Looking Back at History Through The Lens of Industry

Difficulty is the excuse, Edward R. Murrow said, history never accepts. He might as well have been talking about Wood Buffalo’s history.

Despite the weather, terrain, and isolation, from the early Indigenous here to the settlers thereafter, our history is full of individuals who knew never to give up. Our history goes back approximately 10,000 years. The Cree and the Dene were the first two tribes here. Later it originated as a North West Company fur-trading post known as Fort of the Forks, which was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1875 it was named after William McMurray, who was part of the North West Company. And, when the oil sands began in the 1960s, our region began to evolve into the beautiful community you see today. Let’s go back in time to explore Wood Buffalo’s history through the lens of industry.

Kailey Gordon, Learning Coordinator at the Fort McMurray Heritage Society since 2011 is our guide through this historic journey along with Neil O’Donnell, an Environmental Technology instructor at Keyano College for the last 21 years.

“Archaeologists found remains from a hunting group called the Clovis that roamed the area 10,000 years ago. They survived off giant bison and mammoths. The Clovis were replaced with a group called the Agate Basin culture, whose stone tools were found close to Syncrude. Sandstone from the area was used to make much of the tools. The Oxbow people inhabited the area 5,000 years ago. Spearheads and tools of theirs have been found near Gregoire Lake, Lake Athabasca and along the Athabasca River. These spear-throwing people were replaced by those with bow and arrow. The Avonlea roamed the region about 1,800 years ago. Their tools and shavings have been found around Beaver Lake,” notes Gordon.

The oil sands, says O’Donnell have been known ever since humans “occupied the area following the meltdown of the continental glacier here. Aboriginal oral history indicates use of flowing (in summer heat) bitumen to patch canoes. Various experimental and modest commercial efforts to exploit the oil sands continued throughout the 20th century, but ultimately were unsuccessful.”

Indigenous Beginnings

The Cree were the first to follow the Avonlea. They inhabited the area along with the Dene, continues Gordon. Both groups lived in harmony with nature; no one owned the land or the water. They shared it. Travel was generally via the river. Traditional arts and crafts had a functional purpose; clothing, shelter and tools were handmade versus bought.

“Cree” means people. Originally, the “Cree were situated in the central areas of Canada but by the 1750s they moved into northern Alberta to expand their trading areas. They demanded guns that would not freeze in the harsh northern climate, leading to the development of the Northwest Gun. This allowed the people to bring in more pelts which were desired by the Europeans.”

Dene also means “people” and was a word used by the Indigenous, the Europeans called them the Chipewyan. The Dene followed animal migrations; 90% of their population was killed during a smallpox epidemic in the late 1780s. Over the years the Dene were driven further and further north, they settled permanently in Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay and Fort McMurray.

Development of Industry

Oil sands history dates back nearly three centuries to 1717, when Waupisoo of the Cree people brought samples of the oil sands to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) trading post at Fort Churchill. Gordon will be our storyteller for the rest of the sections:

John Macoun was set west from Ottawa in 1872 to join the geological survey team who was sent westward to identify an economical and reliable rail path through the Rockies. Macoun’s report talked of the fertile soil in the west and that a railway was possible. He returned west with another geographical team including an HBC employee, King. The two soon discovered unchartered waters and had to be revived by the Indigenous of Fort Chipewyan with food and medicine. By 1875, Macoun arrived in Fort McMurray, remarking in his journal about the oil oozing from the bank of the Athabasca River. Macoun met Fort McMurray’s founder, John Moberly, the two spent the night discussing the Athabasca oil sands and its economic potential. He shared these plans in Winnipeg, along with samples of bitumen and fossils. Soon after, the HBC approved plans to build steamboats on the Athabasca. Macoun’s accidental landing in Fort McMurray helped bring the oil sands to the attention of the Geological Survey of Canada and the Canadian Government.

