Before Sylvan Lake was the resort community it is today, it was open prairie that was inhabited by the Stony, Cree and Blackfoot people. The lake was an important place for the Indigenous thanks to its ample game, fresh water and fishing opportunities.
In 1877, the land that Sylvan Lake sits on would be part of the land signed over to the government under Treaty 6.
It is not unusual for communities to go through name changes, but few places go through as many as Sylvan Lake goes through.
During the Palliser Expedition, which came through the area in 1859 to survey and map out the Canadian west, the lake was given the name of Swan Lake, likely in a reference to the many swans that were found in the area as part of their migration.
When the first French-speaking immigrants from Quebec began to arrive in 1898, they did not call the lake Swan Lake, but instead chose the name Snake Lake. This name was given to the lake thanks to the many garter snakes that were found in the area.
There are a few mentions in the Edmonton Bulletin of Snake Lake. On July 27, 1899, it was announced that Dr. Donavan, H.M. Cherry and the Panrucker brothers were spending a holiday at Snake Lake, camping.
At some point, the name would become Methy Lake, but it is not known where that name originated from.
Finally, in 1903, the name Sylvan Lake was applied to the community, coming from the Latin word sylvanus, which means “of a forest”.
The community would grow very slowly due to its remoteness from that point. Estonian and Finnish settlers would move to the area of Sylvan Lake in the early 1900s, and they would help to create the early businesses for the community. Before long, there was a general store, a blacksmith, a hardware store, post office, barber and several restaurants.
During these early years, the community received tourists, even though the railroad had not arrived, as families came out to enjoy the lake. For residents in Red Deer, Sylvan Lake was a summer resort, but people came from as far away as Edmonton and Calgary.
In 1905, Alexandre Loiselle built the Sylvan Lake Hotel using lumber from his mill. This 16-room hotel would accommodate the growing number of tourists coming to the community. Eventually a post office and store were added to the building. Loiselle would sell the hotel and then build another hotel to compete with his original hotel, called the Alexander Hotel. He eventually bought back his hotel and then sold it again in 1915 to James Hazelwood who renamed it the Hazelwood Hotel. The Calgary Brewery and Malting Company then bought the hotel and ran it until a fire destroyed the building in 1925. To get back up and running, the company bought the Alamo Hotel, located in Suffield near Medicine Hat. They would have the entire hotel building moved from that location using 16 horse teams that moved along the highway using heavy rollers for 475 kilometres. The hotel would finally arrive at its resting place in Sylvan Lake in 1928, where a tourist stole its square flush toilet soon after for some reason. This new Sylvan Lake Hotel was officially opened by Conservative Party leader R.B. Bennett, two years before he became the Prime Minister of Canada. This hotel would continue to operate for many years but eventually it fell into disrepair and gained a rough reputation thanks to its dingy rooms, party atmosphere and drunken revelers. Then, on Jan. 29, 2002, the hotel was reduced to rubble and hauled away to make room for an 80-room resort and convention centre that was never built. On the spot where the hotel once sat, there is only a parking lot now.
The same year that the original Sylvan Lake Hotel was built, the Archambault brother began to build the Chateau de l’Amour or the Castle of Love. Using a plank raft to transport stones taken from the beach, the builders would drag rocks to the location of the construction site using deer hide. Raymond Archambault built the castle for his bride Eugenie as she was homesick, and it was a way for her to remember her family home in southern France. They had left France after their marriage due to their families being unhappy over the union. Raymond would start the town’s first newspaper in 1913 as well. The couple would live in the little castle along the lake for three years until the builder took a job in Montreal, where he would pass away in 1918, while his bride went back to France. The building stands to this day and has stood empty from time to time but is now a popular place for photos, especially wedding photos.
The first regatta would be held in 1907, with a picnic and swimming competition. To accommodate the event, a dancing pavilion was built that same year.
By 1913, it had grown into an official regatta hosted by the Board of Trade. That year, it was a two-day event that included boat races, swim races, canoe races, tennis matches, a banquet and dance.
The Red Deer Advocate would report quote:
“The Sylvan Lake regatta on Saturday came off in splendid style, there being a large turnout from the countryside and from the city, despite the threatening weather of the later day.”
In the community, the hotels and several houses were decorated for the regatta and an evergreen arch with “Welcome” on it greeted visitors.
The future would change for Sylvan Lake when the Canadian Northern Railway built a line to Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg in 1912, followed by a line built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1914, both of which went through the community.
The Calgary Herald would report quote:
“The CNR resumed the laying of steel on the Brazeau line at a point near Red Deer on Saturday and will reach Sylvan Lake probably on Tuesday.”
