History of Empress & Area
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The Village of Empress is located off Highway 41 along the Alberta Saskatchewan border between the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers. Throughout its history, this location was of great significance.
First to the native people as it provided shelter and food during the winter months for the many different tribes that followed the Buffalo herds. Today you can still see many of the monuments erected and established such as Medicine Wheels, Stone Effigies, Buffalo Jumps and 1000’s of teepee rings.
Then to the fur traders with the first fur trader being Peter Fidler arriving in 1800 to establishment the Hudson Bay Company trading post known as Chesterfield House, followed quickly by the Northwest company as well as the XY Company trading posts. In 1801 Chesterfield house produced 1200 beaver, the best take of any post that year. For a time the trading posts and natives shared the valley with no trouble, however, by 1823 the trading posts were driven out by the warring tribes. Peter Fidler Park was established by the community to commemorate Chesterfield House, the original Hudson Bay company trading Post.
With the coming of the railway, Empress was to become a boomtown, and in 1914 the CPR station was built. The Empress Station was the only one of this design built in Alberta, with 1½ stories distinguished by arched windows that allowed more light into the waiting rooms, and three carved roses at the end of each horizontal ridge-line. This rail station was intended to be a division point and the largest yard west of Winnipeg including a roundhouse, water tower, and coal chute. The Train Station was declared a historic site and has been restored and acts as a train museum and events location.
Currently (2017), Empress is home to 160 residents made up of locals and a variety of newcomers who were drawn in by the history, culture, wildlife and scenery surrounding our community. Being located next to 2 rivers provides for a variety of water related activities and tourism businesses: canoeing, kayaking, riverboat cruises, and fishing trips. As well, the rivers are a great draw for wildlife, making this an ideal location for bird and wildlife watchers as well as the hunting enthusiast, and we do have some outfitters and lodges in the area. For a sample of what we have to offer, checkout What to Do.
Empress has 2 campgrounds, one located in town (Empress Uptown Campground), and one located in Peter Fidler Park by the Red Deer River, as well as a motel, and a number of lodges surrounding Empress. See Where to Stay. The river is also used by the agricultural community for irrigating crops.
Health Care & Hospital History
The Cottage Hospital 1913-1942
Empress as a healthcare centre started in 1913 with Dr. W.A. Robertson. Mrs. Clarhson opened the first nursing home in 1914 and ran it until the Cottage Hospital was opened in 1921. Dr. D. N. MacCharles arrived in 1918. He endeared himself to Empress and area during the “flu epidemic” of 1918 and was instrumental in helping to start the Cottage Hospital. The Hicks dwelling, Lot 21 and 22 in Bloch 24, was purchased and the Empress Cottage Hospital established. William (Bill) Stothers served as the pharmacist from 1925 through 1969. In November 1926, Dr. A.K. McNeill, MD, M.Sc., arrived to practice with Dr. Dan MacCharles. Dr. H.A. Dowler, a dentist, also arrived during this time. The doctors, matrons and staff of the Cottage Hospital gave unparalleled care and commitment to the patients and community they served.
The “Old” Hospital 1942-1982 (for sale, see it’s page)
In 1936 as the necessity for more accommodations in the Cottage Hospital became acute, old buildings were purchased and joined up to the original cottage hospital. One building became known as the “pest house” and was used for isolation patients. In 1939 with the end of the Great Depression and better economic conditions, as well as a bumper crop in 1940, a fundraising drive resulted in a surplus to start the building of a locally funded, modern, 19 bed hospital. With no government funding, the cost was $25,000 and it was debt free with the exception of a $2,000 loan. During the Depression years, staff took up to a fifty per cent reduction of wages, in order to support the Cottage Hospital and the possibility of a new facility. The new hospital was built at the height of World War 2 and opened January 1942 with limited supplies, due to the war. The grand opening was May 21, 1942, with a 1000 people in attendance. The 1942 hospital had 19 beds, electric lighting, plumbing, and steam heating with a soft water well operated by automatic electric pump. It was truly a modern hospital in 1942. In 1950, the old RCMD barracks was moved to the hospital grounds to provide a five bedroom staff residence. The old hospital remained as a key part of Empress life and employment for the next 40 years.
The “New” Hospital 1982-2002 (for sale, see it’s page)
In June 1980 Empress was granted a new ten bed hospital to be built by the Alberta Government at a cost of 2.3 million dollars. Construction started in May of 1981. The grand opening was October 12, 1982. This new hospital brought a new era of health care to our hospital district. A number of different doctors helped to maintain the hospital services, but gradually the hospital became an extended care facility with emergency care available. The people who resided at the hospital were treated with the utmost care and compassion by the staff. The “new” Empress Hospital was closed in 2002.
Dr. Dan MacCharles 1918-1927
Dr. MacCharles served the residents of Empress and area for nine years. He helped to attract the young doctor, Dr. McNeill to this practice. Even after Dr. Dan MacCharles established his lengthy and illustrious practice in Medicine Hat, these men along with Bill Stothers, the pharmacist, remained close friends and colleagues. Both Dr. Dan MacCharles and Dr. McNeill were medical offcers for the CPR and were on call for train accidents and wrecks.
Dr. “Archie” McNeill 1926-1961
Dr. A. K. McNeill arrived in 1926 to practice with Dr. MacCharles. A man of many interests and talents, he was not only the local doctor, but an electrician, innovator, and inventor. In 1932 Dr. McNeill formed the Empress Light and Power Co. He was an Electrician Second Class and he, with Charlie Young supplied electrical service to the Empress Community. Wednesday was Dr. McNeill’s day for wiring. Only an emergency would keep him in the Empress hospital that particular day. Many young men had an informal apprenticeship of electrical engineering thanks to Dr. McNeill. It was his leadership and initiative which helped to build the 1942 hospital and later the community hall. Over the years, thousands of people were delivered, seen and treated by Dr. McNeill. Under the crusty exterior, his generosity was as immense as his energy. No one knows to this day how many bills (electrical and medical) the doctor cancelled or how many gifts of food or clothing he secretly supplied to the needy. A dedicated man with the expertise and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a true pioneer doctor, he often worked with very limited resources and under most difficult circumstances. Dr. McNeill left Empress and district a legacy which truly does live on in the lives and memories of colleagues, patients and families.
Dr. John Fraser 1962-1978
Dr. John Fraser arrived in January 1962 to take over the practice of the late Dr. McNeill. A military surgeon and physician during World War 2, he could deal with extreme trauma and remain calm under the most extreme pressure. Dr. Fraser served the community for 16 years until his death in 1978.
Hospital Staff Throughout the Years
It was the nursing staff from the very earliest days which enabled the doctors to establish such a high degree of healthcare in the three hospitals. From the matrons, to the RN’s, to the hundreds of young women who worked in the hospital during high school, often going on to become medical personnel, to the cooks, maintenance, secretaries, custodians, all worked together to create a culture of care and highest health standards. Wendell McRae was hospital caretaker and grounds maintenance for many years. Matron Marion Flock, and Mrs. Stella McWhinney Clark, relieving matron, followed by Ms. Ester Watts, were known for their efficient and very capable management of staff and patients. These unsung and often unrecognized people contributed to the legacy of healthcare that Empress was known for over the past century.
The Village of Empress and surrounding area has an amazing Native Canadian history. Tepee rings, Buffalo jumps, an Effigy, and a Medicine Wheel can be found nearby.
Before the explorers, and before the settlers came to Alberta, the Empress area was alive with Native culture and daily life. Come and have a look!
Photos Courtesy of Aaron and Lori Steinley & Knarls n’ Knots.