Alberta’s First Archaeological Permit: The Nottingham House Trading Post

In 1973, the Government of Alberta assumed a central role in the management of archaeological research. In the 42 years since then, the Archaeological Survey at Alberta Culture and Tourism has been busy. More than 9,000 archaeological research permits have been issued and as a result, archaeologists have discovered over 40,000 archaeological sites in Alberta.

So where did it all begin? The first archaeological research permit in the province was issued to Karlis Karklins in 1973 by Alberta Culture, Youth, and Recreation. The permit was for his research at Nottingham House, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post near Fort Chipewyan, as a part of the Western Fur Trade Research Programme. The programme was initiated by Parks Canada in 1968 to explore the history and archaeology of the fur trade in the Athabasca region. As part of that project, Karklins began researching Nottingham House in the early 1970s.

Alberta Map

Historical Setting

Nottingham House was a fur trade post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1802. The HBC hoped to compete with the North West Company (NWC), who held a 20 year monopoly on the famed fur-rich areas of the Athabasca region. Peter Fidler, an experienced HBC surveyor, along with his Swampy Cree wife, Mary, their children and 17 other explorers arrived at Fort Chipewyan in late 1802 to set up the new trading post, Nottingham House. In the style of competitive exploration that characterized the fur trade in western Canada, Nottingham House was erected less than a mile from Fort Chipewyan, a successful NWC trading post established in 1788.

Despite the best intentions of the HBC and Fidler’s crew, Nottingham House was not a successful trading post. The NWC at Fort Chipewyan took every chance to sabotage trade at Nottingham House, even going so far as to burn HBC canoes and to have individuals that were known to trade with the HBC beaten. In their first year, the HBC at Nottingham House generated a return of only six bundles of fur, which did not come close to covering the costs of their expedition. Fidler and his company remained at Nottingham House for four years, during which they struggled with dwindling trade, starvation and increasingly aggressive attacks from the NWC. On June 9, 1806, Nottingham House was abandoned and the HBC traders moved on to other posts.

Fig. 90Archaeological Research

The Nottingham House archaeological site was excavated by Karklins, an employee of the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch of Parks Canada during the 1970s. Karklins and seven others began their first 14-week excavation season in June 1972, returning for a lengthy field season each summer until 1977.

The archaeological crew unearthed just over 1,072 square meters of the site, revealing the remains of several buildings and work areas. The main house, measuring about 15 meters by 5 meters, was made up of four rooms with fireplaces, storage pits and a cellar. The site surrounding the main house included a storehouse, a provisions shed, a garden and several outdoor working areas, storage pits and trash pits. The structures were made from the locally-available wood, stones and clay. Most of the structures showed evidence of burning, which suggests that the NWC may have burned the camp after the HBC abandoned it in 1806.

Fig. 7The archaeology crew also uncovered 5,707 complete artifacts and a further 1,006 broken fragments of artifacts during their field seasons. The artifacts are typical of a fur trade post from that era. Most artifacts were personal items that would have been used by those living at the post or were kept as items for trading. These included beads, combs, mirrors, books and glass and ceramic containers.

The other artifacts reflect what would be needed to construct and maintain a fur trade post in undeveloped territory in 19th century Boreal Forest Alberta, such as tools and hardware (axes, nails and saws), hunting and fishing gear (gun parts and ammunition) and household items (cookware, furniture and sewing supplies). The historical record suggests that the HBC crew relied on a protein-rich diet, consisting mostly of animals and birds such as moose, bison, caribou, dog/wolf, snowshoe hare, swans, ducks and cranes that were traded from the local Aboriginal population. Other animals identified from the faunal remains included Arctic fox, muskrat, marten, wolverine and lynx, all of which were hunted for their furs and may have been eaten as well. The crew was also able to fish in Lake Athabasca and grow potatoes and turnips in their gardens.

Examples of gun parts and accessories that were found by Karklins at the Nottingham House archaeological site.
Examples of gun parts and accessories that were found by Karklins at the Nottingham House archaeological site.

