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Last updateFri, 19 Apr 2024 5pm

Early fossil collectors sent Alberta treasures around the world

    The dinosaurs that have been excavated from the Alberta badlands for over a century are famous the world over. They’re featured in books, TV shows, movies, and photos in the Flickr and Facebook accounts of thousands of tourists. Tourists flock to the valley year after year to get a glimpse of the amazing fossil record that is here.
    However, whether you are in Drumheller, Ottawa, New York, or London, England, you can still find dinosaurs from the Alberta Badlands.
    Sometime before 1871, a Jesuit priest, Jean-Baptiste L’Heureux, was living with Native Americans in southern Alberta. It was during that time that L’Heureux was shown bones of “the grandfather of the buffalo”, or what was soon to be identified as the fossilized bones of dinosaurs.
    George Mercer Dawson, son of palaeontologist Sir William Dawson, first officially reported dinosaur remains in Alberta in 1874 while working for the North America Boundary survey. The remains Dawson collected found their way to the famous American palaeontolgist Edward Drinker Cope.
    Colleagues of Dawson working in Alberta began to find more material. Richard McConnell found remains at Scabby Butte in 1882 and Thomas Weston found dinosaurs in 1883.
    The most famous discovery, and the one that has had the greatest lasting impact, is that of a young geologist looking for coal seams in the Drumheller area in 1884. Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the namesake of the renowned museum, came across the skull of what would be named Albertosaurus.
    After Tyrrell’s discovery, more palaeontologists flocked to the Red Deer River Valley.
    In 1889, Weston returned to the area and floated down the Red Deer River and collected a second Albertosaurus skull.
    Lawrence Lambe from the National Museum of Canada collected fossils from the Red Deer River in 1897 and 1901. Benjamin Bensley, a zoology professor from the University of Toronto, was inspired by Lambe’s finds and came to the area as well in 1908.
    In 1910 a rancher from Drumheller, John Wagner, was visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1909 and told staff that he had the same bones on his property. The following year Barnum Brown briefly visited the area after his work in Montana was finished and planned an expedition to the Red Deer River in the summer of 1911.
    Brown spent the summer of 1911 floating down the river in a wooden scow and would stop periodically to collect fossils. One of the most significant finds during that trip was the Albertosaurus bonebed in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. The site has been the subject of considerable research effort by Royal Tyrrell Museum and University of Alberta crews between 1998 and 2011. In 1912 to 1915 a local homesteader, William Cutler, joined Brown’s crew.
    The Geological Survey Canada upon hearing of Brown’s finds decided to hire their own team in 1912 to collect fossils from the badlands. Charles Sternberg from Kansas brought two of his son, Charlie and Levi, to compete with Brown. The two crews were generally on good terms, but stayed out of each others way for the most part. Brown continued to work in the Alberta badlands until 1915 and the Sternberg’s continued until 1961.
    The early fossil pioneers of the Red Deer River made phenomenal discoveries, but those fossils are no longer here. During these early years the collectors who came to the area were working for the major museums and universities in eastern North America and Britain.
    The skull that Tyrrell found was taken east to Ottawa. The hundreds of specimens that Brown collected were shipped to The American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Sternberg’s were each hired by a number of institutions and their finds were sent to the Royal Ontario Museum, Canadian Museum of Nature, and to the Natural History Museum in London.
    Alberta dinosaurs could also be entombed in the murky depths on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Charles and Levi Sternberg worked freelance during the summer of 1916 because the Geological Survey of Canada had no funding due to the war. Charles and Levi came to Alberta to sell dinosaur skeletons to the Natural History Museum in London. One of the two shipments of fossils came under attack from German ships and was sunk.
    Apart from two excursions in 1920 and 1921 headed by George Sternberg on behalf of the University of Alberta, the fossils collected in Alberta did not stay here. It wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that Albertan institutions were the dominant collectors of fossils from the area.
    Fossils collected in the badlands continue to shed new light on dinosaurs, and even those fossils housed in other institutions around the world giving new insights. For example, a new horned dinosaur, named Spinops sternbergorum, from Alberta was found in the collections room of the Natural History Museum in London. The specimen had been collected in 1916 by Charles and Levi Sternberg and shipped overseas (in the shipment that wasn’t sunk). There the fossil sat on the shelf for 90 years before being named a new species.

