The History of Fairview

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CraigBaird

For centuries, before any European ever came through the area, the land that would one day hold Fairview was occupied by the Dene and Beaver people, who used the nearby Peace River for transportation, fishing, water and much more. Through the centuries, they would follow the migrations of the animals and taking advantage of the bountiful foods provided by the land.

Things would begin to change around 1792 when noted explorer Alexander Mackenzie came through the area, eventually establishing Fort Fork near present day Peace River, about an hour east of Fairview today.

Only a few years later, Fort Dunvegan was established just to the south of Fairview by the North West Company fur trader Archibald McLeod. He named it for Dunvegan Castle in Scotland. The fort remained under the control of the North West Company until 1821 when the company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company. At that point, Dunvegan became one of the most important posts in the Peace River region. As a stopping place for York boats along the river, it was a busy place and a profitable fur trade post. The fort was also used to trade with the local Indigenous. In 1878, the fort would see its role changed when it became the headquarters of the Athabasca Region, which resulted in a great deal of improvements and building in the area. This prosperity in its new role did not last long. In 1886, the Hudson’s Bay Company changed the headquarters to Lesser Slave Lake. From that point, the importance of Dunvegan declined until 1918 when it was officially closed.

That entire site still exists to this day and is designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. Visiting the park, you can not only camp and enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Peace River Valley, but you will also find the restored Factor’s House, built in 1877, St. Charles Church, St. Charles Rectory and a trading post that is open to the public in the summer.

I have been there many times and it is a stunning and beautiful place.

A few years after Dunvegan shut down, the community of Waterhole sprang up just to the north of the former fur trading post. This community quickly began to grow but then an event in 1928 would change it forever. When the railroad was being built west from Peace River, it did not go towards Waterhole but instead went through the Beaver Indian Reserve, to a field north of Waterhole. At the time, Waterhole was seen as a thriving community so it came as a surprise to many when the railroad bypassed it completely. The Edmonton Journal had even reported earlier that year quote:

“Extension of railroad from Whitelaw into Waterhole country is bringing eager land seekers from all parts of world.”

Unfortunately, by July, the entire community would begin the process of disappearing forever. It was on July 19, 1928 that it was announced Waterhole would be no more, and residents would begin moving the entire community 10 kilometres to the north to the new location of Fairview. All the buildings were packed up onto skids and then pulled by oxen, horses and wagons to the new site of Fairview.

As for the name of Fairview, that comes from an early resident of the area who loved the view that he had from his home, and that name would be applied to the new community.

At the same time that Waterhole was beginning, the community of Friedenstahl nearby was also slowly growing. While the community would never grow beyond a few farms, the St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church and Rectory served as the centerpiece for the community. Built between 1920 and 1921, the church also included a convent and a school on its grounds, but over time those would slowly disappear. While those have since disappeared, the church itself remains. Located just four kilometres away from Fairview, the church is quite impressive and stands out in the landscape where it can be seen from miles around. Due to its history, the church is now a registered historic resource with the Province of Alberta.

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Soon after Fairview was created, a fire tore through the community, destroying much of what had been moved and built. The fire, which was of an unknown origin, erupted while residents were sleeping. Starting in a store, it quickly began to spread through the wood buildings of the community. The fire was discovered soon after it started and an alarm was sounded. Residents began to do what they could to slow the fire in its advance through the business section of the community. A bucket brigade began but because the new community had no firefighting equipment, there was little that could be done to stop the fire. The fire soon spread from the store to an ice cream parlour, which also contained the Masonic Lodge on the upper floor. It then moved on to the pool room and barber shop. The only saving grace was that it was a calm night with no wind and that prevented the fire from moving too quickly. Due to the lack of wind and the bucket brigade organized by residents, the Empire Hotel, a general store and the lumber yard were all saved. The rebuilding of the lost buildings would begin quickly, and it was believed that the fire losses were about $20,000, which would be about $310,000 today.

In 1948, the Department of Agriculture was looking to build a new college in the Peace River Region and Fairview became the ideal place for such a facility. At the time, Fairview’s water supply was a concern so town council formed a committee to improve the water supply, raising $50,000 in the community to do so. With that effort, the community was awarded the new agricultural college. Construction began on the school in 1949 and in 1951, the Fairview School of Agriculture and Home Economics opened. In the first group of students who arrived in October of that year, there were 36 enrolled in agriculture and 15 in home economics with J.E. Hawker serving as the first principal. That class would graduate in 1953. In 1958, a fire broke out in the mechanics building and gymnasium and while no one was injured, both of the buildings were completely destroyed and it was believed the college would shut down. A huge public outcry followed at the news of the closing and the school would reopen in 1960 as a result, while a new mechanics building was built in 1962 and the new gym was built in 1964. In 1978, the facility was renamed Fairview College, while also adding an Animal Health Technologist program. It would continue under this name until 2004 when the facility was taken over as NAIT, and then in 2009 taken over by the Grande Prairie Regional College. One of the most interesting aspects of this college is that it has the only authorized training centre in Canada for Harley Davidson motorcycles.