With these railways, the community exploded in size. On Dec. 30, 1912, it officially became a village with E.S. Grimson, the owner of the hardware store, serving as the first mayor of the community. In honour of Sylvan Lake’s first year as a village, 1913, every year the community celebrates 1913 Days.
It was also in 1913 that the first boat launch was created, and tourists would pay to have tours of the lake.
In 1914, the annual regatta would stop, only one year after it had started, due to the First World War. It would not be until 1920 that the regatta would return. A nine-hole golf course was constructed to coincide with the return of the regatta, as well as baseball diamonds. The Red Deer Advocate would report quote:
“Owners of motor boats and motor launches are testing out their engines for the big events and the lakeshore is one busy scene of bustle and energy. Swings, diving boards, toboggan slides and docks are now completed and should add to the list of enjoyments.”
The 1920 regatta would prove to be a huge success with excellent weather, and all the contests were keenly contested according to the newspapers. The Red Deer Band and Orchestra was also on hand to provide music for the regatta. It was estimated that about 3,000 people came out for the regatta, as well as the other sporting events held through the weekend. A special train was even run from Red Deer through the weekend to bring in the huge crowds looking for the return of the annual regatta.
The biggest industry in the area was farming, thanks to the land that was fertile and provided large harvests for the homesteaders in the area. Due to the growth of agriculture in the area, an Alberta Pacific Grain Company elevator was built along the CPR line in 1923 so that local farmers did not have to travel to Red Deer to ship their crops. Before long, more elevators were built in the community.
In the early-1920s, the first waterslide into the lake was built close the boathouse of Joe McClusky. This waterslide was incredibly popular and one of the first of its kind in all of Alberta. The slide was 16 feet in height and made of wood, with iron sheeting used on the cute. In order to slide down, without burning yourself on the sheet metal warming in the sun, participants would pour water down the slide. In the late 1940s, the slide had become dilapidated and was destroyed. It would not be until 1982 that Wildrapids Waterslide opened, becoming the second-largest water park in Alberta after the World Waterpark in Edmonton. This waterslide park would continue to operate until 2016 when it was shut down and demolished.
In 1938, a terrible fire would burn through Sylvan Lake when six businesses were destroyed. It was believed that defective wiring had caused the fire and the village would order that all wirings, electrical installations and fusings in the village be inspected. Firefighters would work hard to save several buildings and were successful in saving the Wilkinson building. Lost in the fire though was the Cobb Block, the meat market, an insurance office, a photo studio, a store, a shoe shop and a pharmacy. A water truck and crew of firefighters also came from Red Deer to help fight the fire, and thankfully there was only a light breeze, which prevented the fire from spreading. In all, the fire caused $30,000 in damages, or about $600,000 today.
In 1930, the annual regatta, by this point running for a decade, was now making national news. The event continued through The Great Depression, but it would disappear again in 1950.
It would come back in 1960 and was then halted in 1962 after three years of bad weather.
In 1975, the Chamber of Commerce wanted to resurrect the symbol of those regattas, the mermaid of the lake. Soon after, the Town of Sylvan Lake adopted the mermaid as the symbol of the town and a mermaid statue was built at the corner of 50th Avenue and Centennial Street. When the CIBC building was enlarged, the mermaid statue was destroyed. In 1990, a new mermaid statue was constructed and put at the foyer of the Sylvan Lake Town Office. It would eventually have a shirt put on it after someone complained that it was nude. Today, that mermaid statue is at the Sylvan Lake and District Archives. The current life-sized Mermaid and Baby fountain, called Birth, was unveiled at the 1913 Days celebrations in 2000 and continues to sit at its current location to this very day.
In 1988, the Sylvan Lake Tourism Action Committee and the local Carruthers family came together to give the community a unique landmark. The Carruthers donated the land and through grants and private donations, the Sylvan Lake lighthouse, one of the few lighthouses between the Pacific Coast and the Great Lakes, was built. Sadly, the structure fell into disrepair by 2011 and was demolished. The community found it missed the structure and with duplicate blueprints made, a funding drive was held. By 2016, construction on a new lighthouse was complete. On July 1, 2016, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held to welcome the latest version of the lighthouse to the community, where it continues to stand to this day and has become quite the tourist attraction.
In 2014, Sylvan Lake won the nationwide Kraft Hockeyville contest, which included a cash prize to upgrade the community’s hockey rink. As well, the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes would play a pre-season game in the community, which would be broadcast by the CBC. Sylvan Lake defeated 15 other communities to claim the $100,000 grand prize.
If you would like to learn more about Sylvan Lake, or see some of its historic buildings, you can take part in the historical walking tour. Guides are available online, at the tourist booth and the town office, and you can spend a nice sunny day exploring the community and its history before venturing out on the lake for a day on the waves.