Karklins’ research in the 1970s served to build a better understanding of the economy and material culture of the Nottingham House fur trade post. The site has not been excavated by archaeologists since the 1970s, but Karklins’ research has proved valuable for other archaeologists and historians studying the fur trade in western Canada, and especially in the Athabasca region of Alberta. The archaeological site of Nottingham House remains protected by the Historical Resources Act as an Alberta Significant Archaeological Site.

References and Figures: Karklins, K. (1979). Nottingham House: The Hudson’s Bay Company in Athabasca, 1802-1806 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Idaho).

Written by: Colleen Haukaas, Archaeological Permits & Digital Information Coordinator.

What is the Listing of Historic Resources?

Alberta Culture and Tourism is responsible for the examination, preservation and protection of Alberta’s historic resources on behalf of the people of Alberta as mandated by the Historical Resources Act. The Listing of Historic Resources (Listing) is an important tool used in this work. The Listing identifies lands that contain, or have high potential to contain, historic resources such as archaeological, palaeontological, historic or aboriginal traditional use sites. The Listing is also a useful tool for developers, their agents and other regulatory bodies to help determine before development if a proposed project may affect historic resources.

The Listing is reviewed and updated twice a year by Alberta Culture and Tourism’s Historic Resources Management Branch (HRMB). The Listing does not include all lands that may contain historic resources. As previously unknown historic resources are discovered, their locations are added to the Listing. The locations of historic resources that have suffered substantial degradation due to human activities or natural forces may be removed from the Listing.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Special Place Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort Macleod (Historic Resources Management Branch, June 2002).
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Provincial Historic Resource and UNESCO World Heritage Site, located near Fort Macleod (Historic Resources Management Branch, June 2002).

Each land parcel included in the Listing has been assigned a Historic Resource Value (HRV) ranging from 1 to 5. The highest level of significance, HRV 1, is given to lands that have been designated under the Historical Resources Act as a Provincial Historic Resource. HRV 1 is also used to identify World Heritage Sites and lands owned by Alberta Culture and Tourism for historic resource protection. Other HRVs are defined as follows:

  • HRV 2: designated as a Municipal Historic Resource or Registered Historic Resource under the Historical Resources Act.
  • HRV 3: contains a known and significant historic resource that is of great significance and will require avoidance or assessment.
  • HRV 4: contains a historic resource that may require avoidance or assessment.
  • HRV 5: has high potential to contain a historic resource.

Each entry in the Listing also includes a letter notation that describes the primary historic resource category of concern, as follows:

  • a: archaeological
  • c: cultural
  • gl: geological
  • h: historic period
  • n: natural
  • p: palaeontological

A parcel of land may be assigned HRVs from more than one category if different types of historic resources have been recorded on or in the vicinity of the property.

Due to their inherently fragile nature, historic resources are susceptible to the effects of time and damage caused by modern activities. Any proposals to develop lands included on the Listing are assessed by the HRMB for their potential to affect the resource. The assessment is comprehensive. For example, any activity for a parcel listed as a “p” (for palaeontological resources) may also be assessed for potential archaeological sites. The staff of the HRMB work together to evaluate what effect the proposed development or activity may have on any historical resources in the area.

The Listing of Historic Resources is employed, in conjunction with other information resources, to ensure that the opportunity for enhancing that knowledge is not lost under the pressures of development. For more information on the Listing of Historic Resources, please see our website.

Written by: Pauline Bodevin, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator

The War Years at (Old) St. Stephen’s College

The faculty and students of Old St. Stephen’s College were not immune to the impact of war. When the First World War broke out in 1914 and the Second in 1939, a number of the college’s own enlisted, while many others assisted on the homefront. The war years were a difficult period for the people of Old St. Stephen’s, but there are several accounts of compassion that emerged during this time. Two people in particular, Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson, showed that those who were affected by the wars were not forgotten.

This article will look at the St. Stephen’s building that converted space to accommodate soldiers, veterans and nurses and the people who stepped in and offered their services when it was needed the most.

A soldier wearing a gas mask in Front of the Alberta College Building (now Old St. Stephen’s College), ca. 1917.  (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-63-115).
A soldier wearing a gas mask in Front of the Alberta College Building (now Old St. Stephen’s College), ca. 1917.
(City of Edmonton Archives, EA-63-115).

