Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Colonel's Cabin Historic Site

Trip Date: October 2014



When you think of World Wars I and II a lot of vivid imagery likely comes to mind, but I'm willing to bet the Canadian Rockies are not something you pictured.  Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park were both sites of internment and prisoner-of-war (P.O.W.) camps during those dark times.  Located on what is now the site of the University of Calgary's Biogeosciences Kananaskis Field Station you'll find remnants of Camp 130, an internment camp and later a German P.O.W. camp.  

Located approximately 10km south of the Trans Canada Highway along Highway 40, the Colonel's Cabin Historic Site features a series of three Barrier Lake Forestry Trails including the Forest Ecology Loop (1.5km), the Forestry Loop (0.8km), and the History Loop (0.3km).  The History Loop guides you through what was once the Kananaskis Forest Experimental Station before it was transformed into the P.O.W. camp during the Second World War.  

This cabin was first used as the office for the relief camp
In 1934 a forest experimental station was established to provide an outdoor laboratory for research on tree growth, soils, forest pests and disease, hydrology, and forest fires.  Shortly after its opening the station became the site of an unemployment relief camp where unemployed single men from the prairies provided physical labour.  The log cabin was one of the last buildings constructed on the site and served as the relief camp office.  

Between 1939 and 1945 the cabin was occupied by Colonel Hugh de Norban Watson
Constructed in 1936 by the Department of National Defence, the cabin was converted to the commandant's quarters at the start of World War II.  The camp commandant, Colonel Hugh de Norban Watson, used the cabin as his office from 1939 to 1945.  Hugh de Norban Watson (1886-1952), after whom the cabin is named, was a Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces.  In recent years the Colonel's Cabin has functioned as a forestry office and visitor centre.  On August 4, 1982, it was designated an Alberta Provincial Historic Site.

Guard Tower #8 from Camp 130 in Kananaskis 
As World War II raged in Europe and North Africa, this tower stood close to this location, but in a setting far different from today's.  At that time, guards with rifles sat in this tower peering down at prisoners of war.  

Seven main guard towers stood in Camp 130, when it opened in 1929.  Some were equipped with search lights and all were fully armed.  Along with two auxiliary towers, the seven were manned by the Veterans' Guard on a 24-hour basis.  A low-voltage warning wire and two high barbed wire fences surrounded the camp prisoners' compound and scouts regularly patrolled the perimeter.

Guard Tower #8 with Mount Baldy in the background
At first, security was considered adequate for the 600 or so young German merchant seamen interned here, but as the war dragged on, captured German fighting forces, including high-ranking officers, were brought to Camp 130.  Escape plots were suspected and tunneling was discovered.

As a precaution against escapes, an eighth main guard tower with a powerful search light was added.  A military plan of Camp 130 dated August, 1944 shows the new tower.  It was located outside the prisoners' compound overlooking the camp, about 100m southwest from where it stands now.

When Camp 130 closed, the Dominion Forestry Service moved the tower to the top of a nearby mountain ridge where it was used as a fire lookout until 1982.  In 1984 Guard Tower #8 was moved to its current location, near the place it stood beside the barbed wire.  

Outside of the Colonel's Cabin and the Guard Tower, nothing much remains at the site.  The History Loop winds it's way through the nearby forest where you'll find a couple of crumbling foundations, but not much else.  

One of the foundations from Camp 130
Some concrete and an indentation in the ground, likely from a building
An old fencepost that would have held a gate at one time
Another foundation that's completely overgrown
The Veterans' Guard of Canada was organized in 1940 to help protect important buildings and vital installations such as air bases, refineries, and manufacturing plants from acts of sabotage.  Within a short time the Guard was placed in charge of internment camps and prisoner-of-war camps, such as Camp 130.  

The Veterans' Guard was comprised of men who served in the First World War and even in the Boer War.  Owing to the shortage of young men, many Veterans' Guard ranged in age up to 60 years.  Most men were under the age of 50.  Membership grew from an original 10 companies of 2,000 men in 1940 to 75 companies of 15,000 men in 1945.

Veterans' Guard of Canada Memorial near Camp 130
The inscription on the plaque in the photo above reads, 
"Over 10,000 veterans of World War I (1914-1918) enlisted to serve in World War II (1939-1945) forming a special army unit in May 1940 known as the Veterans' Guard of Canada. 
Prevented from overseas service because of age, these veterans were utilized in training active service recruits, protecting military installations, war plants, vital utilities, and railroads against sabotage.  One of their more important roles was guarding prisoners-of-war.
This was the site of World War II Seebe Internment Camp No. 130, which originally held conscientious objectors and enemy seamen.  The camp later held 650 prisoners of war, most were officers captured from the German Afrika Korps by the British Eighth Army in North Africa.  A temporary tent camp nine kilometers north on Morley Flats held 10,000 prisoners in 1942 awaiting transfer to the newly built P.O.W. Camp No. 133 in Lethbridge, Alberta. 
During 1945 and 1946 the prisoners-of-war from Seebe Camp, guarded by soldiers of the Veterans' Guard, cleared trees for the construction of Barrier Lake Reservoir."
Most of the information written in this post was obtained from interpretive signs throughout the historical site.  I've driven past the Colonel's Cabin numerous times, but never took the time to stop and appreciate an important part of Alberta's history.  Next time you're in K-Country, save half an hour and explore the site for yourself.  You won't be disappointed.

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