Old burial grounds in the Red Deer region

Tonight is Halloween. It is a time of year when people’s attention turns to matters involving the dead. In particular, interest is heightened in old cemeteries, burial grounds and gravesites.

There are three formal cemeteries connected with the City of Red Deer. The main community cemetery is located on the brow of the East Hill. Originally a Methodist Church cemetery, created in 1893, it was taken over by the Town of Red Deer in 1907.

With the Red Deer Cemetery being virtually full, most of the burials now take place in the Alto Reste Cemetery on the eastern outskirts of the City. Alto Reste was created in 1955 and was originally a privately owned cemetery. The property was sold by Eventide Funeral Chapels to the City of Red Deer in 1976.

The third formal cemetery, still in active use, is Mount Calvary on 67 St. west of Gaetz Ave.

This cemetery was created by the Roman Catholic Church in 1909 and still belongs to the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

There was another community cemetery, created in the early 1890s and located in the valley on the south side of what is now 43 St.

Because the Methodist cemetery on the east hill was much more scenic, people soon preferred having their families buried there, regardless of whether or not they were Methodists.

Consequently, the original village cemetery fell into disuse. The site became overgrown. The old picket fence, which used to enclose the graveyard, rotted away. Part of the cemetery was disturbed in the early 1950s during the construction of the Red Deer Brewery (now the site of The Vat and the Red Deer Express offices). Much of the old graveyard is believed to be under what is now Taylor Dr.

One of the reasons for the village cemetery’s location was that there was a small group of First Nations graves a short distance to the south. This older burial ground was located where Waskasoo Creek valley opens up into the broader river valley. Unfortunately, just as in the case of the village cemetery, visible evidence of the First Nations burial ground has since been obliterated.

There was another First Nations burial site in the area along Piper Creek, and the edge of the south hill. Many of these graves are said to have been ‘tree’ graves, where the bodies were placed on platforms, rather than being buried in the ground.

In the 1930s, human remains were found in the creek at the base of Piper’s Mountain. The police investigated and concluded that these bones had come from either one of the tree graves or had been washed out of the hillside upstream from where they had been discovered.

The best written records, of a First Nations and Métis burial ground, involves the one on the edge of the north hill, below the former site of St. Joseph’s Convent. Sister Rosalie Baptistine wrote that when the Daughters of Wisdom first arrived in North Red Deer in October 1908, “We noticed a small plot of land, facing the river and surrounded by a crude fence. This we learned is an Indian cemetery to which the Indians return once a year.”

Other records refer to Métis spirit houses standing overtop of some of the graves. Spirit houses are small peaked-roof structures, often resembling log cabins which were frequently constructed by the Métis, overtop of the graves of their families and friends.

A major fire on April 8, 1909 destroyed much of the remaining tree grave platforms and the spirit houses.

However, in August of 1925, William J. Wintemberg, the famous Canadian archaeologist, examined the burial ground during a brief visit to Red Deer.

When roadwork was being done on 53 Ave. as it went up the hill, one of the graves was accidentally unearthed. Later in the 1950s, some little boys digging into the hillside unearthed a human skull. This was determined by the authorities to be the remains of a 10-year-old Métis or Caucasian girl who had passed away from natural causes.