Edmonton’s Century of Growth

Freelance Writer

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.

Tricky Geography
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.

Rail Shortage
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 Bridge.

Capital Victory
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.

Thrill Ride
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 Sciences.

The Provincial Legislature Building was completed in September 1913.

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 municipal airport.

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 Dunvegan Yards.

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.
Black Gold

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 in Edmonton.

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 Bar footbridge.

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.

Real Gold
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 20th century.

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 in 1907.

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.

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