The History Of Grande Prairie

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The Indigenous

For centuries, dating back long before Europeans ever came to what would be Canada, the Beaver people occupied the lands that would eventually be Grande Prairie.

By the early 1800s, fur traders started to arrive in the area and the North West Company would establish a fort at Dunvegan.

Originally, the area was called Buffalo Plains as it had huge herds of bison that migrated through, along with large herds of elk.

Through the latter part of the 19th century, due to being displaced by Europeans and Canadians, the Cree and Iroquois would settle in the area, and down to Jasper and Lac Ste. Anne.

Today, the community sits on Treaty 8.

Founding of The Community

The first reference to the prairie around Grande Prairie comes from Samuel Black, a Scottish fur trader with the North West Company.

In 1880, the Hudson’s Bay Company fort was established 21 kilometres north of the current city by George Kennedy. The post was called La Grande Prairie.

Around this same time, Canadian Pacific Railway engineers were visiting the area and reporting on the huge agricultural potential and the rich resources of timber, coal, oil, and gas.

As the Klondike Gold Rush kicked off in 1896, prospectors began to move through and as many as 700 migrated through in just two years.

In 1908, George Breeden, the local blacksmith, operated a dirt-floored, sod-roofed cabin that he called the Breeden Hotel, which was used by travelers who arrived in the area until they moved on to their homestead.

In 1909, 17 townships were surveyed in the area and a land rush quickly began as people came along to buy up land. One year later, the new Grande Prairie Townsite was sub-divided and within one year the community had a bank, hotel, post office and land office and was becoming the largest community in the area. In 1911, the Edson Trail was bringing settlers to the area thanks to the clearing of bush to make the journey easier. At this point, the community had a bank, barn, two churches, a land survey office, and barracks for the Royal North West Mounted Police. In 1913, a school and hospital were built.

On April 30, 1914, Grande Prairie officially became a village.

In 1916, the future of Grande Prairie was set when it became the terminus of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway from Edmonton. With the arrival of the railroad, the population began to skyrocket and soon passed the 1,000-resident mark. On March 15, 1919, the community became a town.

When the short recession of the early-1920s hit, Grande Prairie saw its population decline slightly. While the town had 1,061 people in 1921, the population had fallen to 917 by 1926. By the 1930s, the population was rebounding and in 1931, it had increased to 1,464 people.

The city would continue to grow through the next several decades, aided by the Second World War and the arrival of more people along the newly paved Highway 43. During the Second World War, 500 Canadian and American Air Force personnel were stationed in the community. On Jan. 1, 1958, Grande Prairie became a city. The ceremony to becoming a city was quite unique. In February of 1958, residents lined the Clairmont Road to cheer Henry McCullough as he rode in -40 degrees from Edmonton to Grande Prairie along the Edson Trail with his horse Diamond. He carried with him the new city charter, which had been presented to him by the premier on the steps of the Alberta Legislature.

Today, it is the home to 63,000 people and is the seventh largest city in Alberta and the 88th largest city in Canada. That growth was fueled by the Elmworth deep basin gas field discovery. The city would go from 12,000 people in the early 1970s to 24,000 by 1981. A second boom from 2006 to 2007 made Grande Prairie one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Heritage Discovery Centre

Located in Grande Prairie, you can explore the entire history of the Peace Region dating back to the Mesozoic Era, through the Ice Ages, to the Indigenous and today. The Heritage Discovery Centre is home to several hands-on exhibits, and a life-size animatronic dinosaur that represents the Pachyrhinosaurus species that have been discovered in the area.

Visitors can stroll through the galleries at their own pace, learning through the interactive displays.

Philip J Currie Dinosaur Museum

If dinosaurs are something that interests you, the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum is a paleontology museum located nearby to the city in Wembly. Named for Paleontologist Philip J. Currie, this museum is in a 41,000 square foot museum, along the Pipestone Creek bonebed that contains fossils from the Cretaceous to the Paleocene Eras. The original bonebed was discovered by a local schoolteacher in 1974, and thousands of fossils have been found in the bonebed. Today, it is one of the densest fossil sites in the entire world. As a result of the huge abundance of fossils, the bonebed has been called The River of Death. Along with fossils of the Pachyrhinosaurus, fossils of the Hadrosaur, Tyrannosaur and Plesiosaurs have been found.

