Historic Walking Tour

John Walter

Edmonton's Boat Builder

Top Gallery Photo Sample

Edmonton Archives EA-10-1451 & On This Spot Enterprises

In the 1870s, Fort Edmonton was poised on the precipice of great change. The far-reaching Hudson's Bay Company had just sold the vast tract of territory known as Rupert's land to the British Crown, representatives of the Plains First Nations were poised to reluctantly surrender their traditional lands under the terms of Treaty 6, and one of Edmonton's most important figures had just set foot in the town upon which he would leave an unforgettable mark. This is the story of John Walter. A genial, enterprising Scot who helped build Fort Edmonton from its adventurous, fur trade roots, into Alberta's foremost city, through sheer skill, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit.. But, it is also the story of those who laboured, traded, settled, lived and died, on the Western frontier, and of those who were forced to make way for them to do so. This mini-tour follows the southern banks of the North Saskatchewan, where we will visit the former site of Walter's Yard and learn about his journey from boatbuilder to business owner and, Edmonton's fur trade past. Then we cross 105th Street where we reflect on a streak of misfortune that threatened Walter's business, and on the destruction of an important gravesite situated right across the river from Walter's Yard. Finally we cross the Walterdale Bridge for a view of the Alberta legislature and to discover how Walter, and many others, helped Edmonton become a capital.

This project is a partnership with the City of Edmonton.

1. The Fort


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Library and Archives Canada 3492430 & On This Spot Enterprises

1887

On Christmas Eve 1869, three bedraggled and exhausted men stumbled into the fort you see across the river. Five months before they left Scotland and began a gruelling journey across the Atlantic, and then across Canada, travelling by ship, ox cart, and dog train. One of those men was 21-year-old John Walter, a man who had come to the right place to find his destiny.

* * *

They had arrived at Fort Edmonton, a place that was about to be thrust into the great drama of Canada's Western expansion, though those three men may not have guessed it when they first spotted the fort. It had been operated by the Hudson's Bay Company since the late 1700s, and for much of the 19th Century it remained one of the most remote outposts of European civilization in North America. John MacDougal, a missionary who visited in the 1860s, described what Walter and his companions saw--and probably felt--when they arrived: "This is a prominent place; has been on the map of Britain's empire for scores of years, has been a "station" in the Minutes of a large Conference for a long time. Are there any hotels? None. Are there any churches? One, a Roman Catholic. How many stores? One, the Hudson's Bay Company. What is the population? From twenty to one hundred and fifty; and in tones of bitter disappointment the sad traveler turns away with the despairing comment: "And this is the end of it all?"xx1 The North Saskatchewan River bisected the Canadian prairies, and had long served as a highway and source of food for the nomadic and semi-nomadic bands of First Nations peoples who lived along its course. Rossdale in particular was a popular gathering place for many different bands who came to dry pemmican for trade, socialize with their kin, and engage in religious rituals. Into this milieu stepped caucasian fur traders of the Hudson's Bay Company who sought to fill the insatiable demand for fur clothes amongst Europe's fashionable classes. Fort Edmonton became their base. A witness described it: "That post lived and stood and had its being in the collecting and shipping of furs. A large annual output of the skins and furs of many animals was its highest ambition. Towards this goal, men and dogs and horses and oxen pulled and strained and starved. For this purpose isolation and hardship, almost inconceivable were undergone…. Thirteen different peoples, speaking eight distinct languages, made this post their periodic centre. This was the halfway house in crossing the continent. Hundreds of miles of wildness and isolation were on either hand. About midway between and two thousand feet above two great oceans - unique, significant, and alone, without telegraph or postal communication..."xx2 The only way the HBC could make it worthwhile to go through the expense of sending someone here from Europe, was by hiring them on five year contracts. John Walter was one of those who signed on for this great adventure.

2. Who was John Walter?


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-1436 & On This Spot Enterprises

1914

John Walter's career with the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) began as a boat-builder, but in only a few short years he had diversified into lumber mills, mining, business, and operated the settlement's ferry. This photo features John's self-titled Walter Yard, where most of his businesses were based, and several of the lumber mill workers who Walter employed. Today several of John Walter's original homes survive and have become a pioneer museum. You will walk through the museum on the way to the next stop. Be sure to stop in!

