The 130-tonne landmark of concrete and steel can still draw a crowd like nothing else for 200 km in any direction — and maybe much, much further
ST. PAUL, Alta. — Everyone wants to see something unique.
Ellen Cartier chimes in: “Mundare has the kielbasa.” It’s home to the world’s largest garlic sausage.
“Then they have the duck in Andrew and the Goose in Hanna. You go in there and it’s an identity for the community,” Mr. Andersen says.
“And Vilna has mushrooms,” Ms. Cartier adds.
“Vilna has mushrooms, yes,” the mayor agrees.
Everyone in Alberta loves giant statues of food, it’s true. But St. Paul — a town of about 5,000 resting between Edmonton and the Saskatchewan border — well, it has something really special.
The pale green paint is a little cracked and ne’er-do-wells seem to have chipped away some of the stones that once depicted a map of Canada. The Star Trek-like curves that would have marked the apogee of futuristic style look anything but, now. However, the 130-tonne landmark of concrete and steel can still draw a crowd like nothing else for 200 km in any direction — and maybe much, much further.
That’s because St. Paul is home to the first-ever UFO landing pad, a monument that turned 45 years old this year.
When it opened in 1967, it was a Big Deal.
Ellen Cartier was there: Her husband helped to build the pad, which is perched atop an upside-down column, like a cement pancake sitting on an ice-cream cone. The tourist shop, notable for its roof decorated as an angular spaceship with a green glass dome and blinking lights, was a later addition.
Ms. Cartier still has the program from the day the monument was dedicated, printed in a faded blue.
“It was the [Canadian] centennial year, and they wanted to do something extra special for the centennial year,” she says.
The landing pad was built two years before man walked on the Moon and decades before a rover named Curiosity would beam home photos of Mars. It was at a point in time when North Americans everywhere were optimistic about the possibility of space travel, exploration and, maybe, meeting alien species. The monument became emblematic of a town striving for a multicultural ideal: Everyone is welcome, even extraterrestrials. And according to Ufology Research, a Manitoba group that monitors sightings, it may be helping to do just that.
The researchers said Canada had reported 986 UFOs so far this year, an increase from the year before. Calgary reported the second-highest number of flying saucers and strange lights of any major city — it was beaten only by Toronto.
In St. Paul, the landing pad is about more than just attracting a light show. The town donated the land and local business owners provided the labour and cement. It cost $11,000 to build, none of it from the public purse.
It was dedicated on June 3, 1967. Then minister of national defence, Paul Hellyer, cut the ribbon — no small coincidence considering Mr. Hellyer would later admit to believing the U.S. government was covering up the existence of alien beings.
A fake saucer landed in a puff of smoke, followed by a parade of officials dressed in Martian costumes. Then came the Indian smoke signals and dances. The affair wrapped up with a display of teenage Martian go-go dancers.
The current mayor says thousands of people have since come to St. Paul just to see the landing pad. In 1978, Queen Elizabeth II visited. Mother Teresa followed in 1982. Lately, the pad’s attracted a kitschier crowd: St. Paul hosted UFO conferences in 1998 and 2000.
Just the other day he said he overheard a crew discussing “how it was a six-hour trip from Calgary to see if anyone happened to be landing on this pad because there’s extra-terrestrial stuff happening in Alberta.”
A plaque at the gates to the landing pad reads: “The area under the world’s first UFO landing pad was designated international by the town of St. Paul as a symbol of our faith that mankind will maintain the outer universe free from national wars and strife.”
It all sounds idealistic, but Mr. Andersen says the intentions behind the icon were a bit more practical.
The tiny town wanted tourists. Its plan worked. St. Paul is now known across much of Alberta as the place with the landing pad.
“Like it or not, these people in the ’60s made that decision and that’s what we’re known as: the UFO landing pad,” he said. “We have to play that and that’s why we’ve given our marketing people, ‘You go ahead and you develop around that all you want.’ We draw the line at fire hydrants that look like Martians and stuff because we want them to be taken seriously as fire hydrants, right?”
Then the marketing committee came up with the cut-outs — wooden stand ups that tourists can stick their heads in to take pictures with little green men. The tourist shop also sells headbands with alien heads on them, inflatable aliens and novelty T-shirts.
“All smaller communities have an identity crisis and they need something to draw people,” the mayor says. “A lot of people from cities don’t understand rural Alberta. They need something to bring them here…. [We have] people in ministerial positions and in the Alberta government who don’t think roads are paved to your community. That’s how bad it is.”
So the town took its landmark and ran with it. In the ’80s, Ron Belzil, a former present of the St. Paul and District Chamber of Commerce, purchased a UFO display to be erected near the pad.
Still set up under the spaceship tourist centre, it shows fuzzy photographs of real and fake saucers, strange lights and early literature about alien abduction. While they were at it, the chamber also set up a 1-888 number to report unusual activity and saucer sightings.
Mr. Belzil himself was too busy to follow up on tips. And that’s how Mr. Belzil’s father became the resident expert in cattle mutilations.
“I’d say he’s been involved in over 100 cases,” the younger Mr. Belzil says.
His father, a former cattleman now in ill health, doesn’t speak of his work much anymore. “Sometimes the organs have been removed, the eyes, the ears have usually been nicely cut off, but there’s no blood on the scene.”
The elder Mr. Belzil posted photos of some of his findings on a website. He was even featured in a CBC fifth estate documentary.
“Nobody has ever been caught doing a cattle mutilation,” Ron Belzil says. “The evidence is almost non-existent.”
His father, however, was never able to rule out the possibility of an alien presence, cutting up cattle across northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“He couldn’t eliminate that as a possibility because there was no other logical explanation,” he says.
The elder Mr. Belzil stopped investigating the mutilations when his health failed. There was no money in it — although the town did pay for some of his mileage.
The mystery may always remain.
In the meantime, St. Paul’s mayor says he’d consider sprucing up the space pad. Maybe it’s time for a retro-fit, or a new coat of paint. It’s rare for such a small town on the prairie to have such reputation, after all.
“You have to be able to identify it and promote yourself because hiring an economic development officer is not feasible,” he says.
“This is economic development. That landing pad does bring people here and they camp here and they stay and they buy things from the business community here. Does it embarrass me? Not at all. I think it’s great.
“I think the decision they made brought some notoriety to St. Paul.”