Elk Island National Park: What’s in a Name?

Beautiful Elk Island National Park! But where did its name come from? Is there an Elk Island on the lake? Or is it all a beautiful metaphor?

sunset-over-astotin-lake-4-september-2016
Is THIS Elk Island? (Photo by the author of Astotin Lake at Elk Island National Park, 4 September 2016.)

When I first arrived at Elk Island in 2014, I went searching for the origins of the park’s name. The “elk” part of the park’s name made intuitive sense, as it is pretty well-established that Elk Island had been founded as a federally controlled elk preserve in 1906.

But where did the “Island” in its name come from?

Islands of Astotin Lake
Yes, there was an island on Astotin Lake called “Elk Island”, but it is now a peninsula. That name came later, though, and it is so called because elk apparently used to swim out there to give birth. So no, that island wasn’t important enough to name the entire park after it. Image courtesy of Parks Canada.

 

Visitor guides from the 1980s seemed to go the metaphor route. Judith Cornish wrote in Finding Birds in Elk Island National Park (1988): “Elk Island – an island of wilderness in a sea of rural development.” Jean Burgess in Walk on the Wild Side: An All Season Trail Guide to Elk Island National Park (1986) also described the park in its introduction as an “‘island’ of wilderness.” I’ve heard ecologists talk about how the Beaver Hills, where the park is found, are like an island of unique geology, rising up above the surrounding landscape. That may well be true, but is it where the park’s name came from?

I had read early newspapers that called the place “Elk Park” before it became a dominion park with the Dominion Parks Act of 1913, at which point it became “Elk Island Dominion Park.” Why the addition of the word “Island” at that time?

So I did what any historian would have done… I looked it up.

I went over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, an archive of Western Canadiana, and did a quick search of their newspaper archive. I put “Elk Island” in quotation marks to get an exact phrase, and then sorted the newspapers in ascending order of dates to get the oldest entries. And wouldn’t you know it – I found my answer in an article from 1908, a bare two years after the park was founded but five  years before it gained its full name officially with the parks act of 1913:

“Quite apart from the attractions which the park will have for those who love wild animal life, the scenic beauty of the park and its surroundings will make a powerful appeal. It is four miles square and the lake, from which it obtains its name, is situated wholly within its borders, being two miles long by an average width of a mile and a half. It contains twenty-one of the most beautiful islands imaginable…”

  • Elk Island Lake Park: One of the Beauty Spots of Alberta,” Saturday News (January 25, 1908): 1.

I have since read elsewhere that Astotin Lake was also once called “Island Lake,” like in this caption from a photo album circa 1910:

PC003646.2
Island Lake in Elk Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

From 1906 to 1922 (when the park expanded its borders to what is now the Yellowhead highway) the park was a little fenced postage stamp of land around Astotin (Island) Lake with a bunch of elk. People came to admire the park’s two distinctive features:  the elk and the islands. Hence:  Elk Island National Park.

Also, the name “Buffalo National Park” was already taken.

Elk Island National Park: Founded on a Bet?

It’s no secret that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Elk Island National Park’s history recently for work. One of the things that I could never quite wrap my head around is the motivations for the foundation of the park in 1906. Elk Island is one of the oldest national parks in Canada – it in fact predates the foundation of the more famous Jasper National Park by a year – and is the only remaining example of an “Animal Park,” founded as it was to protect one animal species (elk). Other national parks, like Banff, were considered “Scenic Parks,” founded to protect their beautiful scenery from logging and settlement and to encourage tourism. (The other two “animal parks” in Canada, incidentally, were Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) and Nemiskam National Antelope Park (1915-1947).) Elk Island has over a century of conservation history under its metaphorical belt, starting with the preservation of a small band of elk enclosed by a fence. But what motivated the creation of the only entirely fenced national park in Canada?

Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005162.html
Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The basic outline of the story that I was always told by other park employees and in short trail guides from the 1980s was that Elk Island was founded by “five guys who put up a $5,000 bond.” I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what that meant. When pressed, colleagues explained to me vaguely that five conservation-minded men from Fort Saskatchewan asked the government to create a national park and pooled their resources to show that they were serious in their commitment, and that the government matched that $5,000. Not knowing much about Edwardian bonds or the financial situation of the Canadian government in 1906, and not knowing what the money was even for, I wasn’t sure if this made sense. I was really left with more questions than answers.

Doing a little digging, it turns out that those five men from Fort Saskatchewan were all members of a hunting club. I knew that middle- and upper-class hunters from settler communities were often involved in early conservation efforts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, largely because they wanted large game to be managed for their own benefit and protected from the being killed by local people (largely Aboriginal and/or poor) for subsistence. The early history of national parks in North America as a whole is riddled with stories like this: more privileged “visionaries” reserving tracts of land from those who lived on and used that land already. This interpretation fits with descriptions of the Fort Saskatchewan men being concerned that unnamed people would shoot the last remaining elk in the region.

