Two of the most interesting and influential early residents of Red Deer, but also two individuals who have largely been forgotten, are George and Francis (Ted) Wilkins. These men had an enormous impact on the early development of the community.
They also were men who made a fortune, and lost a fortune.
George and Ted were born in St. Louis, Missouri, the sons of Francis and Jane Wilkins. Their father was the British consul to St. Louis and Chicago, two of the leading trade centres of North America.
Their paternal grandfather, George Steel, was a founding member and one of the first presidents of the Chicago Board of Trade.
In 1889, George and Ted arrived in Red Deer to investigate the prospects of the emerging Central Alberta frontier.
They liked what they saw. Consequently, they purchased the Valley Ranche (current site of the Red Deer Golf and Country Club) from Walter and Alfred Reade. Later, George and Ted were joined by their mother and sister Annie.
In the spring of 1891, the townsite of Red Deer was established following the construction of the Calgary-Edmonton Railway.
George erected a large two-storey building on Ross St., a short distance west of the intersection with Gaetz Ave.
The public hall on the second floor of the Wilkins Block became a community centre for the fledgling hamlet.
All kinds of social gatherings, dances and public meetings were held there. The space was also used for the indoor exhibits at the first Red Deer Fair in October 1892. The Red Deer Drama Society, Red Deer Amateur Comedy Company and Burnt Cork Dramatic Society staged their productions in the hall.
In 1891, Ted became the first Red Deer member of the North West Territories legislature.
In 1893, his connections facilitated a display of Red Deer produce at the Chicago World’s Fair. This helped to publicize the potential of the Red Deer district as an agricultural heartland. In 1894, Ted was able to secure the construction of the first traffic bridge across the Red Deer River.
In 1898, George went to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush, using the infamous all-Canadian route north from Edmonton.
Unlike most others, he struck it rich with claims on Hunker Creek.
George and Ted saw great opportunities in providing electric power to Central Alberta. Consequently, in 1902, they formed the Blindman River Power Company.
They used the money from the Klondike to construct a hydro-electric dam across the mouth of the Blindman where it enters the Red Deer River at Burbank.
Unfortunately, the project was beset by severe problems.
The Blindman River’s water levels proved to be very unreliable. The transmission line also created headaches. The poles frequently fell over in marshy areas during wet weather.
In 1908, a diversion canal was dredged from Gull Lake into the Blindman River in order to improve water levels.
The height of the dam was increased. An auxiliary steam plant was constructed in Lacombe to help to compensate for the frequent disruptions in power supply. Nevertheless, the problems continued.
George, exhausted by the ongoing disaster of the hydroelectric project, passed away in 1908 from a sudden heart attack. His brother Ted moved up to Lacombe and tried to struggle on alone.
A few months later, he was found dead in his office. As they had never married, the brothers were survived by their sister, Annie Wilkins Parlby.
The Town of Lacombe bought out the Blindman River Power Company in 1909 for $15,000. However, they had little better luck with the operation than the Wilkins brothers. Finally, the dam was swept away during a major flood in the spring of 1915.
The old damsite at Burbank is now a popular public park.
Wilkins Green in the West Park subdivision of Red Deer is named in honour of George and Francis (Ted) Wilkins.