Day 802: Edmonton – The Opening Credits

originally published March 12, 2014

Last week, while another icy winter blast was gossiping through our beloved city streets, I heard a familiar question discreetly uttered in my office tower elevator. It’s a question that inevitably falls from the cliffs of quivering lips every year when the onset of March is mocked by November-esque climate.

“Why did anyone decide to settle a town in this spot?”

It’s true that, while our swirling stripe of river valley parkland is an emerald jewel among modern urban nature triumphs, and while we perpetually possess a bountiful bevy of artistic talent that vastly supersedes expectations, our winters also display a wicked longevity. And the earliest Edmontonians had half a country of gorgeous parkland to sift through, none of which had an established arts scene. So why here? Why plant one’s flag amid such an unforgiving tundra?

Money, baby. A businessman goes where the customers are, and in 1795 there were scads of Blackfoot and Cree folks in the region, not to mention a raucous cavalcade of settlers headed west. No one knew there was a generous cauldron of bubblin’ crude below our terrestrial waistline (that surprise was 150 years away); back then our town was all about hocking pelts to the locals.

Today, Edmonton’s premier tourist attraction is inevitably our monstrous Mall, which sucks more than 30 million shoppers and gawkers inside its yellow brick shell each year. Ironically, a mall is exactly how Edmonton started out. The North West Company picked out the spot where the North Saskatchewan River shook watery hands with the Sturgeon River (near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan) and opened up a trading post in 1795. The Hudson Bay Company joined them shortly thereafter, giving us two anchor stores. For all your pelt and survivalist needs.

North West’s store was called Fort Augustus, while the Bay opened up Edmonton House. It made sense for the two competing stores to stay snug together, as there was strength in numbers. Europeans were still the new kids on this vast prairie block, and security was an omnipresent concern. When winter rolled in and propped up its feet for a long visit, the steadfast capitalists wrapped themselves in some dead animal flesh and they dealt with it. Noble? Perhaps. Insane? Maybe a little, but as a significant stop in the route out west, abandoning the location would have been downright batty.

In 1801, both Fort Augustus and the newly-christened Fort Edmonton scooted up-river. It made sense to go where the people and firewood were at, so they settled on a spot in modern-day Rossdale, on land that I and countless other Edmontonians would one day stumble drunkenly across after a baseball game. The exact site of the fort – and the two companies were now operating within the same stockade walls for added security – was not known until 2012, when archeologist Nancy Saxberg uncovered a distinctive trench that most likely belonged to one of those mighty walls.

This has led to one of our city’s most enduring quandaries: what to do with this astoundingly valuable piece of land that currently houses a defunct power station, an abandoned minor league ballpark and a husky congregation of scraggly old homes in the cradle of our river valley? We have already cordoned off a sacred burial ground and spared it the indignity of housing a turret-topped strip-mall. Now there exists the possibility that the foundation of the original Fort Edmonton (the first one in our city limits) could be unearthed. What then? Do we embrace our history or kick out the sequined welcome mat of the future?

Fort Edmonton’s original residents held no sentimentality for the earth beneath their feet. And why should they? By 1810 our town had yet to win a single Stanley Cup, produce even one significant medical breakthrough, or guide any Leslie Nielsens through high school. But it was an intense horn-locking between the Cree and the Blackfoot that prompted Fort Edmonton and its competitor to mosey eastward and cater to just one of the tribes. Our mobile little pre-town found itself in the mouth of White Earth Creek, not far from where Smoky Lake is today – about 100 km down the river.

This was what modern business-folk would call a “head-thwackingly addled” business decision. The Cree took their business elsewhere and the Blackfoot decided they didn’t want to swing so far out of their way to go shopping. Business suffered, so after two loathsome seasons, Fort Edmonton and Fort Augustus returned home. Their fourth incarnation was planted in the same location as the second, right in the heart of a yet-unborn metropolis.

Fort #4 survived until 1830. It saw the merger of North West and The Bay under the Hudson’s Bay name (and the subsequent elimination of Fort Augustus from the map), and the appearance of John Rowand, the boss who humbly constructed a four-level home in the middle of the Fort, just to let everyone know who was in charge.  A series of floods forced the Fort to relocate to higher ground, on a flat slab of land just below where the Legislature building sits today.

The fifth Fort had staying power. It remained our town’s main geographical footprint up until 1868, when the Hudson’s Bay Company rescinded its territorial claims to the government of Canada. Parcels of land were sold off, and the town began to form. Donald Ross bought the land once housed by Fort Edmonton II and IV, and Rossdale was born. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company found snazzier digs, in a retail location atop the river valley on Jasper Avenue. As the town grew, the Fort grew more and more ineffective.

By 1915, Fort Edmonton was little more than a decrepit heap of wood and dirt besmirching our skyline, which at the time consisted of the Legislature Building, the Hotel MacDonald a few blocks away, and a smattering of smaller structures. The provincial government ordered the land to be cleared, with the intention of building a heritage site with the original Fort’s materials. That never happened; the tourist attraction known as Fort Edmonton Park may be a near-exact replica of Fort #5, based on its appearance in 1846, but that’s all it is: a replica. And it took us over fifty years just to get around to building that.

History has never been a huge priority for this 110-year-old city. Our oldest building is the Strathcona Hotel (opened in 1891), and that wasn’t even part of Edmonton until 1912 when we swallowed up the town of Strathcona on the south side of the river. I’m not suggesting we postpone the modernization of Rossdale – hell, that golden swath of real estate has been a neglected civic afterthought for way too long. But integrating the reality that our city came to life there, that the remnants of our municipal placenta still speckle the dirt beneath that neighborhood – we should show a little pride and give history its due.

That’s around 200 brutal winters we’ve endured – thriving, grooving and growing. That’s something to boast about.

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