The History Of Fort Saskatchewan

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Indigenous History

Prior to the arrival of Europeans to the area that would be Central Alberta, the land was home to the Cree and Nakota nations. They would occupy the land, hunting the bison and moving through with the seasons, for thousands of years.

The main artery of movement was the North Saskatchewan River, which they would travel by canoe. The area that would become Fort Saskatchewan was a prominent stopping point. At the mouth of the Sturgeon River, located near the current industrial park of the community, Indigenous would gather the materials they needed to build canoes. Due to the abundance of birch bark, used in the building of birch bark canoes, the Indigenous named the area Birch Hills.

The nearby Elk Island National Park has shown evidence of over 200 archeological remains of campsites and stone tool-making sites. Through the centuries, the land was used by the Blackfoot, the Sarcee and the Cree.

Today, Fort Saskatchewan sits on Treaty 6 land.

The Original Fort

Various explorers and fur traders would move through the area of Fort Saskatchewan in the late-1700s and early-to-mid-1800s. A big reason for this was the nearby Fort Edmonton, a prominent fort that served the fur trading needs of the area.

Fort Saskatchewan’s fort would come later, and it was established not because of fur trading but because of the North West Mounted Police. Following the March West in 1874, a group of NWMP would move north to establish the Sturgeon Creek Post as a fort on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River. The fort was soon renamed as Fort On The Saskatchewan, and became an important police garrison.

Many residents of Edmonton were against the fort being so close to their community. They did not want to have a police garrison located so close to the community but it could have been much closer, and Fort Saskatchewan would have never existed. The original plan was for the fort to be across the river from Fort Edmonton, but a downstream site was chosen due to the narrow and shallow banks that made it a better spot for a future railroad crossing.

In 1885, Fort Saskatchewan would raise in prominence when it became the headquarters of the NWMP G Division. There was a plan to possibly move the Fort into Edmonton, and this time, unlike a decade previously, the residents were actually in favour of this. In the end, it was decided it was more cost effective to expand the current garrison in Fort Saskatchewan, than to rebuild the garrison in Edmonton.  During the North West Rebellion of 1885, 39 members of the Mount Royal Rifles were dispatched to the fort, and the fort commanding officer, Inspector Henry Griesbach, would deputize 35 local men to add to the force of 20 in the fort. Also in the fort were 84 women and children, who came inside out of fear over the rebellion.

In 1889, the Fort was expanded again, and patrols would travel out from it going as far as Fort Simpson and Chesterfield Inlet in the North West Territories.

In 1911, the fort property was transferred to the Alberta government. In order to make room for a provincial jail, the fort was demolished.

During its history, the fort conducted five hangings, including the first hanging in the Northwest Territories on Dec. 20, 1879, when a man named Swift Runner was put to death.

Swift Runner

One of the darkest chapters in Alberta history came when a Cree man named Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin, or Swift Runner was discovered to have killed his entire family. There is a great deal of speculation, hearsay and more with this story but I will keep the story grounded in fact, rather than focusing on the belief that he was possessed by a Wendigo.

Swift Runner was considered by locals in the area to be a smart and trustworthy man, and he had served as a guide for the NWMP in the area. Sadly, due to alcoholism, he would be expelled from Fort Saskatchewan and from his Indigenous tribe. He would leave with his family for the winter to hunt, a practice that was quite common.

In the spring, he would arrive back in the Fort Saskatchewan area, but he was alone, rather than with his wife and six children, although some reports say five children, or his brother and mother. Accounts differ, some state that he arrived at the Catholic mission, other accounts say he walked into his tribe of Indigenous. Either way, suspicions were raised and those he met soon alerted the NWMP, who asked Swift Runner to take them to his family and campsite. Some say he took them straight to the spot, other accounts say he led them around until they gave him whiskey. When they did reach the campsite, it was discovered that he had allegedly killed and murdered his wife, children, mother and brother. Bones were around the ground, many broken into pieces, raising the belief that he had consumed his family. There was no true explanation for why Swift Runner did this, but one possible motive was being forced to eat a deceased hunting partner out of necessity.

In the investigation, Swift Runner allegedly stated that the evil spirit of a Windigo was tormenting him in his dreams.

In August of 1879, he was charged with murder and cannibalism. A jury, consisting of three Metis residents, four residents who spoke Cree, and a Cree translator, sentenced him to death. In December, scaffolding was built and Indigenous chiefs were invited to observe the erection in an effort to prevent rumours of unnecessary cruelty being inflicted on Swift Runner. A priest would spend the night speaking with Swift Runner, and also had breakfast with him the next morning. The hanging would be delayed as locals used the trap of the scaffolding to make a fire, and the hangman forget straps to bind the arms of Swift Runner.

