If you ever find yourself at a loss for something to do on a Sunday afternoon (May-October) and fancy learning more about Calgary’s history, pull on a pair of walking shoes, grab a bottle of water and a can of bug spray, and head down to Union Cemetery, established in 1891 (just off Macleod Trail and Spiller Road SE) to enjoy a volunteer-led tour of the cemetery.
Here you’ll learn about the great, the good, the characters, philanthropists, mounties, soldiers, ex-slave, politicians, ex-husband of a mistress of The Prince of Wales, survivors of the Titanic disaster – and many more – who have added to the richness of this beautiful city.
First up is JAMES ‘CAPPY’ SMITH, a Scot who arrived in Calgary on October 19th, 1883 to a city of ‘nothing but a village of tents’. He worked in a sawmill before signing up with Calgary’s young fire department. He was appointed chief in 1898 and remained in that position until 1933. He was a blunt spoken man who led by example and should the crowds get too close to a fire and refuse to listen to his orders to get back, he would simply turn that fire hose on them! He led the Stampede Parade for many years, owned 3 bears, an alligator, a monkey and a parrot!
Next is SIR CECIL EDWARD DENNY. Born in England, Denny emigrated to the US when he was nineteen, before moving north to Canada. He joined the North West Mounted Police for the famous March West in 1874, traveling north from Fort Macleod in the fall of 1875 to build Fort Calgary. He was one of the signatories at Treaty Number 7 but forced to resign from the NWMP when he had an affair with a colleague’s wife. Denny then became an Indian Agent and archivist and can truly be called one of Calgary’s founding fathers.
Now comes my personal favourite. WILLIAM DUDLEY WARD. If you’re a Downton Abbey fan and watched the 2013 Christmas Special, or if you know anything of the goings-on of the Prince of Wales at the beginning of the 20th century, you should recognize the name, because his wife Freda Dudley-Ward was the long-time mistress of Edward Prince of Wales before Wallis Simpson came into the picture.
I have to admit, finding his grave raised more questions than answers. Why did a man, born into great wealth and privilege, educated at Eton and Cambridge, a possible spy and British MP who divorced his wife in 1931, end up in Calgary where he died at aged 69 following an operation? Hmmmm. I’m going to be down at the library this week checking that out!
But perhaps one of the most moving memorials in the cemetery is that of the Bentley family. An ordinary young couple, it is a sobering reminder that life is fragile and to be treasured. On May 7, 1918, Orlie Bentley gave birth to a daughter, Helena. Four days later, the infant died of exhaustion due to an inability to ‘latch on’ and feed. Within three weeks, Orlie herself was dead from ‘childbed fever’, all-too-common amongst women before the mid-20th century. Tragically, only six months later, James died from the Spanish flu which struck Calgary in October 1918. He was only twenty-eight.
I’ll continue with more stories from Union Cemetery in my Wednesday post.