Naturally I spoke with politicians, including Premier Jason Kenney, and political analysts. But I also tried to meet a wide array of Albertans, traveling south from Calgary to Longview. While there I was reminded, in a very personal way, of the direct connection to the province’s history many Albertans hold, as well as the roller coaster ways of its oil and gas industry.
Alberta Highway 22, the Cowboy Trail, is the scenic route to Longview, although simply calling it scenic is greatly understating things. Looming to the west of Alberta’s foothills country, the Rocky Mountains were spectacularly painted with fresh snow. (The early and heavy snowfalls were less welcomed by farmers in southern Alberta who are now relying on a break in the weather to finally finish harvesting.)
The foothills are the epicenter of the ranching lore that remains a major part of Alberta’s collective identity even if relatively few of its citizens now spend their days moving herds around grasslands. The Twin Cities Hotel in the center of Longview also signifies another time in the area’s history. At its north end, a replica wooden oil derrick looms.
While the massive reservoir found under the Leduc No. 1 well in 1947, near Edmonton to the north, turned Alberta into a major oil power, its energy industry actually started down in the Turner Valley area at the height of the Great Depression.
Like the oil sands center of Fort McMurray before the oil price collapse about five years ago, Longview became famous as a boom town, one so lively it presumptively adopted the name Little New York. But it wasn’t alone. Its twin, and the source of the hotel’s name when it opened in 1938, was Little Chicago, just up the highway to the north. Both became places to make good money, quickly.
In cities like Calgary, native-born Albertans often seem like curiosities. The province has long lured people from across Canada and around the world. That includes Mr. Kenney, who was born in Ontario and raised in Saskatchewan.
But because Alberta became a province only in 1905, it still doesn’t take much effort to find people whose grandparents and even parents were part of the European settlement of what has become Alberta’s farming and ranching areas.
The pioneers of Little Chicago included my mother-in-law, Barb Coutts, and her mother, Kitty Leman. Kitty and her husband, Pete, both immigrants from Britain, were trying to farm with little success in Agassiz, British Columbia, when more than 20 wells sprang up in Little Chicago, their flares lighting the town. Kitty, with her daughter in tow, arrived to capture some of the money sloshing around with a cook wagon that catered to oil workers.
Pete eventually quit farming, was named postmaster and set up an adjacent store. The opening of the post office, apparently on orders from Ottawa, brought an end to the Little Chicago name. The official replacement was Royalties.
Today Royalties isn’t even a ghost town, it has vanished. While a few pump jacks still buck up and down in the area, Leduc changed the equation and the town gradually withered away, its buildings knocked down or hauled away. Alongside Highway 22, uphill from Longview is its only remnant: a memorial cairn topped by a miniature derrick and surrounded by photographs from the glory days, including one of Pete’s store and post office, and interpretive panels.
Aside from a brief spell in Calgary during the mid-1950s, Barb went on to live most of her life in Ontario before her death in 2000. But her name still lives on in the foothills even if her onetime hometown doesn’t. On the back of the cairn she is listed, as Barb Leman, among the people who attended the Royalties’ long vanished school before serving in World War II.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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