The Edmonton area had been inhabited by the Cree and Blackfoot tribes for thousands of years when in 1795, the Hudson Bay Company brought its trademark green, red, yellow and navy stripes out west and established a trading post. Known as “Edmonton House,” the post was built near the present-day city of Fort Saskatchewan and was frequented by trappers, traders and adventure seekers.
In 1871, land located next to the river valley — the site of the present-day Alberta Legislature grounds — was purchased by the government and Fort Edmonton, a hub for the fur trade, was constructed.
The rush for gold in the Klondike in 1898 was the second big boom for Edmonton. Dreamers headed north made the area their last stop in civilization before rushing off to seek their fortunes. More than 2,000 prospectors set off via this route, dubbed the “Back Door” or “All Canadian Route”, thought to be less arduous then the perilous mountain trails on the West Coast. The city’s role as an outfitting centre made this a period of tremendous growth — its population doubled in just over two years!
Edmonton received the status of Alberta’s capital city in 1905 which paved the way for the prestigious University of Alberta. By 1928, the university had its own campus with six buildings and over 1,600 students, including Miss Leona McGregor who was the first student to be awarded a medical degree.
The city had the first licensed airfield in Canada (Blatchford Field, now City Centre Airport), and in the 1930s was the aviation hub for transportation of medical supplies, food and mail to the northern communities, earning the city the title of “Gateway to the North.” Construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942 solidified the city’s role as a major transportation and supply centre, and also enriched the city’s cultural diversity as Ukrainians and other eastern European immigrants came to Edmonton looking for opportunity.
In 1947 the discovery of oil in nearby Leduc transformed Edmonton into the Oil Capital of Canada virtually overnight. Ironically, after spending $12 million on more than 130 dry holes, Imperial Oil had almost abandoned hope of finding oil in the area and was ready to cap the Leduc #1 well. But on February 13, tool pusher Vern “Dry Hole” Hunter, so nicknamed for the number of unsuccessful wells he had worked on, ordered the crew to drill down another five feet. The historic strike of “black gold” marked the birth of Western Canada’s oil industry, and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity and growth. Within a decade, Edmonton’s population more than doubled and, today the oil and gas industry remains the city’s economic cornerstone.
By Edmonton’s centennial in 2004, the city was worlds away from its humble beginnings as a mercantile centre during the fur trade and the Klondike Gold Rush. What began as a town that travellers passed through has become a popular destination full of world-class attractions!
For more information on Edmonton’s history visit historicedmonton.ca.