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Brûlé

Alberta

This is a post about an Alberta Ogre, German prisoners of war, a historic Edmonton neighbourhood, and the ruins of an old coal mine right next to Jasper National Park.

You can be excused for not knowing where Brule is. The community is not on a major highway where thousands of people pass by each day. It’s not even on a highway that you might have travelled on your way to somewhere else. In fact, the road to Brule ends at Brule. When you reach the end of the road there’s no sign that says “thank you for visiting Brule, come back again soon” or anything to signify that Brule and the road have terminated here. The road simply stops when it reached the old mining community. It’s as if the builders of the road simply said, “Right then, that’s enough of a road for Brule so let’s pack up the machinery and head off to another job”.

The road ends close to the mine site but the story begins here.

This is a map of part of Alberta to provide an approximate location of Brule at the red dot.

A Brief History

Brule started out as a prosperous coal mine town. The ruins of the old mine area are still there and ready to be explored. My blog will show you where the miners lived and the mine administration and medical area. The mine itself is just a short walk away from where the miners lived but I haven’t visited those ruins in a number of years. The forest has grown over the ruins so if you plan to explore them you’ll need to be prepared to do some bushwhacking. The town put up some signs to explain what you are looking at or what is hidden by the forest. Unfortunately some of the signs are showing the effects of the weather. Hopefully the town will continue to maintain them.

The dark forest has permanently claimed this old truck.
The tree has claimed this truck near the old Brule school.

The historical images below were obtained from the University of Calgary digital library. Click on the first image to expand it and you will be able to read the date and a description of the image. Click on the arrow to move to the next image for similar information. Once you are done just click on the X to return to this main screen.

Click on any of the above historical images for a description and citation / attribution.

I found a local history book with lots of information about the history of Brule and some of the people who lived there. The quotes below are from that book. A full citation follows at the end of this blog post.

Brule was founded as a mining town in 1912 by the Mackenize and Mann interests who operated the Canadian Northern Railway. By 1919, the mine was producing 500 tons of coal per day and employing about 170 men. The mine was sold in 1920 to the Blue Diamond Coal Co. for $450,000. Its coal output had been increased to 800 tons per day. In that period, a building program was undertaken, $750,000 having been borrowed for expansion. Some of the funds were used in building a new tipple, enlarging the hotel, construction of a large warehouse, carpenter’s shop and blacksmith shop. A race track and golf course were also built (both are now overgrown by scrub pine). The quality and quantity of Brule coal soon diminished after it reached its peak of 1,800 tons per day. In 1928 the mine was closed. The 500 workers were forced to look elsewhere for employment. Soon all that was left was a grimy tipple, two empty schools, an empty hospital, a church where no one worshipped, and some eighty empty houses.

With the homes, facilities and equipment abandoned after the mine closed, Brule became a ghost town. After 1928, only a handful of people remained, and for some time in this period of dormancy, only Tom Groat’s family and a provincial park warden resided in this once bustling community.

History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies pages 139-149

What could be done with a hamlet of 80 fairly new homes and other structures where only houses were occupied? Well there was a war going on and Canada needed all of the materials it could get, especially steel.

In 1942, the provincial government sent in wrecking crews to salvage materials essential to Canada’s war efforts, namely, locomotive rails and other reclaimable metals as well as one million board feet of used lumber. Efforts were made to sell Brule as a lumber camp but no purchasers were forthcoming.

History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies pages 139-149

It was quite common for railway tracks and other industrial facilities to be removed and repurposed for the Second World War. The steel from those railway tracks could well have become tanks, ships or even bombs. Many small communities across Canada lost their railway during the war years because of the need for steel. In most cases, the loss of the railway meant the end of the community, however Brule would not fade away.

The Edmonton Connection – Tom and Malcolm Groat

Brule still had a large number of perfectly good but empty homes. Edmonton was a rapidly growing city where there were shortages of everything. All that was needed was a nexus between the two places. Remember a few paragraphs above where I quoted a book that said that there were only two remaining residents in Brule? One of those residents was Thomas (Tom) Groat. He was the son of Malcolm Groat. Malcolm Groat was well known in Edmonton. In fact Groat Estates, which is the exclusive part of Westmount was named after Malcolm Groat. Actually so was Groat Road, built in a deep ravine along the boundary of Groat Estates. The eastern part of Westmount includes “113th and 114th Streets and 108th and 109th Avenues” that you’ll read about in the next quote. Could it be just a coincidence that the Brule houses where Thomas Groat lived ended up in Westmount to the east of Groat Estates where Thomas’ father, Malcolm Groat lived? I don’t think so but that’s just my opinion.

Soren Madsen agreed to dismantle and Madsen and his workmen salvaged what they could. The buildings purchased included three two-story nine-room dwellings, 55 one-story four-room dwellings, twelve one-story two-room dwellings, a two-story apartment block, and one large tipple.