Under Dr. George Dawson, in 1878, a scientific team was assembled to explore Macoun’s accounts of the Athabasca oil sands, since Macoun was a botanist and not a geologist. Many theories were created to explain how the oil and sand could mesh so completely without any evidence of a source. Samples were extracted to try to create a method to separate the oil and sand. This brought much interest in figuring out a separation method, but it wasn’t until Dr. Karl Clark, one of the pioneers of the oil sands, who in 1944, working for the Research Council of Alberta used hot water and mixing to separate bitumen from sand.

Abasand Oils Company Limited, which was located at the bottom of the hill beside the Horse River, was one of the first oil sands plants. Without Maxwell Waite Ball, an American engineer, Abasand Oils Company Limited plant would never have been built. Ball and his associates funded the project, which opened on September 1, 1936.

“The Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS, now Suncor) was the first to develop a successful open-pit mining operation in 1967, followed by Syncrude in 1978.

“This was made possible through the utilization of large-scale mining equipment (excavators, draglines, etc.) and large volumes of material handled to make the operation economical. Other open-pit mining operations have followed,” explains O’Donnell.

“Because of where GCOS is located, a bridge needed to be built across the Athabasca River. By July 1, 1965, it was officially opened and later named in honour of Grant MacEwan, the Lieutenant Governor of the time. That same year, Diversified buses began service to shuttle workers to the plant site. The oil boom brought new businesses to town, changing the face of Fort McMurray dramatically,” Gordon continues.

December 18, 1964, Syncrude Canada Limited was officially formed. Permission to construct the site was received on September 12, 1969. The plant would begin to produce 80,000 barrels per day. It began production in 1976. Eventually, they produced 125,000 barrels a day.

The oil boom brought 5,000 new residents to Fort McMurray, allowing the community to build more businesses and services, churches, sports clubs and community organizations as well as newspapers and television outlets and the community grew.

Historic Neighbourhoods

Snye: an Old English word for “channel that connects two rivers,” the Snye is a small channel on the Clearwater River, which used to connect the Clearwater to the Athabasca River. Evidence suggests that the Snye has been utilized by humans from approximately 6,000 years ago until present. This geographic region was an important transitional zone between Boreal Forest and Northern Plains Aboriginal cultures. As a popular stopping place for river travel, in 1899, Treaty #8 was signed at the Snye between Aboriginal representatives, and Her Majesty’s Commission. The Cree, Beaver and Chipewyan natives from the area surrounding Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan traded significant tracts of their hunting and trapping grounds in exchange for reserves, tools, and Treaty money.

Turning their attention to transportation to the remote areas of the north, citizens of Fort McMurray started to use the calm Snye as a runway for bush planes. The first airline company to fly out of the Snye was a mining magnate, Northern Aerial Mineral Explorers. In 1928 Punch Dickins became the first commercial airline pilot with Western Canadian Airlines. A number of companies quickly followed, so by 1932 Fort McMurray had become the busiest water-based airport in Canada. The fliers, considered local heroes flew through all weather and brought mail and medicine to isolated remote outposts in the north, often risking their lives in frigid temperatures to help others.

Always a popular recreation spot, in 1994, a proper boat launch was built, and named “The Jean Family Boat Launch,” after the well-known local family that sponsored the launch. At the same time the beaches, boardwalks, as well as the parking area were installed at the Snye to make it more accessible to the growing population. Today, the Snye is a favourite community outdoor recreation area for fishing, kayaking, water-skiing, boating, ski-doing, hockey and sea-doing. It is also the location of a number of local community events.

Waterways: In the 1930s, Waterways rivalled Fort McMurray in activity and influence. Parallel sets of schools, churches, and other institutions had been created which caused competition for funding and community support. After WWII, community leaders asked the province to amalgamate the two, and on May 6, 1947, the new Village of McMurray was created. The first mayor was Alfred Penhorwood who had operated the Waterways Post Office.

Waterways was also integral in creating a link for transportation between southern Alberta and Fort McMurray. The Alberta & Great Waterways Railway (A&GWR) station that had been built at Draper was extended north and named Waterways in 1925. “On July 1, 1929, the A&GWR, Canadian Pacific Railway, and the Canadian National Railway took over running the line under the name of Northern Alberta Railway. A passenger-freight train ran from Edmonton to Waterways twice a week until 1989 when the line was closed.”

