at www.edmonton.ca. Just type “cemeteries” into the search engine.