Mill Creek Ravine dig hopes to unearth shanty towns, industry sites

Haeden Stewart will be scouring Edmonton's Mill Creek Ravine for any trace of the shanty towns and industrial sites, which lined the banks of the river valley at the turn of the century.

Archaeologist Haeden Stewart will be digging throughout the summer

Vogel's Meatpacking Plant in Mill Creek Ravine, 1902. (Edmonton Public Library )

Shards of broken pottery, once-razor sharp knife blades, horse shoes and axe-heads.

Haeden Stewart will be scouring Edmonton's Mill Creek Ravine for any remnants of the shanty towns and industrial sites, which lined the banks of the river valley at the turn of the century.

Stewart, who grew up in Vancouver and earned his BA in archaeology from the University of Toronto, will be leading an excavation this summer.

The dig will target a few choice areas; north of Whyte Avenue — from the Mill Creek bridge to the river — and in the area around 88th Avenue.
A tent house in Edmonton, circa 1906. (Edmonton Public Archives )

Stewart is researching  the early industrial period of Western Canadian history for his doctoral thesis and says the area makes for the perfect study.

"I got to digging into this history," said Stewart. "And as the different histories of this area just piled up and piled up, it became really clear that it would be a very interesting project." 

The ravine was a bustling, somewhat disorderly development a hundred years ago.

The ambling streets of a shanty town ran along the river.

Called Ross Acreage, the tiny settlement sprung up as a result of early industrial development in the area, squatting between the Vogel Meat Packing Company and Gallagher-Hull Meat Packers.
This newspaper article from 1901 describes in detail how Vogel's Meatpacking factory met the gold standard of the day for safety inspections. (University of BC )

"They were lower-class people. It was a mix of people, but it was definitely those on the outside of Edmonton society. They didn't have running water, they didn't have access to any city amenities. They were very much on the outskirts."

Stewart says the settlement sat where the modern creek begins its run underground through a drainage pipe to the river. There were canvas tents, derelict shacks, and even log-cabin-type homes.

"These people were living off the water main of the city, off the electricity grid," said Stewart. "And I want to know, how did they deal with the ravine as it became more polluted by these ever-larger meat packing plants."

A flood in 1915 ravaged industry in Cloverdale and, as a result, the area became a blue-collar residential district.

The settlement had more than 50 homes by the late 1920's, before it was finally shut down by the city and turned into park land.
Jasper Avenue and 97 Street circa 1912. (University of Alberta )

"I'll be looking for anything that looks like it was lived on. Small bits of garbage, whether that's small bits of bone or ceramic or glass, metal nails and that kind of thing," Stewart said.

The dig just north of 88 Avenue will explore the former site the Vogel Meat Packing Company, which opened in early the 1900's.

"It's about how people worked inside the plant, how it's changing production levels gave Old Strathcona and later the City of Edmonton, different employment opportunities," said Stewart. 

"And I'll be connecting that to what I find in the garbage pits, whatever I can find from the actual slaughterhouse floor."

The dig will start in earnest June 20th.

The Royal Alberta Museum has first claim over any artifacts found, but either way, Stewart hopes he'll have the opportunity to exhibit his findings to the community later this year.