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Canada's Mormon town, Cardston thrives for 125 years

Cardston retains distinctive character for 125 years

CARDSTON, ALBERTA

In heart, soul, history and demographics, it is every bit as much Mormon country as anywhere in Utah, yet Cardston is some 735 miles to the north, just over the Canadian border on the rangeland and prairie of Alberta.

The location of one of the Church's oldest temples, Cardston has long maintained a steady Latter-day Saint concentration of about 80 percent of the population of 3,500. Many of them have roots stemming back to the founding of the town 125 years ago.

Ken Sommerfeldt, local superintendent of schools and former president of the Cardston Alberta West Stake, recalled, "When our first child was born we took a picture that included all of our grandparents living here in Cardston. It sounds crazy, but we had 14 living grandparents in the picture — five generations on three sides."

Waterton Lakes National Park, viewed here from high overlook, is part of the Cardston Alberta West Stake. It has a meetinghouse but no permanent members. Tourists attend Sunday meetings in summer months.
Waterton Lakes National Park, viewed here from high overlook, is part of the Cardston Alberta West Stake. It has a meetinghouse but no permanent members. Tourists attend Sunday meetings in summer months. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

He describes his hometown as "a great community, great heritage, great traditions. It has always been kind of a sheltered little place, but at the same time, I don't think we've ever been backward. It has always been a progressive community."

Located about 15 miles (or as Canadians would say, 25 kilometers) north of the U.S. border, Cardston is a neighbor to the Blood Indian Reserve on the north, comprising about 9,000 people. "They form a significant part of our community as well," Brother Sommerfeldt said.

Nearby is scenic Waterton Lakes National Park, where a branch of the Church with no permanent members but with a meetinghouse attended by tourists on Sundays in the summer months is administered by the Cardston Alberta West Stake.

While the ranchlands "continue to shrink into fewer and fewer hands," agriculture is still the town's most significant economic base, Brother Sommerfeldt said, with some small businesses in the town.

The pioneer heritage is an omnipresent influence, illustrated by two of the town's main visitor attractions: the Courthouse Museum and the Charles Ora Card home.

Noel Burt, a Cardston native who returned only a few years ago, is the president of the town's historical society. He shows the interior of the Charles Ora Card home, one of the main visitor attractions.
Noel Burt, a Cardston native who returned only a few years ago, is the president of the town's historical society. He shows the interior of the Charles Ora Card home, one of the main visitor attractions. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Interior of Charles Ora Card home in Cardston illustrates pioneer way of life. President Card of the Cache Valley Stake in northern Utah was sent by President John Taylor to lead 10 families north to establish the settlement.
Interior of Charles Ora Card home in Cardston illustrates pioneer way of life. President Card of the Cache Valley Stake in northern Utah was sent by President John Taylor to lead 10 families north to establish the settlement. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

It was 125 years ago on June 1, 1887, that President Card of the Cache Valley Stake in northern Utah led a wagon train of 10 families across the border. They crossed Immigration Gap following the trail connecting Fort Benton in Montana with Fort Macleod in Canada.

The Benton-Macleod trail was also known as the "Whoop-up Trail" because of the propensity of some travelers to engage in drunken revelry once they reached the St. Mary's River bottom.

But President Card's party had a different way to celebrate.

Cardston, Alberta.
Cardston, Alberta. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

"When they get to the U.S. and Canadian border on June 1, 1887, it is snowing like crazy," recounted local historian David L. Innes. "They pull off the main trail, go up to the top of a little knoll and give a shout."

President Card recorded that they gave three cheers "for our liberty as exiles for our religion." Eliza Jane Woolf Bates, one of the pioneers, said the party crossed the border, adding their own stones to a rock cairn marking the boundary. "The wagons were drawn up while smiling occupants climbed out over the wagon wheels and gave their heartiest salutes: 'Hurrah for Canada; Canada or bust; three cheers for Canada."

It was an earnest cry. The members of the party had earlier intended to join other Latter-day Saints establishing colonies in northern Mexico to escape threats of arrest and imprisonment in the United States for practicing plural marriage, but Church President John Taylor sent them the opposite direction.

Cardston, Alberta. Old Chief Mountain.
Cardston, Alberta. Old Chief Mountain. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Jubilant though they were in crossing the border, the newly arrived settlers faced a daunting obstacle. Officers of the North-West Mounted Police told them the St. Mary's River, swollen from spring runoff, was impassable. Indeed, an Indian family had perished in the river a few days before.

