Centrally located in Alberta, the Edmonton community is the fifth largest city in Canada and the northernmost metro area in all of North America (population 1,321,426). There are things to do in Edmonton all year round, which led to it being nicknamed the "City of Festivals." The city also has a rich historical heritage that Edmontonians are very proud of. Here's a closer look at the history of Edmonton for any history buffs who are thinking of relocating to the area.
First Residents of the Region Surrounding Edmonton
Most archeologists agree that First Nations groups migrated into Alberta sometime between 3,000 and 12,000 years ago. Hunting moose and woodland caribou and extensive ice fishing made up the subsistence lifestyle of the peoples in northern Alberta, while the Plains Indians in the southern parts of Alberta relied on bison (buffalo). Peoples inhabiting the centralized areas in Alberta, near modern-day Edmonton, are believed to have practiced a hybrid of those two subsistence lifestyles.
There are approximately 48 First Nations peoples in Alberta today who are members of nine distinct ethnic groups based on ancestral languages. The city of Edmonton's original name was Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, which means "Beaver Hills House." In addition to being a meeting ground for indigenous peoples, the area was likely an early trade center. Peoples from the Blackfoot, Cree, Métis, Nakota Sioux and Salteaux called the area home.
Modern-day Edmonton has many museums, parks and landmarks honouring the history and cultures of the First Peoples. Visitors can find traditional indigenous artworks for sale at many museums, parks and other locations.
Competition Arises between Hudson's Bay Company & North West Company
Most of the Canadian plains areas were referred to as Rupert's Land when Europeans began making their way into Alberta. The Hudson's Bay Company had the charter to Rupert's Land. The company established a fort and trading company about 32 kilometres downriver from present-day Edmonton, which was dubbed Fort Edmonton in 1795. The fort is believed to have been named for the birthplace of one of the deputy governors of the Hudson Bay Company near London, England.
A fur-trading rival from England, the North West Company, built a series of forts near present-day Fort Saskatchewan, just to the northeast of modern Edmonton. The two companies were bitter rivals and fought for dominance of the fur trade in many parts of Canada in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Fort Edmonton and Fort Augustus both relocated to the area of modern-day Edmonton by about 1801.
The North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company were merged in 1821, which finally led to peace between the rival companies. Edmonton became the collection and distribution centre of the entire fur trade in the Western hemisphere after that. Fort Edmonton was rebuilt for the last time in 1830. The fort fell into disuse after the Hudson's Bay Company surrendered its rights to Rupert's Land in 1870.
The most recent location of Fort Edmonton is the site where the Alberta Legislature Building sits today.
Developments in Edmonton in the 1800s
Permanent settlement outside of Fort Edmonton was slow to develop. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built through Calgary in 1883, and a northern branch line was extended to Strathcona in 1891. The lack of a railway line directly to Edmonton made expansive growth rather slow, despite the large tracts of available agricultural land.
A Methodist church mission was the first building constructed outside of Fort Edmonton in 1871. The church was rebuilt in 1892 and named McDougal Church in honour of the original founder. It was again rebuilt as a permanent brick structure in 1910. The McDougal Church still stands in downtown Edmonton to this day.
Edmonton's first newspaper, the Edmonton Bulletin, began publishing in 1880. It was in operation until 1951.
Edmonton was finally incorporated as a town in 1892, with a population of 700. The town became a launching point for settlers migrating to the Klondike gold rush, starting in about 1897. The population began to boom from that point, and Edmonton was incorporated as a city in 1904. Its population then was 8,350.
Edmonton Amalgamates with Strathcona
After the Hudson's Bay Company ceded its rights in 1870, some of its former employers, contractors, and other settlers built a community on the south side of the river. It was initially known as South Edmonton when the Calgary and Edmonton Railway finally extended a line to the south side of the river in 1891. This caused a boom in South Edmonton, in which buildings were initially log cabins and shacks. Those were replaced with more permanent structures over the next 20 years.
In 1899, the town on the southern side of the river was incorporated as Strathcona. In 1900, the Low Level Bridge across the Saskatchewan River was completed. The connection meant that Edmonton was finally linked to the rail lines in Canada.
In 1911, residents of the two towns on opposite sides of the river began discussing an amalgamation. By combining the two towns into one larger city, residents felt that it would lower tax rates for everyone and provide other benefits. After voting on the issue in late 1911, both towns agreed to amalgamate into the larger city of Edmonton.
The merger, combined with the arrival of the rail line, caused a population boom in Edmonton. The city's population rapidly grew to 50,000 and may have been as high as 75,000 by the time World War I arrived. Edmonton quickly grew into a regional hub for agricultural produce (mostly meatpacking) and transportation after that, in addition to being designated as the capital of Alberta.
Edmonton During & After World War II
Looking at Edmonton's location on a map, one might not think that the city was strategically important during World War II -- but it was. The Allied Nations needed a route to transport fighter aircraft to the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union as part of US President Franklin Roosevelt's Lend-Lease program with the Soviets.
The US Army began construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II, which tourists enjoy traversing from Edmonton to this day. The true purpose of the highway was hidden from the public at the time of its construction. Forces from America and Canada built a series of secret airstrips through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. The airfields were generally situated not more than 160 kilometres apart to allow planes to refuel along the way.
In Alaska, the fighter planes were handed over to Russian pilots who would cross the Bering Sea into Siberia before eventually making their way to the Eastern Front. The entire purpose of constructing the Alaska Highway was to connect these secret runways -- known as the Northwest Staging Route -- to a road system for refuelling purposes.
During World War II, Edmonton was a strategic hub for all northern air operations in North America. Following the war, the existence of the Alaska Highway and new rail lines made the city a major processing hub for the oil industry, after the first discovery of oil in Northern Alberta in 1947.
That led to the subsequent oil boom that lasted from 1947 to 1989. Edmonton became known as the "Oil Capital of Canada" in the 1950s. The collapse of oil prices in 1981 led to a significant economic slump that lasted nearly 20 years.
Edmonton's Historical Significance: 1945-Present
In the late 1990s, Edmonton entered a new period of growth and economic prosperity. In addition to oil prices finally rebounding, the city's economy was enhanced by a large growth in high-tech jobs.
From 2006 to 2010, the population of Edmonton grew at twice the rate that city planners had anticipated. The boom in jobs and population has led to a renaissance in new housing within Edmonton. The construction of high-rise condos in The Icon Towers and The Pearl was completed in the 2010s, which dominate the city's beautiful skyline. As the suburbs continue to expand, new gated community homes and townhomes are being built in Big Lake, Pilot Sound, Heritage Valley, and other areas.
Edmonton's Rich History Can Be Accessed Today
Edmonton is a city that embraces its rich cultural history and celebrates its contributions as one of the largest cities in Canada. The city is dotted with historical markers, historical buildings, parks, heritage sites and modern high rises that residents and visitors alike can enjoy.