Bill Waiser

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Outlaw turned farmer tried to run from his past

When asked why the early cattle industry in present-day southwestern Saskatchewan was never as violent as its American counterpart, a ranch hand suggested, “the alkali water (cowboys drank) up here took it out of them, and the winters froze out what was left.”

But there were outlaws operating in the border country. One of the most notorious was Joseph Erving Kelly, more popularly known as Sam Kelly or by his alias, Red Nelson.

Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1859, the tall, lanky Kelly, renowned for his deadly aim as much as for his bright, red beard, came to prominence in the Saskatchewan-Montana border country in the 1890s when he fell in with American Frank Jones and his criminal friends. Over the next few years, the Nelson-Jones gang, sometimes working with the rough-and-tumble Dutch Henry, terrorized local ranchers and settlers, stealing horses and rustling cattle, when not robbing trains and businesses.

The North-West Mounted Police responded to the crime spree by setting up a detachment in the Big Muddy Valley, but the gang eluded capture by hiding in caves near Peake’s Butte in the badlands or just slipping across the line.

Sometime after 1902, perhaps tired of running, Kelly abandoned his life of crime and tried his hand at ranching. But he was always afraid that his past would catch up with him, and he left the area in 1913 and apparently headed to northern Alberta.

In the spring of 1914, Kelly surfaced in Debden, northwest of Prince Albert, with three friends from his Big Muddy days: Louis Morency, Ernest Schumann, and Jim Moody. All four men applied for homesteads in the area, near what is known today as Kelly Lake.

Homestead records indicate that Kelly applied for 160 acres in late March 1914. But he didn’t like the parcel of land and applied for a different quarter section the next month. That homestead (SE 15-53-6 W3) was patented in 1920.

Kelly might have reinvented himself as a pioneer bachelor farmer, but word about his outlaw past was soon whispered in the community. His pal Morency liked to talk about the old days—how he had served as lookout for the gang and would put a barrel on its side to alert the boys to the presence of the police.

Alphide Jean, a fellow homesteader from Quebec, heard these stories first-hand. He was also one of Kelly’s few friends — he helped fence his property — and wrote about his experiences 60 years later.

Jean said that local people quickly learned not to ask Kelly what he did before arriving in Debden. The former outlaw kept to himself and would not let anyone on his property without permission. If he took a dislike to someone, they knew not to cross his path. He had a soft spot, though, for children and always had candy for them.

Kelly took great care with his appearance and worked at being a gentleman — a far cry from his outlaw persona. He was never scruffy. His clothes were always clean and he shaved regularly. Gone was his trademark red beard. He also never cussed. But Jean remembered that his piercing blue eyes could still look right through a person.

There were also signs of another life. Kelly was a crack shot — able to dehorn a bull with his Winchester rifle from over 100 yards away. And he always paid cash for hired help at the end of the day or for supplies in town.

Kelly was never much of a farmer. He had only a few acres in crop — mostly feed for his horses. His large garden, though, kept him supplied with fresh produce. He also traded eggs to some of the local settlers. He showered affection on his horses and chickens and talked to them as if they were all that mattered in the world.

In the spring of 1937, Kelly suffered a breakdown. Neighbours tried to nurse him along, but he became increasingly confused and ornery. Their concern turned to alarm when they found him shooting at the water barrels around his house, claiming he was being followed, and they arranged to have him committed to the Battleford Mental Hospital.

The 78-year-old Kelly died there in October and was buried in a numbered grave. He found in death the anonymity he desired — and could finally stop running from his past.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:In keeping with his desire for anonymity, there are no known photographs of Sam Kelly.
Photo Source: Blossom Communications

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Twins pressed into service as teachers in rural school

An educated population was a priority for the new province of Saskatchewan.

One of the provincial government’s first acts was the passage of a university act in 1907. School districts also had to be organized to keep pace with the steadily growing population of rural children, while teachers had to be found to staff the small, generally isolated one-room schools. It was a formidable challenge.

During the eight-year period from 1905 to 1913, the number of elementary schools in the province jumped from 405 to 2,747.

Nor did the demand lessen for several years. For the 1916-17 school year, one-half of all registered children in Saskatchewan were in Grade 1.