Dark Christmases for valley’s miners

    During the coal mining years, Christmas in Drumheller Valley was not only a time of good cheer, but also of hope.
    As the cold weather set across the prairies, the rush of winter coal orders streamed in and the miners were offered as many shifts as they could take. This greatly contrasted the long summer layoffs when no income for half the year meant stretching every dollar and every penny as far as a family could.
    By Christmas, the cheques were rolling in and a portion of that long anticipated pay was set aside to celebrate the season. It is said that when it was 40 below on the prairies, the happiest people around were the mine operators and the coal miners. A cold snap meant brisk business.
    However, coal mining was also a dangerous job. For many years it was the most dangerous occupation in Canada. Every mining season in the valley, thousands of men went into the deepest recesses to extract Drumheller coal. This is the coal that kept Canadians from western Ontario to Saskatoon to Dawson City to Vancouver warm in the winter. Every year, these men risked their lives, and unfortunately, some lost their lives.
    Between 1920 and 1961, at least twenty-six Drumheller Valley coal miners were killed in the month of December, the month of Christmas. Most of them were killed between December 5 and December 21.  The week before Christmas seemed to be the deadliest.
    On December 17, 1926, pony driver Thomas Roddy was driving a loaded car at the Caledonian Collieries in Midland, when he fell under the loaded car he was hauling, receiving a broken neck. He died alone underground, in the pitch with no witnesses.
    That same day, just a half mile down the road at the Western Gem Mine in Midland, pony driver F.W. Brereton was crushed between loaded cars and coal rib, dying within minutes of the accident.
    Three years later, almost to the day, a similar tragedy unfolded again in Midland.  On December 18, 1929, Thomas Campbell, a pony driver at the Western Gem in Midland was killed when his pit pony was spooked by a derailed coal car and continued to pull it, accidently crushing her driver between the coal car and a mine prop. 
    Meanwhile, at the neighbouring Hy-Grade Mine, young coal miner Martin Mehalski was crushed by rock-fall.
    During these early years of Drumheller’s history, the companies did not offer any recompense to the families these miners left behind. Instead, the community often banded together to help in anyway they could. Neighbours, fellow miners, the unions and even the local Madams were the ones to offer food, money, and a shoulder to lean on.
    Madam Mary Roper and her girls were known to hire a cab and fill it to the headliner with groceries, blankets, medicine, etc. and send it to a family facing terrible tragedy, an act of kindness that is still remembered to this day.
    The steady trickle of tragedy surrounding the pit heads of Drumheller Valley eventually became called the blood tax. Some years the blood tax we paid was very dear.
    In 1925 alone, at least a dozen Drumheller miners were killed and another 50 seriously, often permanently, injured.  In 1926, three miners were killed mere days before Christmas Day, leaving behind young families to face their first Christmas without their father.
    Today, Drumheller is a successful and prosperous community. Luckily, our young men no longer need to risk their lives by digging the deep. Our coal is no longer required to fuel the development of a great nation. But for generations, Drumheller coal was needed to run the trains that brought immigrants out west. Drumheller coal was used to heat our homes, it cooked our meals, and turned on our lights. Drumheller Coal was vital to the development of western Canada.
    Thus it can be said, that the wealth and prosperity we take for granted today, is largely due to the blood tax paid by those coal miners and the families they left behind.
    Every Christmas, there was hope and optimism in the mining towns that populated the Drumheller Valley. But in the back of everyone’s mind was the knowledge there was risk working underground.
    Not a Christmas would go by in this valley without at least one family losing a loved one in the mines. And for at least 26 Drumheller families, that tragedy occurred. The blood tax came due at a time we like to think of “as the most wonderful time of the year.”

