Historic Walking Tour

The End of the Line

Strathcona's Early History

Top Gallery Photo Sample

Library and Archives Canada 3302907 & On This Spot Enterprises

Strathcona got its start through happy coincidence: instead of stopping in Edmonton, the railway that came north from Calgary stopped on the south side of the river, in what would become Strathcona. The community here grew up around that railway station. For a couple exciting decades Strathcona was a thriving commercial centre and an independent municipality. When a bridge was built across the North Saskatchewan River, the obvious advantages of amalgamating with Edmonton were impossible to ignore, and Strathcona became a part of her bigger neighbour to the north. Nevertheless those years of independence left a lasting impact, not the least of which was one of the best preserved historic commercial districts in western Canada. On this tour we will follow the story of Strathcona and the people who lived here. Through the built heritage we can still get a taste of the excitement people experienced during those heady years, from becoming 'Gateway to the North' during the Klondike gold rush, to the rapid growth that followed Alberta's becoming a province. On this tour we will discover the history of Strathcona's early years, see the buildings that have survived from that time, and learn about the roles they fulfilled in their heyday. The route begins at Strathcona's old train station and follows a small circuit around the neighbourhood before returning to the same spot.

This project is a partnership with the City of Edmonton.

1. Where Strathcona Began


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Library and Archives Canada 3302907 & On This Spot Enterprises

1913

There is no more suitable a place to start a walking tour of historic Strathcona than a railway station. Like communities across the prairies, the arrival of the railway began the city's modern history. In Strathcona's case the railway arrived in 1891, stopping near here on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River. The original terminus station was located a short ways north of here, and this one was the second, built a short time after. The railway's primary destination was the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) trading post at Fort Edmonton just on the other side of the river. But it would take some time to extend the railway across the river and so it was decided for the time being to end the railway at the tiny township here until a bridge could be built. In those intervening years an independent community grew rapidly here. The township became known as Strathcona, after Lord Strathcona, the HBC's governor at the time.

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By the time the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) reached Calgary in 1883, Edmonton had already been around for nearly a century. It was founded as a HBC trading fort in 1795 on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan River, near where the Alberta Legislature is located today. To avoid flooding the fort was built on the steep banks overlooking the river. First Nations people and fur traders from all across the region came to the fort to trade, get supplies, and hear the latest news from the outside world. Fort Edmonton quickly made a name for itself as the primary fur trading hub of the entire region. Despite Fort Edmonton's primacy in what would become known as Alberta, the CPR decided to take a much more southerly route through the province, passing by Fort Calgary, which gave that city a crucial lead in the explosive population growth that followed the railway everywhere it went. Frustrated Edmontonians had to wait another eight years for a spur line to be built north from Calgary.xx1 Edmonton desperately needed a railroad; The journey from Calgary to Edmonton took a week, and was by all accounts a dusty, bumpy ordeal--and especially treacherous in the long winters. The geographic challenges that Albertans face today were magnified many times over in those days. Depending on the season, travellers on the remote highway could get trapped in bottomless morasses of mud, caught in white-out blizzards, or be parched with thirst under the relentless summer sun. The spur line would reduce the journey to Calgary to a single day, and allow people, supplies, and--of course--economic activity to flood into Edmonton. On March 28, 1891 the Edmonton Bulletin mourned the slow economy but noted that "with the opening of the railroad work in the spring there is no doubt that [goods] will be in good demand."xx2 Though Edmonton had much to offer, lack of transportation made exporting the potatoes, flour, and other goods produced here inconvenient in the extreme. When the railway finally opened to Strathcona it was a joyous occasion, even if it was just short of its ultimate goal across the river. Nevertheless Edmonton began to grow slowly reaching a population of 1,500 by 1897. Strathcona, as home to the train station, also grew to accommodate CPR employees and travellers, reaching 600 by the same year.xx3

2. Launchpad to the Klondike


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Alberta ArchivesIR323 & On This Spot Enterprises

