History of Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium
It’s no secret that Edmonton Football Fans bleed the Green and Gold of the Edmonton Eskimos. In the Canadian Football League, only Toronto has won more championships than Edmonton – with such a long record of success, there are plenty of diehard Eskimo fans in Edmonton.
Edmonton’s CFL franchise also boasts another record in the CFL. Their home turf of commonwealth stadium has the largest seating capacity of all CFL teams. In fact, Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium as more than double the seating capacity of any eastern division team.
Today, it’s certainly easy to associate Commonwealth stadium with Edmonton’s Green and Gold Eskimos.
But if it weren’t for a worldwide sporting event landing in Edmonton decades ago – we wouldn’t have commonwealth stadium today.
The global sporting event which focused the eyes on the world directly to our small city. Where athlete’s traveled from around the globe to compete for sporting dominance. Quite possibly Alberta’s most high profile sporting event ever… I’m talking about the 1978 Commonwealth Games, hosted in Edmonton, AB.
Before Edmonton was selected to host what was, at that point the upcoming 78’ games, Edmonton’s CFL club played at a much smaller Clark Stadium. Clark Stadium today is known as Clark Field, and is home of FC Edmonton, and their exciting upcoming season in the newly formed Canadian Premier Soccer League. Clark stadium has a capacity of only 5,000 today, but back before it was rebuilt, it held a much more respectable capacity of 20,000 Eskimo Fans.
But if you go back even further – before both Commonwealth and Clark Stadiums, before the Edmonton Eskimos… that area was home to something a little less exciting, and a lot more nefarious.
The area where football fans cheer today, was originally home to Alberta’s First Federal penitentiary.
Built in 1906, inmates at the prison quickly found that it was no picnic. At the time, prisoners were stripped of their names and were only addressed by number. Their heads were shaved, and they were not entitled to speak, or even move, without express permission. Prison visitors were not permitted.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Those serving time there were sentenced to hard labor. Inmates were put to work in construction, and were expected to support themselves on the prison farm – tending to the pigs, working crops, clearing brush… but, those were the lucky ones.
Prisoners were also put to work in the nearby Coal Mines.
In Edmonton’s early history, it was a coal town. Edmonton’s core was littered with coal mines on both sides of the river – it was the primary source of heat for almost all dwellings. And in a cold place like Edmonton, that equates to a LOT of coal.
If the prisoners at Edmonton’s Penitentiary wanted to stay warm over the hard Canadian winters, they were expected, or… forced to work the coal mines.
Through and through, being a resident of the federal prison in Edmonton was NOT a pleasant experience.
What’s odd about the prison is… it didn’t stay open for long. By the time World War I began, the prison had ceased operation. There are no records that we could find to explain why a newly constructed federal prison ceased operation in less than 10 years.
It has been noted however that… they couldn’t keep it full – it seems Edmontonians proved to be far too good to occupy a federal prison at the time.
Between the prison’s closure and the construction of Clark Stadium over 20 years later – the site remained mainly unoccupied – save for one tenant. Big 4 Moving and Storage – can you think of a safer place to keep your stuff than an abandoned prison?
Fast forward 40 years after Clark Stadium construction, and it’s 1978 – and Edmonton is hosting the Commonwealth Games.
In preparation for the games Edmonton City Council debated whether or not to build a fancy new stadium. Clark stadium was getting a little old and its 20,000 person capacity seemed too small for such a high profile event, and while original plans called for the renovation of Clark Stadium, soon it was agreed that it would make more sense to build a new stadium.
So in the early 70’s, construction began Commonwealth Stadiums. The stadium’s original opening capacity was 42,000 – that’s about 13,000 less than today’s capacity of 56,302 – but at the time it still more than double that of Clark Stadium.
While the debate about whether or not a new stadium would be build was settled, the most controversial decision was still yet to come.
The Commonwealth Games would bring with them a visit by her royal majesty the Queen of England. As is tradition, the queen placed a message in a baton, which was carried around the world by various athletes, before finally arriving for the opening ceremonies.
This is very similar to the Olympic torch being carried around the world.
As a side note, back in 2010 when Vancouver was hosting the Olympics, I left work a couple hours late – I was tired, and just wanted to get home. I was stopped at a light when police stopped all traffic. I thought, oh great! I’m never getting home… when suddenly I realize they stopped traffic because the Olympic torch was being ran through – it was VERY cool to see up close. Anyway, back to the commonwealth games.
After the relay around the world, the queen would retrieve her message from the baton and read it the opening ceremony of the games.
Organizers wanted to make sure that all expectations were met in regard to royal tradition. When hosting the queen and royal family, there were certain requirements to look after. That’s when they discovered what would become a royal pain in the butt.
It seems that the Queen is not to share a toilet with the common folk, it is required that she has her own private accommodations. You certainly don’t have to agree with this requirement – but you have to admit it’s not difficult to put in a simple private washroom somewhere in the stadium.
But, that’s not exactly what happened. Organizers, in a desperate attempt to do the right thing, went a little overboard. They spent $50,000 of public money to install a private restroom fit for a queen, and only available to her upon request. This was no simple water closet, it was reportedly carpeted, fully furnished, and was decorated with frosted glass – it was truly a royal commode.
Finally, the day of the opening ceremonies arrived… and the queen’s royal $50,000 private washroom… went unused. Yup, it seems the queen skipped her cup of English Breakfast that morning, because she never excused herself to go to the loo.
Photos of the private washroom were never released. And not longer after the games, the plumbing to the $50,000 washroom was disconnected. The room wasn’t maintained, eventually fell by the wayside. Eventually, it became a storage room housing some gas BBQs, lawn chairs, and miscellaneous Eskimos paraphernalia.
Even though it was a private washroom, earmarked for her majesty – it was later remembered that it in fact was used once – by a 6 year old boy. A 6 year old boy whose father happened to be prime minister of Canada at the time – a 6 year old boy who himself eventually grew up to lead Canada as prime minister.
Canada’s golden boy himself – A 6 year old, named Justin Trudeau.
So the next time you’re cheering on our boys in Green and Gold – remember. Those players are running and tackling on top of years of history – over the home of criminals, and hard labor – and the home of the world’s most expensive potty break – Edmonton’s own: Commonwealth Stadium.