The government sought to provide a steady supply of teachers by opening normal schools in Regina and Saskatoon to train teachers, as well as establishing a system of high schools.

This preparation and training may have helped teachers in rural schools better deal with the difficulty of handling eight grades in one classroom, but they still had to contend with poor pay, inadequate facilities, and uneven attendance.

Cold winter weather and the cost of keeping buildings heated often kept schools closed from Christmas until late February. Children also stayed home in the early fall to help with harvest.

Students of all ages were consequently concentrated in the primary grades, while many quit before completing Grade 8.

When Saskatchewan’s population peaked in the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 5,000 school districts in the province. Many of these rural one-room schools fell on hard times because of the Great Depression.

The buildings, never known for their comfort, were allowed to deteriorate. There was also a lack of educational materials and supplies, while teachers not only had their salaries slashed or held back, but often had to depend on the generosity of local residents to help tide them over.

Then, the Second World War took away hundreds of qualified teachers who volunteered for duty. Scrambling to keep their schools open, several district boards turned to teenaged women, with no formal training or experience, to serve as study supervisors. Many were not much older than their students.

Jean and Joan Louden, fraternal twins, were among the new crop of young teachers.

Born in Willow Heights (formerly Esplen), east of North Battleford, in 1935, the pair grew up on a family farm where education and music were valued — and hard work was a fact of life.

Despite the sacrifices of depression and war, Bill and Carol Louden made sure their daughters had opportunity. Jean and Joan both took piano lessons, first from their mother at home and then in North Battleford.

The two girls also secured their high school credits through home-schooling and a curriculum drawn from government-approved correspondence materials — again, under the direction of their mom, herself a former teacher and graduate of the Saskatoon normal school.

The 17-year-old twins completed Grade 12, with high honours, in June 1952. They also passed the Grade 10 piano exam of the Royal Conservatory of Music that same month.

What next? They were too young to start university. Besides, they lacked the requisite high school French course for admission.

That’s when they were approached by a senior North Battleford education official and asked to assume study supervisor duties at the Forest Hall rural school.

They agreed on the condition that they could split the teaching. Joan would handle the morning subjects, while Jean would take the afternoon. They both needed the extra time to continue with their piano training.

Their dad converted a newly-built wooden grain bin into a two-room teacherage and moved it next to the Forest Hall school. One of the rooms was taken up by the women’s piano, a gift from their grandfather.

Jean and Joan put their plan to work for the next two years. Despite the demands of their teaching duties, juggling several grades at once, they completed the Teacher’s ARCT Diploma piano requirements, with honours, in June 1954.

Their next stop was the Saskatoon Business College and an executive secretarial course, followed by separate careers and marriage.

In looking back at the experience, Joan admitted she was probably too young and inexperienced to be “a warmly enthusiastic teacher.” But she helped introduce her students to a world that was “pretty far removed from the reality of their lives.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Jean (left) and Joan Louden on Saskatoon’s 2nd Avenue during the winter of 1954-55.
Photo Source: Joan Sinclair

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

Saskatchewan has had its share of hard winters. They don’t need exaggeration.

One of the most deadly was the killing winter of 1906-07. The winter began innocently with the first fall of snow on Nov. 5, 1906. Then, a little more than a week later, a brutal three-day blizzard raged across the West, dumping several feet of snow.

Pioneers called it “the earliest, most violent, and longest storm in living memory.” December hinted at a return to normal weather, but a series of heavy snowfalls, accompanied by record low temperatures, pounded the region through most of January and February.

Spring brought little relief. It was as if winter would never let go.

When ranch hands in southwestern Saskatchewan went to assess the carnage in the spring and count the stock losses, they found dead cows hanging in trees in the coulees because the snow had been so deep.

Wallace Stegner, in his classic Wolf Willow, named it “carrion spring.” Rancher R.D. Symons was blunter. He called it “the big smell.”

There was also a terrible winter in early 1947. A staggering four feet of snow fell in parts of southern Saskatchewan in January. Then, the wind started to howl. For one long week — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 — one of the nastiest winter storms in Canadian history raged across the prairies.

