Where is Rock Creek’s missing rock?

Introducing a guest blog post from Monica Field, one of our colleagues at Historic Sites and Museums.

My story begins in the spring of 2013, when I received a phone call from Hugh Dempsey. He, writing an article for Alberta History, hoped to learn the whereabouts of a rock, a particular rock … a missing rock.

Why did he call me? If you could see my house, my yard, my desk, my office and the view outside my window, you might understand. I work at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, and live in a landscape surrounded by rocks of all shapes and sizes. Some follow me. Many, found hither and yon, have fallen into my pockets and been liberated within my office. Others have invaded my home. There, a glacial erratic—it’s a 4,000 kg boulder—anchors my living room to the rocky edge of Rock Creek, a tributary of the Crowsnest River.

I laughed when Hugh told me the story behind the article he was writing. Why? The tale was too unbelievable to be true. But amid its far-fetched elements, there were many profoundly compelling components and juicy aspects of alluring intrigue. I was mesmerized. Within seconds, I was hooked.

If you wish to read the full article, you’ll find it in the summer, 2013 edition of Alberta History. Look for “Count di Castiglione in the West.” Here’s a synopsis:

In 1863, Count Henri Verasis di Castiglione was sent by the King of Italy to explore North America and bring back exotic specimens for a zoo. The Royal Italian Expedition, after traversing the Porcupine Hills, camped at the mouth of Rock Creek near the stream’s confluence with the Crowsnest River. There, not far from Lundbreck Falls, Castiglione and Major Ezeo di Vecchi climbed a nearby ridge and carved their names, the date, and some other information on a slab of sandstone (two feet wide by two and a half feet long).

This was the sandstone slab sought by Dempsey.

Dempsey, following the captivating story of Castiglione, had been trailing the Italian count for more than 40 years. He knew that in 1941, three Smith brothers from Lundbreck had found the inscribed sandstone slab. (Back in 1956 a local writer—and a former neighbor of mine—had heard the story and got the Smith “boys” to take her to the rock. She could read the names and date, but was puzzled over the inscription, which had weathered. No one from the local scene seemed to know more).

Armed with Dempsey’s insights and a picture of the missing rock, I contacted numerous people in an attempt to see if anyone knew of the Smith boys. I also tried to determine if the local writer—who is no longer living—had left insightful notes. I spent hours looking at rocks while exploring the ridges near the mouth of Rock Creek, but struck out on all counts. Castiglione’s inscribed rock seemed to have vanished.

Then I hit pay dirt. It happened when I stopped to talk with an elderly landowner, a man living in close proximity to the missing rock’s described resting place. He told me he’d found the rock years ago and, believing it to be a tombstone, taken it home. Later, regretting his actions, he returned the rock to the place where he’d found it … on a south-facing hillside amid scattered limber pines.

A limber pine, covered in hoar frost, grows incongruously from thrust-faulted sandstone near the mouth of Rock Creek, in close proximity to the last known resting place of Count Castiglione's missing rock  (Photo by David McIntyre).

A limber pine, covered in hoar frost, grows incongruously from thrust-faulted sandstone near the mouth of Rock Creek, in close proximity to the last known resting place of Count Castiglione’s missing rock (Photo by David McIntyre).

Years passed until one day, in the early 1980s, employees from the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in Lethbridge were granted permission from the landowner to excavate limber pines from the same sandstone ridge. When the landowner, returning to examine the site of the tree excavations, looked for the inscribed “tombstone,” he discovered it was gone. (This observation was made roughly three decades ago).

Fast-forward to 2013. I, curious, contacted the Japanese Gardens to see if I could learn more. I received a response indicating that the missing rock couldn’t possibly be in the Japanese Gardens because their rocks had been collected from an area farther west.

I wrote back indicating that, while I knew the bulk of the Japanese Gardens rocks had come from other locations, it seemed likely this particular rock, unusual due to its inscription, could have been collected at the time the Rock Creek limber pines were excavated.

I haven’t found time to visit the Japanese Gardens to see if I might learn more, but I’m mindful that a good sleuth leaves no stone unturned.

The Japanese Gardens are beautiful and well worth a visit. Perhaps, too, the gardens are the key to an elusive sandstone mystery?

My thought: The answer is out there …

Written by: Monica Field, Manager of the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre.

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