Illustration by Kyle Metcalf
What do a Cold War bunker, The Lingnan Chinese restaurant and a Sikh temple have in common? They are all “exhibits” in Edmonton’s new rolling museum.
The initiative kicked off last November, when the Edmonton Heritage Council (EHC) launched its first YEG Curiosities Bus Tour. City Hall school teacher Linda Hut was on the planning committee for the pilot.
The first tour started at the Prince of Wales Armouries, then former City Councillor Michael Phair did a commentary as they toured the LGBTQ community, says Hut. “It was so interesting – he talked about drag races in back alleys and the Pisces Health Spa in the 1970s and 1980s.”
At the University of Alberta, Phair took his leave and the group visited the little-known Structural Geology Laboratory in the Earth Sciences Building. Then City Archivist Kathryn Ivany took over as guide while the chartered city bus wound its way up Groat Road and 118th Avenue to The Lingnan.
“There, the Quon family gave us a tour of the restaurant, fed us, and talked to us about the TV show and the history,” says Hut of the dining spot, which has been around since 1947, and was featured on a reality show, The Quon Dynasty, in 2011. Hut notes that aside from visiting these places, she was curious to see who else would be interested in this kind of tour of the city.
“There was a great mixture of young and old and we all felt like we were on this mission together,” she says. “There was an unusual rapport.”
This is exactly what the EHC’s Executive Director, David Ridley, hoped for when he and his staff began the tours last year, which have quickly moved from pilot project to cult favourite.
“These tours are one part old-fashioned bus tour that your grandparents or great-grandparents would go on, one third surprising things about Edmonton, and one third travelling road show – a bit of a party on wheels,” Ridley says. “We wanted a dynamic interpretive approach. There’s no master plan about what these should be – it has that kind of call and response [feel]. We’re trying to tap into what Edmontonians might find interesting and help connect them to it by getting the right people to talk about those places.”
Residents have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, and learn about “living exhibits” like Blatchford airfield, the abandoned and reportedly haunted Charles Camsell Hospital, Teddy’s Restaurant and Mill Woods. Several of these tours over the past few months have sold out.
The mid-winter visit to the Civil Defence Bunker, in the river valley, made a particularly strong impression on riders.
“Fred [Armbruster] was this young, cool, amazing guy who greeted us with the air raid siren blaring from his truck,” Hut says. “We stood in the snow for at least 40 minutes while he spray painted in the snow the floor plans for the bunker. His passion for opening this up as a museum was so great.”
Ridley notes that future tours are definitely in the works and the price will likely stay around $15 a ticket. They will continue to be eclectic, include local cuisine with a heritage twist, but some may also centre on themes, such as pyramids – like the ones at City Hall and the Muttart Conservatory – and potholes.
“It’s irreverent but, as Edmontonians are, it’s respectfully irreverent,” Ridley says. “It’s somewhat spontaneous, less predictable – you get on this bus that’s not necessarily taking you to the places you think you ‘should’ see.”
Which is exactly what these tour aficionados want. As Hut notes, “This is for Edmontonians who love their city: These are secret and special places for us.”