Over 200 years ago, Peter Pond and the Voyagers of the Northwest Trading Company traveled through this area in search of furs and discovered land of wild water, lush forests and abundant wildlife. They were drawn by the fur trade, not realizing the future that lay within the sticky black sand and pools of bitumen documented in Pond’s Journals. Centuries of rich history have created a destination that has enticed explorers, fur traders and adventure enthusiasts since the 18th century with offerings of many recreational opportunities including trapping and fishing.
In the long-ago days of the fur trade, Fort McMurray was merely a trading-post stop on the journey to Fort Chipewyan, a hub of activity for trappers, missionaries and adventurers of all stripes. This tiny community, nestled in the midst of some of northern Alberta’s most dramatic and beautiful landscape, is Alberta’s oldest European settlement, dating back to 1788 and the intrepid explorer Peter Pond.
Steeped in history, this region is a living testament to the people who live here. The region is stamped with their time honored traditions, natural and authentic way of life, and love for the land and water.
There are records as early as the 1700’s that show the Chipewyan and Beaver people are indigenous to the Athabasca Region and by the mid 1870’s the Cree, Metis and Eur-Canadians also made their homes here. Recent archeological evidence indicated that this area has been occupied by First Nations people for as long as 9,000 years.
In 1778 Peter Pond crossed the Methye Portage, Pond descended the westerly flowing Clearwater river and built a post on the Athabasca River near Lake Athabasca that opened up the valuable Mackenzie basin Fur Region. The portage was used for over 100 years.
In 1870, Henry “John” Moberly was dispatched by the Hudson’s Bay Company to open a trading post here. He named the post Fort McMurray after William McMurray, the chief factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the region. While the fur trade dwindled, Fort McMurray remained the most significant transportation terminus to the Arctic.
The Hudson’s Bay Company sternwheeler steamer, the SS Grahame, made its first trips on the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers in 1884 marking the arrival of sternwheeler travel to the area. The trip from Athabasca to Fort McMurray was an adventurous and extremely dangerous one as scows and later paddle steamers had to traverse the Grand Rapids.
Rail reached Lynton in 1919 and pushed through to “Old Waterways” (Now Called Draper) in 1921. The Rail service from Lac La Biche and Waterways was largely built across muskeg, a dangerous surface subject to frequent derailments. Canadian National Railway assumed control of the line in 1980. Mixed passenger and freight services came to a halt when Canadian National closed the line in 1989. Athabasca Northern Railway Ltd. Has since brought the line back to life in a limited commercial capacity. The new shortline railroad company was established in 2000 and services industries in the Fort McMurray area, as well as customers along the line.
Planes were landing on the Snye during the lake 1920’s but were still viewed as a novelty. In 1929, Clenell “Punch” Dickens raised air service to a new level when he loaded single-engine Fokker monoplane with a sack of mail for a historic journey alone the Mackenzie River. This marked the beginning of airmail service and further propelled the town into a dominant position as a gateway to the Arctic. During the 1930’s, pilots flew open cockpit aircrafts without benefit of a radio or weather reports, challenging the minus forty degree temperatures during the winter.
For several years, fishing was a large, profitable business. Tons of white fish from Lake Athabasca were processed at the McInnis Fish company plan in waterways.
Fort McMurray sits on a 150-foot thick bed of rock salt and the Industrial Minerals Ltd. Salt plant was a viable operation until 1950. Logging and lumbering was as important in Fort McMurray’s past as it is today. Steam powered sawmills were replaced by the first diesel sawmill in 1945.
The history of Fort McMurray’s Oil Sands is rich with the experiences, setbacks and successes of the people who came to this region. Aboriginal people had long since known about the bitumen produced by the oil sad and used it to water proof their canoes. Among the first explorers were Cont Alfred von Hammerstein and “Peace River Jim” Cornwall who both drilled wells in hopes of striking a pool of oil that they believed lay beneath the sand.
In 1913, Sidney Ells was sent to the area by the Federal Department of Mines to complete maps of the sands and experiment with separation theories. In 1925 Karl J. Clark, working closely with Sidney Blair and the University of Alberta, built a pant in Edmonton that employed the hot water method if separating the sand from the oil.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the Great Canadian Oil Sands, now Suncor energy, proved that bitumen could successfully be removed the oil sand and upgraded the crude oil on a large scale. The rest as they say is history. With the rest of the world seeking a secure oil supply, the region has received unprecedented international attention.
The history of Fort McMurray is a tribute to the rogues, fortune hunters, idealists and adventurers who helped to open up the Canadian North. Our future, thanks to continuing advances in technology and the oil sand companies pioneering spirit, has never looked brighter.