a creek ran through it

1917 map of squatters community

This afternoon I came in from (re)planting cucumbers to find some maps waiting in my Inbox. A few months ago, I’d asked a librarian at the University of Calgary if he knew of any old maps of Drumheller and he told me that the Glenbow Museum map archives were transferred to the university library. He identified several from the time period I was interested in. To my great surprise (and excitement), one of them was a map discussed in the digital pdf version of the microfiche I viewed at the Provincial Archives in Edmonton in spring of 2016. The map was in tatters in the pdf, each tatter taking up a page, with many parts missing, and there was no possibility of constructing a usable map of them. But then, wow, it turns out the actual map exists, in the holdings of the University of Calgary library. Due to COVID-19, the maps weren’t accessible but once the situation changed, the librarian kindly promised to scan them for me. I’d sort of forgotten or at least I’d put the thought of the maps in a corner of my mind and went on with the essay I’ve been writing about my family in Drumheller during the Spanish flu epidemic.

What can a map tell you? It can tell you exactly where your grandmother and her first husband settled with their children in a squatter community near the Red Deer River on the outskirts of Drumheller in 1913. The community was situated on School Lands and as time went on, there was increasing pressure from many levels of bureaucracy to deal with the population who’d built shacks, chicken houses, gardens, and who (according to one irritated politician) paid nothing for the services they received. Which I’m guessing he meant were the roads adjacent to the settlement, roads that turned to gumbo in rain and snow, according to one woman who said that it was easier to walk on the railroad tracks to town. People lugged water from the river on stone boats and sleighs. Many of the men were miners and housing was limited. The mines provided some housing, most of it for single men, and if the miners were laid off, they lost their shelter. The School Lands, a large vacant section just west of the town, attracted those who were resourceful enough to construct houses for themselves cheaply. I knew from the records that my grandmother and her husband had a shack 20 feet by 25 feet for their 10 family members (eventually 11) and that they had a garden 80 (or 50; the number has been corrected and is blurred) feet by 125 feet. My grandmother’s brother had a shack nearby, built into a bank; its dimensions were 10 feet by 15 feet.

The land was surveyed in 1917 and subdivided. The map I’m looking at is the result of that work. In November 1917, the lots were sold at public auction. There’s a list of successful buyers and neither my grandmother’s husband nor her brother show up on the lists. I’d wondered about this until I found a notice of the auction in the Hanna Herald of September 20, 1917:

Any person who was not, at the commencement of the present war, and who has not since continued to be a British subject, or a subject or a citizen of a country which is an ally of his Majesty in the present war, or a subject of a neutral country, is prohibited from purchasing any of of these lands under penalty of having the sales cancelled and the payments made thereon forfeited.

Where did they go, the  Chechonskis, the Boraynakis, the Dodyks, the Moskals? I know that my family eventually ended up on the other side of the river, near Michichi Creek, but in what context? Did they buy property, did they lease, did they simply settle again on vacant land? Did the others?

Between the time they were given notice to vacate the squatters community and the time the Spanish flu arrived in Drumheller, what happened? Finding out is the next part of my work on their story. It’s not even a year. Two of them died, then the baby. Maybe they were able to stay put for a time. A man called Francis Vint bought the land they lived on and I notice that he bought other lots too. He was an engineer. Maybe they arranged to rent the land. But a baby was born, a garden was perhaps abandoned, a house moved (or left), chickens herded into cages, and a family crossed the river, if not right away, then shortly after. Two of them died, then the baby.

When I was in Drumheller last spring, I stayed with my husband, one son, his wife, and their two small children in a restored miner’s cabin on the Newcastle Trail. I went for an early morning walk to the river and somehow all of it felt eerily familiar. The other day I put a short piece of my essay-in-progress on this site. Then yesterday the map arrived. What can a map tell you? It can show you the contours of lives lived a hundred years ago as a pandemic loomed, it can show that a creek ran through the garden area, and that all of this was less than two blocks from the little cabin where you slept with your family, feeling the presence of that older family in the air when you walked in the morning along the river bank below their shack. A creek ran through it, blue on the map, a scribble of the text I am trying to learn, with maps and old letters, and the sound of magpies in the cottonwoods.


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