Five-hundred Years of History at McKinnon Flats: New Discoveries Made in the Aftermath of the 2013 Flood

You may have recently seen a news story about archaeological finds at McKinnon Flats, approximately 22 km southeast of Calgary (see below for news links).  Today, McKinnon Flats is a popular recreational area, used for fishing, hiking and bird watching.  But did you know that five centuries ago it may also have been used for bison hunting and camping?

Archaeologists of Lifeways of Canada Limited have been contracted by Alberta Culture and Tourism to find out about early settlement at McKinnon Flats.  They’re part of Culture and Tourism’s three-year Post-Flood Investigation Program, which was initiated to record the effects of the June 2013 southern Alberta flood on archaeological and palaeontological sites along rivers such as the Bow, Highwood, Sheep and Kananaskis.  As a result of the program, 100 new archaeological sites were identified and additional information was gathered at 87 sites that had been recorded prior to the flood.  Many of these sites were found eroding from the riverbanks, with some in need of investigation before they disappeared entirely. Read more

Archaeology and the June 2013 Floods in Southern Alberta

In June 2013, heavy rainfall triggered catastrophic flooding in southern Alberta that has been characterized as some of the worst in the province’s history. Areas along the Bow, Elbow, Highwood, Red Deer, Sheep, Little Bow and South Saskatchewan Rivers, and their tributaries, were affected. Estimates of property damage from the flood make it one of the most costly in Canadian history. Personal property, however, was not the only casualty. The torrents of water accelerated natural erosional and depositional processes, resulting in significant alteration to many of southern Alberta’s river systems.

Debris-flow fan on the Highwood River, caused by the June 2013 flood.
Debris-flow fan on the Highwood River.
Erosional exposure on the Sheep River, caused by the June 2013 flood.
Erosional exposure on the Sheep River, caused by the June 2013 flood.

The potential for finding archaeological sites along southern Alberta’s river systems has always been high. The distribution of known archaeological sites in Alberta indicate the importance of the major river systems to precontact and historic people as sources of fresh water, food resources and travel corridors.  As a result of these associations, a number of archaeological sites were also identified as casualties of the June 2013 flood. Read more

Conservation at the E.P. Ranch

E.P. (Prince Edward) Ranch, established by the Bedingfeld family in 1886, is located in the foothills southwest of Calgary near the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site. In 1919, during a cross-Canada tour, the Bedingfeld’s ranch captured the fancy of His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales, upon his visit to the area.  Prince Edward purchased the ranch shortly thereafter from Frank Bedingfeld. Under Edward’s direction, the ranch developed a breeding program for sheep, cattle, and horses with livestock imported from the Prince’s breeding farms in the Duchy of Cornwall in England.  Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, visited the ranch in the 1920s and in the 1940s and 1950s, after his abdication, as the Duke of Windsor.  Photographs in the Glenbow Archives show Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, strolling among the ranch buildings that still stand at the site today. The E.P. Ranch was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2004 for its association with Edward, who owned the site from 1919 to 1962. Fans of the 1992 movie Unforgiven will also recognize scenes shot on location at the ranch.

The main ranch (or Prince's) house prior to restoration, April 2014.
The main ranch (or Prince’s) house prior to restoration, April 2014.

In June 2013, the E.P. Ranch found itself at the epicentre of the torrential rains that flooded communities and historic sites across southern Alberta. Pekisko Creek overflowed its banks and swept through the site, turning grazing lands into a virtual river.  While the large and distinctive horse barn was unaffected, four other buildings were damaged. Read more

Rebuilding the Beehive Kiln

The first steps out onto the dome of the beehive kiln are a bit unnerving, with only a thin shell of tightly-fitted bricks supporting a small group of us above the void below. Domes structurally similar to this have been around since antiquity – many notable examples still survive – but it’s reassuring to know that scaffolding inside the kiln will prevent a painful and possibly career-ending collapse.

Kiln No. 2, one of four historic beehive downdraft kilns at Medalta Potteries, is a circular drum roughly ten metres in diameter with brick exterior walls surmounted by the dome and a tall central stack. Encircling the walls are wide adjustable bands of corroding steel which held the kiln together as it expanded and contracted and attest to the rigours of the firing process. Medalta’s beehive kilns historically fired a wide range of ceramic products and now serve as distinctive classroom and exhibit spaces.

Beehive dome interior, Medalta Potteries, 2011.
Beehive dome interior, Medalta Potteries, 2011.

Read more

Floods, Bricks, and POWs: Rebuilding Medalta’s Historic Chimney

A massive brick chimney at Medalta Potteries towers six metres above the roof of “Building 10” and extends roughly the same distance from the roof to the dusty factory floor below. Two meters wide at its base, the chimney and accompanying boiler were vital in the production of clay products from the early decades of the twentieth century until the plant’s closure in the 1960s. Now a Provincial Historic Resource, Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat has evolved into a vibrant community hub that includes the Medalta archives and interpretive centre, galleries and displays, a working pottery that reproduces classic Medalta ware, a contemporary ceramics centre for professional artists, and a venue for markets, weddings, concerts and other community events. The tall brick chimney and distinctive monitor roofs of the former factory buildings provide the iconic backdrop for these varied activities.