Throughout most of its history, St. Stephen’s College functioned primarily as a teaching facility and a dormitory for students.[1] This changed during wartime. Injured soldiers returned home from the First World War in large numbers and space for convalescent homes became vital. In 1917, the Military Hospitals Commission set up a hospital within the college to care for some of Alberta’s wounded soldiers. The converted hospital housed up to 300 soldiers and for the next three years, the hospital treated soldiers who were physically injured or afflicted by nervous diseases from the war. According to one veteran, the convalescent hospital was “second to none in the whole of Canada.” Throughout this time, the college continued to operate by offering courses, although much of the classwork was moved to Alberta College North or to other buildings on the University of Alberta campus.

There are stories that indicate the compassion of the college’s educators and show the close ties that formed between students and staff during the wars. Nettie Burkholder was the principal of the Alberta Ladies College, which was located in the north wing of Alberta College South and served as a residence and teaching college for women. During the First World War, she corresponded with the students who went overseas; soldiers stationed overseas sent over 302 letters and cards to Nettie from the battlefront. Nettie also led the college’s initiative to send comfort packages to the soldiers, which were carefully packed with soap and vermin powder, along with treats. The extent of Nettie’s care shows the strong relationships that she maintained with the students of the college and the compassion she demonstrated during wartime indicates her dedication to the school and to the war efforts.[2]

Nettie Burkholder, c.1888 (Courtesy of Whitby Public Library, 23-000-043).
Nettie Burkholder, c.1888 (Courtesy of Whitby Public Library, 23-000-043).

In the early 1920s, the college made the decision to commemorate the students and instructors who served in the Great War with two plaques. The names of more than 80 students and graduates from the Methodist College who enlisted to fight in the war, as well as the eight who died in battle, are inscribed upon it. A second plaque is dedicated to the eight students of Robertson College who lost their lives. These plaques were erected in the college’s chapel where they have remained to the present.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, enrollment and residency declined as more students enlisted in the armed forces and departed for overseas. This created plenty of extra space in the building and St. Stephen’s College offered the use of their northern wing to students in the Canadian Officer Training Corps, who used it as a barracks. The college also leased a portion of the building to the University of Alberta hospital as a dormitory for their nurses. In 1943, Principal Aubrey Stephen Tuttle allowed an additional 45 nurses to room in the building’s west wing, resulting in the number of resident nurses to surpass resident students. Many of the male students who resided at St. Stephen’s College at this time said that there was no issue in sharing the residence with the nurses. D. J. C. Elson, a former Dean of the college, noted that an unusually high number of United Church ministers married nurses around the time of the Second World War and shortly thereafter.

Commemorative plaque in the Old St. Stephen’s chapel, 2014 (Photo by Erin Hoar).
Commemorative plaque in the Old St. Stephen’s chapel, 2014 (Photo by Erin Hoar).

By early 1941, five pupils from the college’s theological program had enlisted in the Second World War. The first student casualty was Royal Canadian Air Force Observer, Flight Sergeant Alexander Granton Patrick. Patrick was killed on January 28, 1942, at the age of 22. Just days later, the college held a memorial service for the fallen soldier in its chapel. The death of a student impacted the members of the college, as shown in the correspondence between Dean Cylo Jackson and Patrick’s mother. Jackson wrote that Patrick was “a kindly lad, upright with a directness in his look and speech which made him engaging…I am very sorry for the loss which the church sustains in his passing.” The Dean’s personal words indicate the relationship that existed between staff and students, which was clearly visible during a time of tragedy.

Throughout both of the wars, when news of casualties reached St. Stephen’s, it affected the students and staff. Wartime proved to be a difficult period, but also illustrated how the people of St. Stephen’s College stepped up and supported their fellow Albertans. The college gave their space, services and whatever else they could to contribute to the war efforts. The stories of compassion from Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson demonstrated how strong the bonds between students and instructors could be. The history of the college during the war years highlight an important era in St. Stephen’s history.

For more information on the history of Old St. Stephen’s College, refer to the previous post: The First Heritage Landmark Built on University Grounds.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer.


Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

Elson, D. J. C. “History Trails: Faith, Labour, and Dreams.” University of Alberta Alumni Association. (Accessed September 23, 2014).

Schoeck, Ellen. I Was There: A Century of Alumni Stories about the University of Alberta, 1906-2006. Edmonton, Canada: The University of Alberta Press, 2006.

Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: University Facilities, Departments, and Faculties During WWII.” (Accessed January 29, 2015).

[1] A note on naming: during the First World War, the institution was known as Alberta College South. ACS and Robertson College were amalgamated and the name St. Stephen’s College was chosen in 1927. It became known as Old St. Stephen’s College in 1952.

[2] Special thanks to Adriana Davies for providing the information on Nettie Burkholder. For further information on Nettie, refer to Davies’ essay “The Gospel of Sacrifice: Lady Principal Nettie Burkholder and Her Boys at the Front” in The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War, edited by Adriana A. Davies and Jeff Keshen, that is soon to be released.

What is OPaC?

Alberta Culture and Tourism manages the Online Permitting and Clearance (OPaC) system, which has two main purposes: to discover if a historic resource will be impacted by a proposed development and to regulate the approval of archaeological and palaeontological excavation permits.

Developers and municipalities use OPaC as a tool to determine if a proposed development may affect a historic resource. Before beginning development, the project’s proponent submits an application for approval to proceed. The application is reviewed by the Historic Resources Management Branch to determine if the proposed development has the potential to damage any historic resources, such as archaeological, palaeontological, historic or Aboriginal traditional use sites. The Branch reviews approximately 3,000 development applications each year!

Archaeologists and palaeontologists obtain permits through OPaC before proceeding with an excavation. Anyone who intends to excavate for the purpose of archaeological or palaeontological research must submit an application with the details of their project to the Historic Resources Management Branch for review. Permits are given out in order to regulate the amount of excavation activity that takes place in the province and to ensure that those who are excavating for archaeological and palaeontological purposes are qualified to do so. 500 applications for archaeological and palaeontological research permits are received per year by the Branch. The Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation has more information on the qualifications necessary to hold such permits and the conditions under which studies must take place.

Ten years ago, applications were managed the old fashioned, paper-based way and reviewing them was a much slower process. With the boom in the oil and gas industry, the workload increased substantially and this created the need for a more efficient permitting system. In 2009, the idea of OPaC was introduced as a semi-automated way to process applications. This was a welcome transition and has made the application procedure more convenient for developers who are seeking to conduct work on Alberta’s land as well as for the people managing the applications.

There are a number of advantages to the OPaC system:

  • It has brought a consistent approach to the process and ensures that applications and inquiries are addressed in a timely manner.
  • The online database stores information on the location of archaeological, palaeontological and historic resources as well as Aboriginal traditional use sites. This data is used to build a cumulative sense of the resources and developments that are on Alberta’s landscape. This way, strategic measures can be taken to protect the resources.
  • It serves as a starting point to capture heritage data and assists in identifying issues in advance to better protect Alberta’s historic resources.

With the help of the Geographic Information System (GIS), we can map the locations of proposed developments and historic resources to help identify and minimize potential conflicts.

GIS map showing the locations of development projects that have been processed through OPaC.
GIS map showing the locations of development projects that have been processed through OPaC.

OPaC has brought efficiency to the application process, but a wider significance lies in the fact that it supports a regulatory process that helps to discover historic resources that may otherwise go unnoticed and, therefore, unprotected – an important point, since the more we can preserve, the clearer picture we can create of Alberta’s past and this has immense benefits for future generations.

The Historic Resources Management Branch is responsible for the preservation and protection of Alberta’s historic resources as mandated by the Historical Resources Act. OPaC is a key tool in fulfilling this responsibility, as it allows experts the ability to easily and quickly determine the level of impact that could potentially threaten Alberta’s historic resources. Alberta Culture is committed to the preservation and protection of Alberta’s historic resources and this system helps to ensure that the opportunity for enhancing that knowledge is not lost.

For more information on OPaC, please refer to our website.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer, with special thanks to the OPaC team for their assistance.

