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Movin' On

by Dorothy Field

In a world that's always changing, it's nice to have something to hold onto—a few unchanging reference points—constants that confirm that the world is a safe and stable place. Buildings are like that, right? Well, yes and no. Their relative size and apparent constancy cause buildings to function almost as natural features in our environment. Like rivers, forests, and mountains, they serve as landmarks and form the framework of our daily lives. From one day to the next, we take for granted that they will be there, in the same place, just the same as the last time we saw them.

Putting aside for the moment the obvious fact that demolition regularly and dramatically changes the architectural landscape, we find that, surprisingly, the impression of stasis is an illusion. Especially during Alberta's early years, structures could be rather dynamic. Many buildings defied everyday logic and common sense by actually pulling up stakes and physically moving from one location to another. There are numerous examples of individual buildings moving, and several involving entire communities.

In the case of a single building, its sale was often the impetus for its move. The value of a structure may have been outstripped by that of the land it was built on, or it may simply have become redundant or been abandoned. Such buildings could be as humble as a shed or garage, moved across a yard or alleyway. Examples can be found in farmyards throughout Alberta, where it is not at all uncommon to find the original, tiny, farmhouse dragged from its foundation and converted to new life as a chicken coop, granary, or tool shed. More dramatically, churches, stores, and even grain elevators have been documented on the move. The Pioneer elevator in Cereal was composed of two elevators that had been moved from other towns 68 and 80 miles away, respectively.

When an entire community moved, larger forces were at work. Railroads and mining companies had the power to relocate small towns, sometimes virtually overnight. In the hope of making a profit on land sales, people would try to predict the route a railway under construction would take. They would erect speculative buildings in advance of the laying of track, at the spot they figured a town would be laid out. When they guessed wrong, and the railroad townsite was established over the hill or across the river, all manner of ingenious methods were used to rectify the situation. Such was the case when Calgary relocated—on skids—from the east to the west side of the frozen Elbow River in the winter of 1884. Variants of this train of events occurred across the province, including such locations such as Trochu and Pakan.

The mining scenario ran in almost the opposite way. Communities like Bankhead and Lille were built largely by and for mining companies. Without the mine, there was no reason for a town to exist on that spot, and when mining operations closed down, so, essentially, did the towns. Rather than leave all those valuable structures—homes, stores, hotels and industrial buildings—behind, they were removed to other mining sites, or sold and scattered. In the case of Bankhead, many of the buildings turned up in Banff, including the train station and over 30 houses.

While the results are not as startling or ominous as Birnam Wood's relocating to Dunsinane in Shakespeare's Macbeth, buildings on the move do have an element of the surreal, the unnatural. A store inching its way down the centre of a street, or a grain elevator embarking on a cross-country odyssey take a bit of getting used to. There is a certain quality of whimsy to such images that may have been lost on the pragmatists who simply wanted to get the most value out of their resources. Luckily for us, they often recorded such moving activities, and we can now marvel at them and shake our heads in wonder. We may not be able to move mountains, but we sometimes come close!

Dorothy Field, M.Sc., is Head of the Heritage Inventory program. Historic Sites Service, Alberta Community Development.

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