The blowing snow created incredibly huge drifts that made travel dangerous, if not impossible. Rail lines and roads were choked by snow, while telegraph lines were either blown down or buried.

People in rural areas were completely cut off from the outside world and had to survive as best they could. One farmer reportedly cut a hole in the roof of his two-storey barn to get inside to milk the cows.

The record for several consecutive severe winters probably belongs to the late 18th century — the consequence, in part, of a protracted La Niña event over the Pacific Ocean in the late 1770s, followed by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783. Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants kept a sobering record of the dismal conditions.

The snow was so deep during the winter of 1783-84 that dog teams could not be used at some HBC posts for several months.

The winters of 1788-89 and 1789-90 were even worse, arriving in the early fall and lasting into the late spring. “In the whole of this winter,” Mitchell Oman at South Branch House complained in early April 1790, “there has been the most Snow that has been seen Inland this 15 years past.”

Before the month was over, another foot of snow fell. Malcolm Ross at Cumberland House was just as exasperated. “I never knew the spring to be so backward before,” he observed on May 4, “nor the ice to stay so long.”

These colder temperatures drastically reduced glacier melt in the spring, and the annual canoe brigades could not leave the region on time because “there was no water in the river.”

Indigenous people were accustomed to these climatic fluctuations. But their newly acquired horses were not, and they died in great numbers in the 1780s. Hunting bands responded by raiding rival bands for replacement stock.

The late 1790s were little better. Winter arrived so early in the fall of 1795 that it was possible to ride horseback across the frozen North Saskatchewan River by mid-November.

The annual canoe brigades were delayed again in these years — not because of low water but the lateness of the spring. “The Country around has the appearance of Winter,” James Bird gloomily reported on May 2, 1797, “the Snow being still deep on the ground.”

The HBC canoe brigade somehow managed to reach Cumberland House on June 4, only to find “the (Cedar) lake is still frozen over apparently as solid as it was in the middle of winter.”

The next two winters were just as hard.

“I have never experienced so miserable a time … inland,” William Tomison complained in November 1798, “and no prospect of its mending.”

But the weather did mend. All Tomison had to do — as Indigenous people knew — was wait until next season. The winter of 1799-1800 was so unseasonably mild that bison herds and the hunting bands that pursued them stayed out on the plains.

People probably forgot, at least momentarily, how bad Saskatchewan winters could be.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Even a locomotive is challenged by Saskatchewan winters. 
Photo Source:Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A27895

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Agricultural potential of southern prairies was much debated

Desert or garden? These conflicting images were at the centre of the mid-19th-century debate over the agricultural potential of the semi-arid prairie district of present-day Saskatchewan.

Could farmers make a living from the prairie soil? Was the region better suited for stock raising? Or was it marginal land that could provide only a bare living?

In the late 1850s, the Palliser (1857-59) and Hind (1857-58) expeditions were sent to the western interior to assess the region’s future as a commercial farming frontier.

Neither expedition was impressed with the open prairies and both declared that the area south of present-day Saskatoon to the international border formed a triangle of infertile lands – also known as Palliser’s triangle.

This finding was not surprising. Both expeditions were asked to identify areas where agriculture could best be initiated, and they clearly favoured the prairie parkland or what they called the fertile belt.

Palliser and Hind were also outsiders, unfamiliar with the peculiar plains environment, and simply assumed that the treelessness was a sure sign of aridity, if not barrenness.

Jump forward two decades to the late 1870s and the southern grasslands were reassessed, but under different circumstances.

Ottawa had acquired the region in 1870 and expected most, if not all, of its new western empire to be fertile. How else would it entice hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of prospective farmers to the region?

The potential of the prairie district therefore had to be reconsidered — the very idea of bad land was no longer acceptable.

Enter botanist John Macoun, whose enthusiasm for the North-West and its future knew no bounds.

Traveling during exceptionally wet summers in 1879 and 1880, Macoun found growing conditions in the South Saskatchewan country ideal for the large-scale agricultural colonization envisaged by Ottawa. He even challenged the common assumption that settlement should be initially confined to the parkland and instead promoted the virtues of homesteading the open prairie.