Oil Sands history and archaeology featured in award winner’s poems

In the spring of 2010, I took award-winning poet David Martin on a tour of Bitumount, an oil sands separation plant located on the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. This provincially-designated historic site was founded in the late 1920s by Robert Fitzsimmons, a man whose unique sense of entrepreneurship and ability to stir convention made him one of the most colourful characters in oil sands history.

Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray  (Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).
Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray
(Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).

Fitzsimmons’ story is an important element of David’s recent work, a collection of poems that examines the oil sands milieu from historical, archaeological and even geological perspectives. His compositions have been published in literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain magazine, The Fiddlehead and CV2, and he won the 2014 CBC Poetry prize for his oil sands themed poem “Tar Swan.” Fitzsimmons and the oil sands archaeological record are also featured in “Ballad of RCF,” a song from Stone Boat, the second album from David’s pop rock group The Fragments.

Our visit to Bitumount, and the pre-contact period archaeological excavations nearby, provided David with insight into the oil sands past that he could not gain by other means. This illustrates an element of historic resource preservation that is rarely documented: literary inspiration. I spoke to David about the trip, oil sands as poetry and how he incorporates archaeological information into his work.

The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What drew you to write about Robert Fitzsimmons and Bitumount?

I felt that the Fitzsimmons story offered me a smaller, more manageable way to write about the oil sands, rather than to focus on current industrial operations. Fitzsimmons was undoubtedly a very charismatic person, so naturally I was drawn to his experiences. I read about him in several history books, as well as in his personal letters and a small pamphlet that he published; although I quickly learned that he was not always the most reliable source in discussing his own work.

How did the trip to Bitumount and the surrounding area influence your writing?

I had done a great deal of research before the trip, such as reading books and examining documents in the Provincial Archives. However, being at the actual site offered me many details that I would never have discovered in books or photographs. I was able to incorporate these small details into the poems, which I believe helps to give my work a sense of verisimilitude.

I was keen to visit Bitumount because it presented a tangible way to understand the development of the oil sands, and it was fascinating to see it in the context of the surrounding environment: an abandoned industrial site hidden within the boreal forest. As well, there are different phases of history within this single space, such as the original Fitzsimmons plant, the larger provincial pilot plant that was later built and the modern debris left by people who have passed through the area.

Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What site feature or landscape feature struck you the most?

I had previously seen a brief archival film of Fitzsimmons piloting his boat, The Golden Slipper, and it was an amazing moment for me to see the same boat tucked beneath a small A-frame shelter. The boat is slowly falling apart but the name is still visible, and this was a powerful way for me to connect the history I had been learning about with a physical object in front of me. It’s always inspiring when history appears in a concrete form.

It was also interesting, and a bit eerie, to see handwritten words at the entrance to one of the buildings, supposedly from Ernie Eakins, a long time caretaker of the Bitumount site. In neat blue cursive it reads: “You will never never make it home again if I catch you in this lab.” He probably wrote this note to scare off trespassers, but it was unsettling to read it in the abandoned building.

The incorporation of boreal forest archaeology in your poems is certainly unconventional. What role does archaeology play in your compositions? What source information did you draw upon?

The archaeological work in the Athabasca area was important for my poems because it reveals a historical context that extends back thousands of years. Just as important, though, was my learning about excavations of more recent sites, such as Fitzsimmons’ early drilling camp. The archeological dig serves as a narrative frame for my work; it demonstrates a way of literally uncovering history.

Another archaeological idea that is central to my work is debitage: making inferences about the past based on debris and fragments. Debitage analysis seems like a fitting analogy for what my poems are aiming for — building a connection to the past by using the imagination and the fragments that have survived from that time.

Will you continue to mine historical information for future compositions?

Currently I’m researching about lake sediment sampling for some poems. I’m drawn to the idea that a core sample can contain a great deal of information about what the environment was like thousands of years ago.

Written by: Robin Woywitka, Cultural Land Use Analyst, and a special thanks to David Martin for his participation.

David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).
David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).

Below is an excerpt from David Martin’s oil sands poetry manuscript:

The road, paved with bitu-phalt,
rutted, dimpled, summer-soft:

a stubborn swipe between
Fitzsimmons and Government.

