BY MIKE BRAITHWAITE
Perhaps setting up the rivalry that continues today, on Oct.
8, 1904, Edmonton became the second city to incorporate in
what is now Alberta. Calgary had already won that race, when
it incorporated in the 1890s.
But there would be many more battles for prominence, as the
century unfolded and Edmonton grew and developed – with
plenty of help from the engineering and geoscience communities.
Edmonton’s geography provided a number of engineering
challenges over much of the century. The Provincial Legislature
was built on a sandy quagmire, which required specialized
engineering to ensure its stability.
The city centre Light Rail Transit lines were built from
the roof down. Massive 30-metre concrete columns forming
the walls were built first along the sides of Jasper Avenue,
minimizing disruptions to commerce and traffic. The avenue
was closed briefly and excavated down some five metres, then
the roof beams were laid.
The TELUS Building and its neighbouring tower at McCauley
Plaza, high above the River Valley, are “floated” on
a gigantic underground concrete pad. The Hotel Macdonald,
which some thought would end up tumbling into the valley
within a year, hasn’t budged a millimetre in the 89
years since it opened.
The Capital Region (Edmonton and its surrounding communities)
is nearing the one million population mark, thanks to the
latest oil boom. A massive extension to the city’s
sewer system is under way. Much of the oilpatch action today
is in the Far North, or involves oilsands and heavy oil deposits.
Technology for getting at those riches has vastly improved
since Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) opened in 1967.
Edmonton’s population was 8,350 when it incorporated.
The booming new city had begun its water and sewer program
in earnest in 1903. It also boasted one bridge – the
eastern side of today’s Low Level, which accommodated
railway as well as vehicular and foot traffic. Large buildings
of concrete and steel were under way, and so was street paving.
Edmonton was acquiring a “city” look.
But there was a major frustration: no railway. The Calgary
and Edmonton Railway, begun in 1891, ended on the south
side of the North Saskatchewan River, giving birth to the
new town of South Edmonton, later Strathcona.
The only rail link was the Edmonton, Yukon & Pacific
Railway, known as “the shortest railway with the longest
name in Canada.” It ran from a connection with the
C & E south of Strathcona, through Mill Creek Ravine,
across the Low Level Bridge to present day Rossdale. It would
never exceed 16 kilometres in length.
Many thought Edmonton would wither and everything would concentrate
on the south side. Two factors prevented that: the tenacity
of Edmonton’s citizens, and the fact that much of the
best land for settlement was north of Edmonton.
Things were looking up, though. The Canadian Northern Railway
reached Edmonton in November 1905 and the rival Grand Trunk
Pacific followed in July 1909. The CPR finally crossed the
river in June 1913, with the completion of the High Level
And in the next battle, notch one for Edmonton over Calgary.
The more northerly city was named provisional capital when
Alberta became a province on Sept. 1, 1905. That came about
through the efforts of Frank Oliver, minister of the interior
in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s federal government. In 1906
Edmonton graduated to permanent capital.
Notch another win. In 1907, neighboring Strathcona – which
in 1911 would become part of Edmonton – was chosen
as the site of the proposed University of Alberta. The choice
of Strathcona was thanks to the efforts of one of its leading
citizens, Alexander Cameron Rutherford, who also happened
to be Alberta’s first premier.
Strathcona, population 3,500, became a city the same year.
Edmonton inaugurated Alberta’s first streetcar service
on Oct. 30, 1908. A couple of months later its service was
extended to Strathcona. This was Alberta’s first inter-urban
tram line and the only one that was purely electric.
The Edmonton Radial Railway’s first route ran from
about Alberta (118th) Avenue south on Kirkness and Syndicate
avenues (now 95th Street) to Sutherland (106th Avenue), then
south on Namayo Avenue (97th Street) to Jasper; then west
to 21st (121st) Street. It took an hour per car to cover
the distance, and, since there were four cars, 15-minute
service was offered. Strathcona service ran from ninth (109th)
Street at Jasper, across the river via the Low Level Bridge,
up fifth Street East (99th Street) to Whyte Avenue, terminating
at sixth (110th) Street. Service was every 90 minutes.