* * *

John Walter learned the importance of a diverse set of skills from his father, who was a boatbuilder, farmer, and miller. All roles he filled to support his family on the isolated and windswept Orkney Islands of northern Scotland. The HBC preferred to recruit from the Orkneys because of the hardy and versatile reputation of its inhabitants. Following in the footsteps of his father, the young John Walter apprenticed as a carpenter, then signed up for a life of adventure on the far side of the world with the HBC. Walter had a commanding physical presence. A photo of Walter of him taken in his later 30s shows a broad-shouldered, strong man with a prodigious, light-coloured beard. The impressiveness of his facial hair was off-set by a receding hairline, and his powerful figure rendered less intimidating by a round, friendly face with clear, light-coloured eyes. Xx1 xx2 His build was well-suited to life in Fort Edmonton where he started work constructing the massive York boats the HBC used to transport goods along the continent's riverine highway network. The York boats were a specialty of the Orkney men, which were derived from the longships their Viking ancestors used to terrorize Europe. Sturdier and more versatile than the canoes favoured early in the fur trade, the York boats could also carry up to triple the payload.xx2 It wasn't long before the HBC put John's impressive carpentry skills to use in constructing fort buildings, and he began to make friends that would stay with him for the majority of his life. When his five year contract with the HBC ended, it coincided with the company's decline. The fur trade was all but tapped out, and the railway was inching further west all the time. Seeing the writing on the wall, the HBC sold the territory it controlled back to the British crown. Aware that the end of an era was approaching, John continued building boats for the HBC, but on his own terms, under his own name, and for prices he set. His boat-building business had begun.

3. The Ferry


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-2763 & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

Just as John Walter's skill as a boatbuilder naturally dovetailed into the construction and lumber businesses, his affinity for watercraft led him to run a cable ferry across the North Saskatchewan River. The ferry was a vital asset to the community. In the spring, the violent fracturing of the river ice could damage bridges, and the high water could--and sometimes did--wash them away. While more time-consuming (carts could only be taken across one at a time), a cable ferry was also more reliable. This photo shows John Walter's ferry in its last year of operation as the half-finished bridge looms in the background, symbolizing the end of one era and the beginning of another.

* * *

As a small community grew beyond the walls of the declining fort, Walter's business expanded and adapted to better serve that community. While the Walter Yard was primarily the home of John Walter's businesses, others found opportunity in the yard and built brickyards and breweries. While his mill employed new settlers, and his ferry transported people and goods, he cultivated his land, and operated a general store out of his own home. The very same home which was swiftly becoming the stage for various community events and gatherings Walter's ferry suited the needs of the little community, but due in part to Walter's efforts, the community was quickly outgrowing its capacity. Edmonton needed a bridge. The High-Level Bridge was tough steel and above the high flood line. When it was completed in 1913 it put Walter's ferry out of business. The Edmonton Bulletin remarked nostalgically: "The old landmarks of Edmonton are gradually passing away. This week the ferry service which has been supplied by John Walter Lumber Co. Limited for over thirty years, was discontinued for the winter, the old scow being taken out of the river preparatory to the freeze-up. The ferry service, it is expected, will be a thing of the past."xx1 Walter wasn't bitter about the occasion, telling the Edmonton Journal “we took the scow out of the river and I hope to never use it again.”xx2 His shipyard came a long way from the Viking-style longboats of the HBC days, and in 1900 they commissioned two river steamers, theStrathcona (rechristened the Scona) and the City of Edmonton. They hauled freight and passengers along a 200-mile stretch of the river, providing an essential service to the frontier’s early settlements. On weekends and holidays in summer, they also offered wildly popular holiday excursions that were remembered fondly by people living in Edmonton in those days.

4. Experiencing Disaster


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-1120 & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

The first fifteen years of the 20th century brought dramatic change to the settlement on the south side of the river. It was now known as Walterdale, after its founder, and it was connected to the rest of Edmonton by three newly constructed bridges, such as the new Walterdale Bridge featured in this photo. However, even as Walterdale was flourishing, its founder found himself beset by a series of catastrophes from which his business would never fully recover.