As he walked onto the platform, it is stated that he admitted his guilt and thanked those who had charge of him during his incarceration.

Finally, at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1879, Swift Runner was hanged in front of 60 individuals. Soon after, his body was cut down and buried outside the fort walls.

Founding of the Community

The railroad would arrive in Fort Saskatchewan in 1905, putting the town on the transcontinental line. The station would be a special station due to the CNR designating Fort Saskatchewan as a special station, which I will get to later. The town quickly began to grow and a second freight shed was added to the west side of the station in 1911.

Within a decade of the railroad arriving, fort Saskatchewan would see its population double to nearly 1,000 people.

In 1905, town council would begin construction on a fire and town hall, costing $13,000, it would be completed in 1906 and had the town hall and council chamber on the upper floor, and the fire department on the lower floor. The building would be used by the fire department until 1958, and the town until 1970. The building stands to this day.

Around the same time that the railroad arrived, the first bridge leading to Fort Saskatchewan, crossing the North Saskatchewan River was built. The train deck was on the steel upper level, and the lower level was a wooden road deck. Prior to the building of this bridge, the only way across the river was through the use of a ferry. At the time it was built, the bridge was the second-largest bridge for the Canadian National Railway.

In 1910, a $30,000 wooden hydroelectric dam and power plant was built on the river, expected to last 20 years. The town was forced to take over construction after the original firm went bankrupt. The dam was completed in December 1911, costing $80,000, or $700,000 today. Within a few months, leaks were detected and the plant was shut down in April of 1912 after a washout. By September, the town found there was no way to repair the dam and the dam was decommissioned.

Thanks to the growth of Edmonton, the provincial jail and the oil and gas industry, the community of Fort Saskatchewan became a city in 1985, and today has 27,000 people.

The Provincial Jail

Fort Saskatchewan has always been a focal point of law and order in Alberta, and that role was cemented not just with the NWMP fort, but the provincial jail that was built in 1915 at a cost of $200,000 on the site of the original fort. Prior to this, the site had a 34-cell guard house that had been used to hold prisoners since 1875. By 1915, those cells were filled to capacity, with over 70 prisoners in the facility.

While the original guard house was gone, in 1927 a cairn was unveiled on the site of the original guard room, made of stones from its foundation, to remember the fort.

The jail would expand through the years, gaining more cell blocks, a gym, its own power plant, an auto body, licence plate shop and a 324-hectare farm for feeding inmates.

The facility was typically used to house individuals who were awaiting trails or serving sentences of two years or less. That being said, 29 prisoners were hanged at the jail between 1914 and 1960. These include the only woman hanged in Alberta, Florence Lassandro and Robert Raymond Cook, the last man to be hanged in Alberta history.

On Jan. 19, 1955, 96 inmates rioted in the prison dining room, led by 12 ringleaders who barricaded themselves in the prison bakery. The riot would see a store room in the bakery destroyed by fire after the ringleaders burned clothing, books and supplies. The rioters stated they were rioting due to the poor quality of the food in the jail. Eventually, the fire was put out by the Edmonton fire department, and 50 RCMP officers came in armed with tear gas and smoke grenades to put the riot down. By the end of the riot, damages were pegged at $10,000 or $97,000 today.

The original jail would be replaced in 1988 when a new correctional centre was built nearby. The jail cell blocks were demolished but the original warden house, built in 1937, is still on the original prison grounds.

The Canadian Northern Railway Station

The railway was an incredibly important part of any early community, even one that had its start before the arrival of the railroad. For a community to thrive, it not only needed the railroad, but also a train station.

In Fort Saskatchewan, the Canadian Northern Railway Station was built in 1905 and quickly became a focal point for the community. Everyone from new immigrants who had never seen the country to Queen Elizabeth II would come to this train station. The train station was designed as a special train station, use only at the most significant points along the rail line.

Unlike other communities, the train station is of the larger variety, which shows the optimistic appraisal many had for Fort Saskatchewan, of which it definitely lived up to. Located in the centre of the community, the station was surrounded by a stockyard and grain elevators. Within the station there was a large waiting room, a waiting room for women, an office, freight shed, living room, kitchen and vestibule. The station is the last of its type to still exist in Canada.

The station would continue to be used for rail service from the Canadian Northern Railway until the late 1980s when declining rail traffic resulted in its closure.

The station still stands to this day in the community and can be visited. On September 30, 2008, the station was made a Provincial Historic Resource.