Completion of the High Level Bridge shortened the Jasper
Avenue to Whyte Avenue trip considerably – while providing
passengers with one of the most thrilling transit rides in
North America: across the top of the bridge on its outer
edges. The single CPR track was in the centre. For the first
five years, streetcars ran with their doors facing outwards.
In 1918 crossovers were installed at either end so the cars
would drive to the left, British style. Passengers could
then get off onto the centre of the deck if a car stalled.
In the late 1930s Edmonton opted for the then new electric
trolley bus, a network still in use – but of dubious
future. In September 1951, Edmonton’s last streetcar
made a farewell run over the High Level Bridge.
An inter-urban service ran between Edmonton and St. Albert
in 1912 for about a year and a half, with one gasoline-electric
car. The plan was to eventually electrify the line, but that
never happened. The service was shut down when the car barn
and car were destroyed in a fire. But the fire only hastened
the inevitable, for the service was actually a victim of
the pre-First World War recession.
Cable Car Service Ends
The High Level Bridge sounded the death knell of a unique
incline railway which operated between 1908 and 1913. Known
variously as The Lift, The Hoist, or Hostyn's Hoist, it was
on the bank below 101st Street where the Chateau Lacombe
now stands. Its base was just above Donald Ross's Edmonton
Hotel and the Edmonton, Yukon & Pacific Railway station.
It featured two cable cars – one ascending and one
descending. Each car could lift as much as 12 tons at a time,
roughly equal to two teams and loaded wagons. It was powered
by a 100-horsepower steam engine and a system of cables.
Foot passengers paid five cents and teams were charged 15
cents (round-trip fares). It was built on a 45-degree angle.
The Hoist was a private venture, headed by Joseph Hostyn,
manager of the Edmonton Hotel. Backers included Richard Secord,
Donald Ross (owner of the Edmonton Hotel), F.B. Hobson, Pete
Anderson, W.H. Sheppard and G.P. Blythe.
Twin Cities Unite
By 1911, Strathcona had grown to 5,579 people. But Edmonton
was booming with 24,900. In September 1911, Strathcona voted
in favour of amalgamation, which took place on Feb. 1, 1912.
Thus Edmonton ended up with both the capital and the university – and
that didn’t sit well in Calgary.
The U of A opened its first building, Athabasca Hall, in
September 1911. Assiniboia and Pembina halls and the Arts
Building were completed by 1915. Engineering studies began
in 1913 in what was then the Faculty of Medicine and Applied
The Provincial Legislature Building was completed in September
The great Western Canadian economic bubble burst shortly
before the outbreak of the First World War. Thousands lost
their jobs and economic hard times set in.
The last major addition to Edmonton’s skyline until
the late 1940s was the Grand Trunk Pacific’s Hotel
Macdonald, completed in 1915. War, followed by the Spanish
flu outbreak, severe inflation and poor crops, would mark
the remainder of the decade.
Then times improved. Alberta’s first radio station,
CJCA, went on the air on May 1, 1922, in a corner of the
Edmonton Journal’s newsroom with G.R.A. (Dick) Rice
at the microphone.
This was also the era of the bush pilot. Great War aces Wop
May, Punch Dickens, Roy Brown and others opened up the North
as ever before. In 1926 Edmonton established an “air
harbour” – Blatchford Field, Canada’s first
Water and sewer lines expanded and so did paved streets.
New neighbourhoods grew up. The radial railway, by this time
the Edmonton Transit System, improved and expanded its network.
