Kirkness House: Two Edmonton Pioneers

Thank you to Melanie Moore (Board Member of the Highlands Historical Society in Edmonton) for sharing this important piece of history. 

There is an old house in the Virginia Park neighbourhood of Edmonton, on 73rd Street and Ada Boulevard. Now empty, it has seen better years. The shingles are coming off, the paint old and faded, the yard overgrown. When asked about the house, neighbours knew little of its story.

Kirkness House, Edmonton, 2018 (photograph by Melanie Moore).

Having recently explored the history of my own 100 year old home in Edmonton, I decided to find out more. James Kirkness, and his wife Sarah Steinhauer, built the house in 1909. Prior to that, he and Sarah lived in an adjacent log cabin where they raised their children. The City of Edmonton Archives has a painted-over photograph of James in front of the 1870s log cabin with the new 1909 house behind. Likely James had the painting commissioned, put it in an ornate frame, and hung it proudly in his new home.

Picture (overpainted photograph) of James Kirkness in front of log cabin with new residence in background, circa 1910, photographer unknown (photograph credit: City of Edmonton Heritage Collection, 1978-066-0127).

There were good reasons for James to be proud of his accomplishments. He had come a long way. In 1864, aged 27 years, he was a poor farmer eking out a living on a small farm in the Parish of Birsay, Orkney Islands, Scotland. He signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Stromness and arrived at York Factory in present day Manitoba a few months later. James traversed Rupert’s Land, working as a labourer at various fur trade outposts, and eventually ended up at Fort Edmonton in 1871 where Company records list him first as an interpreter and later as trader and clerk. While at Fort Edmonton, he met Sarah, the 17-year-old daughter of Henry Bird Steinhauer, an Ojibway Methodist minister who began the Whitefish Settlement northeast of Edmonton. James and Sarah probably met while attending services at the McDougall Methodist Church in Edmonton townsite as they were both listed as congregants there in 1874.

After their marriage around 1874, James and Sarah lived at Fort Edmonton and Lac St. Anne trading posts before residing at the Edmonton Settlement on River Lot 26, around 1882. A tenant had occupied their log cabin while they were at Lac St. Anne. Much of what we know of their lives on the River Lot, now Virginia Park subdivision and Edmonton Exhibition Lands, comes from entries in the Edmonton Bulletin. Sarah and James grew potatoes and raised chickens. Their children attended school, first in their log home, and after 1883 at the one-room schoolhouse in the Belmont district. It was about a five-kilometer walk from their home. Sadly, four of their children died in the spring of 1886 of diphtheria. Another three died young, in infancy. Their short lives are immortalized on a tombstone in the Edmonton Cemetery.

Kirkness Family Tombstone in the Edmonton Cemetery 2016
(photographed by Melanie Moore).

Their three surviving children, including Henry, Charles and Edith, are pictured below around 1905. Edith was 17, Charlie 16 and Henry, 31 years. Henry was already married and living in the Peace River District.

Edith Kirkness at left, circa 1905, and Henry and Charles Kirkness at right, circa 1905, photographers unknown (photograph credit: Louise Schulz, Canmore, Alberta).

James died in 1911 in Edmonton, a wealthy man. Sarah died almost 20 years later on a farm near Vilna, Alberta. She had little money or belongings. The wealth the couple had built during their marriage was distributed to their children or lost in hard economic times. Their legacy lives on in the naming of the Kirkness neighbourhood and Kirkness Elementary School in Edmonton, and in the development of the Virginia Park subdivision. Their eldest son Henry was their only offspring to have children. His descendants live in various locations in Alberta, as well as two great granddaughters who live in the United States. The Kirkness home is a reminder of the pioneers who shaped early Edmonton.

Written By: Melanie Moore (Board Member of the Highlands Historical Society in Edmonton).

The current blog is based on an article published in Alberta History, Winter 2017.

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