Courthouse in Cardston, constructed in 1907, is Alberta's oldest and is now used as a museum. It still contains a judge's bench and, in the basement, jail cells. Artisans who worked on the courthouse later helped in construction of the temple.
Courthouse in Cardston, constructed in 1907, is Alberta's oldest and is now used as a museum. It still contains a judge's bench and, in the basement, jail cells. Artisans who worked on the courthouse later helped in construction of the temple. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

That set the stage for a miracle that Brother Innes regards as impressive as the incident of the crickets and seagulls in the Salt Lake Valley.

It was a Thursday — back then, the regular fast day in the Church — and President Card asked the immigrants to fast and pray that they would be able to pass the river. He awoke at 4 the next morning and noticed that water in a bucket had frozen. That was cause for hope.

Sure enough, freezing had inhibited the river's flow so that it had dropped 40 inches in depth during the night. It was still a perilous passage, but with the help of a Sgt. Brimner, one of the Mounties, they crossed the river by 1 p.m. and eventually settled near Lee's Creek, the current location of Cardston.

Working with others, Brother Innes has used satellite mapping technology combined with period documents to determine and mark the route of those pioneers in southern Alberta. White posts mark the route, and a monument, replicating the original rock cairn but moved to the north in 1987 to avoid the necessity of crossing the border to see it, tells the story.

Cardston, Alberta.
Cardston, Alberta. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Pastoral scene is on rangeland between Immigrants Gap, where Mormon pioneers crossed the border in 1887, and Lee's Creek, where they settled and founded the town of Cardston. A number of other LDS settlements were established in the area, of which only a handful remain.
Pastoral scene is on rangeland between Immigrants Gap, where Mormon pioneers crossed the border in 1887, and Lee's Creek, where they settled and founded the town of Cardston. A number of other LDS settlements were established in the area, of which only a handful remain. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In Cardston itself, the most prominent monument to the dedication of these pioneers and those who followed them is the Cardston Alberta Temple, dedicated in 1923 by President Heber J. Grant. Longtime townspeople associate it with the memory of E. J. Wood, stake president for 39 years in Cardston and for 25 of those years, the temple's first president.

"He was an amazing leader and laid the foundation, together with all those people in his generation, for the great little community that it is," Brother Sommerfeldt said.

"It has been said that the Cardston area and the other LDS pioneer communities of Magrath, Raymond and Stirling (and a host of smaller hamlets and villages settled by the Saints) have become a significant greenhouse for the Church," he said. "The population does not change here, but we have exported civic and religious leaders, professionals and others who have left their mark all over the world. They had their roots in these great communities and still call this windswept plain their home."

Cardston, Alberta
Cardston, Alberta Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Cardston, Alberta.
Cardston, Alberta. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Cardston Alberta Temple was dedicated Aug. 26, 1923, by President Heber J. Grant. It is viewed as a symbol of the faith and dedication of the 1887 pioneers and those who came after them.
Cardston Alberta Temple was dedicated Aug. 26, 1923, by President Heber J. Grant. It is viewed as a symbol of the faith and dedication of the 1887 pioneers and those who came after them. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

As for the current residents, the former stake president said, "This is a community who sustains their leaders almost unquestioningly, unwaveringly. And not in a blind sense, but in a faithful, devoted sense."

Some have joined the Church elsewhere and come to Cardston. Often newcomers would tell him as a bishop or stake president, "I'm not really sure why we're here, but I feel like we've been sent here."

Cardston, Alberta
Cardston, Alberta Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Often, expatriates will return, such as Noel Burt, a former mission president in Connecticut. A Cardston native, he and his wife returned to live here a few years ago. They were persuaded a year-and-a-half ago to attend a meeting of the town historical society. "I'm now the president," he said.

Brother Burt frequently shows visitors through the Card home and the former courthouse, now a museum with artifacts that include a movie poster of Fay Wray, lead actress in the 1933 classic film "King Kong." She was born on a ranch near Cardston to LDS parents.

Cardston, Alberta.
Cardston, Alberta. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

For Brother Burt and other residents, the heritage is pervasive. Showing a visitor the route of the 1887 pioneers, Brother Innes said, "When you are out here, you feel of the spirit of the place. You're so grateful for the faithfulness and dedication of our ancestors that made what we have today possible. And they went through a lot so they could settle this country and open it up and make those things available to us today."

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