Athabasca's underground party scene
Beneath your feet is a room full of history and memories of past parties
Every day people walk the sidewalk at the corner of Highways 2 and 55 in Athabasca, their footsteps treading just a few feet above what was once considered to be one of the area’s social hubs.
The Buffalo Room – the basement suite in the 101-year-old Union Hotel, where drinks, parties and alleged tunneling used to occur – has become near-forgotten room, a makeshift haunted house at Halloween and practically unused at any other time of year.
The Athabasca archives does not hold much history on the old room, other than a handful of photos from an anniversary party in 1970.
Most of the stories about the space are wayward rumours, told throughout the generations of owners, employees and locals.
“It was a ballroom, just like a big old space,” said Glenn Martin, one of the former owners of the Union Hotel. “It had a bunch of pillars in it. The ceilings were kind of low. You walk in through a couple of swinging doors to a bar at the far end.”
The ballroom’s floor is now covered with a layer of dust, decorated by blankets, artificial cobwebs and plastic zombies from last October. The only light source available are fragment beams visible through broken sidewalk, peering down through the ceiling onto the old wood paneling.
It’s believed the room received its name because of an old stuffed buffalo head that allegedly hung on the wall. However, with no physical or photo evidence of there being a stuffed buffalo head, Athabasca archivist Marilyn Mol thinks it was named after the company that owned the building.
She pointed out that in 1949, the Grand Union Hotel was purchased by the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company. Their logo was a buffalo’s head. During that time, the company began making major renovations to the hotel, modifying the bar, the restaurant and even the basement. But whether or not there was actually a stuffed buffalo head remains uncertain.
“I think there wouldn’t have necessarily had to be a (stuffed) buffalo head,” Mol said. “I think because that was their symbol, and they owned or managed it – so I think that’s where the name came from.”
Although there is currently only one way into the Union’s basement – from upstairs – some say that back in the day, before the Buffalo Room got its mysterious moniker, there used to be a tunnel leading to the Athabasca River across 50th Ave. Mol said she was skeptical of this idea.
“You’d be digging through silt, so there couldn’t be a tunnel that goes out from the basement to the river,” she said. “And I think that takes away any credibility from building tunnels to the river.
“I would think why? What would be the purpose? The logic isn’t there,” she added.
Martin said during the basement tours he led, he actually had two different people tell stories on the folkloric tunnel system under the streets.
“There was a guy on one of the tours, and he followed a tunnel back across the street and it was bricked up on the Union side,” Martin said. “So I don’t know how he got in there, whether or not they were doing sewer work or something.”
He also told the story of one woman who claimed her father helped build the tunnel.
“Bertha Clark – she was in her 80s – she took the tour with me once, and she told me her dad helped build the tunnel, and the tunnel went to the river,” he said. “She was in the tunnel, and her dad would man the tunnel, too.”
Whatever the stories, they have been lost in the course of time – at least from an official perspective.