History of Empress & Area
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The story of Empress and area far predates the establishment of the Village of Empress in 1914. The history of this area, where the Red Deer River and the South Saskatchewan River meet, can be found in the geological record of fossils. Fossils found in the many gravel pits and on the hills and coulees indicate the presence at one time of dinosaurs, woolly mammoth, sharks, camels, and turtles. During the 1800’s, the area had plains grizzlies, Timber wolves and thousands of bison, which Europeans called buffalo. Over the millenniums and centuries, the climate and habitat changed to now today the area is known for its whitetail and mule deer, bird migrations and pronghorn antelope.
There are indications of encampments around Empress dating back five thousand years, which reveal the Indigenous story of the area. Buffalo jumps, medicine wheels, teepee rings, drive lines, alignment lines, effigies and altars all tell of the habitation by First Nations, spanning thousands of years. Gros Ventre, Blackfoot and their allies, Stoney, Cree, Arapaho were all present in this area.
According to Blackfoot elders, the legendary “Ancient Ones”, constructed the initial structure of the Bull’s Forehead Medicine Wheel.
For thousands of years, until the mid 1750’s, the way of life of the Indigenous peoples remained somewhat unchanged. Depending on the season, the buffalo, the native grasses, the berries, and the river provided for their needs. With the coming of Anthony Henday and the European explorers, as well as the introduction of horses to this area in the mid 1750’s, the way of life for the Indigenous peoples was changed forever.
In 1800, three fur trading forts were established at the Forks of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan (Bad) Rivers. A Hudson Bay trading fort, (“Chesterfield House”, established by Peter Fidler), a Northwest Company Fort and an XY Company Fort, all had a presence from 1800-1805.
Over the next several years, this area became an area of trade and heightened conflict, as the First Nations competed not only among themselves for the furs supplying the trading forts, but for weapons, while tribal conflicts intensified and previously unknown diseases were introduced. Due to depletion of hides and the violence and unrest, this area was abandoned by the fur traders until 1820. Even then, due to the unsettled nature of the tribes in the area, a second “Chesterfield House” run by the Hudson Bay Company, only lasted one season. In 1859 when John Palliser came through on his famous expedition, he had a difficult time obtaining First Nation guides to come into this area due to the conflicts among the Cree and Blackfoot peoples.
With the diminishing of the buffalo, Canadian Confederation in 1867, the introduction of the Canadian Pacific Railway surveyors, and the encouragement of homesteading in Western Canada, the way of life of the Indigenous peoples was changed even further. The surveying of western Canada in the 1870’s and onward, brought more settlers, ranchers, and establishment of towns to the West. Ranching was introduced to the Empress area in the 1880’s with the arrival of different ranching operations. Cattle were still allowed to roam freely, until the coming of the Canadian Pacific rail and homesteaders, breaking land for their homesteads in the early 20th century.
One of the reasons for the establishment of this town was the prospect of a CPR divisional train station to be built here, along the Royal Line, which would be the largest divisional station west of Winnipeg. The geographical features of the rivers, the gravel deposits, the openness, all gave Empress the name as The Hub of West. Six different lines were to originate from this location. From 1913 onward, the town thrived and with the coming of the rail line across the South Saskatchewan River in 1914, people flooded into the town and area.
By 1915, many businesses including lumber yards, banks, stores, restaurants, hotels, and assorted trades called Empress home.
A local newspaper The Empress Express documented the growth and energy found in this new community. Churches, a school, a cottage hospital, and the CPR line all helped attract not only residents to this town, but homesteaders to the area. The train allowed for ease of connection to larger centres, while supplying goods and services locally. Five elevators were in operation at one point. Recreation and sports teams, of baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, curling all helped to create a vibrant atmosphere.
Health Care & Hospital
Empress as a healthcare centre started in 1913 with Dr. W.A. Robertson. A private/cottage hospital was opened in 1914 and ran until an official Cottage Hospital was opened in 1921.
Dr. Dan MacCharles arrived in 1918 and he endeared himself to the residents of the area during the flu epidemic of 1918.
William Stothers arrived in 1925 and was the pharmacist from 1925-1969.
In November of 1926, Dr. Archie McNeill arrived to practice with Dr. MacCharles. Dr. McNeill was a very colorful and multifaceted individual, not only the local doctor, surgeon, CPR medical officer, but also he introduced and helped to create and wire the Empress electrical grid and company. Through his efforts the community hall became a center for social functions.
Different dentists had practices during this time. The doctors, matrons and staff of the Cottage Hospital gave unparalleled care and commitment to the patients and communities they served. Due to access by the CPR, many people from outlying areas and other smaller towns such as Fox Valley, Leader, Mendham, Buffalo, Atlee, and Acadia Valley, also accessed the medical care available at Empress. 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, as the Depression ended and better economic conditions developed, a fundraising drive was started to construct a locally funded, modern, 19 bed hospital. With no government funding, during the height of WWII, this hospital was built at a cost of $25,000, with only a $2000 loan owing when it opened in 1942. This was in part due to the fact that staff took up to a fifty per cent reduction of wages. The grand opening of this new medical facility took place on May 21, 1942, with a thousand people in attendance. In 1950, the old RCMP barracks was relocated to the hospital grounds to provide a five bedroom staff residence. This hospital remained in use until 1982 when the provincial government stepped up to build the “new” hospital. For forty years, Empress healthcare was a beacon to this area of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
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. This hospital provided care for the next 20 years until it was closed in 2002. With declining population and the difficulty in maintaining the presence of doctors locally, this new hospital could no longer offer acute care and became more of a long term care facility. With the closure in 2002, the legacy of healthcare came to an end in Empress after 89 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.
From 1913, schooling has been a priority in Empress. First a private school was created, until a public school district was formed. A large two storey school was built in 1918 which accommodated well over a hundred students. In July 1924, due to improperly stored coal, an explosion occurred, reducing the school to a single storey. In the 1950’s additions were added, which included four classrooms, a science room, and a gym. As rural, one room schools closed, students were bussed to Empress for their education. Kitchener School served the community until its closure in 1996.
From 1913 onwards, the spiritual lives of Empress residents have been a focus. Over time Empress had five churches: St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, 1914, now an historic site; The Church of the Infant Jesus Catholic Church, 1929; St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1953; The Empress Pentecostal Tabernacle, 1938; The Empress McNeill Memorial United Church, 1925 (formed with union of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches).
As the population declined in the village and area, most of these churches closed, with two now private residences, and only the Pentecostal or Community church still in operation.
With the discontinuation of the CPR line through Empress in 1990’s, the population of the village rapidly declined. The TD Bank, several stores, the hospital and the school all closed. At present Empress is a community of approximately 130 people, compared to its height of over 800. Even yet, with decline of people and services, it remains a community that reflects some of its foundations of celebrating the historical sites, farming, ranching, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
– Rachel Booker, Empress Historical Society