Where Palliser and Hind had once found an irreclaimable desert, Macoun discovered a garden of unlimited potential.

This portrayal of the grasslands as a kind of agricultural eden — where the land would flower if broken by the plough — was reckless and potentially harmful. Just like Palliser and Hind before him, Macoun was guilty of misreading the landscape.

Instead of recognizing the prairies as a distinctive ecosystem, the botanist saw only what he wanted to see, or more accurately, what he expected to see.

There was, however, another, more nuanced assessment of the southern prairies during this period.

In 1873-74, Great Britain and the United States jointly marked the 49th parallel across western Canada. Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson served as one of the scientists on the British side.

For two consecutive field seasons, the diminutive Dawson wandered widely — as much as 50 miles from the boundary — carefully investigating the landscape and any interesting phenomena. He paid particular attention to geological formations, especially any lignite deposits and their possible use as fuel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also worked up the natural history.

Dawson’s report, published as a thick monograph, did much to foster his reputation as one of Canada’s foremost scientists.  He would later serve as the director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

His book was also important for recognizing the agricultural challenges of the short-grass prairie. Unlike other investigators who imposed their own values on the grasslands, Dawson argued that settlement of the region should be “a natural growth taking advantage of the capabilities of the country.”

Some districts might support grain cultivation, while other areas might be better suited to stock raising. In other words, variability was the region’s defining feature. It was too simplistic to make sweeping generalizations, like desert or garden.

But the Canadian government wanted settlement policy to be uniform across the prairie west and adopted a homestead plan where every settler got the same 160-acre grant, regardless of the land quality.

This system may have made for administrative efficiencies, but farming success on the open prairies varied from place to place and from year to year. In many places, more than a quarter-section was needed. It also took several years of practical experience to convert a pioneer farm to a commercial operation.

Until then, the story for many first homesteaders was one of disappointment, hardship, and abandonment.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: George Mercer Dawson’s sketch of the Great Valley in southern Saskatchewan. 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Grain Elevator in Melville for 1939 Royal Tour

1939 royal tour turned Melville into Saskatchewan’s largest city … for a day

“It made us … It came at just the right time.”

Those were the words of Queen Elizabeth, better known as the ‘Queen Mom,’ in reflecting on her landmark 1939 tour of Canada with her husband, King George VI.

It was the first time a reigning British monarch had visited Canada. Canadians came out in record numbers — nowhere more than in Saskatchewan — as the couple crossed the country and back.

By the time the royals headed home, it was estimated that half a million people, more than 50 per cent of the Saskatchewan population, had seen the couple.

Even the royals, who had been unexpectedly thrust into their roles with the abdication of King Edward VIII two years earlier, were astounded by their reception.

At each stop on the westward leg of the tour across the southern prairies, even at small towns along the Canadian Pacific Line where the royal train was not expected to stop, huge crowds gathered, if only to catch a passing glimpse of the king and queen.

More than 100,000 waited through light drizzle in Regina on May 25. Another 40,000 braved a heavy downpour in Moose Jaw.

The rain did not deter the royals either. They insisted that activities continue as planned, even going as far as to ask that the top be left down on their car as they made their way through the streets in each city.

The long-awaited break in the drought, coupled with the arrival of the king and queen, seemed a sign of good things to come.

On the return trip across the country, the royal train travelled across the prairie parkland on the Canadian National Line with stops in Saskatoon and Melville on June 3.

Melville was one of the last western stops on the tour, and one of the last chances for people to see the couple.

Farm families reportedly came from as far as two hundred miles away. Cars and trucks rolled in all day from all directions, including Manitoba and the northern United States. It would reportedly take three hours to clear the traffic jam.

Special trains, meanwhile, brought groups from nearby towns. The towns of Yorkton, Esterhazy, and Canora simply closed for the day.

By the early evening, several hours before the royal couple was scheduled to arrive, hundreds, then thousands of people began to gather at the Melville train station, where a huge sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Their Majesties,” had been painted on the side of the Pool elevator.

Those in attendance included 600 Great War veterans and an estimated 10,000 schoolchildren.  A 200-piece orchestra was part of the celebrations.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the royal train pulled into Melville to the deafening roar of the crowd. Moments later, King George and Queen Elizabeth stepped into a blue spotlight to another thunderous cheer.

