Newbrook Observatory: Photographing world history in Thorhild County

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Historic Resources Management Branch

Alberta has a rich and fascinating history, and occasionally events in our past resonate with happenings of global consequence. That was the case in 1957, when a dedicated scientist working in a meteorite observation station in Newbrook captured the first North American image of Sputnik 1 – an object which came to embody both the fears and aspirations of a generation, and which heralded the beginning of a new age in science and geopolitics.

Sputnik I. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of the Newbrook Observatory can be traced to 1946, when the United States and Canada agreed to work co-operatively on space science projects, particularly meteorite observations. The northerly situation of Newbrook – with its clear view of the night sky and its relative lack of auroral interference – made it an ideal location for establishing an observation station to assist in this joint effort. Constructed in 1951, the Newbrook observatory opened in 1952 as a field station of the Stellar Physics Division of Canada’s Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.

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Quarry of the Ancestors

Editor’s note: All images in the post below were sourced from a report developed by the Archaeological Survey, Lifeways and Stantec.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Historic Resources Management Branch

For decades, northeastern Alberta has been home to large-scale industrial activity in the region’s massive petroleum deposits. A remarkable discovery in the midst of the oil sands revealed that the same area of the province also accommodated another significant industry in ancient times; that historic and contemporary land use share a common origin in an epic event that profoundly shaped our province’s past.  This blog post will explore how historic resource management in Alberta helped reveal a lost chapter of our province’s history, how the discovery illuminated both the remarkable richness and depth of the Alberta story, and the surprising connections between past and present.

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Bread, salt and water: the history of Doukhobors in Alberta (Part 2)

Editor’s note: The following blog post is part two of a two-part series looking at the history and influence of Doukhobors in Alberta. Read part 1 here.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Historic Resources Management Branch

Following the establishment of the community in British Columbia, Verigin sought to diversify and strengthen the Doukhobor economy by purchasing new land in southern Alberta. It was not the first time that the Doukhobors had considered Alberta as a home for their community. In 1898, members of a Doukhobor delegation had initially explored purchasing land near Beaverhills Lake by Edmonton, but the proposal was scuttled, as local Member of Parliament Frank Oliver was opposed to their presence. While some Saskatchewan Doukhobors were working in Alberta as agricultural labourers and construction workers in 1911 and 1912, the first Doukhobor villages in the province were established in 1915 in the Cowley/Lundbreck area. Additional land was purchased in the following years, and Verigin arranged to rent land in the Vulcan area on a crop-share basis. The Alberta Doukhobors dedicated themselves to growing grain and raising horses and cattle. The settlements were successful, and at their peak, they boasted 300 members in 13 small villages. The communities tended to 300 horses and 400 shorthorn cattle, and produced 100,000 bushels of grain annually; they also constructed two-grain elevators and a flour mill. The Doukhobors seemed well-suited to the physical landscape of southern Alberta, and found that the region was also distinctly accommodating to smaller religious communities. Anabaptist groups like the Mennonites and Hutterites had already established themselves in the area, as had Mormons fleeing persecution in the United States. During their time in Alberta, the Doukhobors also developed positive relations with their Blackfoot neighbours.

Village of Bogatoi Rodnik near Lundreck, Alberta. Taken circa 1920.
Village of Bogatoi Rodnik near Lundreck, Alberta. Taken circa 1920. Source: Royal Alberta Museum.


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Bread, salt and water: the history of Doukhobors in Alberta

Editor’s note: The following blog post is part one of a two-part series looking at the history and influence of Doukhobors in Alberta.

East of the Crowsnest Pass, nestled within the small community of Lundbreck, sits a simple white building clad in asbestos shingles and covered with metal roof. The structure looks utilitarian and spare; it could easily be mistaken for the kind of modest community halls one occasionally sees in Alberta’s small towns. While the building is almost entirely non-descript, the history that it embodies is extraordinarily rich.

The history of the Alberta Doukhobors is an essential chapter in the story of one of the largest experiments in communal living in North America. Approximately 7,500 Doukhobors came to Canada in 1899, at the time it was the largest mass migration in the country’s history. In stark contrast, at a 2018 meeting of Doukhobors in British Columbia, a grim question was posed: will there be any Doukhobors active in their faith by 2030? Between their noteworthy arrival at the end of the nineteenth century and their dwindling membership today, the Doukhobors have lived a tumultuous and compelling experience in Canada. This post attempts to explore the vision and roots of the Doukhobor community, and their early experiences in Canada.

Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundbreck, 2013
The Doukhobor Prayer Home in Lundreck (also known as the Doukhobor Hall [dom or house]) is one of the few tangible reminders of one of the most remarkable communities of people to ever settle in this province.
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Work of the Branch’s Executive Director Is Varied, Unpredictable

This is the first of a series of articles introducing you to the staff of the Historic Resources Management Branch. We hope to give you a better sense what our staff does to protect, conserve and promote Alberta’s rich heritage. We begin by introducing you to our Executive Director.

As Executive Director of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Matthew Wangler relishes the variety of his job, and the great range of historic resources he gets to learn about in depth—from quarrying sites used by First Nations peoples for thousands of years, to unassuming buildings embodying the history of one of Alberta’s most remarkable communities, to one of the world’s few meteorite craters holding surviving impact fragments (one of his favourites!).

Matthew Wangler, Executive Director the Historic Resources Management Branch
Matthew Wangler, busy at work.

The Historic Resources Management Branch is charged with identifying, documenting, and protecting significant historic, archaeological, and palaeontological resources within Alberta. This is done through regulation of development that could impact such resources, along with education and consultation to help others (municipalities, property owners, community groups) to conserve or interpret their historic resources.

This work is accomplished by three sections that Wangler oversees: Aboriginal Heritage, Archaeological Survey, and Historic Places Stewardship. Wangler reviews the major regulatory decisions of these sections. He is also directly involved in those large initiatives that involve other ministries. One such task has been working to develop the recently announced flood relief funding programs.

In addition, Wangler is Executive Director of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. In that role he provides support to activities of the Foundation’s board, including its quarterly meetings, and he helps to ensure that funding decisions are implemented.

While some of his workload is predictable, much of it “comes out of left field,” he says. “It’s very common for an urgent issue to emerge the same day” that action is needed, “or the same hour, or the same minute.”

Often these concern potential risks to significant archaeological or built heritage sites that are not protected by municipal or provincial historic resource designation. The provincial government has the authority to require proponents of development projects potentially affecting such sites to undertake additional steps before their projects may proceed. For example, before being allowed to use land known or strongly suspected to hold evidence of early Aboriginal activity, a developer could be required to conduct an archaeological excavation. “So if an issue comes up that involves the exercise of this authority, I get involved. I have to make sure I understand all the ins and outs of the situation, so that I can brief [the responsible person] and he can make an informed decision.”

For instance, several years ago, City of Calgary staff alerted the Historic Resources Management Branch that a demolition application had been filed for a portion of the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company—an early and major employer that was highly influential in the development of Calgary and the region. The department responded by requiring the owner to produce a Historic Resources Impact Assessment.

Such requirements can buy time to educate property owners about the historical significance of their sites and the potential financial, environmental, and visitor-appeal benefits of conserving them appropriately. It also gives municipal planners time to propose conservation-friendly development alternatives.

A lot of property owners are simply unaware” of the benefits of conservation, Wangler says. “But in the vast majority of cases, you can educate them about the value of heritage, both culturally and potentially economically, and you can bring them on your side.”

In fact, lack of widespread awareness about Alberta’s heritage resources and the value of conservation is among Wangler’s most pressing concerns. Part of the problem is that the value of much of the work of the Historic Resources Branch may not be immediately apparent to the public, although the artifacts and fossils that are recovered, the historic buildings that are saved and reused, and the cultural sites of significance to Aboriginal communities that are preserved contribute to a range of social, economic, and cultural outcomes.

“But the solution is quite simple!” Wangler continues. He’s eager for his staff to engage in greater public outreach—writing blog posts, visiting school classrooms, speaking at public events—to build awareness of Alberta’s diverse heritage resources and the opportunities they offer.

“Have people talk about what they love and why they do what they do!,” he urges. “Every person who works for my branch has a passion for history and heritage, that’s why they ended up working here. You scratch a little bit under the surface, and you find that most people do have some connection to heritage and some native interest in it. It’s really not difficult to find and create allies.”

Written by: Kerri Rubman.

Help Shape the Future of Our Past

The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation board of directors has a few openings.

Alberta Historical Resources Foundation

We are accepting applications from people interested in joining the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation‘s board of directors.

Founded four decades ago, the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation has evolved into a complex agency that serves a range of stakeholders in many ways. The foundation is the primary source of Government of Alberta funding for heritage projects. The foundation focuses on a few key objectives:

  • providing financial and program support to individuals and organizations engaged in researching, preserving, and promoting greater appreciation for Alberta’s heritage;
  • naming geographical features in the province;
  • staging events that support the heritage community; and
  • acting as an appeal body for certain decisions made in Alberta Culture.