Medalta Potteries in 2014, looking west to Building 10 before rebuilding of the chimney.

Already leaning slightly to the south, the chimney developed a worrisome new tilt after the June 2013 southern Alberta floods, an event which inundated much of Medalta and the nearby residential neighborhoods. As soil conditions on site gradually normalized in early 2014, the chimney’s foundation shifted and subsided further into the clay-rich soil, raising concerns about its stability. The only practical long-term conservation option was to disassemble the chimney and rebuild it with the original, locally manufactured brick using traditional masonry materials and construction methods.

Medalta map draft

Conserving the chimney started with extensive photographs and measurements followed by disassembly by a contractor specializing in historic masonry conservation. Medalta’s staff archaeologist monitored and documented the process. As the chimney came down brick by brick, unexpected finds within the masonry included an old whisky bottle; fire bricks from Hebron, North Dakota; and a bizarre series of wasps’ nests occurring at roughly one metre intervals within the stack. This corresponds roughly with the work a team of masons would likely have completed in a typical day – a coincidence that begs further explanation. The chimney-dwelling wasps turned out to be quite blind and fortunately did not harass the masonry crew as dismantling proceeded.

The most intriguing relic, however, was a cluster of bricks inscribed with names and the inscription “IX 44”, presumed to represent a date. The names went unobserved until mortar dust from the disassembly process settled lightly onto the brick and highlighted the writing. Prisoners of war interned in Medicine Hat during the Second World War were recruited for work in local industries to offset the wartime labour shortage. Research now underway may reveal that some of these POWs, possibly even masons in their pre-war lives, helped repair the chimney at Building 10 in September of 1944.

Chimney rebuilding is nearing completion and will replicate its historic appearance — without the lean to the south. Glazed bricks set into the chimney mark the locations of the autographed bricks and, soon, visitors to Medalta will be treated to a new exhibit in Building 10 featuring the original bricks and an account of this chapter in the site’s remarkable history.

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Adviser

Major Funding Announced for Flood-Impacted Historic Places

This morning in High River the Honourable Heather Klimchuk, Minister of Culture, announced significant new funding to assist owners of historic properties affected by 2013’s catastrophic floods.

Minister of Culture, Heather Klimchuk, announces funding for flood-impacted historic resources.
Minister of Culture, Heather Klimchuk, announces funding for flood-impacted historic resources.

The announcement took place at the Museum of the Highwood, a Provincial Historic Resource, which suffered damages to its historic fabric as well to the artifacts and archival collections stored within.

A total of $12 million in funding has been approved to assist in efforts to conserve, and protect historic resources in communities affected by the flooding of 2013. Funding will be allocated to three primary areas:

Historic Buildings

$4.5 million will be invested to provide needed support on conservation projects, for floodrelated work not covered by Disaster Recovery Program or insurance. This support is for designated Provincial and Municipal Historic Resources affected by last year’s flooding. In addition to the Town of High River, communities such as Calgary, Medicine Hat, Canmore, as well as several others, were hit hard, with historic properties adjacent to major waterways significantly impacted.

Flood impacts to the Maccoy House in High River.
Flood impacts to the Maccoy House, a Municipal Historic Resource, in High River.

This new support program will aid in the critical work needed to ensure that flood-impacted historic places are appropriately rehabilitated according to the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.

For more information on this funding program, please contact Carina Naranjilla, Grants Program Coordinator, at 780-431-2305 (toll-free by first dialing 310-000) or via email at

Museum and Archives Conservation Assistance

 $6 million will go to support the conservation of artifacts and archival materials at museums and archives affected by flooding. Funding will be administered through the Alberta Museums Association and the Archives Society of Alberta.

For more details on the funding available to flood-impacted archives, please visit the Archives Society of Alberta webpage or contact Rene Georgopalis, Executive Director and Archives Advisor, at 780-424-2697 or More details on the funding available to flood-impacted museums can be found on the Alberta Museums Association webpage or by contacting Alexandra Hatcher, Executive Director and CEO, at 780-424-2626 (ext. 224) or  

Archaeological and Palaeontological

Flood impacts to a highly significant archeological site in southern Alberta.
Flood impacts to a highly significant archeological site in southern Alberta.

A number of significant palaeontological sites were exposed as a result of the floods. $1.5 million will support existing Alberta Culture programs to collect fossils and artifacts as well as establish protective measures for archaeological and palaeontological sites affected by flooding.

This funding will ensure that these heritage treasures and the remarkable history they represent will be preserved and passed on to future generations.

After the Flood

First Steps in the Recovery of Albertas Flood-Damaged Historic Buildings

Cleaning up in the Elbow Park Neighbourhood (July 5, 2013)
Cleaning up in the Elbow Park Neighbourhood (July 5, 2013)

As the floodwaters in southern Alberta recede, we must take care to preserve the integrity of our historic resources. It is very important that old and historic buildings dry slowly. Accelerated drying will warp, twist or split floors, doors and paneling; draw salts through stone and plaster, leading to blistering and exfoliation; and painted surfaces will flake and peel.