Smiling and waving, but unable to see much beyond the platform because of the darkness, Queen Elizabeth asked that the spotlight be passed over the audience. She and the king were stunned by the size of the crowd: an estimated 60,000 people.

In one day, Melville, with a usual population of 4,000, had become Saskatchewan’s largest city — bigger than Regina or Saskatoon at the time.

The couple briefly mingled with the crowd before returning to their train just 20 minutes after their arrival. As they waved from the back of the last car before disappearing inside, fireworks were set off.

Melville’s extraordinary welcome made headlines across North America. Reporters were particularly struck by how the region’s immigrant population, mostly from central and eastern Europe, had so eagerly embraced the visiting couple.

The reception also left a lasting impression on the royals. In a telegram to town officials the next day, King George confessed, “The Queen and I will not easily forget the scene which greeted us at Melville.”

More than anything else, though, the Melville celebrations reassured British officials of Canadian loyalty to the Crown.

Throughout the royal tour, there were regular dispatches about the deteriorating situation in Europe and the looming threat of another war. Naturally, British officials travelling with the royal couple wondered how Canadians would respond.

The brief Melville stop left no doubt.


This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The Melville Sask Pool elevator was painted in honour of the 1939 royal visit 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Bill Waiser Order of Canada Julie Payette

Bill Waiser invested into Order of Canada

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, invested Saskatoon author and historian Bill Waiser as a member of  the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, ON January 24, 2018. Bill was invested alongside 46 other Canadians (two companions, eight Officers and 36 other Members) into the Order of Canada.

“Bill Waiser is widely known as ‘Saskatchewan’s historian.’ Distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, he is recognized not only for the uncompromising quality of his research, but also for his abilities as an adept storyteller. Through his repertoire of award-winning works, he has skilfully told the story of his province and its people to both academic readers and the wider public. His writings on western and northern Canada are considered major contributions to the heritage of these regions.”

“Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. Close to 7 000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and have taken to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”). Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.” – Governor General of Canada’s Website.


Will Jackson served as Riel’s secretary

On Dec. 12, 1951, 90-year-old Honoré Jaxon, looking forlorn if not lost, was deposited on the sidewalk outside his midtown Manhattan apartment in New York City. Behind him steadily grew a pile of books, magazines, and papers. By the time city officials had finished emptying his cellar apartment, the stack measured six feet high, 10 feet deep, and 35 feet long.

He was being evicted.

Jaxon’s photograph, with his library now taking up a good part of a city block, ran as a human interest story in the New York dailies. But little was said about how the dishevelled old man was once the voice of settler protest in the Saskatchewan country in the 1880s and worked closely with Métis leader Louis Riel to secure a better future for his people.

Jaxon was born William Henry Jackson in Toronto in 1861. Educated in Classics at the University of Toronto, he moved with his family to Prince Albert, then part of the North-West Territories, in 1882. His older brother Eastwood worked as a druggist for the frontier town.

Young Will soon became involved in a local movement, known as the “agitation,” that railed against federal land policies.

In 1883, he launched a second Prince Albert newspaper — appropriately titled “The Voice of the People.” He also played a prominent role in the formation of a Settlers’ Rights Association that included French and English Métis leaders, as well as disaffected whites. The failure to secure action — the Department of Interior should have been called the Department of Indifference — led to the return of Louis Riel in the summer of 1884 to head the protest movement.

Jackson admired Riel and came to serve as his personal secretary, helping to organize meetings and send petitions. His devotion to the Métis leader was underscored when he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith and given the name “Joseph.”

But when Riel opted for more forceful measures to shake the federal government of its lethargy and declared a Métis provisional government at Batoche on March 19, 1885, Jackson suffered a breakdown.

Because of his mental state, Jackson spent the better part of the North-West Rebellion as a prisoner of Riel. He was captured when Batoche fell and taken into custody. The Canadian government was determined to prosecute any whites who participated in the troubles, and Jaxon was charged with treason-felony because of his association with Riel.

Jackson was held in Prince Albert for more than a month before being taken by wagon to Regina for trial. The detention seemed to push him over the edge.