Members are appointed for terms of up to three years.  The board meets four times per year for about a day and a half per meeting at locations around the province. Board members are also occasionally asked to attend events within the heritage community.

Interested individuals can submit their applications through the Government of Alberta Careers website. The posting number is 1019525. The competition closes on October 3, 2013.

Should you have any questions about the board positions, please contact Matthew Wangler, Executive Director of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. Mr. Wangler can be reached at 780-438-8503 (toll-free by first dialing 310-0000) or  We look forward to hearing from you.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Alberta Historical Resources Foundation

Accepting Applications: Renewed Heritage Markers Program

Deadline: October 1, 2012

The newest addition to Alberta’s heritage markers family.

Alberta Culture is very pleased to announce the launch of its renewed Heritage Markers program.  Albertans are familiar with the many roadside signs erected over the years by Alberta Culture to promote greater awareness of our province’s heritage.  From the frontier-style signs of long ago to the robust “Big Blue” signs of more recent years, the Heritage Markers program has engaged travellers along Alberta’s highways and byways on a range of eclectic and compelling heritage topics.

One of the “Big Blue” signs.

The program is now taking a bold step forward and introducing dynamic new designs, greater flexibility of location, and more rigorous public engagement. The Heritage Markers program has designed more modestly-sized markers that incorporate lively, more colourful interpretive panels.  The markers are perfect for placement along trails, within parks, and in other public spaces.

An early roadside sign in Alberta.

Albertans are encouraged to submit applications to the Heritage Markers program to recognize the people, places, and events that have shaped our province’s unique character.  If an application is accepted, Alberta Culture will assume all the labour and costs of creating and installing a new heritage marker.  If you think you have a heritage topic that Albertans should know about, please visit the Heritage Markers program website, where you can review the project guidelines and consider submitting an application.  Please note that the next application deadline is October 1, 2012.

If you have any questions about the program, please contact me, Matthew Wangler.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Manager of Historic Places Research and Designation Program

Rediscovering a Lost Art

On September 24, 2011, the Lacombe and District Historical Society hosted an event celebrating the designation of the Lacombe Blacksmith Shop as a Provincial Historic Resource.  Situated just off the City of Lacombe’s historic downtown, the blacksmith shop opened more than a century ago and is a tangible reminder of an essential craft during Alberta’s early settlement period. Present at the celebration was a veteran blacksmith and his young apprentice. Using traditional tools to shape modern creations, these two men embody the remarkable continuity between the historic identity of blacksmithing as a utilitarian settlement craft and its emerging face as a specialized form of artistry serving both ornamental and functional needs.

Read more about this event and the Lacombe Blacksmith Shop Museum by clicking here.

Learn more about this Provincial Historic Resource by visiting the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Manager of Historic Places Research and Designation Program

Sesquicentennial Celebration?


Did you know that a special Alberta community is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year?  For that matter, do you know what a sesquicentennial is?  It’s a 150 year anniversary and the City of St. Albert is marking that major milestone in 2011.  At the heart of the celebrations is the Father Lacombe Church situated on Mission Hill.  Erected in 1861, the church is the oldest extant building in Alberta and embodies the community’s early history as a Roman Catholic mission.  From those humble beginnings, St. Albert developed into one of the largest settlements between Red River and Vancouver.  Today, it’s a vibrant, prosperous city.  Learn more about this site and other historic places in St. Albert by visiting the Alberta Register of Historic Places and searching for “St. Albert” under the Municipality advanced search option.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Manager of Alberta’s Historic Places Research and Designation Program

Diverse Sites Tell Distinct Stories of Alberta’s History


Three sites from Alberta’s past – one that precedes the railway, one that was made possible by the railway and one that made the railway run – were recently designated as Provincial Historic Resources for their historical and architectural significance.

The McDonald Stopping House, a pre-railway lodging place in Smoky Lake County.

The Red Brick School, an imposing structure in Didsbury, built to accommodate the railway-fuelled population boom before World War One.

The West Canadian Collieries Mine Site in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, which sold virtually all of its 13 million tonnes of coal to the Canadian Pacific Railway.


Click on the above links to read the sites’ Statements of Significance on the Alberta Register of Historic Places. Alberta currently has over 330 Provincial Historic Resources.  These sites embody the richness and variety of our province’s history and include medicine wheels, tipi rings, fur trading and mounted police posts, coal mines, farmsteads, ranches, railway stations, grain elevators, churches, schools, government offices, commercial blocks and private residences.   

For more information on Alberta’s Provincial Historic Resource Designation Program, click here.

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Manager of Historic Places Research and Designation Program