Frogs draw in counterpoint
behind the boiler house.

Across the river, the Horizon Project,
a mouth-brooding grandnephew,

punctures its dull tonic
with bleats of backfiring cannons –

Where do you stand?
Where do you stand?

The boat is slack, leaves
and moss rising, no one to bail.


South: other minds left behind
a beached steam engine, fridge

shamed in the woods, wind-hewn
garage, stalagmite-filled pump house,

and clutches of tanks and tubs –
all mute actors in a government-funded

play that closed on opening night.

Behind the scrum: a muskeg’s frame
freed of its burden.

Topographic hills relent; a drop
of bitumen syrup galls the whorls,

stains the finger.
The song resents the singer.

The First Heritage Landmark Built on University Grounds

Old St. Stephen’s College sits on the grounds of the University of Alberta near the bus loop. Did you know that it is the oldest building on campus? Designed in the early 1900s by Herbert A. Magoon, the building is a collegiate Gothic style that can be seen among early British universities. The college emulates a castle-like appearance and there are very few other examples like this in Alberta or even western Canada.

Over a century has passed since St. Stephen’s was constructed and the elm trees that were planted during the college’s early years have now grown to almost completely cover the building’s façade. This is a testimony of its endurance and the college’s longevity continues to contribute to its interesting history. This post will look at the unique construction of this structure and detail the notable features that make the Old St Stephen’s College a significant historic resource.

Old St. Stephen’s College, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-01-M).
Old St. Stephen’s College, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-01-M).

The construction of Alberta College South, as the building was first known, began in 1910 on the University of Alberta campus and welcomed 41 theology students the following year. The college first functioned as a non-denominational theological school and co-ed residence, offering the basics in biblical scholarship and trained students to become ministers. Church history, biblical languages, systematic theology and homiletics are just some of the courses that were available. Within a decade of the school’s opening, the theological program began to attract students from all over Canada and other parts of the world.

By the early 1900s, Edmonton was home to Alberta College South, a seminary of the Methodist Church, and a Presbyterian instructional college known as Robertson College. In 1925, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches merged, forming the United Church of Canada. Around this time, the Government of Canada passed the United Church of Canada Act, declaring there to be an amalgamation when two or more colleges doing the same classwork were situated in the same locality. The outcome of this had the Robertson College relocate to Alberta College South and the institution was renamed the United Theological College. Two separate boards remained, one for the Methodist church and one for Robertson College, until 1927 when the two boards united and settled on the name St. Stephen’s College.

Old St. Stephen’s College, 1971 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 71-R0001-34).
Old St. Stephen’s College, 1971 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 71-R0001-34).

A new building was built immediately south of the original building in 1952. Old St. Stephen’s College (as it was henceforth called) continued to be used as a student dormitory, while the new St. Stephen’s College held classrooms and offices. By the 1970s, there was an increase in student housing around the university area and less students were choosing to reside at the college. Within a few years, Old St. Stephen’s was vacant and in danger of becoming a parking lot, until considerable protest was mounted by members of the public. Demolition was averted in 1979 when the Government of Alberta leased the property from St. Stephen’s College as office space for the Historical Resources Division of Alberta Culture. The building is now owned by the Government of Alberta and houses many employees of the Heritage Division. This past September, we celebrated 35 years of residency in the historic building.

Old St. Stephen’s College was designed by one of Edmonton’s first architects, Herbert A. Magoon. In the early 1900s, Magoon moved to Western Canada where there was an increasing amount of city development. He eventually settled in Edmonton and quickly became one of the city’s most reputable architects. Magoon was involved in designing a number of buildings that are now Alberta historic resources, including the Knox Presbyterian Church, the Metals Building, the H.V. Shaw Building in Edmonton and the Old Town Hall in Wainwright. A number of Magoon’s designs are of similar style to buildings found in Chicago, where he worked and studied architecture, indicating that he was influenced from his time spent there.

