Commentary – Tracking down the elusive Mr. Stoess

Joe McWilliams

Chris Clegg of the High Prairie South Peace News posed an intriguing question a couple of weeks ago: Who is the person that ‘Stoess’ Street in High Prairie is named after? Nobody in High Prairie historical circles seems to know. Clegg reported that the likely answer is one he turned up in an Internet search – Charles A. Stoess, who had worked for the CPR and is reported (by the Archives Society of Alberta) to have lived in various towns in the interior of British Columbia. He was married to Cecile Johnson, the ASA entry said, and that’s about it, except that Stoess worked in bridge and snow shed construction for the railway.

Okay, so I did some Googling myself. What I found was a Charles Anthony Stoess in Liverpool, England, listed in several documents as an engineer. Promising! The name Charles Stoess comes up also, in Liverpool, as the Bavarian consul. He married Margaret Howell Graham in 1869 (or 1870), and is listed elsewhere as a supporter of the theatre in Liverpool, as well as being in business there.

It’s hard to imagine two unrelated people with an unusual German name being in Liverpool England in that period. We’re guessing our Charles A. was the son of the Bavarian consul. He trained as an engineer, came to Canada and worked on railway projects here. To get a street named after him in the new town of High Prairie (where the railway arrived in roughly 1915), he would have had to be somebody fairly important in the construction of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and B.C. railway, as it was known in those early days. Somebody like Rathbone Smith, whose name survives in the hamlet of Smith, or Edward Faust, who was a locomotive engineer and expert on air brakes, according to The Story Behind Alberta Names. Unlike Mr. Faust, who stayed in the country (in McLennan), Stoess apparently moved on so quickly nobody around High Prairie remembers him. This is speculative, but it seems a reasonable scenario.

I was having so much fun so far I thought, ‘Why stop now?’, and I Googled the name Margaret Howell Graham. That’s when things started to get even more interesting.

It turns out the Liverpool wife of Mr. Stoess was an American and the sister of the wife of U.S. Confederacy President Jefferson Davis! As a young woman during the Civil War, she lived in the southern ‘White House’ with her sister Varina, who was Davis’s second wife. After the war “the family fled to Canada and then Europe,” says the book ‘Historic Cemeteries of Long Beach.’ Davis, however, did not accompany them; he was probably in prison.

While in England, Howell met and married a ‘Carl’ (the German form of Charles) Stoess, a widower 20 years her senior. This account has him as a native of Alsace, an ethnically German part of France. The account says they later moved to Victoria B.C.

And here’s yet another story, with more detail, about how Margaret Howell met ‘Charles de Wechmar’ Stoess in Liverpool and married him in London in 1870. They had two children, Philip and Christine. This is from a book about Jefferson Davis, by John Stewart. It says Stoess (who also served as the Serbian consul to Liverpool) already had an adult son. Could that have been our engineer? He isn’t named in the book. I’m guessing he’s the man with a street named after him in High Prairie, Alberta.

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