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Southern Manitoba's Most Recent Volcano Eruption

1907 photo of Volcano Hill in Pembina Valley near Manitou, Manitoba

Although at first glance this photograph appears to be little more than a spring snapshot of Mrs. Jardine’s apple tree in full bloom, it includes one feature of singular historic interest. In the background, barely visible on the crest of the highest hill, one may see a small white spot. Actually this is a massive hole which, already at that time, had given this section of the east hills of the Pembina Valley the highly descriptive title of “Volcano Hill.”

When this photograph was taken in 1907, this landmark was ten years old. It was created during the June 1897 celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. At that time the owner of the property was a Mr. Eustace Henry Curtis, son of Mr. C.W. Curtis of Kearsney Abbey, Dover. (Charles William Curtis was the founder and co-owner of the Curtis and Harvey Black Powder Company, suppliers of gun powder to the British army and navy.) A bachelor in his mid thirties, Eustace Curtis made his property (the farm on which I grew up) into one of the most attractive in southern Manitoba. The quintessentially patriotic Englishman (his grandfather, Sir William Curtis had been Lord Mayor of London), he hosted one of the province’s most elaborate celebrations honouring the sixty years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Fortunately, there are several contemporary accounts of that day’s events, the following excerpts from contemporary newspapers being among these:

“…Manitou, June 22 – A great jubilee celebration was held to-day on the ranche of E.H. Curtis. The weather was all that could be desired. Over two thousand people assembled in honour of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. One thousand dollars were expended in decorations and fireworks. Royal salutes were fired all day that could be heard distinctly at St. Leon.” [As the crow flies, St. Leon is fifteen miles from Pembina Crossing.]

“…One of the most memorable days the world has ever seen has come and gone but the memory of that day will be handed down from generation to generation as one which every member of the British Empire, joining hand in hand, lifted up their voice in a paean of rejoicing and thanksgiving. The sun rose on the morn of the 22nd on a stormy and cloudy sky, but during the forenoon the clouds rolled by and the day proved to be one of the most perfect for a picnic that it is possible to conceive, and a large crowd started for "The Ranche," the home of Mr. Eustace H. Curtis of Pembina Crossing, with hearts full of expectation.”

Among these hundreds – perhaps thousands – of guests that day were several members of my mother’s family, including her uncle Ken Young. From the biography of his father, Dr. Matthew Young, V.S., we quote:

“…I was not present at its formation (Mother and I had returned home with the members of the younger generation of our clan), but Ken was an eye witness and returned much later that evening with a full, complete and accurate account of the procedure. It was (as previously was the case – or rather the attempted case) preceded by a blazing fire on the summit of the hill which, apparently and intentionally, ignited the fuses of a magnificent display of fireworks.

“Then, as this corner of the valley's night sky was lit from horizon to horizon by the brilliance of these fiery rockets, the late evening quiet was transformed by a thunderous explosion as the huge bonfire on the crest of the hill disappeared within a colossal cloud of dirt and rocks engendered by the ignition of a barrel of dynamite buried in the top of the hill. Ken described it as the 'perfect replication of a volcanic eruption' – the first, I am informed – in southern Manitoba for several million years.

“Its effect upon the celebrating crowd (now greatly reduced in numbers due to the lateness of the hour) gathered on the spacious grounds of the Ranche House can better be imagined than described, although – as predicted - 'broken halters and running horses' figured largely in this scene. Suffice it to say that no one had thought to warn the owners of these teams what to expect and so these keenly observant creatures naturally assumed that they were the soon-to-be victims of another Vesuvius. Several rigs were demolished in the stampede – but this was a trifling price to pay for the experience of viewing an occurrence that will be, I am certain, never imitated in our province, or perhaps our nation. Therefore we tender our grateful thanks to Mr. Curtis and the fortune which made this grand spectacle a loudly resounding success.”

Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee celebratory image by Felix G. Kuehn

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