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Local archeologist Brian Vivian displays a dish from Winnipeg’s Manitoba Hotel, circa 1890s. The dish is one of thousands of artifacts pulled from two recently discovered historic dumps
Rare archeological find tells story of Calgary’s early days
Just over a century ago, Calgary newspaperman Bob Edwards gave the Calgary Brewery’s beer a poor review in his irreverent Eye Opener . “It costs the brewery eight cents to produce one gallon; the public pays 15 cents for one glass!” he lamented. “As the beer is so light that you cannot ‘get a glad on’ under 15 or 20 glasses, the man in the street finds he is getting his money’s worth only when he calls for whiskey.”
A broken Calgary Brewery bottle emblazoned with the company’s trademark buffalo head is one of thousands of pieces of western Canadiana recently unearthed in the East Village. After the city transformed the long-neglected area east of the downtown C-Train tracks into a sprawling construction site earlier this year, Calgary archeologist Brian Vivian and his crew from Lifeways of Canada Ltd. began searching for pieces of the past.
The East Village is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods — in Edwards’s day it was a thriving hotel, residential and commercial area — and the archeologists discovered two historic dumps about 1.5 metres below the surface. They also made an even better find near the legendary King Edward Hotel.
But first, the dumps. The oldest, circa 1910 to 1914, lay between the old Simmons mattress factory and the C-Train tracks just south of the Bow River. The second, from about 1920 to 1925, lay a few hundred metres southwest of the first site. The archeologists pulled all kinds of things from the two sites. A decorated porcelain toilet. Long, thin perfume bottles. Opium vials. Pop bottles. A Japanese sake cup. “Fortunately for us, the East Village area became a backwater pretty early, and that’s what left [the artifacts] intact,” says Vivian. “It’s pretty exciting.” (The Calgary Brewery bottle came from the second dump.)
The dumps are rare finds because of their inner-city location. Archeologists in Alberta generally find artifacts in small towns and rural settlements since cities, and particularly city cores, usually have little archeological potential due to past development. “This is the very first time that we have a chance to really look at an urban centre [in Alberta],” Vivian says.
Among the discoveries in the 1910s dump was horse tack like harnesses and horseshoes. The 1920s dump contained the remains of a Model-T car, reflecting the transportation shift from horses to cars.
Other artifacts from the dumps tell other parts of the western Canadian story — “an understanding that isn’t written about,” says Vivian. “[We don’t have] people talking much in the written record about what was going on in Chinatown… that opium was being imported and used. Local industry was developing and trademarking their things, but we also find evidence of importing.” The objects found in the dumps, Vivian says, give clues about the economic trade patterns of the early 20th century.
An oval dish from Winnipeg’s short-lived Manitoba Hotel is a prime example. (The hotel, built in 1891, burned down in 1899.) The dish, also marked with a buffalo, was imported from England by Frederick Buscombe & Co Ltd. of Vancouver. Buscombe went on to briefly become Vancouver’s mayor in 1905. “This single little piece connects western Canadian history all the way from Winnipeg to Vancouver,” says Vivian. “It’s kind of remarkable to find one artifact that can do that.”
The best find was just northeast of the King Eddy, underneath a parking lot where a Safeway once stood until it closed in the ’70s. There, the archeologists discovered the remains of several native stone circles and fire hearths that date back more than 3,300 years. The stones likely marked the perimeter of a teepee. “This is the first time we’ve ever found a site like that — a pre-contact site in the inner urban area of Calgary,” says Vivian.
There’s only one other site in inner-city Calgary, he adds, that has anything similar: the ground beneath Mona Lisa Artists' Materials just north of 17th Ave. S.W. on Seventh St. “There’s a buffalo kill [there] that’s about 7,000 years old… but that’s a kill site. Kill sites tend to be bigger. They’re easier to find because there’s bone all over the place.”
For the city subsidiary responsible for redeveloping the East Village, the archeological discoveries are a good sign. “It was exciting to find that stuff because it’s representative that there was life here over 3,000 years ago,” says Sheenah Rogers with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC). “We feel like we’re almost coming full circle in that we’re bringing life back into the East Village.”
The CMLC plans to integrate the East Village into The Rivers, a high-density mixed-use development that will feature refurbished historical buildings like the King Eddy and Simmons buildings, as well as a new university campus. “It will be one of the only truly mixed-use communities in Calgary,” says Rogers. The CMLC estimates the redevelopment will take 10 to 15 years. Right now the city is upgrading utilities infrastructure in the area and extending Riverfront Avenue into the East Village.
All of the East Village artifacts will eventually be sent to the provincial museum in Edmonton. Before that happens, however, archeologists will spend the winter analyzing each piece — “looking at the details of things,” says Kendra Drever, an archeologist on Vivian’s crew. “Mould marks on the bottles, identifying different kinds of finishes, hopefully identifying dates and periods they would have been made.” The CMLC plans to eventually display some of the artifacts in the Simmons building where it has its office.