1910s

Further north than any major city in North America, Edmonton has long been the jumping off point for expeditions to the Arctic. That is why it's often called the 'Gateway to the North'. The most memorable of those adventures was the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99. As the northernmost point that could be reached by railway, this was where thousands of prospectors from every corner of the globe converged to begin the most difficult portion of their long trek to the Yukon by horseback or on foot. In those exciting times Strathcona was filled with brave souls preparing for the ordeal that lay ahead; purchasing supplies, swapping stories over beer, and getting a last night's sleep in a warm, dry hotel room. The prominent old building you see here, the Strathcona Hotel, was one such hotel.

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In the 19th Century gold held an almost mystical sway over the minds of people, and stories of fortunes won by hardy prospectors in previous gold rushes in Australia, California, and British Columbia fuelled a lust for gold that made people drop whatever they were doing and cross the world to the site of the latest find. When news of the latest--and one of the greatest--gold finds filtered out of the Yukon in August 1896, there was no shortage of takers. Few had any conception of the remoteness of the Yukon, and few cared. They flocked from every continent to Canada, and from there many rode the railway to the very last stop to the north. This was Strathcona. "Latest news from the Yukon," the Edmonton Bulletin wrote in 1897 "confirms the wildest reports that have been circulated as to the richness of the Klondike gold fields; but with that news comes the stories of shortage of food and the information that transport of supplies has ceased for the season."xx3 Many gold hunters would read the first part of that dispatch and ignored the second. Over the next couple years Strathcona's streets filled with adventurers preparing to make their way north. The North West Mounted Police (forerunner of the RCMP) were appalled at the hordes of ill-prepared and inexperienced miners eagerly rushing to the Yukon's inhospitable Arctic environment. They enforced regulations ensuring that everyone leaving Strathcona must do so with a sufficient quantity of supplies survive the 2,000 kilometre journey. This meant that many of the estimated 25,000 miners who departed Strathcona had to buy all their supplies here, and hotels and general stores sprang up all over the community servicing the prospectors as they prepared for the arduous journey.xx1 This was a welcome shot in the arm to a local economy that had been languishing through the global depression of the 1890s.xx4 Few of those afflicted with gold fever would ever find what they were looking for in the Yukon. Most would spend their savings simply reaching the place. Many died in the attempt. But the Gold Rush left a lasting legacy here: While Edmonton had been a long-time destination for fur traders, Strathcona cemented the area's reputation as the 'Gateway to the North'. Xx5

3. The Farmers


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-280 & On This Spot Enterprises

1913

The turn of the last century brought more than those infected with gold fever to Strathcona. In the years following the Klondike Gold Rush, the trickle of settlers into this region swelled to a torrent as the federal government worked tirelessly to encourage immigrants from Britain, eastern Canada, the United States, and increasingly Eastern Europe to settle the prairies. It just so happened that Alberta contained some of the best farmland on earth, and the government wished to build a strong agrarian economy here. It was on this spot on Whyte Avenue that farmers would come from the surrounding areas to trade livestock, and in this photo you can see a group of men gathering to discuss the fate of a number of horses. In the distance you can see the Strathcona Hotel we saw in the last stop.

