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Archeologists peer into Cochrane's past

Archeologists dig up the past along Highway 1A.

An archeology team has been working alongside Highway 1A for the past month as part of the design phase for the interchange upgrade intersecting with Highway 22. While many are just happy to see work begin on the long-awaited project, dig teams are unearthing some interesting remnants of Cochrane’s past.

“The Cochrane Ranche is a well-known historical and archeological site. It’s rated as HRV1 – Historical Resources Value 1. The only thing that could be more significant than this kind of site is something like Head Smashed In (Buffalo Jump) that has a UNESCO status,” said Sean Pickering, senior project archeologist with Bison Historical Services Ltd. His team was contracted through ISL Engineering and Land Services, who are designing the interchange, to fulfill the Historical Resources Act requirements for the area.

“(Cochrane Ranche) was recognized in 1970. This was recognized pretty much right away as an important historical site because it is the first sanctioned ranch in Alberta,” said Pickering of the sites historic significance, which fell under the protection of the Historical Resources Act when it was enacted in 1973.
In 1974 and 1977, surveys and excavations were done on the area where a number of old buildings still stood, which were later knocked down because they were a safety hazard. Foundation frames can still be seen in the area alongside interpretive signs west of the Cochrane Ranche parking lot.

Pickering’s team did an initial survey on the area last fall and after finding bits of foundation, they recommended the government conduct the current follow up excavations.

“We know that there was extensive use of the area through the late 19th and 20th centuries … There is also a pre-contact First Nations campsite around, there is actually a big one around the bend,” said Pickering of the information they are working with as they determine the roots of the items and foundations rising out of the dirt.

“In the north area, we were looking for pre-contact period First Nations artifacts. We found a few, not a whole lot, said Pickering, adding the finds included hand tools, the remains of a couple cooking hearths and a few stone tools. “It wasn’t very dense. I think maybe what this was was a little auxiliary area associated with the larger campsite.”

However, the new-era discoveries uncovered something unknown.

Pickering points to a partially-revealed brick floor that coincides with no historical records, as far as he knows.

“This is an unknown building,” he said. “In the 1970s this was all mapped out and there was no building with a brick floor here.”

More investigation will have to be done to determine the nature of the building, which Pickering said dates back to around 1900.

“When it was built we don’t actually know,” he said. “We need to compare it to historical photos to see if we can determine what it was. It doesn’t match structures built in the 40s. It is kind of something novel.”

On the south side of the site, closer to Highway 1A, finds have included a building that has a conflicting historical record and an old brick quarry that was an integral part of Alberta’s construction history.

Historical accounts say the building used to be a stable or bunkhouse.

During the excavation, Pickering said the team uncovered a lot of material, most of it badly burned because the 1920 structure was demolished and burned in 1971 to make way for a road bypass.

The few identifiable items include a crucifix from a rosary, stove door and a hood ornament from an old Packard car called the “Goddess of Speed.”
Each of the items tells its own story.

“The crucifix from a rosary tells us a little bit about the kind of people who were living and working around here, obviously we had some Catholics,” said Pickering. “The stove door was interesting because that suggests at some point that someone was living here and probably cooking. The structure was around for 50-plus years so it may have changed function over time and that is part of what we are trying to determine because there is some dispute in the historical accounts of what this is. Some people said it was a bunkhouse some people say it was a stable, I wonder if it wasn’t all of those things.

“Part of what makes archeology fun is we get to test the written historical account because people write things down and say this is the way it was and we get to come and test it and see was that the way it was or was it a little more complex or was it a little different.

“Context is king here. What is the most important thing is maybe not the artifacts themselves but their relationship to one another. They can tell us how people were using space.”

Further west along the highway is an old brick quarry that at one point was one of the largest brick operations in Alberta.

“This pit was very substantial right before World War I. At its height, it was producing 200,000 bricks a month. It was supplying most of Calgary,” said Pickering. “It made another start in the ‘20s but it didn’t go too well. The last bricks here were shipped to Lake Louise to build the chateau.”
The old pit is a graveyard of old machinery and rubble.

“Since it closed as a quarry, it’s been a general dumping ground up until at least the ‘70s,” said Pickering. “We’re finding a real mix of material from mixed eras from the ‘70s right back to probably the turn of the century.

Pointing to various excavation holes, Pickering points out pieces of a car, a tractor tire, a licence plate, cow bones, people’s lunches.

 “I think people were just pushing stuff into the pit for decades,” he said.

Once Pickering’s team is completed its study, it will file a final report with the Government of Alberta and the artifacts will be catalogued and sent to a storage facility in Edmonton that’s associated with the Royal Alberta Museum, which takes custody of all the artifacts.

Whether they are put on display later is determined by the Royal Alberta Museum, but some artifacts could find their way back to Cochrane.

“It does happen sometimes that local museums will request artifacts and they will go on loan from the Royal Alberta Museum,” said Pickering.

For the most part, the study is designed to collect historic relics and record significant finds to preserve in the historical record, but it is virtually unheard of that they would lead to a development being stopped.

“The way the Historical Resources Act is set up is it’s in a very pro-development way,” said Pickering. “Because we know this is a known historical site they had us come out and do work but the end result is almost always to make sure a development goes forward.“

Soren Poschmann, environmental lead with ISL Engineering and Land Services, added the work Pickering’s team is doing can factor into the design of the interchange.

“We’re finding out where these things are so we can make those kinds of decisions and pass it on to the engineering team,” he said, adding in some cases designs could be done in a way to avoid significant historical areas.

However, it would take an earth-shattering find to halt a development altogether.

“I’ve never seen it happen,” said Pickering, adding human remains or a very significant First Nations ceremonial site such as a medicine wheel might impact the future of a development. “But, there wouldn’t be anything like that here.”

Pickering, who describes himself as a history buff and a meticulous person, said he loves his work.

“We get to romp all over the bush and go where people have not walked for a long time,” he said. “We get to work with First Nations groups a lot and that is really rewarding getting perspectives of elders and members of the community.”

His most memorable site was a place called Wally’s Beach on the St. Mary’s Reservoir.

“It’s the oldest site in Alberta. It’s 13,300 years old and we actually found extinct ice age camel bones and mammoth footprints,” he said. “We’ve worked on sites where we’ve found stone spearheads that go back 10,000-plus years.”

Anna Neale, communications advisor with Alberta Transportation, said to date a construction schedule for the interchange has not yet been determined.

“Funding for the project will be considered as part of the overall capital planning and budget process leading to a budget in the fall of this year. That said, once the project has been tendered, construction is expected to take approximately two years,” she stated in an email to the Cochrane Eagle.


Chris Puglia

About the Author: Chris Puglia

Chris is a SAIT-trained journalist with more than 20 years of experience.
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