Waterways started as a small community that provided repose for those just getting off the train before they travelled to Fort McMurray. Before Waterways was born, Draper was the last railway stop. The name Alberta & Great Waterways Railways was too long to put on the station sign, so it was shortened to Waterways. In 1925, when the railway was extended to about two miles east of Fort McMurray, the station house was moved to the new location, but the sign was never changed. The name Waterways ended up sticking to this new community.

The reason the railway was extended lay in the Clearwater; in the early 1920s its levels had dropped, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to navigate boats from Draper to Fort McMurray. The Hudson’s Bay Company threatened to use an alternative route through Peace River so the province extended the “end of steel” and the province approved rail traffic from Edmonton to Waterways on July 11, 1925. “On July 1, 1929, the A&GWR, Canadian Pacific Railway, and the Canadian National Railway took over running the line under the name of Northern Alberta Railway. A passenger-freight train ran from Edmonton to Waterways twice a week until 1989 when the line was closed.”

The desire to see more of the world was shared by young men in the community. At the outset of WWII many signed up to fight. While some left home, barges left Waterways for the Arctic, the Northern Alberta Railways ran items to and from Edmonton. Eventually, food and commodities like gasoline were rationed, there was an effort to sell war bonds, and even children helped the war effort by bringing spare change to school to buy war stamps.

Dickinsfield: named after Clennell Punch Dickins. During WWI, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, earned his pilot’s wings and commission in 1917. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for persistence and gallantry in completing aerial assignments under fire. At the end of the war, he joined the Canadian Air Force and then became one of the original officers of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924.

Dickins was the first to use a plane for extensive aerial surveys over the Barren Lands, Northwest Territories. Along with engineer Lew Parmenter, he delivered the first mail to the North in 1929. By 1935, air lops throughout the northwest were in existence with mail and freight service to (remote) communities. For his outstanding aerial work in the development/expansion of flying routes in northwestern Canada, he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1936 and appointed general superintendent of Canadian Airways at Winnipeg. That same year he completed a historic 10,000-mile air survey flight of northern Canada. He was christened The Snow Eagle and Canada’s Sky Explorer. In 1973, he was named the first Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in Wetaskiwin.

In conclusion, the history of industry is as pioneering as its spirit today. Thanks to our invaluable resource, the world has converged in our region, and we are home to numerous cultures, languages, and ways of life. And, for that, we’ll always be grateful to the pioneers, who chose to ignore all difficulties and persevered to give us our home – Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

Quoted passages from Huberman, Irwin. (2004). The Place We Call Home: A History Of Fort Murray, As Its People Remember, 1778-1980. Historical Book Society of Fort McMurray.

The Oil Sands & Heavy Oil Industry – A Timeline (modified)

Timeline courtesy Neil O’Donnell

Henry Kelsey – sample of “gum or pitch” brought to York Factory – by Cree named Wa-Pa-Su (the Swan)
1719 – June 12
Peter Pond – notes location of oil sands on maps (North West Company)
Alexander Mackenzie – “bituminous pools” along the Athabasca River
Sir John Richardson – accurate geological description attempted
Conducted acid test on oil, and did microscopic study – discovered quartz composition of sand
Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) – John Macoun – identified oil springs on Peace River
GSC – assumed that reservoir of pure petroleum existed under the sands at least 3 attempts to drill wells – looking for “mother lode” – but only hit natural gas
Sidney Ells – Engineer – Federal Department of Mines – starts to conduct topographic and geological surveys around McMurray – until 1945
Road paving
Karl Clark – Alberta Research Council – arrives. He eventually separates oil from sand using hot water and caustic soda – used today
Alcan Oil Company – first oil sands company
Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) ownership now with Sun Oil Co. Now Suncor Energy Ltd. Began production in 1967 combined open-pit mining with elements of an oil refinery
Contributor | + posts

Kiran Malik-Khan is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.

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