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The government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier embarked on a policy of breathtaking scope and ambition: they wanted to fill the hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of prairie, extending from the Canadian Shield to the Rocky Mountains, with millions of farmers. The fastest way to do this was to lure prospective immigrants with promises of 160 acres of land at $200 adjusted for inflation. The catch was that the immigrant had to build their own house (usually out of sod, which is literally soil) and successfully farm the land for three years. This was called homesteading, and if you made it to three years the land was yours. Try to imagine doing this yourself. Do you know how to build a sod house with your bare hands? Do you know how to farm 160 acres of prairie by hand? Well it turns out a lot of the new immigrants back then didn't know either. In the 1890s the racist attitudes of the time were strongly reflected in immigration policy, and the Canadian government had long held a strong preference towards British settlers, who they saw as the world's top racial 'stock'. However, many of the British immigrants that arrived on the prairies to homestead early on came from factory cities, and knew about as much about farming as you or I (unless of course you know a lot about farming, in which case we apologize). In much of Alberta only a small proportion of the original homesteaders were able to stick it out three years. As word got back to Britain about the caveats to the free land offer, fewer and fewer of these amateur farmers were willing to make the trip. So if many of these British immigrants weren't a good match for Alberta's conditions, where would these millions of farmers come from? At the time people from eastern Europe were seen by much of the Canadian public as coming from a racially inferior 'stock', but unlike rapidly industrializing Britain, many of these eastern Europeans were still peasant farmers. And many of them wanted to leave. Laurier's Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, was a bold and energetic man. He believed that the people of eastern Europe were perfectly suited to turn Canada's prairies into the breadbasket of the world. In a 1901 memorandum he wrote "Our desire is to promote the immigration of farmers and farm labourers. We have not been disposed to exclude foreigners of any nationality who seemed likely to become successful agriculturalists."xx1 He championed an immigration policy that would in the space of a decade bring over a million people, including hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans, into the prairies. At the time this was a hugely controversial move, especially in eastern Canada. Many were outraged that the government was allowing Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Poles, along with religious minorities in those countries like the Mennonites and %%%%%%%%, to settle in Canada. Would they dilute the national culture? Would they ever integrate? Yet ever-practical Albertans immediately warmed to the new arrivals: they were not only effective farmers, but helpful neighbours. A Lethbridge newspaper wrote of them: "This class of immigration is of a top-notch order and every true Canadian should be proud to see it and encourage it. Thus shall our vast tracts of God's bountifulness…be peopled by an intelligent progressive race of our own kind, who will readily be developed into permanent, patriotic solid citizens who will adhere to one flag."xx2 The government's new openness only extended so far as eastern Europe, and racist policies continued to bar entry to people of colour. Asian people were largely prevented from fulfilling the government's immigration goals by head taxes charged on immigrants. Though many Chinese wished to homestead, they were unable to.xx3 In the end Sifton was able to bring over a million immigrants into Canada in a decade, population movements on a scale rarely seen in all human history. The first decade of the 1900s must have been an exciting time. Sir Wilfrid Laurier declared in a 1904 speech that "the 20th century shall be the century of Canada and Canadian development".xxxxx The rapid growth of Strathcona was an important part of that optimism. On the grand scale, the growth of Strathcona in the 1900s was an important component in a trend of world-historic importance. The opening up of the Canadian prairies was part of a titanic global development that opened up not just Canada's west to agriculture, but also that of the United States. Taken as a whole this development was the largest and most rapid increase in the amount of arable land in the history of the human race. It changed things practically everywhere. Alberta, along with the rest of western North America, became the world's breadbasket, and directly contributed to population increases across much of the globe. The ripples sent out by the growth of Strathcona and the farms around it have reverberated around the world ever since.xx4

4. Life in Strathcona


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-276 & On This Spot Enterprises

1903

The Strathcona Hotel was built to accommodate travellers after their last stop on the northbound branch of the railway. In 1891 Strathcona experienced a wave of immigrants wanting to start businesses and farms. The dirt roads and wagons made for a loud and dusty locus of transients making their way to Fort Edmonton or further North.

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5. Edmonton and Strathcona


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Alberta ArchivesA9841 & On This Spot Enterprises

1909

When the railway stopped just short of crossing the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton was disappointed that everyone would still have to make their own way across the river using the raft ferries. Not without controversy, Strathcona and Edmonton amalgamated in 1912 after Alberta became a province in and Edmonton was declared the capital city. Taken a few years before Strathcona became a part of Edmonton, this photo shows a marching band who played on this spot now known as Whyte Avenue.