Karl A. Clark and S.M. Blair of what is now the Alberta Research
Council created the world’s first oilsands extraction
plants: one at the U of A, the other in Edmonton’s
The Dirty Thirties
A second major setback, the Great Depression, dominated the
1930s. That was followed by the Second World War, which had
a profound effect on Edmonton. The city was base camp for
the Alaska Highway (1942). Blatchford Field was the busiest
airport in North America as lend lease aircraft passed through
on their way to the Soviet Union.
W. Leigh Brintnell’s Aircraft Repair Ltd. repaired
and sometimes made parts for up to 30 types of aircraft,
from Prairie bases of the British Commonwealth Air Training
Plan, as well as lend-lease aircraft. The company employed
up to 2,500 – 40 per cent of them women.
When peace came, the city settled in for what most residents
hoped would be another era of healthy and steady growth.
If only they knew.
Imperial Oil Ltd. decided on one last effort at finding a
new oilfield. That effort was Leduc No. 1, which came in
on Feb. 13, 1947, profoundly affecting Edmonton and the rest
of Alberta forever. Numerous oilfields, mostly in or near
the Edmonton region, soon came in.
An oil refinery at Whitehorse, built to refine aviation fuel
during the war, was dismantled, trucked down the Alaska Highway
and reassembled just east of Edmonton in what soon became
Refinery Row. Interprovincial oil and natural gas pipelines
followed in the 1950s and beyond.
Edmonton had close to 100,000 people at war’s end,
less than an eighth of today’s population.
The oil boom brought unheard-of growth and prosperity. The
first skyscraper, the 27-storey CN Tower, was completed in
1966 – the first of many. Major new arterial routes
(the Whitemud, the Yellowhead) were started. The University
of Alberta grew and expanded and the Northern Alberta Institute
of Technology, which in June saw its 100,000th graduate,
was opened in October of 1962. Grant MacEwan Community College
and Athabasca University would soon follow.
Manufacturing thrived, principally in the area of oilfield
equipment. Boat building, a tradition going back to the days
of Fort Edmonton, thrived, as oil exploration moved north.
Boats were built in the city, shipped in pieces to waterways
near Fort McMurray, assembled and floated down the Athabasca
River and ultimately into the far North oilpatch. A few hovercrafts,
designed to carry oil rigs and other heavy gear, were built
The Other Black Gold
Long before Leduc No. 1, another form of black gold – coal – gave
Edmonton its first major boost. Most seams were a metre to
1.5-metres thick, or even larger. Three major seams run beneath
Edmonton: Weaver, Clover Bar and Lower. The latter wasn’t
developed as it contained methane gas.
Of the more than 13 million tonnes of coal mined in almost
a century, more than 95 per cent came from the Clover Bar
seam, exposed at river level downstream from the Rundle-Gold
The importance of coal declined, first with the introduction
of natural gas to Edmonton in 1923, and later with the demise
of the steam locomotive. The last coal mine to operate in
Edmonton, on Whitemud Creek, closed in 1970.
Long before "black gold" was found in Alberta,
there was real gold, in the gravel banks of the North Saskatchewan
River. And it's still there.
Prospectors passing through on their way somewhere else initially
discovered it. Consequently, there was much activity in Edmonton
in the 1800s, but gold was still being found well into the
The gold is "placer" gold (tiny flakes carried
by the river, usually in conjunction with much smaller traces
of platinum). An influx of miners would quickly work it out.
It would take a few years of floods for the next batch to
be deposited. The last “rush” ran from 1895 to
1907 and involved steam dredges. Only one was still working
Today, many people pan for gold as a recreational activity – when
they aren’t too busy extolling Edmonton’s many
virtues to their southern rivals.
For the last decade, Edmonton freelancer
Mike Braithwaite has been supplying The PEGG with stories,
most of them with
an historical bent. His primary sources for this story – which
marks Edmonton’s 100th anniversary as a city – are
his own extensive files, the Provincial Archives and the
City of Edmonton Archives. Last month, The PEGG published
a Braithwaite story on the province’s 100th anniversary,
which Albertans will celebrate in 2005.