Our Lady Of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church

One of the oldest buildings in the Fort Saskatchewan Our Lady Of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church. The church came thanks to the French-Canadian brothers Joseph and Francois Lamoureux, who were convinced by the Canadian Pacific Railway to leave Kamloops and settle along the North Saskatchewan River. They would arrive at the site of current Fort Saskatchewan in 1872, putting up several simple structures.

Over the next two years, their family would arrive to join them, creating one of the earliest French-Canadian settlements in Alberta. In 1877, Joseph purchased new land for $100 and erected a log chapel. As Fort Saskatchewan grew, the chapel became an incredibly important focal point for the community. As more people joined the congregation, a new building was needed and construction began in 1902.

On Feb. 15, 1903, the church was blessed and dedicated to divine service, and was named by Bishop Vital Justin Grandin, who stated he was cured of an excruciating ear ache through the intercession of Mary. He would dedicate the church in her honour.

The church continues to stand and serve as an important landmark in the area. For the most part, it is unchanged beyond a 1928 addition that was added to the rear of the building, along with decorating the interior.

The church still maintains its character of French-Canadian worship, and is now a historically significant church in Alberta.

On March 2, 1994, it was made a Provincial Historic Site.

The Royal Visit

Few communities are lucky enough to receive a Royal Visit. In fact, of all the communities I have profiled, only one had a visit from Queen Elizabeth. Well, now there are two. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip would visit Fort Saskatchewan, coming from Vegreville on a special train. They would arrive in the community on Aug. 2, 1978, and were met at the train station by Premier Peter Lougheed.

The Royal Couple gave a speech at Turner Park, before going on to Edmonton in a limousine to open the Commonwealth Games.

Elk Island National Park

Located to the west of Fort Saskatchewan, you will find Elk Island National Park, called an island of conservation along the Yellowhead Highway. It is the eighth-smallest national park in Canada, but the largest completely-enclosed park in the country. The area had been used by new settlers for hunting for beaver furs, and for timber.

In 1894, fire swept through the area and the federal government designated the entire area s the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve. This protected the trees in the area, but hunting was still allowed.

In 1906, five men from Fort Saskatchewan put forward $5,000 and petitioned the government to make an elk sanctuary called Elk Park. The federal government would agree, setting up Elk Island Park in 1913.

Within the park, you will find a replica pioneer cabin that was built in 1951 to honour the Ukrainian Canadians who pioneered in the area. This cabin was the first museum or historic site in Canada to honour Ukrainian immigration to Canada. In 1993, it was made a Classified Federal Heritage Building.

The most notable feature of the park are the bison, who have been in the area longer than the park has existed. In 1907, the Canadian government bought one of the last and largest remaining pure-bred plains bison and 400 bison were shipped to Elk Island. In 1909, Buffalo Park near Wainwright was finished and 325 bison were sent there but 40-70 bison evaded capture in Elk Island Park and would become the ancestors of the heard found in the park today. Today, the park maintains a herd of 450 plains bison.

The 1913 Downtown Fire

Fire is always a serious danger in any community, especially when most things are made of wood. Nearly every community I have profiled has had a serious fire at some point, and Fort Saskatchewan is no different.

On Jan. 21, 1913, a fire started at the Queen’s Hotel and quickly spread to the buildings nearby, sweeping through the business section of the town. It was a bitterly cold day, which only caused more problems. The fire engine would not start, and the hose began to freeze as water went through it. By the time that the fire department was able to get everything working, the fire was out of control.

The fire chief, S.O. Jones, was in Edmonton when he was notified about the fire. He had to quickly rush to the CNR station and catch a train going to the community. On the way to the station, his taxi was almost hit by a police car that was attempting to stop the speeding taxi the chief was in. When Jones made it to the station, he was arrested by police who met him at the station, who had been contacted by the police that had attempted to stop the taxi previous.

The fire destroyed five businesses by the time it was out, causing $24,000 in damages.

As for Jones, he would go to court over the case. The case was dismissed and Jones would be told that he could drive as fast as he needed in Edmonton.

Fort Heritage Precinct

If you love the early history of a community, especially if it relates to the North West Mounted Police and the RCMP, then the Fort Heritage Precinct is a great place to visit.

Through the precinct, you can take a tour through several buildings that highlight the history of Fort Saskatchewan. These include a tour through a NWMP fort, before going on to the historical village that includes the 1902 Castle School, through the life of an early 20th century settler and the life of a 1920s doctor, along with the 1909 courthouse and the aforementioned 1937 Warden’s Residence.

If you would prefer to not be part of the tour, you can still see the exterior of the buildings, but cannot go inside without being part of a tour group.

Through the eight heritage buildings, you will find artifacts, period furnishings and more that highlight the history of the Fort Saskatchewan area.

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