I still didn’t quite understand what the $5,000 bond was, though. I then ran across this newspaper clipping on the foundation of the park in the May 6th, 1906 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (click to enlarge). The relevant paragraph is the following:

“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“It is known to all who are familiar with such matters in Alberta that practically the last of the elk . . . are contained in a band variously estimated from forty to one hundred which is at present making its stamping grounds in the Beaver Hills, to the east of Edmonton. As Mr. Walker explained, some of the residents of his constituency, being very desirous of preserving the band, approached the Minister of [the] Interior on the occasion of his recent visit to this city and asked that he lay the matter before the Government at Ottawa and induce them to build a fence around at tract of timber in that part of the country . . . known to be the haunt of the elk. The Minister of [the] Interior replied that the Government would not be very likely to undertake anything of the kind unless they had some guarantee that there would be a fair possibility to get the elk inside the fence after it had been built, whereupon the Fort Saskatchewan men offered to put up a cash bond of $5,000 as a guarantee that within ten days after the fence was built they would have at least twenty elk within this enclosure. The guarantee was considered an evidence of faith in the scheme that could not well be overlooked, and the minister promised to do what he could to have the land set aside for the purpose of a deer park fenced.”

And thus Elk Park was born.

Three sides of the fenced enclosure were built around Astotin Lake by volunteers, leaving the southern boundary open. Elk were driven into this area, and the fourth fence constructed soon after, enclosing a grand total of about 24 elk in June 1907. After that point the five men were “released” from their bond as they had fulfilled their obligations.

Now, I interpret this incident almost as if it were a formalized “bet”: the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, didn’t believe that it was feasible to enclose this band of elk. The residents of Fort Saskatchewan disagreed. $5,000 was put forward by five men as a guarantee that they was serious about protecting these elk, and Oliver would set aside land for them to try to enclose the animals. If the five men were right, Oliver would make the fenced enclosure officially a national park (or protected game reserve). The residents, in the end, succeeded, and Elk Park was quietly managed as if it were a national park until it was officially designated one under the Dominion Parks Act in 1913. That does of course make me wonder, though: what if they’d failed to enclose the elk? Would “Elk Park” have been quietly re-absorbed into the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve from which it was carved out?

Regardless, the narrative of “far sighted, visionary conservationists” founding the park in 1906 never sat well with me. It always seemed like an idealization of the past or a romanticize of its founders. It’s a truism that people do things for selfish reasons. More research into this specific situation bore this assumption of mine out. It appears that one of the five men, a Mr. Lees, was awarded two contracts totalling $13,800 in 1906 to construct that fence. (Fence posts and wire are expensive.) He more than made up his temporary investment of a portion of that $5,000 bond.

But see, the thing is: just because national parks were founded for quote-unquote “selfish” reasons does not negate the century-long conservation legacy that came afterwards. Origins are not destiny. I think that telling a more nuanced, “warts and all” story is far more fascinating and provides a deeper understanding than a glossy soundbite about historical “visionaries”. Whatever their intentions – be it personal profit, a desire to reserve those elk for their own hunts, or an actual desire to see elk protected from harm at the hands of human beings – those five men did secure the protection of the last remaining significant elk herd in the Edmonton area, and the park that they helped to found went on to play a huge role in preserving plains and wood bison from extinction in the future. And that’s worth celebrating.

Resources

  • “Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1.
  • Colpitts, George. Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.
  • Hart, E.J. J.B Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
  • Scace, Robert. Elk Island National Park: A Cultural History. Unpublished report prepared for Parks Canada Department of Indian & Northern Affairs. Calgary: Scace & Associates Ltd., 1976.

Postcards That Intrigue Me #7: Wildlife in Jasper National Park

This weekend, I’m heading off to Jasper National Park, so my historian brain immediately thought of the many tourists who have explored the park over the past century. Wildlife, then as now, was a huge draw for visitors, but there was plenty to see and do in Jasper! Here is a historical photo album compiled from various images from my favourite database of historical postcards, Peel’s Prairie Provinces. These photographs largely date from the 1920s through the 1940s, but the wonder at the many sights of Jasper is timeless!

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Postcards That Intrigue Me #6: Warden D. Davison and His Pet Elk Maud

Because if you are the warden of a national park in the 1920s, why not also tame an elk and name it Maud? And have the image of you both distributed as postcards?

Elk. Maud getting her mornings morning in Buffalo Park. [Wainwright]: Photo Carsell, c1928. PC005159. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Elk. Maud getting her mornings morning in Buffalo Park. [Wainwright]: Photo Carsell, c1928. PC005159. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Warden D. Davison and his pet elk Maud at Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1920]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Warden D. Davison and his pet elk Maud at Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1920]. PC005158. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
 For more information on the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (but sadly no more information on Warden Davison and Maud), see:

  • Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.