Family History Whispered from the West

Cascade Mountains

Mountains Primeval

Canadian Pacific Railway

Canadian Pacific track, 1881, Fraser Valley

 

            The green Armstrong plaid once had been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s southern border, as it was the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians.  Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men descended into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a precarious living for their families.  The course of my family history began when my grandfather glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West.  His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.

            Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia.  Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War.  Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant, settled farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto.  From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pine forests and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness.  Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the vast prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.

My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark silence of the forests.     Overthe years, I heard a hundred stories, andremainfirmly convinced that a few at least were true.  Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house.  The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.

Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies.  Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted.  A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters.  My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble.  Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr.  As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.

But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring.  One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed.  Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know.  Twenty-six families mourned.  Nordegg wore black.   Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground.  The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a mine cave-in.

Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot.  The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.

Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery.  The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost.  Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the gravesite.  “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.

The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War.  The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets.  My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton.  Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.

 

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11 thoughts on “Family History Whispered from the West

  1. Val

    I’ve been told that retelling stories of your family’s positive moments and their ability to bounce back from difficult ones increases the odds of survival for generations to come. Very interesting family history.

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  2. Embracing a Wounded Soul

    You are a wonderful story teller. I wanted to know more of this place, the people the experiences. You have a way of creating nostalgia or memories of places I have not been.

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    1. Tom Schultz Post author

      Thanks for your response. I’m very appreciative. As for knowing more of the people in the story, I may be able to arrange that for you. 🙂

      Like

  3. freudandfashion

    thanks for sharing this! It truly does sound like an excerpt from a novel. what a tragic story for the tight-knit community, but also what a gift it must be to know of your family’s resiliency to start new after loss and tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Charlotte Hoather

    Great pioneering story, my Grandad talked about his Uncle Bill who was a miner in Staffordshire and my Great Grandad was a steel man, I don’t think any of them ventured far from Stoke on Trent though it must take some gumption to uproot like that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tom Schultz Post author

      I find writing can put me in touch with emotions. This piece helped me feel closer to family, even those in the story who I never actually knew–if that makes sense. And I always liked hearing that story about my distant relative who was the first European to see Lake Louise. He wrote a vivid description of his first glimpse of the lake–it’s online somewhere.

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