Called the Gateway to the South, High Level’s history dates back to the Indigenous who occupied the land for centuries, long before Europeans ever arrived.
The Dene primarily lived on the land, but the Metis would slowly move into the area in the 1700s, taking advantage of the rich land and bountiful resources.
Due to the land of High Level being on a height of land that separates the Peace and Hay Rivers, the location was used by the Indigenous as a stopping place, while the rivers served as a form of highway through the area in order to trade with other Indigenous groups.
Due to the ample game in the area, it was a popular hunting ground for the Indigenous and over time, the abundance of furs led to fur traders arriving in the area as early as 1786 in order to acquire furs from the Indigenous. The entire area is located in the Footner Lake Forest, which is currently the largest forest in Alberta.
The Indigenous and occasional traders would come through the area for the next two centuries, but it would be some time before High Level received its first influx of settlers. During those years, the area was known as Hay Meadow.
On Oct. 12, 2021, the Town of High Level and the Dene Tha First Nation would sign a Friendship Agreement, and are now involved in a First Nation Municipal Community Economic Development Initiative. This initiative will include three joint ventures, a waterline connection between High Level and Bushe River, a joint emergency plan for the communities and a new multi-purpose facility.
Homesteading would begin slowly in the 1910s, and continue until the 1940s with little change in population and no real community springing up. A major reason for this was the remote location of the community. The development of a highway that ran from Fort Vermilion would become a major factor in the prosperity of the community and its growth with oil and forestry.
In 1955, a small one-room school was built in the community. By 1963, 32 students were attending with one teacher. Soon enough, that school would not be large enough by any means.
Once settlers arrived, a community would slowly start to grow. In 1957, the first power plant for the area was established, which is the first step for any community to forming as a commercial centre for an area. One year later, a post office was built, creating an important link to the outside world. At this time, the community had a population of just under 40 people.
Progress would continue when the Mackenzie Northern Railway was built to the area in 1963. Prior to the building of the railway, farmers in the area had to almost 300 kilometres to Grimshaw to send their grain out.
One year later, High Level had 300 people living in the community. By this point it had two service stations, three small cafes, outdoor plumbing and a small general store. By the end of the year, the community was hooked into the Alberta Government Telephone system.
Forestry proved to be a huge employer for High Level at this time. The Footner Lake Forest Division of High Level was established in 1964 and had invested nearly $1 million in facilities in the area for timber by 1967. The Swanson Lumber Company was producing 20 million board feet of lumber per year in High Level once the facilities were ready. Forestry continues to be an important part of the community, and the High Level sawmill has the largest stockpile of wood in the entire world. Due to the Footner Lake Forest being nearly 83,000 square kilometres, larger than the Czech Republic, it was expected that four billion board feet of lumber could be harvested.
In 1964, the $250,000 High Level Hotel would open, making it the only hotel on the Mackenzie Highway between Manning and the border of the Northwest Territories. Due to being the only beer outlet in the town at the time, it would have the largest beer sales of any hotel in the entire province of Alberta.
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In 1965, Banff Oil Ltd. discovered oil at Rainbow Lake, just to the west of High Level and that would spur on a massive amount of development for the community.
On June 1, 1965, the new community of High Level was incorporated.
In 1966 alone, 110 seismic crews were dispatched to High Level in order to find the huge oil fields in the area. By Dec. 15, 1966, 16,000 miles of seismic line had been laid out and 4,000 men were employed in the process. The immense oil opportunities continue to this day in High Level, with as much as $3.5 million per day in oil and gas royalties coming out of the region.
In 1966, building permits amounted to $1.5 million in the community, a huge amount and equal to $12.1 million today. Before long, the community had a school, a power grid, two motels, a hotel and a 75-unit trailer park, along with two airports and modern sewer and water facilities. It also featured a barber shop, two banks, a two-sheet curling rink and several new businesses. The air strip was dealing with 50 movements of aircraft a day, 1,500 a month, operating charter flights through the province.
Within two years, the community was seeing immense growth and reached 2,300 people by 1967. The High Level elevators were built and it was expected that 7,000 grain permit books would be issued by 1977 in the community. One interesting fact about High Level is the fact that it has the most northerly grain elevator in Canada, which serves as the grain terminal for 350,000 cultivated acres of land. That area is larger than the Isle of Man, Singapore and Bahrain put together. The long days and mild summer temperatures aid in a favourable growing season for the community. The area was called the last arable farmland in Alberta that had not been settled extensively by the 1940s. Even by the 1960s, it was estimated that there were four million undeveloped arable acres around High Level, an area larger than The Bahamas.
As for that one-room school, by 1967 it was a 16 room school with 280 students and 12 teachers.
Today, High Level is the most northern town in the entire province of Alberta, while also having the most northern agricultural region in the entire country. For anyone taking the trip from Edmonton to Yellowknife, which is a beautiful journey that far too few people take, High Level is almost exactly halfway between the two locations and a great stop along the way, which is the name of the history book for the community that was recently released. Sitting at a crossroads between Highway 35 and Highway 58, High Level is a great stopping place no matter where you are going through the area.
The community continues to expand. A new grain elevator, able to load 135 rail cars from its 32,000 metric tonnes of storage space was built, which replaced the old elevator that had far less storage space. The community is also at the forefront in the province when it comes to sustainability. Construction has begun on a new project that will create a state-of-the-art pellet plant that will reduce the carbon footprint of the Tolko Lumber Division in the community.
If you think going to High Level means you won’t be able to get your venti Americanno, well, High Level also recently added not only a Starbucks, but a Denny’s as well. Perfect for a stop on a long drive, while also exploring the wonderful history of the area. Farmers markets are also held throughout the year, as well as the usual events around Remembrance Day, Halloween and Canada Day.
Every February, the annual Frostival is held, featuring ice and snow carving, an ice carving workshop, shinny hockey games, fireworks and much more. The entire event is free for the whole family. Other community events held in High Level through the year include the Firefighters Ball in October, the RCMP Regimental Ball in November and each summer, High Level puts on the High Level Agricultural Society Rodeo. The rodeo has actually been going for 51 years. The event includes a parade, demolition derby, horse pull, outdoor dance and agricultural fair. In 2021, High Level also hosted its first Truth and Reconciliation Day, the new federal holiday established to honour the Indigenous people, while also remembering what happened to them and their culture through the residential school system of the 19th and 20th centuries.
If you want to learn more about the history of High Level, you can visit the Mackenzie Crossing Museum and Visitor Centre. Located in a log building, the museum officially opened in 1911 and it features the history of the area from the Indigenous to the discovery of oil in the 1960s and beyond. The museum features a northern trading post exhibits, 1,600 food and medicine containers, as well as artifacts from the late-1800s and early-1900s. These items are showcased in a trading post/general store setting with living quarters attached to it. There is also a fantastic photo display that shows the images of the people and things from the past of the community. As part of the museum, an annual exhibition is held each year that changes. In 2019, the Chuckegg Creek Wildfire was the focus of an exhibition. This fire burned 350,000 hectares of land, resulting in many evacuations while firefighters battled the flames. The fire, which started on May 12, 2019, was caused by lightning and was declared under control on Aug. 23, 2019.
Next year, the museum will be working with local trappers and the Alberta Northwest Species At Risk Committee to put on an exhibit that highlights the wildlife in the area and the research that continues through the University of Alberta in the area of the many species that call the High Level area home.