Historic buildings are particularly vulnerable to damage from inappropriate remedial work after the floodwaters recede. This can lead to unnecessary removal and loss of significant finishes and fittings as well as use of unsuitable materials for repairs. Building conservation is concerned with retaining original historic fabric and cleaning or repairing it sensitively with the least impact, even in the aftermath of a flood.

The slow and gentle process required to save irreplaceable historic fabric may take several months and involves a number of steps.

Consult with Emergency Services

Ensure that the building’s electrical, gas, water and waste lines are safe and operating normally and that the building is structurally sound. 

Document the Damage

Take photographs or videos and make notes about the damage to your historic building to assist with future planning for repairs and restoration.

The white staining indicates the high water mark (Elbow Park, Calgary, July 5, 2013)
The white staining indicates the high water mark (Elbow Park, Calgary, July 5, 2013)

Reinstate Drainage Systems

Clear debris and open blocked underground and surface drainage systems to help remove water from the building and its foundations. Use sump pumps or temporary pumps to help remove water from basements, although if water continues to rise pumping should be postponed. In that case, the water table is still high and the difference in pressure between the waterlogged soil and the water-less basement could damage foundation walls.

Identify Moisture Reservoirs

Debris, insulation, and piles of earth can prevent moisture from draining or evaporating. Identify current or potential moisture reservoirs to help specialists determine positions for localized drainage and through-the-wall ventilation that will allow long term drying and prevent decay of vulnerable materials.

Remove Only Non-Historic Furnishings, Fittings, Carpets, and Rubbish

Consult with your Heritage Conservation Adviser about damp historic materials such as plaster, brick, masonry, floors or finishes. Most historic materials are inherently durable and resistant to flooding and can often be carefully dried and restored.

Clean Mud, Dirt and Debris from Surfaces

Mud and debris deposited during the flooding can be removed with clean water and is more easily removed while still wet. Do not use high-pressure water to clean historic materials: pressure-washing historic material can do more damage than the flood itself.

Drying Out Slowly

Remove moisture gradually. Use natural ventilation to slowly dry the structure and historic finishes, particularly plaster and wood. Do not use mechanical dehumidification or heaters to accelerated drying. Fans may be used to circulate cool air. Open windows and doors to assist with ventilation. Install security protection and screens on windows and doors that will be open for an extended period of time.

Interior Finishes

Carefully remove water soaked gypsum board, which can trap mold spores. Do not remove plaster or wood finishes and consult with your Heritage Conservation Advisor about strategies to dry and stabilize historic finishes.

Elbow Park, Calgary. The cleanup will take time. (July 5, 2013)
The cleanup will take time. (Elbow Park, Calgary, July 5, 2013)

Plan for Repairs and Restoration

As the drying process takes place, observe any long term damage to historic fabric and initiate discussions with your Heritage Conservation Advisor and qualified specialists to plan repairs to your historic building and restoration of its historic materials.

For more information contact your Heritage Conservation Advisor:

Calgary Region: Sandy Aumonier (403-355-4544) and Stefan Cieslik (403-297-4074).

Southern Region: Fraser Shaw, office: (403) 297-4088 and cell: (403) 921-8139.

These numbers are toll-free by first dialing 310-0000.

Written by: Eileen Fletcher, Heritage Conservation Adviser.

Historic Places and Communities Affected by Unprecedented Floods

Downtown High River - June 21, 2013
Downtown High River – June 21, 2013

We know from receiving calls from many people that several historic places have been affected by the catastrophic flooding in southern Alberta. Historically, communities in Alberta were often built close to rivers – sources of water to accommodate trade and travel. Needless to say, these low-lying areas where our communities grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are also floodplains. We know that there are a total of 75 Provincial and Municipal Historic Resources within the evacuated areas of the City of Calgary alone.

The Town of High River is one of the communities that has been devastated, and is still in a state of emergency evacuation. Over the past year,  the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program has been working together with the Town on the second phase of an Inventory Project to evaluate the community’s significant historic places. It will remain to be seen how many of these places will survive the floods, and the extent of the damage. Other communities are in similar situations.

At this point, still early on the recovery efforts, there are still more questions than answers. Some owners of designated historic places that have been flooded are wondering what they should do. Once the emergency needs for safety and the basics of life are provide for – what are the first steps in safeguarding and stewarding these historic places?

The Historic Resources Management Branch has staff that are available to talk with owners of historic places, and to provide technical advice and support. We know that a major clean-up and conservation effort is now only beginning. We encourage owners of designated Provincial Historic Resources and Municipal Historic Resources to contact the Heritage Conservation Adviser for their region. Let us know how you are doing, and the current state of your historic property. We can help you to prioritize steps and make plans to help conserve your historic place for the future.

Calgary Region: Eileen Fletcher, her office number is (403) 297-4074 and her cell number is (403) 618-4180.

Southern Region: Fraser Shaw, his office number is (403) 297-4088 and his cell number is (403) 921-8139.

Municipal and community officials can contact Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services at (780) 438-8502. Their office numbers are toll-free by first dialing 310-0000.

Above all, we hope everyone stays safe as we work together to create a future for Alberta’s historic places.