May 16th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 20
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Kerr Family Legacy – The Early Years
Looking Back
Courtesy Sarah Kerr
John, Annie and young Jim Kerr 1905
When Sarah Kerr, daughter of James William (Bill) Kerr, stepped up to the microphone at the 115th commemoration of the Frank Slide recently, she promptly treated the audience to a fascinating overview of the pioneer Kerr family history. She was there also in support of the re-release of her father’s book The Frank Slide, first self published by Bill in 1990. It is the definitive work on the Slide.

It was obvious from the engaging way that she led us through her family story that Sarah is very proud of this remarkable legacy. As a historian I was naturally drawn deeper into the story and realized that the details of how it all went down was a classic example of immigrant-find opportunity-determination-entrepreneurship. So what say we back it up and follow this story through.

There beginnings here kind of parallel the Kinnear family story, that being of a Scottish coal miner coming to Canada and having their wife follow them once established. In the case of the Kerr’s it was two brothers John and Bill who left Craigmark in Ayrshire Scotland in May of 1903. John was twenty at the time and Bill was 15. John had married a petite Glaswegian school teacher by the name of Annie Runciman in 1901 and had built a house next to his coal miner father in Westlothian. Just before the Boer War ended in 1902 coal demand fell and with it came wage cuts.

So John, who had been contemplating immigrating to Canada anyways, booked passage on the S.S. Sardinia, a converted cattle boat. Side note: The Sardinia was only a year old when they sailed. It went immediately after its first launch in 1902 to bring back British soldiers from the Boer War. During the First World War it was hit with a German torpedo in the bow while sailing with a convoy in the Mediterranean. After most of the passengers and crew were rescued, she sailed backwards for sixty miles at 3.5 knots to Oran in Algeria where she was repaired. The Sardinia was taken to Osaka, Japan and dismantled for scrap in 1925.. But I digress.
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They sailed on the day news reached Scotland about the Frank Slide tragedy. Sarah’s comment on this brought a chuckle from the crowd: “The Frank Slide was big news all over the world, and John and Annie’s families back home were very concerned about them living in this distant country where mountains fell on people.” She noted that it was no small irony that not three years later John, Annie and Bill Kerr would find themselves living within sight of that great rock fall. It brings to mind an image of my tiny Scottish grandmother who in this situation would have crossed her hands in front of her and bowed and shook her little head in disdain.

After their rough eleven day crossing on the Atlantic they boarded a train in Montreal headed for Winnipeg where: “they found many men waiting around for the government to do something for them.” Not being impressed by this situation they headed west to the Estevan area of what was then still called the North West Territories and found work at a small coal mine in nearby Bienfait. Twenty year old Annie decided to tough it out with them and joined them in their two room shack in September of that year.

There, on February 7, 1905, James Runciman Kerr was born and the following September mother and child returned to Scotland for a visit while John, now a qualified pit boss, and Bill set out prospecting for new mines for the Estevan Coal Company. After finding no success prospect-wise in what is now Southern Saskatchewan they headed west all the way to Taber where they wintered. While still working for W.L. Hamilton at Estevan they continued west to Police Flats (now Leitch Collieries Historic Site) where promising coal outcrops were found.

They wound up living in the old North West Mounted Police log cabin barracks, built in 1881 and left abandoned by the force. The cabin was on a small creek west of the old coke oven remains. Annie and young Jim had rejoined them by then and in October of 1907 a second son John Jr. was born. So it was that the construction and operation of the short-lived Leitch Collieries was begun. John became the mine’s pit boss.
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The town of Passburg sprang up next to the mine and it boggles the mind when one reads all that was there and is now gone. A post office, two stores, a meat market (Pisony) a liquor store, a bank, a hotel, a two-storey school, a church and a doctor’s office. With all this of course were many houses.

In 1910 John and Bill Kerr bought lots in Passburg and built a general store/post office there. In 1912 John and Annie’s daughter Mary Thomson was born and four years later they opened a second general store in Bellevue. The downfall of Leitch in an interesting story in itself and one that I will unfold in detail some day but suffice to say by 1915 it had closed. According to Jim Kerr’s recounting of those days in Crowsnest and Its People, Passburg became a ghost town but many of the buildings were still around until 1921. “The remaining houses were used periodically by families desperately in need of accommodation, while the man of the house worked in nearby towns.” John Kerr kept that store and post office going until 1938 for the convenience of those families.

At this point in the story Sarah stepped back a bit in her talk to connect her maternal side into the picture. Her maternal great grandfather was Daniel May who moved to Lille in 1905 to work on the train that ran from Lille to Bellevue down that crazy set of switchbacks. A year later her maternal great grandmother Ida Jane McIntyre came from Perth, Lanark County, Ontario to join him in Lille. Sarah shared a humorous story about this union and said: “The match almost didn’t happen, because the local postmaster in Lanark had his sights on Ida and had been diverting their letters to each other, hoping to quash the relationship. Eventually Daniel took the train back to Ontario to see for himself and the ruse was discovered. True love conquered and Ida eventually arrived in Bellevue. Family lore talks about her disembarking from a dusty coal train in a sparkling white dress and white hat.” Wow, was she in for a surprise.
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So while Daniel and Ida were living in Lille they had a daughter Florence Elaine in 1908 (Sarah’s grandmother). Four years later when Lille closed they moved to Bellevue next to the Kerr residence and Florence and John Kerr’s son Jim attended the same school. As a young man Jim worked at both general stores after school and on Saturdays. In Crowsnest and Its People it elaborates on the business of running a store with few cars and not many phones and how all freight had to be picked up at the station and hauled to the store’s loading platform. There was no idle time for Jim.

Another side note on the Kerr story is that in the early 1920’s Jim’s dad John and family visited the Federal Government Fish Hatchery in Banff and after that John contacted them and volunteered to plant rainbow trout fry in the Crowsnest River and tributaries if they were shipped to the Pass. What followed then for many years were yearly pickups of fry from a baggage car that were hastily transported “to chosen spots for planting.” When the Waterton hatchery was established pickups were done there also for transplanting in the Castle, Crowsnest and Oldman Rivers. This went on till 1930 when Alberta took over its natural resources.

In 1931 Jim Kerr married Florence and about this Sarah shared the following memory. “At my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary (1981), my grandmother talked about her first memories of Jim. She said he had broken trail through the snow for her on the way to school in grade one. She said lovingly that he’d been breaking trail for her ever since.”

So it seems that I have once again dug myself into a protracted story which has so much more to it that space allows. Tune in next week where I will unfold the rest of the Kerr story including the Chinook Motel, Turtle Mountain Playgrounds, KFC and the remarkable legacy of one James William Kerr.
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May 16th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 20
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