Jackson defied the military escort at every opportunity — including soiling himself, to the disgust of the other prisoners. When he was forced to take a bath in a slough because the stench had become unbearable, he disappeared under the surface, then bolted from the water and ran naked across the prairie. From that time forward, he remained shackled to another prisoner until he reached the territorial capital.

Jackson’s date with justice was short-lived. With the agreement of both the prosecution and defence, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to the Selkirk Lunatic Asylum in Manitoba, a stay that lasted only until Nov. 2, 1885, when he quietly walked away from the facility.

Jackson surfaced in the Chicago, Illinois area as labour organizer Honoré Jaxon. He also underwent a second conversion — this time to the Baha’i faith.

Jackson briefly returned to Canada before the Great War, visiting Saskatoon during a 1909 sewer workers’ strike. He then settled down in New York, where he travelled in socialist circles when not fighting various progressive causes.

His Saskatchewan days, though, haunted him and he started collecting material about western Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He also talked about writing a book.

By 1951, Jackson was destitute and in failing health. His documents and other historical materials — what he called his library — eventually made his basement apartment a fire trap and led to his eviction that December.

Jackson managed to save a small sampling of his papers, albeit temporarily, but the remaining two tons were sold as waste paper. He found refuge with a friend but was hospitalized and died in the new year.

His passing would have gone largely unnoticed if not for an archivist in western Canada who twigged to the name in a news story and made the connection to Will Jackson. By then, his library was gone.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Honore Jaxon and his library on a New York City street in December 1951. 
Photo Source:New York Daily News N1421873

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Saskatoon Train Wreck 1943

Trains collided on Saskatoon’s west side during Second World War

Was it deliberate? That certainly seemed a possibility in wartime Saskatoon.

At 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1943, a Canadian National freight train ploughed into a Canadian Pacific passenger train at the diamond crossing northeast of the Union stockyards. It was the kind of incident that screamed sabotage.

During the dark days of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied western Europe, Saskatoon readied itself for an enemy invasion.

In September 1941, and then again in October 1942, mock attacks were carried out on the city’s government and communication services.  The exercises were intended to prepare citizens for the day when the war reached Saskatoon.

There were also regular fire, police, and first aid drills — involving more than 1,000 men and women — in anticipation of an air attack on Saskatoon. Many citizens genuinely believed that the Luftwaffe might bomb the city. Some might even have lost sleep over the prospect of U-boats prowling the South Saskatchewan.

Salvage drives, meanwhile, encouraged the collection of rags, metal, and rubber for the war effort. The campaigns featured such slogans as “Get in the scrap with your scrap” and “Heap it on Hitler.”

The greatest worry, though, were enemy agents — known as “fifth columnists” — embedded in the city and bent on sabotage. This fear was fed by military officials with overactive imaginations.

The local Canadian Corps claimed the city was home to thousands of pro-Nazi sympathizers disguised as ordinary citizens. And a visiting member of the British Admiralty warned that Nazi spies could relay compromising information to Germany in only minutes.

The January 1943 train collision occurred against this backdrop. Star-Phoenix coverage of the crash was found among war stories about the Allied bombing of Berlin and the North Africa campaign. Those who were already paranoid might have easily concluded that the collision was an act of subversion.

After all, both the CPR passenger train and CN freight train had received all-clear signals on their respective tracks. There was no reason for either train to slow down or even wait. How was that possible?

The initial response from the two railway companies was that it appeared to be a terrible accident — a finding that did not change.

Indeed, it was incredible that this kind of collision had not happened earlier.

Saskatoon prided itself from the early 20th century as the “hub city.” Three railway companies — the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Canadian Northern — had lines to and from the city. (The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern were folded into Canadian National Railways after the Great War.)

By 1912, a remarkable 27 passengers trains passed through Saskatoon daily. Freight trains added to the railway traffic.

Because of the number of lines, tracks of competing companies sometimes had to cross one another; these level crossings were known as diamond junctions.

One was located on the city’s west side, northeast of the Union stockyards (east of Dundonald Avenue), where the north-east Canadian National line crossed the east-west Canadian Pacific line. Traffic over these diamond crossings was regulated by lights on the tracks.