The building of the museum was delayed due to funding, but Dan Aykroyd, a paleontologist enthusiast organized a two-day celebrity dig at Pipestone Creek Park. His wife Donna Dixon, as well as Lorne Michaels came out for the event. The building was officially opened in 2015, and drew 100,000 visitors within its first 11 months, double what was projected. 

The Governor General Visits

On Aug. 10, 1933, the first of many important visitors would arrive in the growing community of Grande Prairie. The Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Bessborough, along with his wife The Countess of Bessborough, came to the community and were greeted by throngs of well wishers who came out to see the viceregal and his wife.

Mayor Tooley had the entire city decorated with flags and flowers, and an evergreen arch and pillars was erected at one of the business corners.

Upon arriving in the community, the viceregal and his wife were greeted at the school grounds with war veterans standing as the guard of honour. An address was given by Mayor Tooley, and the Governor General stated that he was pleased and surprised by the evident beauty and growth of the country and that he was glad he came in August rather than October as was planned the previous year.

At the banquet later in the night, 200 people attended, and several musical numbers were conducted for everyone gathered.

Grande Prairie High School

Built in 1929 and located in downtown Grande Prairie, the Grande Prairie High School replaced three schools that had been built between 1911 and 1929 to accommodate the growing population of students. The school was one of the top schools in northern Alberta and today it is one of the oldest structures within Grande Prairie to this day.

Today, the school serves as a symbol of the settlement period of Alberta’s last remaining agricultural frontier before the wave of Depression-era immigration came into the Peace River area.

Today, it is the home of the Prairie Art Gallery and was made a Provincial Historic Resource on May 7, 1984.

Saskatoon Mountain

Sometimes called Saskatoon Hill, there is evidence on this mountain of human habitation going back 9,500 years. One of the more interesting facts about the hill is that it was the only site in the area not to be subjected to the effects of glaciers during the last ice age. The plants found in the area were not found anywhere else in the area.

The first homestead on the mountain was owned by Fred Grier.

Due to this history, the provincial government would turn the area into a provincial park where people could come to gather berries and picnic.

Everything would change when the site was chosen for a new radar site and 214 acres of Saskatoon Mountain were leased to the federal government, restricting access to the area for the citizens of the area. The provincial park was removed but parts of the remaining area of the provincial park not being used by the radar site was leased to farmers to graze their cattle. The radar site itself would be built on the former homestead of Fred Grier, where a forestry tower had been set up as well. Under the Department of National Defence, the area had a Pinetree radar station that acted as part of the Early-Warning Radar System that was set up by the United States and Canada in the case of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Things began to change in 1985 when an announcement of the closure of the site came. Among the 49 civilian workers at the site, 26 were eligible for transfer but 80 per cent of those workers wanted to stay in the area if they could find suitable jobs.

In June 1988, the military began packing up and by the end of June nearly everyone was gone from the site. On Aug. 31, 1988, the gates closed for good on the radar site. Over the next year, all evidence that a radar base had ever been there were removed except for the radar tower. The site was then seeded with grasses and allowed to regenerate to its natural state. In 1992, the site was returned to the Province of Alberta. The main radar tower would stay in place until 1994 when it was finally demolished. On July 26, 1995, Saskatoon Mountain was designated as a Natural Area that covered 1,766 acres and today is an Alberta Provincial Park once again.

McNaught Homestead

One of the first homesteads set up in the Peace Region was the McNaught Homestead, set up by Charles and Eliza McNaught in 1911 when they were part of the second group of Christian Association settlers to come from Ontario to the Beaverlodge area, although they were not affiliated with the group. In those early years, the farm consisted of six buildings that still stand at the site including a two-storey log house, a pump house, two barns, a schoolhouse, and a chicken coop. This is one of the most complete collections of buildings dating from the first wave of settlement into the Peace River Region. Another important aspect of the homestead is that the daughter of Eliza and Charles was Euphemia McNaught, who came to the region with her parents in 1912. She was a highly gifted artist and would attend the Ontario College of Art in 1929, where she was instructed by J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer, two members of The Group of Seven artists. She would come back to the homestead of her family and set up a studio in the former schoolhouse on the property. She would gain national renown for her work, including have it displayed at the 1931 Calgary Stampede. In 1942, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would commission her to document the construction of the Alaska Highway. She was a founding member of both the Grande Prairie Art Club and the Beaverlodge Art Club and was made a lifetime member of the Alberta Society of Artists in 1985. In 1977, she was awarded the Alberta Achievement Award of Excellence in Art and in 1982 she was the first recipient of the Sir Frederick Haultain Prize. She would pass away in 2002 at the age of 100, and after her death many of the pieces painted at that schoolhouse on the McNaught Homestead were featured in the National Gallery of Canada.

