#FABTrip15: The mystery of the Empress caduceus

Is it a symbol of a mysterious medical past?  Or a relic of pioneer history, its meaning lost over time? What is the deal with the winged thingy atop the old bank building in Empress anyway?

The question arose (although in a less sophomoric manner) during my summer sojourn in the village of Empress, about 140 km north of Medicine Hat. I was speaking with a local hotelier about the history of the former Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building, which now serves as the delightful “That’s Empressive” art gallery, tea room and gift shop.

He recalled a conversation with an individual who posited the theory that several bank buildings on the prairies—such as the one in Empress—had begun their existence as places for victims of poisonous gas attacks to convalesce following the end of the Great War. As the story goes, once the last of the veterans had moved or passed on, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (now CIBC) took over, and these temporary infirmaries were transformed into financial institutions.

According to the hotelier, evidence of the old bank’s previous existence was supposedly etched in stone, overlooking the streets of Empress. High atop the building’s impressive brick façade, a “caduceus”, two snakes entwined around a winged staff, had been embedded into the building’s parapet, possibly signifying that the former bank once served a more medicinal purpose.

Having no light to shed on the subject at the time, I said I’d look into it. As it turns out, the construction of the Empress branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce did in fact coincide with the conclusion of the First World War. The Bank of Commerce, believing the close of the war would precipitate a need for capital, established 33 branches across Canada during the six-week period between Armistice Day 1918 and New Year’s Day 1919—including Empress. It’s interesting to note that the Bank of Commerce established more branches during this time than it had throughout the entire three-and-a-half year duration of the war.

However, far from being a place of rest for war-weary veterans, the Bank of Commerce enjoyed somewhat less-than-noble origins, beginning its life in the local pool hall. In fact, the establishment of the Empress branch seemed to catch the locals completely off guard, as the Empress Express explained on Dec. 19, 1918:

“The people of our town and district were agreeably surprised when it became known that the Bank of Commerce had opened a branch here. W.J. Savage, manager of the Swift Current Branch arrived here on Thursday night, and set to work rapidly the following day to make arrangements for getting the new branch working. A lease of the C.W. Dawdy pool hall was acquired and the new bank was open for business on Saturday…”

Work on  the new building, known today as, That’s Empressive, began in May 1919. When the new bank opened its doors a year later, the Empress Express of May 27, 1920 heralded the building as being “well worthy” of inspection:

“Building , equipment and furnishings are all of the latest pattern. A sum of over $3000 has been expended. This is eloquent testimony of the Bank’s faith and optimism in our town and districts, and as such we are sure will bear fruitful results.”

Unfortunately, the optimism of the CIBC was not eternal.  According to the That’s Empressive website, the closure of the C.P.R. roundhouse facility in the mid ’50s prompted the bank to shut its doors as well. The building was sold to the Nickle family (appropriately), who operated a boarding house in the building for several years, before selling it to another bank (the Toronto Dominion). In the late ’90s a jeweller moved in, who a short time later, sold the building to its current occupants.

As for the caduceus, the symbol has acquired an association with medicine over time. It has been adopted by a number of credible medical organizations, including the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and the American Medical Association, at various points in their history.

However, according to the font of all worldly knowledge, Wikipedia, this association is entirely erroneous.The caduceus is, among other things, is a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, and is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius; a serpent-entwined staff belonging to the Greek God of medicine and healthcare.

The Canadian Bank of Commerce was particularly fond of the caduceus. It adopted the winged serpentine staff as its original corporate logo, and proceeded to embellish its buildings with it, apparently well into the post-war period. The bank also published “The Caduceus”, in which it promoted “the need for both exactness and initiative as a requisite for employees.”

In summary, the Empress bank as a poison gas hospice is a compelling tale, but completely false. However, this may not have been the case in other places, I simply have no idea. Not exactly an answer you can bank on, but not bad for winging it.

4 thoughts on “#FABTrip15: The mystery of the Empress caduceus”

  1. Thanks for the article and clarification regarding the caduceus on the former bank building in Empress. I myself saw this on the front elevation of this building when I went to look around Empress during the summer of 2011 and I also thought that this building was a hospital or medical building of some sort when I saw the caduceus. By the way, the Rod of Asclepius should properly only have one snake wound around the rod, sometimes the medical/healthcare symbol mistakenly has 2 snakes wound around the rod.

  2. It seems to me there’s a caduceus on the old Bank of Commerce building in Calgary’s Beltline district on 1st St. SW around 11th or 12th Avenues. It’s an old brick building as well. I’ll have to go down and see if it’s still there.

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