Historic Walking Tour
The End of the Line
Strathcona's Early History
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
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
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
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