In the late 1800s as settlers moved west the need for law and order become more apparent. Luckily most of the settlers in rural areas were too busy eking out a living to get in any real serious trouble. However as villages grew into towns they became hotspots for shysters and the morally bankrupt.
It would take 19 years after the formation of the North West Mounted Police in 1873 for Wetaskiwin to have their first NWMP officer. The first attempt at law and order in the area was a detachment south of Fort Saskatchewan at the Peace Hills Agency Farm 1884-1889, before Wetaskiwin was even named. NWMP members escorted the mail and patrolled the Bear Hills and Battle River settlements. During the Riel Rebellion in 1885 a log fort called Fort Ethier was built to protect against Indian attacks. For the next 7 years this was all locals had for law enforcement and protection.
Upon completion of the 16th stop on the C and E Railway in 1891 things changed. More people converged on the area and a community was born. Originally called Siding 16, the name Wetaskiwin was taken at the suggestion of Father Lacombe in 1892. The name Wetaskiwin in Cree means “the hills where peace was made”. It was at this point in time that Wetaskiwin’s first Mountie came, supplied by Fort Saskatchewan District Headquarters.
Twenty two year old Ephraim Girling was their man. He was born in England and came to Canada when he was 10 years old. He joined the NWMP when he was 19 and rode his horse down the old Edmonton/Calgary Trail many times before the railway was completed. Back then there were various attempts to rob stage coaches as they went back and forth. Constable Girling was on duty 24 hours a day “and his strapping build and thick black handlebar moustache mounted on a big black horse gave him a look of authority well beyond his years.”Girling had a large area to patrol and at times had to resort to questionable methods of policing. One such instance was when group of Indians after getting their treaty money, decided to have a pow-wow and let loose on main street. Of course this upset some of the more conservative members of the community. Girling was called to deal with this matter, but had a more pressing situation to deal with at Meeting Creek. Before Girling left he “handed a rifle to the rowdiest Indian in the group and told him to take charge”. When he came back from Meeting Creek everything was nice and calm.
Enforcing the law in those days was not easy. Long distances had to be travelled often in extreme weather. “One man on a horse patrolling widely scattered and poorly connected communities could only do so much”. Criminals of the day changed as society progressed. At first Mounties mostly dealt with horse thieves and public nuisance. Gambling was illegal and “once Dong Tom’s Restaurant was raided and 11 Chinese gentlemen were brought to court and fined $25 each with the exception of Dong Tom who was sent to trial on the charge of keeping a gambling house”. When banks were first introduced cheque forgers emerged. One such fellow Mr. McClellan the stonemason decided cashing fraudulent cheques was easier than hauling stones. Mr. McClellan enjoyed his shopping spree and weekend booze session before heading south. At the local bank on Monday morning upon noticing signature irregularities, the law was called and plans were made to find Mr. McClellan. There were cases of missing laundry hung out to dry only to miraculously disappear at night. There was a raid on a special house that catered to men in need of female companionship. Situations of new settlers being taken advantage of due to language barriers were also prevalent. Murders and other crimes of violence were far and few. Generally early settlers were hardworking and law abiding.
Constable Ephraim Girling was “big and strong and could take care of horse thieves and other sorts but Maggie’s blue eyes were his undoing”. Upon meeting Margaret Gould young Ephraim was smitten. His policing career was over shortly after he got married on May 1st 1895. Girling was on the job in Wetaskiwin for 3 years in total. Of course the NWMP filled his vacant position. Girling opened a bakery, had kids with Maggie, and never left the area.
References: Siding 16 Vol. 1, The City of Wetaskiwin Archives 4904-51st ph. 780- 361-4423 firstname.lastname@example.org