CPR passenger train #51 left Saskatoon an hour late on Jan. 16, 1943. It’s not known why the signals were green — probably human error — but the westbound train reached the diamond at the same moment as CN freight #782.

The two locomotives collided and spilled down an embankment, one engine rolling on top of the other. It could have been much worse. If the CP train had reached the diamond only seconds earlier, the CN engine would have ploughed into one of the passenger cars. As it was, only the CP engine and tender went off the track.

Surprisingly, there was only one fatality. Fifty-five-year-old Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN freight, was badly scalded by steam escaping from the locomotive. He died the next day in St. Paul’s hospital.

The other crew members from both trains, including CN fireman H.W. Hall (father of future NHL goalie Glenn Hall), sustained only minor injuries.

Railway crews working with a crane quickly cleared away the wreckage and opened up both lines.  Traffic resumed shortly after midnight.

There was a war to be won. And nothing was going to stand in the way of an Allied victory.

A special thanks to Harvey McKee, who told me about the collision.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Wrecking crews clear away two locomotives from collision.
Photo Source:B-1864 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Pets helped relieve isolation of pioneer homesteads

Distance and isolation. These were the twin problems of rural Saskatchewan in the early 20th century.

The homestead system may have attracted tens of thousands to the province with the promise of 160 acres of free land, but the emphasis on individual land holdings — the idea that everyone should have their own quarter-section — effectively dispersed settlers over the landscape.  Indeed, those in pioneer districts seemed to have stepped backward in time. Basic services, such as a road or a store, were largely non-existent.

Geoffrey Blainey talked about how distance was one of the defining features in Australian history in his book, The Tyranny of Distance (1966). Saskatchewan homesteaders would likely have nodded in agreement with his findings, especially his observation that “distance (was) tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind.”

It was this overwhelming sense of isolation, of being alone, that weighed on homesteaders. It was even worse if they lacked a timepiece or simply lost track of what day it was.

They missed family and friends and craved contact with the outside world. Any news in isolated districts was always old news, but nonetheless welcome. Families re-read letters and newspapers as if they were the last word on a topic.

They also visited distant neighbours, walking for miles if necessary for the companionship. It was always encouraging when somebody new took up land.

Pets helped relieve the loneliness. In fact, most photographs of early homesteads invariably include a dog. Cats might also have been part of the household, but in keeping with their temperament, they probably didn’t care about being in the picture.

Perce and Lillian Turner knew all about the value of dogs and cats on their pioneer farm. In the late spring of 1906, they homesteaded in the Eagle Hills (just north of present-day Herschel) at a place named Glenallen (township 32, range 16, west of the 3rd).

Perce, of Bealton in southwestern Ontario, had headed west first by train, intent on finding a suitable quarter-section before sending for Lillian. His “setter’s effects” included four horses, one cow, one pig, 16 chickens and a dog named “Cabin.”

When Lillian arrived in Saskatoon a month later, Perce had already lost the dog. He had tied Cabin to the wagon as he headed out along the Goose trail, but the dog had whined to be let loose. It was never seen again.

Lillian regretted the dog’s disappearance as soon as she reached the homestead. She had hoped that Cabin would keep predators away from the hens and their eggs.

She also quickly came to appreciate why another homesteader arrived with a box of cats. “One can hardly grow a garden,” she wrote her parents, “without cats to catch the gophers. I don’t know how I will get on, but will make a desperate effort to manage in some way.”

Perce also missed Cabin. In early May, he went hunting in a nearby slough and shot a duck for supper. But the water was too cold and he came back empty-handed and wet above his knees.

The Turners got a new dog — barely more than a pup — from one of their neighbours in June. Lillian immediately thought of her garden. “He does not know much yet,” she reported, “but we hope to learn him to catch gophers.”

Lillian’s other worry was the mice, which invaded their one-room shack “in droves.” She set traps throughout the place and caught “lots of them.” But she got so desperate — especially when she found a family of sleeping mice in her good linen inside a chest — that she told her mother that “I would not begrudge $5.00 for a good cat just now.”