Buildings were dismantled and piled in units, all pieces marked so that they could be set up complete at any location without difficulty. Many of the houses may still be found in Edmonton between 113th and 114th Streets and 108th and 109th Avenues.  It was estimated that Madsen salvaged 50,000 feet of fir siding, 50,000 feet of cedar siding, 100,000 feet of fir timbers, 100,000 feet of fir flooring, in addition to numerous windows and doors. Releasing such a large quantity of dry lumber eased the shortage of materials being experienced by buildings at that time.

The province itself decided to raze and salvage the church, school and hospital. But Brule would not die.

History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies pages 139-149

German Prisoners of War

History of Hinton : gateway to the Rockies page 144

Take one ghost town, add lots of tall trees around it and move the date to WWII and you have a need to house prisoners of war. If you haven’t read my blog post about a prisoner of war camp (“POW”) in Alberta you can click here to read it now and then return to this post. That post was about a sawmill between Edson and Edmonton where German POWs were put to work if they wanted to work rather than just wait for the war to end. There are whole books written about the major POW camps in Alberta such as the one near Lethbridge, but the smaller POW work camps are very poorly documented. Apparently the only places to read about these camps are the local history books that pertain to the very area that the camps were located. Both the one I previously wrote about and this one near Brule were low security camps built for the mutual benefit of the soldiers and the owners of sawmills or lumber camps. Nobody was forced to work but for those who chose to work in these camps the time passed faster and they were paid a small fee that allowed them to buy cigarettes and other luxuries that would be unavailable at regular POW camps.

The quote below is a good summary of what I discovered about the POW camp near Brule. Where it mentions “German prisoners of war working at a camp near Edson” I’m fairly certain that it means “Chip Lake” which is the camp I visited and wrote about in my earlier blog on the subject. Here’s another opportunity to click on the link to read about that camp as it’s much better documented than the Brule camp: https://glenbowe.home.blog/2020/11/11/soldiers-in-alberta/

In early May, 1944, about fifty German prisoners of war who had been working at a camp near Edson, were transferred to Brule, and another seventy-five were brought in from the Lethbridge POW camp, to work in various camps. The POWs were escorted by Canadian guards, (World War I veterans), and were housed in bunkhouses separate from the other men. The guards also had their own bunkhouse.

The POWs were issued special clothing by the Canadian government. A big red circle on the back of every shirt and jacket distinguished them from other residents. Brule Lumber Co. paid the Canadian government $3.00 a day for each prisoner, furnished them with food and lodging and paid each one 50¢ a day. These “chits” could be used to make purchases in the company commissary, items such as tobacco, toiletries and confectioneries. Every week, the company issued a half-pound tin of tobacco and the government furnished one bottle of beer, to each POW.

Shortly after the arrival of the prisoners, George weeded out four belligerent young POWs and had them sent back to the concentration camp at Lethbridge. This set the ground rules and the others soon realized that if they completed the jobs assigned to them and lived by the rules of the camp, they would be treated the same as the rest of the lumberjacks.

Most of the young POWs proved to be able and willing workers. They knew, that at the end of the war, they would be returned to Germany. Some expressed a desire to return to Brule, so George Stady gave them a letter stating that Brule Lumber Co. would pay the return fare and guarantee employment to “the bearer”. Adam Neder was the only one who accepted the offer. Upon his return, he requested an advance to send for his wife. They lived in Brule where Adam worked until his loans were repaid. Thereafter, he moved to Jasper and presently lives in Chetwynd, B. C.

History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies: pages 145-146

Also George Spady managed the lumber camp that housed the German POWs. I believe that the camp was actually owned by Albert Garneau. This is based on the following quote:

Albert Garneau came to Brule to establish a sawmill. He was born in 1904, at Tetford Mines, Quebec, but moved West in 1930. Daisy Davis was born in 1922, at Bay City, Michigan, and moved West in 1928. She too, came to Brule in 1941. Albert and Daisy were married in 1942. They have three children Ellen, Yvonne and Mariea.


Albert managed his mill during World War II and produced lumber to fulfill a government contract. His camp was used as a German prisoner of war camp until 1945. The three Garneau girls lived in a sawmill camp during their early years. They did not attend a regular school until 1954, when the Brule school opened. Their childhood experiences included very few amenities: outdoor plumbing, lumber homes, Delco for electricity, and correspondence lessons. During the spring flood of 1954, Mariea broke her leg. Daisy set it and waited for the water to recede. Three days later, Albert and Emile Garneau, with the assistance of four residents, carried the stretcher to the Brule siding where they flagged a train to Jasper. Medical attention was not available at that time – not even in Hinton.

