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Archival photo of some of Banff's early residenrs along with a photo of the old Banff Cemetery sign

Spook Yourself Silly Touring Banff’s Historic Graveyard Tour

A Local historian reveals the thrilling tales behind Banff's tombstones

It’s Fall, and Spooky Season is upon us. 

Want to get in touch with some spirit(s)?

Well, there is no better place for that than a cemetery!

Yes, this is an actual suggestion.

Especially if you plan to visit Banff this October.

Bill Peyto. Photo Banff Archives

Local historian and author Graham MacDonald has spent hours researching the larger-than-life stories of the 2,000 souls in the Old Banff Cemetery.

Far from the monotonous ramblings you might find in history class, the tales of the Banff graveyard residents are rich, wild, and spooky.

Macdonald brings the stories of the cemetery residents to life in his new novel Where Legends Live: A Historical Walk Through the Old Banff Cemetery Unlocking the Stories of the Past

He’ll be giving guided tours so you can experience the spooky tales in person.

A Banff local since the 1960s, Macdonald has always been intrigued by the lives of the town’s pioneers, and he learned more strange stories than he ever imagined!

Far from discovering the forgotten local gossip of a sleepy mountain village, he learned enough crazy exploits to fill a book (literally).

From bloody gunfights to encounters with grizzlies, a karma retaliation for stolen automobiles, to Canada’s most extensive manhunt coming to a violent end right outside town – the graveyard is truly the resting place of the ultimate Wild West drama.

Macdonald has written every cemetery resident’s exploits as a poetic ballad or a rhyming couplet to take the historical story-telling to the next level. There is a little art added to the dramatic history.

“I think it’s a nice way to tell a story,” he told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

“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.”

A historic photo from 1927 or Heinie, the Russian Warhorse with Mount Rundle in Banff in the backgroud
Heinie the Russian pony pictured at the bison paddock in Banff National Park. Photo taken by Miros Thom in 1927 during a a trip to the Rocky Mountains. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

With so many stories packed into one book, it’s easy to see why the conciseness of a ballad or couplet was needed.

Macdonald writes about everyone from World War heroes to Castle Mountain prisoners and Bankhead miners to fan favourites like “Wild” mountain man Bill Peyto, sharpshooter Bill Neish, bear executioner Jim Brewster, “train robber” Bruce Beattie and, of course, Banff’s war horse Heinie.

“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.”

You can visit the Old Banff Cemetery along Buffalo Street and book a tour with Macdonald via email at graham_macdonald@shaw.ca. 

You can buy Where Legends Live at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies bookstore and Café Books in Canmore. On September 30, MacDonald is having a meet and greet at Café Books from 1–4 PM.

So come on out and explore the forgotten lives of the past… it’s not as scary as it sounds!

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