Toxic Legacies of Mill Creek Ravine: Contested Landscapes of Industrialization and Colonialism in Western Canada
Author: Haeden Stewart
My dissertation examines the relationship between industrialization (the development of infrastructure, the standardization of commodities, and the development of a labouring class) and settler colonialism in the context of early twentieth-century meat-packing plants in Edmonton, Alberta. Turning beyond the florescence of meat-packing as a dominant industry in Edmonton (1900-1940s), my research tracks how different legacies from that period endure into the present both materially and as contested objects of discourse.
The Social Science Division short term grant allowed me to spend the summer in Edmonton, carrying out preliminary archival work and archaeological survey of industrial ruins in Mill Creek Ravine Park, one of the first sites for industrial-scale meat packing in Alberta. This preliminary field work, focusing on the northern 4 km long section of Mill Creek Ravine, included mapping out existing ruins from the early twentieth century, and identifying two archaeological sites, the study of which will form the basis for my doctoral research.
In 1886, 9 years after its establishment, the Papaschase Cree Reserve (IR 136) was appropriated by the government of Canada under pressure from an association of Edmonton businessmen, politicians and newspapers. By 1902, Mill Creek, a deep ravine running through the former reserve, had become the location of the first railroad connecting Edmonton to the rest of Canada, as well as a one of the first concentrations of industrial production in the city. As Edmonton became the processing center for central Alberta’s agricultural goods and resources, Mill Creek became the center for livestock slaughtering and meat-packing, with three large abattoirs and packing plants that employed 1 in 8 men of working age in Southern Edmonton.
While the railroad and the meat-packing plants eventually abandoned Mill Creek by the 1960s, the after-effects of industry remained and became a costly problem for the city as it attempted to clean up and remake the Ravine as a municipal park—a project which in many ways is still ongoing. The industrial ruins in Mill Creek, therefore, are doubly meaningful: on one hand they are archaeological artifacts from an important period in Edmonton’s history; on the other hand they are forms of industrial pollution that the city has long attempted to eradicate.
Over the course of my archival research, I identified the locations of the three meat-packing factories within Mill Creek, as well as the two coal mines and a brick factory. Additionally, I identified the location of an early twentieth-century shantytown, which was occupied by factory workers downstream of the meat-packing plants. Using this information, I spent a month doing pedestrian survey and mapping of the northern section of Mill Creek Ravine, mapping in extant architecture from the early twentieth century and found artifacts along the creek bed.
Through this survey, I located the brick foundations of Vogel’s Meats, the earliest meat-packing plant in Mill Creek (1902-1920), along with cow and pig bone debris that still peppers the creek bed and banks. Further north from Vogel’s I recovered nails, glass, and tin cans from the worker’s shantytown, suggesting intact contexts from the period. The areas where this material culture was identified will be the sites of excavation for my dissertation.