Skip to content

Where Legends Live gives pulse to tales of icons resting in Old Banff Cemetery

"Whenever you walk in the cemetery, the stories of the legends come out,”

BANFF – Some of the most wild and marvellous history of Banff is resting six feet below the ground.

Where Legends Live: a historical walk through the Old Banff Cemetery unlocking the stories of the past is the latest from local author and historian, Graham MacDonald, who has given long gone souls new life in his new book.

Standing inside the gated Old Banff Cemetery on a brisk September morning, the local expert eagerly shared his passionate knowledge of the famed locals buried there, jumping from one story to the next.

“Whenever you walk in the cemetery, the stories of the legends come out,” said MacDonald. “I love to see tombstones with people's names on it and the dates and a little something that can kind of tell a little something about their life.”

Living in Banff since the early ‘60s, MacDonald has always been fascinated by its people who are a part of the earliest documented history of the little, but mighty mountain town.

From remarkable stories of bloody gunfights, Canada’s biggest manhunt that ended violently on Banff’s doorstep, an intense encounter with a grizzly bear, and a stolen locomotive for a booze run (or borrowed, depending on who you ask), MacDonald’s Where Legends Live honours Banff’s pioneers resting at the Old Banff Cemetery and their often larger-than-life tales.

Telling more than 25 stories with photos, MacDonald has written each entry as a ballad, or a rhyming couplet. Writing poetry poolside as a youth or penciling hymns on trips back to Banff, MacDonald has always had a passion for the writing style.

“I find that a ballad has an opportunity to be a little more concise,” said MacDonald. “You can put their stories in smaller versions, but it takes a lot to comprise a story in a short period of time and make it meaningful.

“I think it’s a nice way to tell a story.”

A map of the cemetery, with the locations of the graves of those featured in the book, is included.

MacDonald, who’s a bit of a local legend himself and inductee in the Bow Valley Sports Hall of Fame, said his research process consisted of thumbing through the “priceless” archives at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, old articles from the Banff Crag and Canyon and Calgary Herald newspapers and history books.

Some local legends featured are mountain man “Wild” Bill Peyto, sharpshooter Bill Neish, keeper of the gate Annie Staples, bear executioner Jim Brewster, Sulphur Mountain’s weather station guy Norman Sanson, Walter Peyto and Banff’s war horse Heinie, and “train robber” Bruce Beattie.

The Banff author also includes the stories of the cemetery’s residents of World War veterans and those killed in combat, Castle Mountain internment camp prisoners, and the story of Bankhead, a defunct mining town near Cascade Mountain, and what happened to its deceased during a tragic mine collapse.

“You gotta remember, Banff is a town of 8,000 people and we have got an archives and library and gallery and everything,” said MacDonald. “There’s no place else, as far as I’m concerned, that has the same amount of resources that have been set aside and the same amount of people that are there to preserve this. It’s actually mind blowing. … We’re very fortunate to have that.”

MacDonald also acknowledged the hard work of Paulette Zarkos and her dedicated team of volunteer headstone restorers at the cemetery. He said without them, “it wouldn't be the same.”

Surely one of the tombstones Zarkos and her team has come across is the cemetery’s first resident.

In 1890, following an untimely death, baby Adelia Woodworth was the first to be buried in the Old Banff Cemetery. Her tombstone, a large reddish rock with a bronze plaque, is found in the northwest part of the cemetery. To date, the cemetery is the final resting place for approximately 2,000 souls.

The Old Banff Cemetery, which is along Buffalo Street, is open to the public. 

Where Legends Live is available for purchase at the bookstore inside the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and Café Books in Canmore.
On Sept.  30, MacDonald will have a meet and greet at Café Books from 1-4 p.m.

MacDonald offers tours of the cemetery, which can be arranged via email at [email protected].

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
Read more