In the spring of 1910, H. A. Magoon was commissioned to design the future St. Stephen’s College. St. Stephen’s was inspired by the architectural style that was popular in Europe in the early twentieth century. The design of the building is consistent with the collegiate gothic style that was common to many colleges and universities built across North America during this time. This design was favoured because it emulated a British tradition found among some early universities. There are subsequent buildings on campus that are in line with the appearance of St. Stephen’s, including the Rutherford Library and St. Joseph’s College.

Alberta Association of Architects, ca. 1906.   Back row: Hopkins, R. P. Barnes, J. Wise, H. D. Johnson, Front row: A. Magoon, F. X. Deggen-Dorfer, A. Pirie.  (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1998).
Alberta Association of Architects, ca. 1906. Back row: Hopkins, R. P. Barnes, J. Wise, H. D. Johnson, Front row: A. Magoon, F. X. Deggen-Dorfer, A. Pirie (Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1998).

The exterior’s notable features are its red brick veneer, octagonal towers and battlemented fortifications, which give the structure a castle-like appearance. The overall design of the building fit with the vision of the principal to-be of Alberta South College, John Henry Riddell. Riddell wanted a building that would “stand out, conspicuous against the horizon…appearing so clearly…as to challenge every passer-by.” The resulting structure was an impressive brick building that has drawn comparison to St. James’s Palace in London.

The interior of Old St. Stephen’s has a number of distinguishing features that make the building unique, such as an entrance foyer with oak detailing, a fireplace in the former Dean’s office, a vault and the remnants of a gymnasium on the top floor. When the building was first constructed, it featured 65 bedrooms, a 300 person capacity assembly hall, faculty residences and a dining hall. In 1935, a classroom was converted into a chapel with stained glass windows, which still remains in the north wing of the first floor. The chapel contains the original wooden pews and pulpit that were crafted by a former St. Stephen’s student.

The gymnasium on the 5th Floor, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-12-M).
The gymnasium on the 5th Floor, 1974. The gym is no longer in use and now serves as a mechanical room for the building (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-12-M).

This is the oldest building to be constructed on the grounds of the University of Alberta, the province’s first post-secondary institution. Although separate from the University, the college has become integrated into the campus over the past century and has served as a recognized landmark in the university area. Old St. Stephen’s is an example that historic buildings need not necessarily be demolished, but they can successfully be reused, thus continuing the preservation of Alberta’s built heritage.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer


Alberta Register of Historic Places. “Old St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950. “Magoon, Herbert Alton.” Accessed January 9, 2015.

Designation File # 132, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

“Old St. Stephen’s College.” Alberta Past 2, no. 2 (August 1986): 1.

Simonson, Gayle. Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen’s College. Edmonton, Canada: St. Stephen’s College, 2008.

St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton: Report #428. Alberta Culture, Historical Resources Division, Historic Sites Service, 1979.

University of Alberta. “University of Alberta: St. Stephen’s College.” (Accessed September 10, 2014).


The Mysterious Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter

There is a peculiar overgrown mound in a farmer’s field in Kneehill County, near the town of Three Hills. A weathered wooden door hung within a stone-frame sits against the embankment. The door opens onto a sandstone staircase leading downward into a vaulted, stone chamber. Welcome to the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter—what must be Alberta’s strangest starter home. We know that the builder must have been a skilled stonemason, but unfortunately we know little else about the craftsman or how the shelter was built. The one-of-a-kind shelter was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in January of 2011. This post will look at some of the theories we have developed in trying to solve the mystery of the origins of the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter and its current condition.

The entrance to the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).
The entrance to the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).

The Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter is significant for how sandstone was used to build its walls, ceiling and archway door. We estimate the shelter to have been built between 1900 and 1905. This makes the structure distinct when compared with other early homes that would have been built in Alberta around the same time.

A few theories have emerged over the years. Initial investigation of homestead records and local stories led many to believe that a George Schech built the shelter. Schech was reputedly a German immigrant and stonemason who came to Alberta in 1903 or 1904 after living in Wisconsin, Montana or Washington for a time. He apparently lived in the shelter while a frame house was being built on the same quarter section of land. Afterwards, it became a root cellar. Little else is known about Schech, as he apparently abandoned the farm and returned to the United States after only a few years of living on the homestead.