The new dog, in the meantime, was kidnapped. Perce went to town with a neighbour to get some lumber and arranged for the man’s son to stay with Lillian. But the boy got scared as soon as it got dark the first night and fled home with the dog for protection.

Lillian was not upset for long. Perce returned to their homestead with a stray cat he found on the streets in Saskatoon. The mice “disappeared as if by magic.”

As far as Lillian was probably concerned, the dog need never come back.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Two boys with their pipe-smoking dog in the Prince Albert area, circa 1910 
Photo Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan S-B12622

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

The saga of John Rowand’s bones

It was his farewell journey.

In May 1854, Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor John Rowand left Fort Edmonton with the annual spring Saskatchewan brigade. It would be his last trip down the North Saskatchewan.

Rowand planned to attend the annual council meeting at Norway House in June, say his goodbyes to old friends in the trade, and then push on to Montreal and retirement.

But during a stopover at Fort Pitt, Rowand died from an apparent heart attack. So began one of the most bizarre sagas — at least, for his bones — in fur trade history.

John Rowand entered the trade in 1803 as a 16-year-old apprentice clerk for the North West Company and was assigned to Fort Augustus (the rival post to the HBC Fort Edmonton). For the next half century, he would make the northern plains his home.

In 1810, while hunting bison, Rowand fell from his horse and broke his leg badly. A Métis woman, Louise “Lisette” Umfrieville (sometimes spelled Umphreville), the daughter of another trader, came to his rescue. The pair would become partners in a “country marriage” that produced seven children (four girls and three boys). It is said that Rowand never really recovered from Louise’s death in 1849.

By 1820, Rowand’s business acumen earned him a partnership in the North West Company. The following year, when the NWC and HBC merged, he was asked to head the new Saskatchewan district.

Rowand quickly became a legend for his toughness and no-nonsense demeanour. He was literally larger than life. Although short and rotund, he had amazing strength and never backed down from a confrontation. The Indigenous people called him “Iron Shirt” and “Big Mountain.”

Those who worked for him were not so admiring. Rowand could be a tyrant and often resorted to verbal abuse, backed up by the occasional cuff.

By the late 1840s, Rowand was ready to retire. He seemed to sense that the days of the fur trade were coming to an end on the northern plains. But it was not until the spring of 1854 that it became official that the 67-year-old trader would be leaving the interior and returning to Montreal, the place of his birth.

Rowand had made the trip down the North Saskatchewan River with the outgoing brigade dozens of times. He would have known the river and its moods intimately, all the bends and straight stretches, and the familiar landmarks along the way.

He reached Fort Pitt (just east of the present-day Saskatchewan-Alberta interprovincial border) on May 29, 1854. Rowand had selected the site, halfway between forts Edmonton and Carlton, 25 years earlier. His son, John Jr., was now in charge of the post.

That night, the pair likely talked about the senior Rowand’s retirement to Montreal — and how the fur trade had changed and the challenges it faced.

The next morning, the Fort Pitt boats were being readied to join the flotilla that had left Edmonton days earlier. Two men began to fight. Rowand tried to separate them, madly yelling as he stepped forward, only to keel over dead at their feet.

He was buried outside the Fort Pitt palisades. But there was a problem. The night before his death, Rowand had told his son that he wanted to be buried in the same Montreal cemetery as his father.

George Simpson, the overseas governor of the HBC, decided to honour his dead friend’s wish. Sometime over winter of 1855-56, Rowand’s body was disinterred at Pitt, and the remains boiled down in a large kettle. The person who handled the macabre task apparently got drunk first.

The bones were taken to Norway House, where they were picked up by Simpson and transported to Red River. Simpson was worried, though, about sending Rowand’s bones directly on to Montreal. The contents of the package were the subject of whispers and grumbling, and superstitious voyageurs might be driven to throw the bones overboard during the trip east.

The bones were consequently repackaged and secretly sent to York Factory on Hudson Bay for shipment to England by the annual supply ship. Simpson then arranged to have them returned to North America.

Rowand’s journey finally ended on Nov. 10, 1858 — more than four years after his death — when his bones were placed in an imposing, $500 tomb in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:John Rowand’s memorial in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
Photo Source: Sam Derksen

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.