Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Historical Wonders and Artistic Beauty: Exploring Moose Jaw

We took a day to explore the city of Moose Jaw, which is Saskatchewan's fourth largest city (pop. ~34,000), and is known as 'Canada's Most Notorious City.' 

The area we are currently visiting originally served as a winter encampment for the Cree and Assiniboine People, because it was sheltered by the uplands Missouri Coteau, or Palliser's Triangle as it is known in Saskatchewan and Alberta.  The terrain of the raised plateau features low hummocky, undulating, rolling hills, pothole lakes, and grasslands.  The first permanent settlement in the Moose Jaw area was created by Indigenous fur traders and Métis buffalo hunters at a spot on the Moose Jaw River known as "the turn."  If we had managed to overcome mud, bad weather, construction, and our own frustrations to follow the official route of the TCT in to Moose Jaw we would have passed this spot in Kingsway Park.

The Canadian geographer and explorer John Palliser first marked the location of this city on his 1857 survey map as Moose Jaw Bone Creek, and there are several theories about where the name came from.  It is possible its origins lie in the Cree word 'moscâstani-sîpiy' which translates as 'a warm place by the river' or from the Plains Cree word 'moose gaw' which translates as 'warm breezes.'  Alternatively, some say that the portion of the river that flows through the city is shaped like a moose's jaw, which also could have given rise to the city's name.

Located at the junction of the Moose Jaw River and Thunder Creek, it became an important division point for the Canadian Pacific Railway because the water supply was necessary for the steam locomotives, and later the Canadian National Railway also built a station here. As part of the railway's development in the prairies, the town was settled in 1882 and became incorporated in 1903. 

We began our explorations of Moose Jaw at the Visitor’s Center, outside of which resides Mac the Moose. This steel and concrete sculpture is 10.36 m (34.0 ft) tall, weighs 10 tonnes, and claims to be the world's largest moose, although there is an Elk in Norway that may be 31 cm taller.  Mac was created by Saskatoon artist Don Foulds in 1984.

Also at the Visitor's Center is one of the famous Canadian Snowbird aircraft.  Moose Jaw is home to the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, aka the Snowbirds, who are the military aerobatics and air show flight team for the Royal Canadian Air Force.  The team is based at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, and its goal is to demonstrate the skill, professionalism, and teamwork of the Canadian Forces.  The Royal Canadian Air Force, under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, established the RCAF Station Moose Jaw in the 1940's.  The station continued to train pilots throughout the Cold War, and it to this day remains Canada's primary military flight training center. 

On the side of the Visitor's Center was the Canada Mosaic 150 mural, which was composed of 828 tiles painted by the residents of Moose Jaw.  The tiles depicted scenes, industries, values, and objects that are important to Moose Jaw's history, but they came together to create a mural honoring the Snowbirds.  This was just one of 40 murals that have been painted throughout downtown, showcasing Moose Jaw's history through art.  As we explored the downtown area we found as many of these colourful and interesting pieces of artwork as we could. 

A few of our other favourites were 'Living with the Land' by Grant McLaughlin, which pays tribute to the Lakota Sioux, Cree, Assiniboine, Métis, and other First Nation Peoples who made camp at 'The Turn' in the Moose Jaw Valley.

We also enjoyed seeing 'For the Veterans' by David Paul, which was created to honour all veterans who have fought, and who continue to fight for our freedom. 

The 'Opening Day Parade' by Gus Froese shows the opening day parade of the 1910 baseball season from the Railway Station heading up Main Street.

The 'Clark Bros. circa 1902' by Ruth Hamilton showed the interior of the artist's father's store, which operated from 1902-1950.

The 'History of the CPR Station' by D. Cline also brought the past to life with a colourful rendition of the CPR Station in its heyday.

There are of course dozens of other amazing murals throughout the city which highlight the diverse histories, culture and experiences of the peoples of Moose Jaw. 


