As a government supply base, troop mustering centre, and site of a military hospital, Moose Jaw saw plenty of behind-the-front action during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
Not since the spring of 1883 when the first parties of settlers reached Moose Jaw had there been such commotion.
Teams and wagons loaded with supplies rolled out of town for the battlefront as wagons bearing the wounded and dead rolled in.
The military hospital with make-do accommodation in the Moose Hotel on the northwest corner of Main and High Streets was crowded to the door.
And along Spring Creek, in present-day Crescent Park, was an encampment of soldiers whose numbers almost equalled Moose Jaw’s entire population.
J.J. McLean, a Main Street merchant, remembered the day when the bodies of soldiers who had fallen at Batoche arrived in Moose Jaw to begin the rail journey to homes in Eastern Canada.
“We heard that they were bringing the dead here by Saskatoon trail, which used to run over the hill past Central Collegiate.”
“The whole town, including the mayor and all the citizens, went out to meet the sorrowful procession, and fell in behind the wagons. There were six wagons guarded by an escort of soldiers and mounted police.
“The rough boxes, each with the body of some brave lad, were piled two deep on the wagons. They were taken to the Foley block (where the Cornerstone Inn now stands) and here the bodies were embalmed. After several days they were loaded on the train and taken east.”
McLean also had some vivid memories of the day when Louis Riel was brought to Moose Jaw under heavy guard.
“One afternoon word spread like wildfire through the town that Riel was being brought in. I left my store open without a clerk and everyone else did the same, and we all went to see him.
‘We found him in a passenger coach on a railroad track about five blocks west of the station, and guarded by about 200 soldiers. As Riel sat looking out of the window at the crowd, someone yelled a threat. The soldiers jumped out of the rail car with fixed bayonets and drove us back to town. I tell you, they made us fly.”
Probably no other town in the Territories was livelier than Moose Jaw when the Halifax Battalion camped on its outskirts in 1885.
The battalion was in the West to help quell the uprising, but none of its 390 officers and men saw front-line action.
Instead, they were sent to Swift Current, Medicine Hat and Saskatchewan Landing to guard the supply and communication routes to northern troubled areas.
When the rebellion ended, the battalion regrouped at Moose Jaw, setting up camp along Spring Creek on what is now the site of the Cenotaph in Crescent Park.
For six weeks, while they awaited orders to return to Halifax, the disgruntled troops lost no opportunity to liven up both camp and town.
McLean remembered the antics of the soldiers from Nova Scotia: “It was just a burlesque all the time they were here, for they were forever playing pranks and acting up.”
Slipping out of camp for a night on the town was a common pastime of many of the soldiers.
McLean once counted at least 50 sneaking back to camp in the early morning and admired their ingenuity at hoodwinking the sentries.
During the battalion’s morning ablutions in Spring Creek, where Crescent Park’s high bridge is now located, the all-nighters would hide behind several shanties on the west side of the creek.
Then, when the sentries were at the farthest point from the wash site, the culprits would run down the bank, mingle with their comrades and return to camp with them.
McLean also recalled the night when the town was awakened by the entire battalion running down Main Street toward the CPR station where large stacks of oats and hay waiting to be freighted north were ablaze. One of the Halifax boys guarding the stacks had dozed off while smoking.
When the Halifax battalion finally packed up its several hundred tents and left town, Moose Jaw reluctantly returned to the more sombre business of pioneering.