History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies: pages 143

Brule’s History as Seen in 2022

We’ve read a little of the history of Brule but lets have a look at what you can see there now. There is basically the hamlet of Brule and then, just at the edge of modern Brule, there is the old mine site in the forest. If you find the right area you’ll know it by the signs that are posted near the ruins of the remaining structures. The Mine Managers House is a popular place to start because the full foundation remains and especially because the stairs to the house now have a tree growing right on the steps. For Geocachers there are a number of caches in the area and that helps to find your way around the various sites.

The Mine Manager’s House is just a concrete foundation of what was there before.

The stairs leading up to the Mine Manager’s House. Click on an image to enlarge it and access the captions. Click the X to return to normal

The Brule Schools

Yes, that is my arm reflected back on the above sign. It was a very sunny day and and there was nothing I could do about the reflections in the signs.

The sign below has the added benefit of featuring a reflection of my hat. Once again the bright sun and no tripod or polarizer filter made it impossible to prevent the reflections. It’s rather spooky to look at the sign with the images of some of the people buried in the cemetery and then to see my own face reflected back as if it was part of the sign.

Click on the above sign images to enlarge.

Excerpt from the sign at the Brule Cemetery. “Burials marked within the Brule Cemetery took place over a 25 year period between 1921 and 1946. Every effort was made during the 2013-2015 research and site evaluation phase to locate all persons and previously unknown burials within this site. It is possible however, that prior to and between these dates, other “unknown” persons were laid to rest here. The original site plan for the cemetery, submitted in 1918 encompassed and area of 8.81 acres, extending beyond the current fence boundary in both south and west directions. This was during the year the Spanish Flue epidemic began, a time when the need for a cemetery would have certainly been realized if it had not been before; deaths reported as a result of mine accidents are recorded as early as 1916.
Although burials are no longer permitted here, a few long term and early residents have laid the ashes of their loved ones to rest in the Brule Cemetery”.

Nothing remains of the hospitals except a shallow pit because they didn’t have permanent foundations. According to the sign, there were two hospitals; one was for the regular patients and one hospital was for the isolation patients. Isolation patients would be those with diseases such as the “Spanish Flu”, tuberculosis, and many other contagious diseases. You can enlarge the image below to make it easier to read by clicking on it.

Brule Today

Although Brule had a difficult and colourful history, it’s not a ghost town anymore. I noticed a number of modern homes that were more than just basic accommodation. Clearly there is a sense of optimism that has caused many people to make their home in this community. For some it may be as an investment in the hope that Brule will be the next Canmore. For others it’s just that they like it here and wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The image below speaks to the sense of optimism that pervades Brule like no time since the 1920s. This community hall cost $5.5 million and was completed in 2020. It features 8,500 sq ft and can handle events for up to 250 people.

The Brule Community Hall

Meet the Ogre

If you visit Brule you can explore the old mine ruins. There are the old town ruins with the miner’s house and related buildings described above and a short distance away are the ruins of the actual coal mine. It could be a little dangerous. I haven’t visited the old mine plant for many years but it was a tangled mess of steel and wood at that time. However, if you own a truck or SUV you might want to meet the Ogre. Ogre Canyon is accessible from Brule and the directions are easy. When the road you used to arrive in Brule comes to a dead end you are at the end of the village. Stop your car for a moment so that you can read the little sign for Ogre Canyon that will be right in front of you. Basically you turn left and drive very slowly on a dirt road. You’ll have to stop to open and close a few cattle gates but the public is allowed to use this road so just make certain that you close the gates that you open and everything will be fine. Once you see where other vehicles have parked, or you simply can’t go any further without risking being unable to return, you park. There isn’t much room to park but try to not block the road for others that might be able to go further. I don’t recall how far the drive is but my guess is that it takes about 15-20 minutes to drive as far as you can go. Once you park there is a very short walk to the canyon. Here are some images of Ogre Canyon. There is a waterfall in the very back of the canyon. At times there is a lot of water in there and at other times just a trickle of water drops into the canyon. Watch out for the Ogre.

If you want more exercise and a great view you can hike up to the top of the canyon. It’s a steep but short walk up. When you are at the top you will see what looks like a narrow ridge going to the sky. Don’t worry as you don’t have to walk to the peak. Just walk along the ridge and you will suddenly see a small valley and a creek that flows into the Ogre’s Canyon. This is definitely an area to be careful. A number of years ago at a time when I rarely used the neck strap on my camera, I slipped and dropped my expensive camera gear. My camera and a very expensive lens went straight down into the canyon never to be seen again. I think that the Ogre grabbed it. I had a very quiet and somber walk back to the vehicle once I realized that there was no hope of recovering the camera or the memory card filled with the weekend’s photographs.

If you do hike to the top you will probably see some signs for the boundary for Jasper National Park. The park boundary runs right along the ridge at the top of the Ogre’s Canyon.

