By Ray Pinco
Prompted by a question from Mayor Nolan Crouse, I have prepared a brief ‘history of the seven hills’ as I know it. The account is not chronological because I first responded to Mayor Crouse’s question and then expanded my comments to other man-made changes of the hill since the settlement of the Mission.
The name “Seven Hills” refers to seven terraces that were shaped into the hill above Father Jan School about 1968, after the demolition of “The Old Brick School” (1960). Children quickly and spontaneously coined the name “seven hills” to describe the new landscaping. The name not only stuck but also soon became engrained into the community’s vernacular – so much so that we still use the phrase long after the reason for the name has disappeared.
The terraces provided families and individuals a great venue for winter fun as they slid down the hill in various conveyances – from sleds to inner tubes to cardboard. Sliders would attain a great deal of speed as the runs became iced up from continuous use. As a result, some sliders would actually become airborne on the lower terraces – providing for great thrills but also providing the risk of tailbone, back, neck and other injuries as participants landed on the crest of the next terrace. Because of the many injuries suffered by tobogganers (and encouraged by the medical community), the terraces were removed by the City some years ago, yet, the name “seven hills” endures.
These “seven hills” were not the first reconfiguration of “the church hill,” as it was known in my youth. Sliding down this particular hill was a popular winter pastime even then and many family stories in the The Black Robe’s Vision refer to this activity. Several accounts attest that bobsleds could reach as far as the Bruin Inn.
The photographs on pages 148, 160 and 341 of The Black Robe’s Vision (BRV) show the hill in front of the Mission church and the Youville Home from 1886 to 1912. Viewers will observe the crest of the hill in front of those buildings to be a gentle slope. In my youth I attended the Brick School and the slope north of the school was steep. We used to play on this slope in both summer and winter. Winter snowdrifts offered a good opportunity to play games such as ‘king of the castle’ and, in summer, the hill provided several secluded areas to eat lunch, find shelter from the wind or, simply, hide. One portion was almost cliff-like and somewhat unstable, provided an engaging climbing challenge for young boys. I occasionally wondered why there were ‘cliffs’ at that point whereas the rest of the hill was much more gently contoured.
Quite a few years later, as an adult, I was chatting with former mayor Bill Veness about things historical and mentioned my conundrum. Bill was also a local lad, some twenty years my senior, and, of course, knew the answer. When the four-storey brick section of the Youville Home was built in 1920, the soil removed from the basement excavation was simply dumped over the edge of hill! Then I understood. Indeed, even today if you stroll immediately east of the parking lot across from the Youville, you can still see clear evidence of this dumping as you look over the crest of the hill – although the ‘cliff’ has eroded and overgrown considerably since the 1940’s. A value-added benefit from this time in history is the level area on which the parking lot is situated!
Other changes to the landscape likely occurred when the basements of the Vital Grandin Centre and the current St. Albert Catholic Church were excavated in 1882 and 1900 respectively. It is quite likely that soil from these excavations was also dumped over the edge of the hill. A further change surely occurred in 1909 when the Brick School was built, since levelling of the site was undoubtedly required. As well, the Brick School had a basement and the excavated soil had to go somewhere, likely contributing to the large level portion surrounding the school, edged by rather steep drop-offs to the east, west and south. A careful perusal of various historical photographs seems to support these hypotheses.
The church hill (or, rather, the foot of the hill) underwent considerable man-made changes from 1950 to 1956. The aerial photo on page 489 of the BRV (c.1940) shows a considerable pond at the foot of the hill, near Mission Avenue (another source of winter fun – skating – as the pond would usually freeze over before the river). In the photo, the woods east of the pond hide a knoll. In 1950, the trees were cleared and the knoll was levelled to make way for a new school. The soil from the knoll and the basement excavation was pushed into the eastern portion of the pond. The basement of the school was roofed and the completed classrooms therein were used for several years. The second storey was added in 1952 and served grades five through twelve until 1956. This school is now the NABI building. The remainder of the pond was filled in 1955 using soil from the hill between the pond and the Brick School and, in 1956, a new St. Albert High School was opened on the site of the old pond (now Father Jan School). The photo on page 668 (BRV) was taken in the summer of 1956.
Since 1956 other changes have taken place: trees have been removed, the slopes groomed and, of course, the “seven hills” were created and removed. In the 1960’s two ice rinks were created by levelling portions of the hill between the Vital Grandin Centre and the Little White School – one for hockey and one for general skating. The rinks have since been removed but the flat areas remain. Each Arbour Day, these areas are now being forested by school children using seedling trees.
We know rather instinctively that buildings come and go and that streetscapes change over the years; however, we seldom think about changes that occur in the landscape as a result of development. I hope that I have given you an appreciation for the considerable changes that can occur in the natural domain as communities grow and develop. Oh, yes, what is now a solid looking downtown landscape contained a considerable area of swamplands during the 1940’s!
Reprinted from The Echoes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, May 2010; St. Albert Historical Society