Day 760: The Classic Kings Of Edmonton

originally published January 29, 2014

Having spent all but three weird months of my life in Edmonton, a portion of my available fascination is perpetually woven into the snug threads of the city’s storied history. Admittedly, when the frigid fingernails of a late November cold spell are scraping bone through skin I will occasionally entertain a baffled speculation as to the reasoning behind Edmonton’s founders choosing this spot in which to settle. But they did, we’re here, and some magnificently cosmic clattering of fate’s dice landed me within these city limits at birth.  

A tremendous Facebook page, operated by a former resident who finds the constant fluctuation of our city’s urban visage to be a matter of fascination and deeply in need of public documentation, is an inescapable vice for me. It was nothing short of a revelation to me that before our cold, brutalist courthouse we had a splenderiffic edifice, complete with Roman pillars and a classic aesthetic. I’m still amazed that we had an incline railway that once covered the same ground as the parkade where I occasionally stash my Toyota during the workday. 

My workplace view overlooks our pointy, modernist City Hall and the Chicago-inspired McLeod Building, and I take a moment to soak in a fresh smidgen of our landscape every day. But beneath that landscape is a brief but hurried urban history, one which propelled us from a frontier trading post to a 21st century metropolis with astounding speed. I’d like to learn more, to dig my feet a little deeper into local lore. And where better to start than with the decadent facial hairstylings of our first mayors? 

One hundred years before I was legally entitled to fling a ballot into the steampunk apparatus of civic democracy, Matthew McCauley was elected our town’s first mayor. I poked around his legacy for a smattering of dirt, but all I could uncover was an unending procession of awesomeness. Our school system, our first hospital, our Chamber of Commerce… they all are smeared with Mayor Matt’s fingerprints. He was the quintessential first mayor every town needs. 

Even his nickname was “Honest Matt”. In an age of lip-pursing partisanship and crack-addled politicians, it’s hard to envision a leader whose reputation remains as glossily immaculate as it was when he ruled. McCauley School was named in Honest Matt’s honor, as was McCauley Plaza, which I’m tickled to discover has become Telus Plaza, the office building that steals eight hours of each of my weekdays. Apparently this is the sweet piece of real estate that Honest Matt used to call home. 

Herbert Charles Wilson, whose mustache was legally required to be licensed as a potential weapon, ascended to the mayor’s chair when Honest Matt went in search of a higher post. Wilson was one of our first doctors, cracked the seal on our first drug store, and brought with him a heap of experience in territorial politics. His local footprint includes securing the money for that first hospital and picking out a spot for the High Level Bridge to be built. 

Where Doc Wilson’s story gets interesting is at the end of his term, which came about pre-emptively as the result of a juicy scandal involving the appropriation of town funds. Unfortunately, uncovering the meaty details of this scandal will take a bit of off-line research, as the web resources surrounding it are vague at best. As I’m limited to but a day of digging (and a workday at that), I’ll place a little bookmark in Doc Wilson’s story and try a deeper excavation of the facts in the next few days. For now, all Wilson has named after him is an industrial park. 

Local butcher Cornelius Gallagher had hung his political towel on the rack after two terms as town councillor when Doc Wilson leapt from the mayor’s office in a dusty cloud of murky smoke. Council selected Gallagher as a replacement, making him our first non-elected leader. Cornelius held the town in check for two months until the next election, but opted to run for council and not mayor. The top seat was just not where Cornelius wanted to be. 

In honor of his 69 days wearing Edmonton’s political crown, we named one of our most magnificent parks (and without question our most impressive toboggan hill) after Mr. Gallagher. 

John Alexander McDougall missed serving on Edmonton’s first town council in 1892 by a measly sixteen votes. Sixteen votes. Ten more minutes of door-knocking might have shoulder-checked McDougall’s fate in an entirely different direction. Lucky for him we used to hold elections every year; John wouldn’t have long to wait for another strike at the political piñata. He served two years as our mayor: from December 1896 through 1897, and again from December 1907 through 1908. 

Thanks to John we have St. John’s Ambulance (the name is probably a coincidence), a local transit system and an automatic telephone system. Not a bad legacy of modernization. 

It could be said that William S. Edmiston was elected mayor because his name sounded so much like that of the city he wished to lead. That’s a little simplistic – his experience on town council may have had a bit more to do with it. Or maybe not; it’s politics. Edmiston’s lasting impact didn’t carry a lot of exciting developments to the city (though he was pivotal in securing construction of the Low Level Bridge), but sometimes a mayor who simply keeps the clocks ticking and the water flowing are crucial to a town’s development. 

Unfortunately, Edmiston’s legacy got the same treatment as Doc Wilson’s – an industrial parked named after him. Perhaps that was just to avoid confusion with his name. 

I wish I could say more about William W. Mackenzie. He was an educator, a bookseller, and he’d lost his left hand in an accident as a young man. He served two terms as our mayor, took a few years off then returned in 1904 as the first mayor of the newly-incorporated City of Edmonton. The details of his in-office accomplishments are scant; all I can tell you is that he returned to teaching math at Victoria High School until his death in 1929. 

His name – or an accidental misspelling of it – was honorably bestowed upon one of our loveliest west-end ravines. At this point it’s not likely that McKenzie Ravine will see a name-change. We’re stuck with the typo. 

Lastly we have William Short, the man whose palms caressed the shiny orb of political power in between the two reigns of William W. Mackenzie. Mr. Short was a lawyer and public school trustee who helped to stretch out our railroad to the north side of the river and authored our city charter in 1904. Like MacKenzie, Short served for two separate chunks of time, running again for election in 1912. When he lost the 1913 campaign, he became the first sitting mayor to lose re-election rather than simply step down. 

William Short was one of the first in our city to scoot around in an automobile, and as such his legacy comes in the form of a road. William Short Road, for those who don’t know it (and I’d bet very few of my fellow Edmontonians do), is a tiny strip of 76th street just north of Rexall Place, in an unimpressive industrial park. 

If I’ve learned anything by meeting our pre-City mayors it’s that we not only don’t honor them enough, but their story and the brilliant cavalcade of urban lore that helped to shape our city needs greater representation online and a deeper groove in our collective consciousness. 

Whether we embrace the cold or try to shoo it away with warm drinks and vacation resort brochures, we owe ourselves the giddy treat of knowing what really shaped this city. Perhaps in 240 days, when the shackles of this little experiment have clattered to my mental floor, I’ll dig a little deeper. 

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