The above photos show the top of the Ogre’s Canyon, the source of the water, and looking both up toward the ridge and canyon as well as down to a very windy point. The views are beautiful at the top. It’s a hike that anyone can do if you take your time.

You might spot a large hole at the top of the canyon. A guide used to take people rappelling down the hole to the bottom of the canyon. That would be a lot of fun but it’s my understanding that the Edmonton guide has moved and no longer offers those trips. Near the natural hole you can still see where the ropes were attached for the descent down into the Ogre’s domain.

On your way out of Brule there is a viewpoint called Solomon Lookout. It has a number of signs of the history of the area and if you wait a short while you’re almost certain to see a train passing by. There is another spot where the view of the trains is much better but it’s very easy to miss while the lookout is not.

Robertson’s Curve near Solomon’s Lookout

Pet Cemetery

Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with a Stephen King novel or the movie of the same name. There are no poltergeists in this story. Pet cemeteries are quite common. They are typically unofficial cemeteries on Crown Land. In the case of Brule’s pet cemetery, I have no doubt that it’s the nicest pet cemetery in Alberta and possibly even Canada. I was there in 2021 but not during this last visit to Brule in 2022. The cemetery had grown considerably and now takes up quite a bit of space. There are a number of different shaped markers often with collars or a favourite toy left nearby.

Actually I may be incorrect when I said that there are no poltergeists near this cemetery (unlike the Stephen King novel). When I was there in 2021 somebody had put up a fellow that looks like a poltergeist. I thought it was just a geocaching prop but who knows. Both images below were taken in 2021 when I last viewed the pet cemetery. The fellow in the trees was just about 50 meters or so from the cemetery.

There’s a lot to see and do in Brule and the immediate area. Just watch out that the Ogre doesn’t get you.

Citations

If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old and potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.

17 thoughts on “Brûlé

  1. Excellent post on Brule Glen. I have often driven by the sign and wondered what was up there and now I know. Perhaps one day, we’ll drive in for a look. Looks like that International truck got harvested. Good to here more info on the influence of Groat and Garneau. Happy Thursday. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Allan. Now you have an excuse to drive up that road and maybe even explore the Ogre’s Canyon. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting community, and I love the extra info on the canyon! Maybe the canyon tour guide found your old camera! How devastating to lose it. My hubby broke our lens cover in Ireland, by having it swinging from the neck strap and it connected with the solid rock walls of a castle. At least it wasn’t the actual lens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The deviation was emense. I had some great photos of Jasper and Brule on the camera so it was not just the monitary value but all of the lost images too. I actually did ask about the possibility of the guide searching for the camera but by then he had already relocated.

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  3. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t catch where the town name Brûlé originated? Very interesting bit of history! Need to look on a map to see where it is located!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t catch the name either. It was probably attributed to one of the early explorers but I really don’t know.

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  4. Hi Glen,

    Very interesting story, it’s amazing all the locations you’ve visited…

    I did a little research and discovered that “Brûlé” is actually French for “burned”, at least according to Google Translate. Theres also a Wikipedia article about Brûlé Lake that disclosed the origin of the name Brûlé; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brûlé_Lake_(Alberta)

    Also found a YouTube channel that explored Brûlé in two episoids. It doesn’t appear that the channel is active as the owners videos are all four and five years old.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Hugh, for commenting. It’s good to hear from you. I don’t think I get around nearly as much as you do but I am developing a bit of skill at finding the interesting things at places that at first appear to be mundane. Thanks for the links to the videos, I watch them a little later.

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  5. Another fascinating post Glen. There is obviously much to see in that area. I found it interesting that, from what you researched, the pet cemetery is still being added to despite the town itself being somewhat abandoned. Better to note that people are coming back so who knows perhaps it will become a ‘go to’ destination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that the town of Hinton also contributes to the pet cemetery. At these by those who know of its existence. It’s unofficial so there are no signs to announce the location. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  6. What a well researched and written post and super interesting. Sucks about your camera from a previous trip but the canyon is stunning. Not sure I would hike to the top — I have this fear of falling and that hole spooked me out. Bernie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bernie. I don’t think that you would fall into the hole but the canyon from the top can be dangerous. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  7. It strikes me how leniently the German POWs were treated in Brûlé during WWII yet the experiment evidently worked out successfully. I wonder if Americans then in a similar situation would have chosen such a humane strategy.

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    1. Well you probably know the answer to that question better than I do. In this case it was a mutual benefit because they provided low cost labour and they received better than average living arrangements. Win/Win.

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      1. And yet I’m still surprised even on these conditions.The more I learn about
        World War II , the more pessimistic I get about American heroism.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t know which country’s solders were the most heroic. I do know that Americans really like to make heros out of those who served in politics, military or other areas. Canadians rarely recognize the heroes we do have. It’s very odd that the two countries treat their heroes so differently and both to opposite extremes.

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    1. We are a very individualistic society I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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