Valley schools pursue high quality education for nearly a century

    The educational institutions in the Drumheller valley have been providing high quality education for students for nearly a century. Today there are several schools, outreach centres, and a bustling international program.
    However, education in the valley sprang from humble beginnings a mere century ago.    
    The first Drumheller School District meeting was held on July 6, 1911. From there the board borrowed money to build Drumheller’s first school. The board hired their first teacher, Ms. Hollinquist, but she resigned after three months. Oliver McKee came in as replacement and served the district for many years.
    The first school was a small building built in the fall of 1911 and opened on January 2, 1912. There were 35 students in its first year.
    A second school, the Drumheller Public High School, was completed in 1914. The building boasted four rooms and two additional teachers were hired. Once the newer school was functioning, the old, small school was sold to the Presbyterian Church Board and used as a church for many years.
    In 1918, a one room school was constructed in Midland and the Drumheller Public High School added four more rooms. Two cottage style school buildings were erected in 1920 in Parkdale.
    In May of 1925 the Drumheller High School was engulfed in a fire. Students and teachers had to use community halls around town until the new brick Central School was completed in 1926.
    A brick school was built in Parkdale in 1928. Enrollment swelled rapidly and by 1936 crowding forced the cottages to be used for some classes.
    Schools also began to spring up in other areas of the valley, such as the East Coulee School, which opened in 1930 to accommodate the families that moved to the area during the coal rush.
    By today’s standards the schools in the valley were a little archaic. Corporal punishment was standard practice. Teachers were encouraged to use the strap for, what would be today, minor infractions such as day dreaming.
    “To this day I’m a terrible speller because I got the strap for getting two wrong on a spelling test,” said Vivian Dietz, a former student at the East Coulee School. “I never forgot that and was quite timid about spelling because I was afraid of getting the strap.
    “It was very negative,” continued Dietz. “It didn’t enable you to gain confidence and be confident in yourself.”
    Another quaint practice of schools in the valley was to post grades in The Drumheller Mail. Nothing was hidden and every mark was posted, including the confidence crushing failing grades. These were also the days when students would be held back should they fail. The observant reader might annually spot the same individuals in the same grade for multiple years.
    Despite the harsh environment, Dietz remarks, “The teachers did care about us learning.”
    “Schools back then were a lot stricter than they are now,” commented Robin Digby. “It’s interesting that people I’ve talked to that, while it was strict, have a positive attitude towards it.”
    A junior high school was built in 1948 on the Central School grounds, and in 1961 connected via a gymnasium and library to Central School.
    In 1958, parishioners at St. Anthony’s held a vote for the establishment of a separate school division. The vote was in decisive favour of opening a school and St. Anthony’s School was opened in 1959. 
    1962 saw the valley’s first vocational school, which shared the impressive building with a high school. The school was built in the east end of Riverside and residents now know it as the Drumheller Valley Secondary School.
    In 1967, what would become DVSS had a million dollar addition. The added east wing expanded space to provide vocational education to students. The east wing was eventually torn down in 2009.
    Until this point the remaining communities in the valley, East Coulee, Nacmine, Rosedale, Wayne, and Western Monarch were under the auspices of the Red Deer Valley School Division. In 1965, the two school divisions in the valley merged. Unfortunately this centralization, and declining population, led to the demise of the schools in those areas.
    Greentree School opened in September of 1968. The school was initially meant to function as junior high school, but as of 1990 it was teaching Grades 4-6, and K-6 in 2003.
    The Central School, Parkdale,  and East End School handled elementary education in the valley until 2003, when Central School shut its doors and the students went to Greentree School.
    In recent years the Drumheller valley has been drawing attention internationally. “It’s an indicator of the caliber of education that Alberta provides,” said Curtis LaPierre, principal of DVSS. “It’s an area we’ve had to be innovative to help maintain programs for our local students.”
    In the past century the schools in the valley have grown from a one room, one teacher operation to an education system that has three large schools and has been bringing students here from around the planet.

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