Boomtown. Perhaps no other term suits Edmonton so well. Although no stranger to hardship, over the course of 200-some years, the city has ridden high on the crest of several economic waves.
A community within walls: an unassuming name
In 1795, the Hudson's Bay Company built a walled fort on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. The company perceived the need for, and the value of, a trading post in the rugged prairie of central Alberta, a territory until then mainly inhabited by the Cree. The 20-foot-high walls offered protection from the conflicts that erupted between the Cree and their rivals, the Blackfoot, when they came to trade at the fort. In exchange for rich pelts of otter, muskrat, beaver, mink and fox, these native Canadians obtained European-manufactured goods such as metal cooking utensils, guns, and gunpowder, that would alter their lives dramatically.
Stories abound about how Fort Edmonton acquired its name. It was most likely named in honor of Sir James Winter Lake, the deputy governor of the Hudson's Bay Company at the time. Lake hailed from Edmonton, in Middlesex, England. One can speculate that the original Edmonton was at one time Edmond's Town.named, in the British tradition, after a townsman, in this case named Edmond.
Beyond the boundaries
Life at the fort followed a routine of trading, dispatching brigades to remote outposts, planting food and grain crops in the spring, harvesting them in the fall, and hunting and fishing to obtain meat for the fort's inhabitants. Change came in the 1840s, with the arrival of Methodist and Catholic missionaries, who competed with each other in their quests to .tame. the natives and provide religious services to the Hudson's Bay Company staff. The Methodists were the first to relinquish the safety of the fort. They claimed land outside its walls, and in 1873 completed the building of a church and a manse. These were the humble beginnings of the city of today.
The names of these early missionaries adorn the city's landmarks, buildings, parks and roads. For example, Rundle Park is named after the Methodist Robert Rundle. You can also find the names of Hudson's Bay Company employees and the early entrepreneurs who lived outside the fort. They followed the missionaries' example, arriving from distant countries to claim land and set up businesses. For example, John Walter Museum honors the Scotsman who established Edmonton's first ferry. Rossdale, one of Edmonton's river valley neighborhoods, is named for Donald Ross, another Scotsman, who founded Edmonton's first hotel.
The 1870s and 80s were decades of intense social and economic development for this young community, which seemed suddenly ripe for development. The first newspaper was established, schools were built, businesses like butcher shops and livery stables opened, and commercial agriculture became a profitable industry. It seemed that things could only get better, and they did.
News about the discovery of gold in the Klondike, an area near Dawson City in the Yukon, reached Edmonton in 1897. Prospectors heading north stopped in Edmonton for supplies, which meant prosperity for many local merchants. It was a short-lived boom, however, lasting only a couple of years. Some prospectors didn't even make it as far as the goldfields, and those who did quickly realized that the backbreaking process of panning wasn't going to make them rich. Their misfortune was an added bonus for Edmonton, because many individuals who had planned on passing through the city decided to stay, boosting Edmonton's population six-fold.
The railway arrived in 1902, establishing Edmonton as a major point on the transcontinental travel and trade route. It was incorporated as a city in 1904, and designated the provincial capital in 1906. Edmonton enjoyed a period of economic, cultural, social growth and prosperity.
From war to war
World War I led to one of the bleakest periods in Edmonton's history. The city joined the war effort wholeheartedly, sending both men and supplies. In return, its boomtown atmosphere vanished as construction came to a halt, immigration tapered off and unemployment skyrocketed.
In the 1930s, still struggling to get back on its feet, Edmonton was hit by a wheat market depression that led to even more economic chaos, and more unemployment. The city witnessed the unfortunate birth of a shantytown within the city limits, and the opening of the city's first porridge kitchen.
Then, in 1939, the news of another war came, but this one had a positive effect on Edmonton's economic development. The airport underwent massive construction as the city became involved in the aircraft industry and in airfreight. To facilitate the movement of supplies north, construction of the Alaska Highway began. The city's dark times were over.
Edmonton's biggest boom began in 1947 with a 90-foot gusher of black crude oil in the suburb of Leduc, just southwest of the city. The pipeline and petrochemical industries were born, and all aspects of Edmonton's economy benefited. In the 25 years following the discovery of oil, the city's population quadrupled, and the accompanying social and cultural boom saw the construction of shopping centers, galleries, theatres and concert halls.
Architecturally, Edmonton is a young city. In fact, there are few buildings to marvel at. Since the early 1900s, styles have largely been imported from US cities and from the larger Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto. Thus, the Legislative Building resembles many state capitols, and the Hotel MacDonald resembles other Canadian .chateaus.. In many old neighborhoods, the simple, stuccoed, wartime houses still stand. Newer buildings, like West Edmonton Mall, the downtown Grant MacEwan College, and the newly built City Hall have distinctly modern, airy styles. Perhaps, with Edmonton's solid economy not needing another boom just yet, an architectural boom is on the horizon.