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City of memories, city of mystery

The search for a story in the silence of the dead led
to James Adson Powell and his head-turning headstone

The monument at James Adson Powell’s grave in Edmonton Municipal Cemetery. (Theodora MacLeod)

By Theodora MacLeod

TOWARD THE centre of the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery (11820 107th Ave. NW), stands a saintly figure adorned with silk flowers. She towers above the headstones surrounding her and marks the final resting place of James Adson Powell, (1857-1922). Who Powell was is not evident on first glance. Edmontonians know names like Groat, Oliver, and Muttart. Their legacies are preserved on street signs and buildings. However, beyond a handful of notable names, the city’s history can feel vague and disjointed to those who don’t consider themselves local historians.

Powell was one of five children born to Anna and Harlow Powell. He married a woman named Eleshia, and had at least two children. Newspaper archives reveal details of his social life, his legal affairs, and the fate of his family following his death – all behind a paywall, as if in a members-only club where admission comes with the price of tuition, or subscription … or keen technical skills.

The pieces are hard to place, scattered details in dusty online archives of scanned prints; the ink is faded, the typeface crowded and dated. The city’s cemetery administration office has no further information to share, and had there been a living relative listed, privacy protection would have kept them from releasing the contact. The answer is in the air to the question of why one man’s headstone seems more like art than the rest.

Newspapers were the social media
of the 19th and 20th centuries

Newspapers were to people of the 19th and 20th centuries as social media is to us: a disorganized record of events that captures only a slight glimmer of a reality that current citizens will likely never experience. Like social media, they offer a curated sign of the times, leaving more questions than answers.

Edmonton Journal articles from November 1912 mention that Powell was taken to court after his sister allegedly ran over someone while he supervised her driving his car. The pair ended up triumphant in the case and the subsequent appeal, but the details do not lend themselves to a cohesive narrative, when they are jammed into the blocks of text, and can only be read one day at a time.

This is not the only mention of Powell with regards to legal challenges, in April 1914, he brought forth an injunction against the city for shutting his water off. Clearly a man of business, his legal and real estate details are dispersed over 20-some years of local newspapers, but if there is any explanation for his extravagant headstone, it remains to be found.

Inconsistent spellings make verifying facts almost impossible. There’s a high likelihood that James Powell is the brother of Kingston Powell, who was responsible for the erection of a building that bears his name, still standing across from the Provincial Court house (10277 97th St.).

However, some articles refer to James Powell’s brother as “Kingstone.” It will come as a shock to no historian, whether hobbyist or professional, that the clearest and easiest answers to questions of the Powell family’s tree exist in the tight grasp of, locked behind subscription fees – not unlike most personal historic information, as well as many official documents such as census records and immigration logs.

He is said to have made 
money in real estate

But the newspapers report that following his death, James’s wife Elishia, daughter Edith, and son-in-law, T. Judson Wilbee, relocated to Buffalo, N.Y., that Elishia fell “dangerously ill” in 1928, and that his granddaughter, Elizabeth – daughter of his son Ray – attended university in Victoria in 1933.

While no specific career title was found for Powell in a preliminary search of newspaper archives. He is said to have made his money in real estate; his home address is listed in his death announcement. Formerly 9911 114th St., the site is now part of Grace Lutheran Church. It’s fitting perhaps that a home address is easier to uncover than a record of employment for a man whose headstone is a mystery.

In the middle of the city core sit two cemeteries, home to the commemorative plaques and the burial sites of hundreds of Edmontonians who came before us. The streets are built on memories, but, to uncover the lives of those laid to rest in the midst of what is now the busy neighbourhood of Queen Mary Park, one must dig into the digital archives of newspapers locked behind paywalls and kept out of the public eye.

Standing tall and proud in the centre of the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery, the statue draws the attention of passersby, who dare enter the grounds of the dead. But, while the stonework can be admired, and the silk flowers stand out against the snow, the reasons for its grandiose presence remain to be found. James Adson Powell is not a civic icon and there is no school in his honour.

But to someone – or perhaps just himself – he was worthy of this relic of greatness.

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