Heritage Village

The Grande Prairie Museum’s Heritage Village is a great site to explore the buildings that used to be part of the growing community of Grande Prairie early in its history. On the Heritage Village grounds, you will find 18 different buildings that highlight the history of the community. I will not go through all of these but will touch on a few that are quite interesting.

The Edson Trail Caboose is an early version of what we would today call a modern camping trailer. It allowed families to travel along the Edson Trail from Edmonton to Grande Prairie, while also bringing their belongings and giving them a temporary home when they settled on their land. These cabooses were not just used as homes but were also used as the first hospital and post office in the community.

The Hermit Lake School House was built in 1916 and would hold classes for students ranging in grades from the first to the ninth grade. Typically, the school only had 10 students per year and would operate until 1956 when it was closed to become a community centre. In 1977, it was moved to the Heritage Village.

The oldest building in the entire area is the Hudson’s Bay Outpost. It was built in 1896 south of Dunvegan where two major trails cross. It would operate until 1902 and it served as the home of Tom and Phoebe Williams from 1916 to 1923. For decades it was not used and slowly fell into disrepair until it was restored and moved to the heritage village in 2002.

The Tempest House was built by George and Ann Tempest in 1934. They would live in that house for several years and it was in that house that the Kelskum Hill Post Office would operate until 1940. When the Heritage Village was created, this was the first building brought to the new museum grounds.

Dunvegan Bridge

One of the most striking man-made features on the landscape north of Grande Prairie is the Dunvegan Bridge, which spans the Peace River.

For 150 years, traders, missionaries and settlers in the area would take a raft over the Peace River. When a bridge was built in Peace River, others would take the huge detour to go over that bridge rather than take the ferry.

Everything changed in 1960 when the new Dunvegan Bridge was built. The suspension bridge, the longest in western Canada at the time, spanned the river and helped open quicker travel from the communities such as Fairview to Grande Prairie. The bridge stretches for 274 metres with a deck width of 8.2 metres. To build the bridge, 750 tons of reinforcing steel, 26,000 cubic yards of concrete and 140,000 bags of cement were required.

The Queen Visits

It was a big day for the entire Grande Prairie Region when on Aug. 1, 1978, the Royal Couple, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrived in Grande Prairie as part of their Alberta tour in honour of the Commonwealth Games.

Grande Prairie was one of the stops for the Queen and Prince Philip in their 12-day, three-province tour of Canada. Of course, things did not get off to a smooth start when the Royal Couple were an hour behind schedule due to some poor planning regarding distances by Buckingham Palace.

While the event was almost declared a civic holiday, the city instead encouraged businesses to give employees three hours off for the visit.

When the Royal Couple arrived in Grande Prairie at 11:35 a.m., they were met by the local MLA for the region, Dr. Winston Backus, and his wife. Mayor Al Romanchuk was quite unhappy about this change of plans as he was supposed to greet the Queen as she arrived at the Grande Prairie Airport.

“I was slated to meet her, and they took it away. I have no idea why. Tradition is to have the mayor greet her,” he said.

A petition was sent to Peter Lougheed that did not change anything.

As soon as the couple landed, they were driven to where the future Queen Elizabeth II Hospital would be built. The Queen then turned the sod on the new building, along with Prince Philip, Premier Peter Lougheed and Mayor Alex Romanchuk. She then unveiled a plaque to dedicate Grande Prairie’s first pioneer hospital. For lunch, The Royal Couple traveled to Grande Prairie Regional College, where they watched a performance and met with the Board of Governors.

The Queen and Prince Philip then met various local dignitaries including Miss Grande Prairie, Barbara Vavrek, as well as 94-year-old Maude Proffitt.

During a demonstration by the Battle River Saddle Club, the Queen repeatedly laughed out loud at the young members of the club who kept tumbling off their “horses” and became entangled in sacks in a combination foot and horse race. During this demonstration, the Queen and Prince Philip were joined by local senior citizens and First World War veterans.

Mayor Romanchuk then presented the Queen with a painting of the Peace region by artist Robert Guest.

At 2:15 p.m., the Queen and Prince Philip would leave Grande Prairie for Peace River, their most northerly visit in Alberta to that point.

By the end of the day, the Queen was back in Edmonton for a performance at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, and then the opening of the Commonwealth Games.

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