* * *

In 1907, a fire broke out at the Strathcona Coal Company Mine, claiming the lives of six men. Walter was part owner and suffered not only financially, but was deeply affected by the loss of life. This accident was followed by two large floods and another fire. These successive disasters crippled Walter's business. However, Walter's life did not entirely revolve around his business. In October 1886, John Walter had married Annie Elizabeth Newby, an Englishwoman who came to Canada employed as a nanny. They had two sons, John William Walter and Stanley Walter, and he even lived to see the birth of one grandson. Meanwhile, John Walter was deeply involved in community engagement and politics, serving on various community boards and even contributing to the eventual amalgamation of Edmonton and Strathcona. A fair employer, family man, and philanthropist, upon his death in December 1920, The Edmonton Bulletin praised him as someone who “lived and died without an enemy."xx1 However, the ascent of John Walter and the growing city of Edmonton was not achieved without cost. The site on which Walter Yard was constructed was once an important site for local First Nations. After the signing of Treaty 6, that land became the property of the Federal government. Since time immemorial, the Cree, Blackfoot, Ktunaxa, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Anishinaabe, Inuit, Tsuut’ina, Assiniboine, and many others used this land frequently as they followed the bison for hunting and gathering.xx1 xx2 Directly across the river from Walter's Yard was the site of the community's cemetery. In use since the late 1790's, the Fort Edmonton Cemetery was the site of both pioneer, and traditional First Nations graves. In the late 1800's, the cemetery was abandoned due to its location on a flood plain. Some graves were exhumed and relocated to a new site, but not many Indigenous ones. As the 20th century progressed, the site was disturbed in construction efforts on more than one occasion. During the construction of Rossdale Road, several graves were destroyed and the remains were subsequently collected by the University of Alberta. The construction occurred despite the protests of some locals who were aware of the cemetery site. Furthermore, the act was another knife in the colonial wound of the Papaschase Band, who had already been moved onto a reserve, which they were illegally forced to abandon a few years later. The modern band is keenly aware of this loss, as well as the disturbance of the graves of their ancestors. After a reconciliation ceremony, some of the remains were reinterred in a new site, and a memorial was installed on the site to commemorate the final resting place in the 2000s. This period of Edmonton's history remains controversial, with some arguing that the city hasn't done enough to address the destruction wreaked on a traditional First Nations burial site, and the final resting place of many of the settlement's first pioneers.xx2 xx3 After you cross the bridge to the next stop on this tour and proceed north towards the intersection of River Valley Road, look to your right and you will see the memorial. Take the time to stop and read the plaques.

5. Capital of Alberta


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-3249 & On This Spot Enterprises

1846

Paul Kane, a Canadian painter famous for his depictions of the west, created this in 1846. The Fort sits above Rossdale Flats, where a cluster of teepees sits in the shadow of the community that would eventually grow to displace them. Now, Alberta's legislature building stands atop the same hill as the old fort once did. As you are walking to this stop you will walk by the Traditional Burial Grounds of Fort Edmonton and the memorial recently constructed there. There are a series of information boards that are well worth reading. It is located on your right, beside the powerplant at the intersection of 105 St. and River Valley Road.

* * *

John Walter was there when the old Fort Edmonton passed out of the hands of the HBC. He was one of the major players who joined Edmonton with Strathcona to make a city. While his business was staggering under the weight of a series of catastrophes, construction on the Alberta legislature commenced almost directly across the water. In 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan, previously part of the massive North-West Territories, became fully-fledged provinces in their own right. The borders of the new province of Alberta put Edmonton in a central location for rail transport. The new province needed a capital, and Edmonton was chosen with little contention. The small city with a population of about 8,300 had become known as the 'Gateway to the North.'xx1 However, if Edmonton was chosen as Alberta's capital, it was due to the work of several individuals, including John Walter, who built it up to become worthy of the title. Walter died in hospital after an operation for appendicitis, but not before he left his impressive legacy on the town he helped build and on the people who loved him. The Strathcona Evening Chronicle wrote: "There is no more progressive and public spirited citizen than John Walter. All in all he has probably done more for the city than another of its residents."xx2 John Walter represents the spirit of his time, and of the province he helped build. His story is one of an immigrant who came to a new land and built his own fortune from the ground up, all while using that success to guarantee the growth of the community around him. The Walterdale bridge and the neighborhood of Walterdale all carry his name. However important it is to remember John Walter and his legacy, he is only one of several who contributed to the growth of what would become Alberta's foremost city. The fort was built by British, French, Metis, and First Nations fur traders. The land needed to support the growing fort was surrendered by First Nations groups struggling for agency in a situation where they were being crowded and starved out of their traditional ways of life. Edmonton was made possible by effort and by sacrifice. The cemetery memorial that stands steps away from this spot, lists the known names of those whose lives built Edmonton.


Endnotes

1. The Fort

1. Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Surrey, BC: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005). 49.

2. Silverside, 49.

2. Who was John Walter?

1. John Walter, 1886. EA-10-1696, online.

2. City of Edmonton, "John Walter Biography," online.

3. BC History, "York Boat," 2016, online.

3. The Ferry

1. The Edmonton Bulletin, November 1, 1913 (Morning Edition), Page 1, online.

2. City of Edmonton, "John Walter Biography," online.

4. Experiencing Disaster

1. Peggy Donnelly, "John Walter: One of the Makers of Edmonton," RETROactive, Oct. 11, 2017. Online.

2. Agnieszka Matejko "Historic burial ground deserves a more fitting tribute," VUE Weekly, Feb. 7, 2008. Online.

5. Capital of Alberta

1. John Tattrie, "Alberta and Confederation" The Canadian Encyclopedia, January 22, 2015, online.

2. City of Edmonton, "John Walter Biography," online.


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