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6. Fire on the Prairies


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-1000 & On This Spot Enterprises

1920

Completed in 1910, Strathcona Fire Hall No. 1 is one of the oldest fire halls in Alberta. Though modern fire trucks have outgrown the building, we can still see the large doors that once housed Strathcona's fire department. When Edmonton and Strathcona amalgamated Firehall No. 1 became Firehall No. 6 and continued to serve the district of Strathcona.xx1

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7. The Orange Order


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Glenbow Archives NA-1328-64374 & On This Spot Enterprises

1912

This spot has been home to many different structures, events, and histories. Home once to the Strathcona water tower and some of the township's public buildings, today it serves as a thriving theatre and farmer's market. In the midst of change one building still stands as it once was: The Orange Hall was built in 1903 to accommodate members of the Orange Order. The Orange Order, created in England to unify protestant groups against Catholics, was known in Canada to promote protestant British interests and was often quite influential in municipal politics. On the far left we can see the very edge of Orange Hall as it existed in 1903.xx1

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8. Strathcona's Library


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Glenbow Archives NA-1328-769 & On This Spot Enterprises

1913

When European groups began to settle in Canada, they brought with them the notion of libraries as they were in Europe. Immigrant groups often held private collections of their histories and relevant knowledge. As the Hudson's Bay Company grew in Canada, they came to house records and libraries. Churches also had libraries and served as a center for cultural knowledge in Canada. The library you see here was built in the early 20th Century and became a community centre, as well as a repository for knowledge.

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9. Religious Life


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Glenbow Archives PA-4032-9 & On This Spot Enterprises

1910

As immigration to Edmonton increased with the railroad so did the need for churches. The Knox Presbyterian Church was completed in 1907 and still services worshippers today. Christianity was a hugely important part of Canadian life in the early twentieth century, and buildings like this played a variety of roles in the community. The large number of churches built in Strathcona is a good indicator of the piety of the people who lived here.xx1

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10. Educational Powerhouse


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-923 & On This Spot Enterprises

1909

Opening its doors in 1908, Strathcona Collegiate High School became one of the first high schools in Alberta. Offering education in the liberal arts and sciences, it is on this spot that Strathcona Collegiate and the University of Alberta forged a reputation as "the university city" and a locus for higher education

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11. The Postal Service


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-633 & On This Spot Enterprises

1914

The Strathcona Post Office was constructed in 1913 to provide Strathcona with a local mail facility under the newly amalgamated Edmonton. Here residents of Strathcona would come to check for letters from relatives in Europe and send news back home, businessmen would send off contracts, and local shops could pick up packages of new product to stock their shelves.xx1

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12. The Streetcar


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Glenbow Archives NC-6-812 & On This Spot Enterprises

1914

Looking west down Whyte Avenue we can see the street was once home to the streetcar. With the completion of the High Level Bridge in 1913, streetcars became an effective and economic means of transportation.

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13. Strathcona Expands


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Glenbow Archives NA-303-39 & On This Spot Enterprises

1906

Looking east down Whyte Ave at the center of Strathcona, we can see the busy avenue filled with shops and hotels just as it was in 1906. Although parts of Strathcona look much the same due to preservation efforts in the 1970s, Strathcona was a city of frequent change and rapid growth.

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14. Booming Business


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Alberta ArchivesA6753 & On This Spot Enterprises

1902

This spot was once home to the A.C. Baalim Fruiterer and Confectioner. The original buildings are no more, victims of fire, and new structures took their place. Like much of Whyte Avenue businesses come and go and buildings from the golden age of Strathcona serve a different purpose than they once did. However, this heritage site still remains one of the busiest parts of Edmonton, hosting festivals and local artisans.

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15. Going Full Circle


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Edmonton Archives EA-10-272 & On This Spot Enterprises

1900

Here we are back just about where the tour began. Looking west we can see the Dominion Hotel which still stands. Preservation efforts in the 1970s began the process by which Old Strathcona would come to be the heritage site it is today. Now transformed into an artistic center with many performance venues and shops, the once small town has changed to accommodate a new time.

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Endnotes


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