If you drive south of Fairview to Dunvegan Provincial Park, the most noticeable feature of the landscape is the stunning suspension bridge that spans the river. Before this bridge was built, residents took a ferry across the river but if that ferry was not running, it meant residents had to drive to Peace River, across the river, and then to Grande Prairie, a journey of three hours compared to just one hour with the bridge. With three suspended spans that total 1,800 feet, the construction of the bridge was no small task, consisting of 509 tons of cables and fittings, 3,300 tons of structural steel, 750 tons of reinforcing steel in the concrete, 26,000 cubic yards of concrete and 140,000 bags of cement in its construction. The bridge would officially open in 1960 in a huge ceremony. On Sept. 6 of that year, 5,000 people came out to watch as Alberta Premier Ernest Manning opened the bridge, calling it truly magnificent and stating quote:

“You have no one to thank but yourselves. You, the taxpayers, paid for this bridge and made it possible.”

Manning then led a colorful parade across the bridge as Flight Lt. C.R. Hallowell flew over in an aerobatic display in his T-33 jet trainer.

In all, the bridge cost $5 million to build, amount to about $46 million today. The bridge remains the longest vehicle suspension bridge in all of Alberta. At the time of its construction it was the longest such bridge west of Ontario.

Four years after the bridge opened, a girl named Rachel Notley was born in Edmonton. Raised outside of Fairview by her mother Sandra and her father Grant, who was the leader of the Alberta NDP party. After she graduated from the University of Alberta in 1984, her father was sadly killed in a plane crash on Oct. 19, 1984. Notley was informed of the plane crash, and she would inform her mother of the news. An activist throughout her 20s and 30s, she would align herself with the Alberta NDP and in 2006, became the Alberta NDP candidate for Edmonton-Strathcona, in an event attended by federal NDP leader Jack Layton. In 2008, she would be elected to the Alberta Legislature for the first time, and in the 2012 Alberta Provincial Election she had the highest share of the vote of any MLA in Alberta. In 2014, Notley became the leader of the Alberta NDP Party. One year later on May 5, 2015, Notley and her party ended four decades of Progressive Conservative rule in Alberta when she won the election and became the second female premier of Alberta with a huge upset victory that saw the party pick up 50 seats to finish with 54, forming a majority government, while the Progressive Conservatives lost 61 seats in a total collapse. For the next four years, Notley would lead the province, during a time when oil prices were falling and Fort McMurray suffered a massive fire that resulted in the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history, while also becoming the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

In 2019, Notley and the NDP would be defeated by the new United Conservative Party, led by Jason Kenney. Notley continues to lead the NDP in Alberta and will do so as the next election approaches. At the time of this episode, her popularity was far above that of Jason Kenney, who many felt has done a poor job of leading the province, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2017, a plane took off from the small Fairview Airport in a special event attended by 1,000 people from across Canada. It was the flight of the Canso Patrol Bomber that was used in the Second World War to hunt enemy planes, and then fought forest fires in the Canadian North for years before it was left broken down and deserted on the shores of an Arctic Lake. Beginning in 2007, a group of Fairview farmers got together and rescued the plane from its grave where it had sat since it crashed in 2001 and began to restore it. The process to get the plane was not an easy one, involving hauling the plane off the frozen surface of the lake, down the Dempster Highway using a tractor and snowcat machine, then to the Mackenzie River where it was put on a barge and shipped to Hay River, NWT. It was then put on a trailer with its wings removed and driven to a farm south of Fairview. For the next decade, they worked constantly to rebuild the plane and make it airworthy. The process took thousands of hours of work. The plane had been built in 1943, one of 620 built in Canada, and upon its restoration it was one of only 12 worldwide that were still airworthy. On hand for the big event was James McRae, who flew the Canso during the war.

Don Wieben, one of the six farmers who restored the plane would say quote:

“I think the airplane has won our hearts as well, over the years, and I think it did even before we went and got it. There was just something about it that just didn’t deserve to stay there. She deserved to fly again.”

The plane now sits as a flying museum, showcasing the 75-year history of the plane in defending Canadians at home and abroad.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Fairview, then the best place to go is the Fairview Pioneer Museum. This ten acre parcel of land just north of Fairview is in the process of becoming a living history townsite that includes the restored MacDonald School, Hull House, the John Sweeney Cabin and the Fairview Agencies building. In addition to these buildings, there are exhibits that highlight the RCMP history of the area, the history of the World Wars, a display of hospital equipment, Indigenous history and antique sewing machines, musical instruments, spinning wheels, vintage clothing and cameras.

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