We very much enjoyed walking the historic downtown.  Many of the old brick and stone buildings are still intact, their fancy brickwork patterns and carved stone names still visible. The Capital 3 Theater, which was built in 1916 and still houses a theater today was a highlight, as was the Pacific Railway Station at the end of the street, which now houses a variety of boutiques and shops, as well as a huge liquor store.  New buildings along the main street were designed to fit in with the old, giving the downtown a historic feel.  Many shops, boutiques, and souvenir stores line the main street, and it was brightened by a row of flower boxes down the middle.  Every bench, garbage can, and utility box was painted with creative and colorful street art, which also added to the festive and artistic vibe of the downtown.

In our walk around town it was evident that Moose Jaw embraces its reputation as the 'Most Notorious Town in Canada' from all the references to bootlegging, rum running, and Al Capone.  The Tunnels of Moose Jaw are the main tourist attraction that celebrates the town's prohibitionist history, which is where the town's nickname came from.  Prohibition, which was a ban on alcohol, arose in stages in Canada, beginning with municipal bans in the 19th century, provincial bans in the early 20th century, and finally a national ban from 1918 to 1920.  Most provinces repealed their bans in the 1920's, although PEI didn't legalize alcohol until 1948.

Remnants of what appear to be secret chambers and passageways have been discovered joining the cellars of more than one building in downtown Moose Jaw.  No one knows for certain who built them or why, but several theories exist, which have become the basis of colourful urban legends.  One story suggests the tunnels were started by Chinese railway workers around 1908.  Around this time several workers were killed at the CPR yards at the height of racist anti-Chinese sentiment.  The theory is that the railway workers built the tunnels as a safe hiding place to escape further attack.  Later on, during prohibition, the tunnels were used by bootleggers, including the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone.

We took a tour of the tunnels under Moose Jaw, where we were treated to an excellent re-enactment of what it would have been like to be recruited by Al Capone's network to import Canadian 'maple syrup' into the US during Prohibition, either using the Soo Railway Line running down to Chicago, or by other means.  We've been sworn to secrecy, so we can't say more, but it was definitely a family friendly bit of fun, and very well done.

After the tour we stopped at the Evolve Café, where we enjoyed a delicious iced chai latte, an iced coffee, and vegan hay stacks.  From there we walked down to Crescent Park, which is a lovely treed green space adjacent to downtown.  At the entrance was a collection of maple leaf shaped mosaics created by local school classes. 

We walked across the small winding creek on a curved metal pedestrian bridge, at the far end of which was a tall marble War Memorial in a treed grove.  On the grassy treed hill beside the creek was the portrait of a moose head grown from blooming flowers, and above it on the hill was a small wooden building with further artwork from local classrooms.


In our explorations of the treed park we found a time capsule.  Curiously, we've found similar time capsules in many of the tiny prairie towns we've visited since leaving Winnipeg.  We are very curious what objects have been included in each one.

During our visit to the park we met Annie, who is a reporter for Moose Jaw Today, and who is very kindly sharing our story.  After the interview she showed us some incredible looking wooden carvings in another part of the park.  One of our favourites was a tall stump that had been skillfully shaped into an eagle. 

While crossing the bridge back to town we stopped to watch a mixed flock of warblers and other birds that were busily foraging for berries in a nearby shrub.  There were several American Redstarts and Black-capped Chickadees, a Yellow Warbler, a Canada Warbler, and a Tennessee Warbler. 

Overhead a steady steam of Franklin's Gulls was flying, never seeming to cease or pause for the several hours we watched from downtown. 



One other place in Moose Jaw that we'd hoped to visit was the Burrowing Owl Interpretive Center.  We walked out to the small center but it was closed, and although we tried very hard we weren't able to arrange a visit by appointment or visit the owls during our stay.  Burrowing Owls are small, long-legged birds that live in burrows underground and hunt for insects and rodents on the ground during the day.  They were once abundant in grasslands, deserts, and other open habitats, but human alteration of their habitat, and the decline of gophers has led to a 95% decline in their numbers since 1987.  They are now an endangered species in Canada, and this would have been an amazing opportunity to see some of these adorable owls! 

We had a very full day of exploring Moose Jaw, but we have the feeling we've only scratched the surface of all it has to offer.  It is definitely a place we could return to in the future.



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