The chamber with barrel-vaulted roof made from mortared sandstone (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).
The chamber with barrel-vaulted roof made from mortared sandstone (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).

Another plausible theory emerged from our research and later on from additional oral history in the Three Hills area. The other theory is that the shelter was built in 1902 by a Mr. Stein who, like Schech, was also a stonemason from Germany. However, there is no existing record of a Stein homesteading in the area. There is evidence that Erick C. Stendahl or Erich Steendahl settled on the land that contains the Sunnyslope Shelter. It may be that “Stein” is an adaptation of Stendhal. However, Canadian census records state that Stendahl was originally from Norway, not Germany, and lists 1905 as his year of immigration to Canada. Additionally, a Declaration of Abandonment issued by the Dominion Lands Office for this quarter section was signed by Erich C. Steendahl in 1903. George Schech applied for a homestead on this land shortly thereafter. This further complicates the issue by not having definitive evidence to reference and verify. The information that has been compiled for both Schech and Stein or Stendahl is based on correspondence with residents from the area, census and homestead records.

Homesteaders who came to Alberta would construct a small temporary shelter, such as a tent, dugout or shack, before building a larger and more modern house. In that respect, Sunnyslope is no different. Early dugout houses in Alberta were shallow pits, often built into an embankment, with roofs made from poles, mud plaster and sod. Sod houses were usually the first “permanent” home built by a homesteader during the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in areas without trees. Later on, a more solid structure, usually a wooden, frame house, was constructed for permanent habitation. A variety of building techniques were used throughout Alberta during this period, but stone construction is unique and Sunnyslope has load-bearing sandstone walls and a vaulted, sandstone ceiling.

This design is more fitting to the Great Plains of the United States, where dugouts were used as storm shelters. Stone became a popular option in areas of the American West and Midwest because there were fewer trees, and stone better shielded the little room inside from extreme weather, such as tornadoes. Structures like this were also used as temporary homes and storage cellars for supplies, fruit and vegetables.

Small opening in the chamber, for light and ventilation (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).
Small opening in the chamber, for light and ventilation (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).

Stonemasonry was much less common for simple buildings in Alberta, which makes the architecture of the shelter unique, but raises the question: why sandstone? A possible explanation is that the builder was influenced by the techniques used by homesteaders on the Great Plains of the United States, after residing there for some time. Since it appears that the builder of Sunnyslope was a stonemason, it is likely that he would have used the skills he was most familiar with to construct a first home.

The Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter is stable and the interior has remained intact for more than a century—all of which is a testament to the skill of the builder. The stone archway itself was rebuilt in 1978, when a new wooden door was also added. The use of mortared sandstone and distinct stone stairway remain the most significant elements of the structure. The site shows the innovations that were made by early homesteaders and their need for a quickly constructed living shelter, while revealing the realities of a temporary habitat for early settlers to the area.

The mystery of the site’s origins highlight Alberta’s exciting heritage and show the fascinating stories that have contributed to our history. While there are conflicting reports over who was responsible for the shelter’s construction, this tale shows the fun of reconstructing a 100 year old story. There is evidence to suggest that Schech or Stendahl (Stein?) could have built the shelter, but how can we know for sure?

The entrance viewed from the back; the mortared sandstone is clearly visible (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).
The entrance viewed from the back; the mortared sandstone is clearly visible (Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch, 2011).

Can you help us solve this whodunit? We invite all you history sleuths to leave your comments and perhaps help us piece together the puzzle. Any information, tips or stories can assist with creating a clearer picture of the past.

For additional details on the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter, refer to the Alberta Register of Historic Places. Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967, by Donald Wetherell and Irene Kmet provides more information on early homestead construction in the province.

Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer.


1906 Canada Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.” RG31, Statistics Canada. Library and Archives Canada. (Accessed July 8, 2014).

1916 Canada Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.” R233-47-9-E. Library and Archives Canada. (Accessed July 8, 2014).

Designation file #Des. 312, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.

Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter.” Alberta Register of Historic Places. HeRMIS. (Accessed July 8, 2014).

Wetherell, Donald G., and Irene R. Kmet. Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1991.