When bodies roamed the earth
Remains from old cemetery moved to new spot - most of them, anyway
Over a century ago, the dead walked the streets of Athabasca – or rather they were carried through.
In November 1911, the booming population drove the remains of deceased loved ones from the town’s cemetery in downtown Athabasca to a new cemetery, in what is now Wood Heights.
The first cemetery was approximately located on 49th Avenue between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Ukrainian Catholic Church, 450 feet east to west and 150 feet north to south.
“For 25 years, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave pieces of land to use as a cemetery,” said Athabasca archivist Marilyn Mol. “It was between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, because there was nothing there then.”
As the population grew, the Village of Athabasca Landing began looking at options for a new cemetery.
In a news article from 1910, the village council purchased a plot of land from the federal government for a new cemetery east of Athabasca.
Mol said that various church records were consulted, and showed that between 80 and 85 people had been buried by the churches.
“As other people had been buried there before the churches were built or records kept, the contractor had to be thorough,” she noted.
A man by the name of J. Crawford was awarded the tender to move the deceased for $10 a body and install a fence at the new cemetery for $40. The move cost the town $1,490 to relocate the remains and provide new coffins.
In November 1911, Crawford began the work to move the graves from one cemetery to another, Mol said.
“If you, as a relative, wanted to look after your own dearly departed you could, but otherwise Mr. Crawford moved people. He moved people and he moved tombstones if there were some,” she continued. “Often, there had been, let’s say a wooden cross that had fallen apart over 25 years, because it was a 25-year-old cemetery.”
After the move, she noted that some people did not have a marker, and there were some who never had a marker.
As the dig continued, Mol said she has heard stories of bodies being missed, only to be discovered by utility workers and the like decades later.
“One lady, who is an elderly lady, told me the story in 2016 that her mother-in-law told her, that in 1911 there were several graves located on 49th Avenue and 50th Street where the CIBC Bank is located,” she said. “So they got totally outside of where the gravesite was. But they might have been fairly old, and buried there before anybody was even living that far south.”
She speculated that the first graves belonged to people of First Nations or Métis descent. Athabasca’s settler population was primarily made of young people in the early days, so it would have been a while before accidents or other incidents happened.
Fast forward to 2016, a doctors office sits on one portion of the old cemetery. The other part has never been built on.
We do not know why the one section remains grown with evergreens, the same as it was more than a century ago, although the land is unprotected. Perhaps something lingers that Crawford missed?
-With files from Dali Carmichael