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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Your Motorcycle as a Time Machine

At this time of year, when the bike is safely stored away and winter is raging outside, I like to spend time planning rides so I’m ready to take off when the weather improves. The current situation with COVID and variants makes me think that travel south of the border is likely out again this summer, so I’m looking closer to home.

A big part of travelling is learning something about the people and places that you travel to/through. Just because we are staying closer to home doesn’t mean the same objectives can’t be met.

A couple years ago I pulled a wonderful booklet, Epic Alberta – Historic Places Road Trip Guide, from my collection of maps and studied it for interesting destinations. What jumped out were the Alberta’s History markers, of which there are 96 spread around the province. In the intervening years I’ve visited over 40 of these markers on solo journeys or with a small group of friends. I’ve learned a lot about Alberta and plan to visit more in 2022.

Get ready to pull off the highway and learn some history.

There are markers for First Nations Treaty Signings and for Danish, Dutch, Finnish and Japanese settlers. Norwegians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Moravians and Icelandic peoples who settled in the province also got markers. In 1907 Oklahoma became the 46th member of the United States of America and soon began passing laws making life difficult for its Black residents. In 1909 a number of Black families came to Alberta and settled about 160 km north of Edmonton in what would become Amber Valley. More families arrived in 1911 and settled about 100 km southwest of Edmonton in an area called Keystone, which was renamed Breton in 1927. While all of these immigrants had to work hard in their new homeland, the Keystone marker explicitly states that Canada was initially none too welcoming either.

Like other nationality markers, the Norwegian Settlement sign is in two languages.

A group of Dukhobors settled after fleeing religious persecution in Russia. Their story and slogan, “Toil and Peaceful Life”, is the focus of a history marker on the south side of Highway 3 near Cowley. Researching this a little more revealed that a certain Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (yes, War and Peace Tolstoy) helped the Dukhobors relocate to Canada. Another impressive literary connection on a history sign in Southern Alberta also inspired a popular rock song. When Rudyard Kipling toured Canada in 1907 he is quoted as saying “This part of the country seems to have all Hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.” Gordie Johnson turned a portion of that quote into a song with his band Big Sugar.

I was surprised to learn from one history marker that Canada’s largest National Park, Wood Buffalo (created in 1922), had been preceded by Buffalo National Park (created in 1908). The original park was closed in 1940 and became Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in 1947.

Not all of the history markers are billboards either, and the uniqueness of some of the displays is really terrific. A giant boulder marks the Kasimir School site with teacher names and other details on smaller rocks arranged in a circle. A backdrop to the marker at Botha is a replica of the Underwood Flying Machine – basically flown as a kite in 1908 since a 7 hp motorcycle engine wasn’t powerful enough to lift it.

The Kasimir School has a rock memorial.
Replica of the Underwood Flying Machine is in a shelter next to the arena at Botha.

The three worst disasters in Alberta’s history are clustered near each other in the southwest corner of the province. In 1903 the north side of Turtle Mountain collapsed and killed nearly 100 people in the town of Frank. An explosion in the Bellevue Mine in December 1910 claimed the lives of 30 miners plus one of the rescuers. And in 1914 the Hillcrest Mine Disaster claimed the lives of 189 miners. The Frank Slide is memorialized with markers on both sides of Hwy 3, while the Hillcrest Mine Disaster has a large Memorial Park near its namesake community.

Turtle Mountain and the Frank Slide provide a tragic backdrop to the Hillcrest Mine Disaster memorial site.

Search for ‘Alberta History Markers’ at poi-factory.com if you want my .gpx file. Other provinces have similar programs and I have stopped at signs in British Columbia and Ontario when doing Cannonball rides. While these signs weren’t as large or elaborate as the Alberta ones, they were still very educational. A web search will help you find signs in your own province but you can also check out waymarking.com which has quite a few entries across the country. I will definitely be looking for more such signage to transport me back into the past as I ride around the country.

  • From R. Bruce Thomas

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