Author tells haunting tales from Calgary’s Union Cemetery

Calgary’s history uncovered: Harry Sanders, author of “Calgary’s Union Cemetery: A walking guide,” poses next to Colonel Walker’s cane in Calgary on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Photo by Gareth Jones/The Press)

There are some 60,000 graves in Calgary’s Union Cemetery, and local historian Harry Sanders has dug up some of the most interesting stories.

In his book, “Calgary’s Union Cemetery: A walking tour,” Sanders looks into the lives of both the famous and unknown.

On Wednesday, Oct 10, he presented the highlights in the form of a virtual tour for local organization the Southern Alberta Pioneers and Their Descendants.

“Our aim is collecting and assimilating the history of the Pioneers,” said David Wake, resident historian of the organization.

The group, whose members settled in Alberta on or before Dec. 31, 1890, meet regularly in a memorial house in the southwest Parkhill district.

The log house sits atop a hill overlooking the Elbow River. It is furnished with countless historical artifacts, including the cane of Colonel Walker.

Sanders, who was one of the group’s guest speakers in October, shared a collection of slides ranging from interesting backstory to tales of tragic death at the cemetery, which sits on a hill on Macleod Trail, just south of 26th Avenue South.

One such example was William Jasper Collins, the subject of Calgary’s last execution.

“Collins stopped eating in his final weeks, so he didn’t weigh as much as he did when his measurements were taken,” Sanders explained.

“So when he was hung, the fall didn’t break his neck. There was a legal case filed against the city, because despite being sentenced to hang, that wasn’t how he died.”

Sanders recalled that Union Cemetery has faced many problems since its inception in 1892, one of which has been winter burial.

“Obviously, you can’t break ground. So in 1908, the mortuary chapel was constructed in order to have an indoor gravesite in case of inclement weather,” he explained.

“There was a trap door built into the floor, so at the end of the service, the casket was symbolically lowered into the ground, and into the catacombs beneath.”

Sanders became interested in the cemetery after giving walking tours there in the early 1990s.

He was eventually approached by a publisher who had just released a book on Victoria’s historic Ross Bay Cemetery.

“The book was the product of a lot of visits to the cemetery, to find interesting names and headstones,” Sanders explained.

He finds that, now more than ever, people have an interest in the history of the city.

“There have always been those who make it their passion, but most do not,” Sanders said.

“There have always been voices who said, ‘don’t tear down that old building,’ or ‘don’t change that,’ but I think it’s a bigger force now.”

Of the approximately 60,000 bodies buried at Union Cemetery, there are many whose influence is still felt today.

The book was the product of a lot of visits to the cemetery. – Harry Sanders

One such individual is Thomas B. Braden, who moved to Calgary from Ontario.

“Braden was a co-founder of the Calgary Herald, who came here in 1883,” Sanders explained.

“Within a year, he sold the Herald and founded the Tribune, which later became the Albertan. Nowadays, we know it as the Sun. So if you take away one thing from tonight, let it be that a liberal from Ontario founded both the Herald and Sun.”

About Gareth Jones 1 Article
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Gareth Jones is working as a writer for The Press during the 2018-19 academic year.