December 7th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 48
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Cowley – A Village with History
Looking Back
Source: Iinternet
Cowley Hotel-lost in 1933
In 1967 while I was at college studying architecture I was required to purchase a copy of the National Building Code of Canada and to learn to use the tables and specifications dictated therein. One such table had to do with designing for wind gust loads and gave across Canada examples of maximum wind loads to allow for. Yup, you guessed it. Cowley topped them all in the table with a whopping 133 miles per hour. My instructor said: “Say Kinnear, you are from that area, are you not”? I told him yes but that it’s no big deal.

Well maybe most of the time it’s no big deal. We have all felt that vicious Cowley cross wind give us a mighty shove at times as we travel east or west past this wind-tortured town. There are times out there when you can change lanes without turning the wheel. I would have loved to have stood inside the old Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator (built in 1929) when those 120 k plus winds got going. Can’t imagine what it must have sounded like inside that empty cavernous structure The elevator withstood that never ending freight train of air from the west for about 50 years before it was finally torn down along with the CPR station.

Wind issues aside, when one digs deeper one finds that Cowley has in fact a very interesting history. The story behind its toponym (name history) apparently has to do with F.W.Godsal a pioneer rancher in the Cowley area. This was not the towns first name however as it was originally known as French Flats, as most of the early (white) residents that came there were French in origin. Nouveau-Brunswick and Quebecois families with names like LaGrandeur and Barbeau settled in the area around 1882. One of them, Max Brouillet, brought a small herd of sturdy coaching horses with him and ran a passenger and mail service between Pincher Creek and Fort MacLeod until 1898 when good old C.P.R. rolled through and promptly renamed the place “Eight Siding”. For them it was the eighth siding west of Lethbridge.
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A second wave of French families came in 1887 with names like LeBouef, Garneau and LaFontaine. For a time it is said that ranchers didn’t do much to resist squatting on the flats in the area but during the second wave local ranch hands did what has been occasionally portrayed on the silver screen in old westerns. They stampeded their cattle across planted fields and actually pulled apart the nearly-completed LaFontaine’s log cabin. Undeterred these families persevered and proved up a few quarter sections of land. So it was that there was enough of a “Gallic presence” there that it became known as French Flats.

For those of you that are unaware, there exists a remarkable, award-winning, website called The Virtual Crowsnest Highway ( that covers, with detailed historic overviews and pictures, 777 kilometers of Highway 3 from Hope, British Columbia to Medicine Hat, Alberta. It carries wonderful in-depth history profiles on all towns in between and in a section on Cowley I found this fascinating toponym analysis. It reads: “Fred’k W. Godsal, the rancher who had originally owned “the Flats” and the surrounding area, had accommodated himself so well to the loss of his lease piecemeal to the settler’ homesteads, that when it came to naming the District, his suggestion of “Cow-lea”-- perhaps in reference to a poem he had read, perhaps after his English home in Oxfordshire, England, perhaps to commemorate a visit from a pal of his, Lord Cowley-- was accepted.” According to this website account when the CPR’s new rails were laid at 8th Siding someone: “slapped a crude sign reading Cowley on the up-bound train side of the temporary siding.” And so it was.
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Next up to infuse the area development-wise were the Nova Scotians starting with Jas. Erskine Davison who built the first store. Davison, with a whole bunch more imported “bluenoser” friends, proceeded to develop the town which was officially surveyed in 1899 and took off from there. Like most frontier towns the support structures like a bank, hotels, butcher shops, warehouses and boarding houses soon followed. The Cowley and Alberta Hotels were built around then with the Cowley having a sixty foot long bar complete with a brass boot rail.

By 1906 Cowley was gazetted as a village and Percy James “Pistol Pete” Biddell was named its overseer. It sounds like from that moniker that Cowley, which was about a hundred households by then, was still a little rough around the edges. By 1910 CPR built a new station and in 1912 the then lieutenant governor, G. Bulyea, came to Cowley to observe the Western Canada Polo Championship played that year on “the Flats”.

It seems that when one studies a town’s history there is the inevitable legacy of conflagration and rebuild and Cowley’s story was no different. The Alberta Hotel was lost in 1909 and Davison lost his store, which by then also had a post office/telephone exchange in it, in 1914. It, along with Petits restaurant and Cyr’s boucherie (butcher shop) were the only structures lost due to the determined effort of a CPR grading crew of 50 men who prevented this fire from wiping out the whole town. In 1933 both the Cowley school and the Cowley Hotel were lost to fires. The school was immediately rebuilt and an underused hotel from Arrowwood, Alberta (60 km. east of Okotoks) was moved there to replace the Cowley Hotel. The resiliency of communities to start again or bounce back in those days has always amazed me. Probably the most spectacular fire that happened there would have been in January of 1942 when the Alberta Pacific grain elevator, built in 1906, went up in smoke. With it went 55,000 bushels of grain. It must have been spectacular and heartbreaking at the same time but amazingly it was rebuilt by March of that year. Who rebuilds a massive grain elevator in winter? Really?
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In 1938 the Department of Transportation laid out an “X” shaped set of grass landing strips north of the village as part of the Trans-Canada Airway. This was a federal program started in 1932 to establish a chain of airfields coast to coast along the airway using the unemployed. Over 2,000 men helped clear and construct airfields every 50 miles from Lethbridge to Vancouver. So Cowley’s airport was part of this chain and the old strip where the sulphur plant was west of Coleman was another.

The Cowley strip was abandoned in 1960 and eventually taken over by local Alberta gliding clubs. When you look north from Cowley to the Livingstone Range you are seeing the landscape that has become a mecca for gliding and where world height records were broken. Glider pilots soar above the bare walls of the Livingstone riding a triple oscillating wave upwards and into the stratosphere.

So what else is Cowley renown for? Well for one they had a stamp minted of their town in 1980 as part of Alberta’s 75th anniversary. For those of you who have seen the movie Brokeback Mountain you may or may not have recognized Cowley portrayed as Signal, Wyoming. Of course the big deal out that way these days is the windmills. The big news in the area was the decommissioning and tearing down of the 57 smaller windmills on Cowley Ridge this spring. 680,000 kilograms of metal were to be recovered and recycled from this farm that was constructed between 1993 and 1994. So will those 24 meter high turbines be replaced with more of those 47 meter high behemoths that have had such a huge negative impact on our western and southern landscapes? Hope not! But it probably will happen.

There is much more to the Cowley story but I ran out of room. There is so much to tell about the amazing Doukabour history in the Cowley area and about Godsal who was an important advocate for Waterton Park. So stay tuned next week for more follow-up on this remarkable town that just keeps leaning into the wind.
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December 7th ~ Vol. 85 No. 48
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