The site that would one day be Athabasca sits on the land that was traditionally occupied by the Cree people. In fact, the name itself comes from the Cree. There are two main interpretations of the name and its origin. The first is that it comes from the word Araubaska, which was recorded by Peter Pond when he came through the area.
The other is that it comes from the word Athapescow. One interpretation has the name meaning “where there are reeds” and another states the meaning is “meeting place of many waters”
Wherever the name comes from, the Cree were the traditional occupiers of the land long before Europeans started to arrive. Eventually, as fur traders came to the area, the culture and trading economy of the Indigenous would change forever.
Today, the area sits in the land under Treaty 6, signed in 1876, but also Treaty 8, signed in 1899.
The founding of Athabasca owes itself to a trail and the desire of the Hudson’s Bay Company to seek an alternative route to Fort Assiniboine in the 1870s.
For centuries, the Indigenous people used various routes between the North Saskatchewan River and the Athabasca River. Due to the fact that the Athabasca eventually joined into the Mackenzie River and drained into the Arctic Ocean made it very important to the fur trade. A pack trail was eventually created that ran from Fort Edmonton to Fort Assiniboine, well to the north of future Athabasca Landing Trail. That trail would be used from 1824 to 1876 but the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted an alternative trail and that led to the creation of the Athabasca Landing Trail and the founding of Athabasca in 1876. This trail would become extremely important to the early history of the area, and it is the reason Athabasca exists today.
In 2010, a master plan for a modern version of the Athabasca Landing Trail was completed. This 150-kilometre non-motorized trail would run from Fort Saskatchewan to Athabasca and highlight the historic and natural features of the area. It is also planned to be part of the Trans Canada Trail.
In the summer of 1892, the North West Mounted Police stationed officers in the area due to increased traffic along the trail. A permanent post was built in 1893 where Inspector D.M. Howard and eight constables were stationed. Unfortunately, one constable would die suddenly in May of 1893, necessitating a replacement be sent out immediately. The post was typically referred to as that Last Point North.
The town name would originally be Athabasca Landing when the town first came into being in the late-1890s. That name would change to Athabaska, with a k, in 1904 and would remain as that name until 1948 when it was changed to the current spelling of Athabasca, with a c.
When the Klondike Gold Rush kicked off in 1897, it spelled a boom time for Athabasca. As a major stopping point along the “All-Canadian Route”, many prospectors began to come to the area looking to continue along their way. With an influx of prospectors, a need for some ships on the Athabasca became apparent.
By the early 1900s, the Gold Rush was over, but that didn’t stop “Peace River” Jim Cornwall from starting the Northern Transportation Company. Providing a fleet of scows up to Fort McMurray, Cornwall added in a steamboat that would compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company. He had a ten-ton boiler transported up from Edmonton in 1905 to be used in his new ship. Christened as The Midnight Sun, it made voyages on an irregular basis to Grand Rapids where it would meet with scows. It also travelled up stream to Mirrors Landing to provide service.
Freight aboard the ship cost 12.5 cents per mile per ton from Athabasca Landing to Pelican Rapids and 23.7 cents per mile per ton from Athabasca Landing all the way up to Fort Smith.
Passengers, thankfully, would pay less. The Northern Transportation Company charged 10.5 cents per mile to travel to Fort Smith.
In order to meet the growing demand for freight and passenger transport, the Northern Transportation Company brought a sidewheel steamer into the fleet. Called the Northland Echo, this ship would transport passengers and freight all the way into the Peace River area, and its name would continue past Athabasca as we see below.
In 1912, the Canadian Northern Railway Station was built in Athabasca, which was served by the Edmonton and Slave Lake Railway previously, and then the Canadian Northern Railway by the time the station was built. The station was larger than most in the area, showing the importance the railway put on Athabasca as a major stop along the railway. Similar stations, but slightly larger, were built in Big Valley, Stettler and Hanna, which were all divisional points. The Athabasca rail station did not have a specialized passenger waiting area or dining room, and it had a small baggage storage capacity. While the use of train service has decreased throughout the area, the Athabasca Train Station still stands to this day and is currently being restored to its former glory by the Athabasca Heritage Society.
One year after the train station was built and Athabasca was enjoying an influx of settlers, the Athabasca Methodist Church was built. When it was built, it was one of the largest frame structures in Alberta capable of housing more than 600 people. It was built at a time when Athabasca was booming and there was a belief that Athabasca would continue to see its population soar. The plan of the church featured many windows and a square design to give an atmosphere of grandeur with the preacher at the centre.
The church, now called the Athabasca United Church, still stands to this day in the community. In 1985, it was made a Provincial Historic Resource.
Unfortunately, the major rail lines bypassed Athabasca, and any hopes of the settlement becoming a major centre were dashed.
By 1914, the boom for Athabasca Landing had turned into a bust and businesses were pulling out of the area. The Northern Transportation Company was no different and Jim Cornwall decided to get out of the area. He made the decision to run the Midnight Sun from Grand Rapids to Fort McMurray, something many believed impossible. To accomplish this, he reinforced the 13-foot hull of the Midnight Sun and put together a crew of settlers and local Indigenous people. As the ship entered the rapids, it was pulled towards a precipice but with Cornwall screaming the crew on, the ship made it through and reached Fort McMurray. When it reached the community, it was renamed as the Northland Echo and spent the rest of its days running from Fort McMurray to Fitzgerald.
Seeing that the Midnight Sun reached Fort McMurray from Athabasca Landing, the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to try the same thing. They ran their steamer, the Athabasca River, over the rapids and to Fort McMurray as well. It spent the rest of its days hauling freight on Lake Athabasca.
The early 20th century was a time of great movements of humanity to and through North America. When an image of new settlers coming to the prairies comes up, it tends to be of Europeans leaving their homelands for the wide-open areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
There was another wave of immigration though and it came from the Deep South of America, and it was black immigration to Canada.
At the time in the American South, Jim Crow Laws were being implemented that enforced racial segregation against black people.
It would come as no surprise then that in the space of only two years, with Canada’s immigration system opened up, there would be a large black migration from the American south to the Canadian Prairies.
Between 1909 and 1911, 1,000 African Americans came to Alberta, settling in many different areas and forming communities.
Amber Valley, just to the west of Athabasca, was one of those places.
In 1909, a group of 160 African American homesteaders left Oklahoma and Texas for the government promise of land to homestead.
Leaving the racist conditions that caused extreme discrimination of their rights, the settlers hoped to find something better in Alberta and would found several communities.
The group of settlers to settle in Amber Valley were led by Parson Harrison Sneed, clergyman and mason, as well as Willis Reese Bowen, who organized the original five families to settle in the area.
Sneed had come out to the land north of Edmonton to scout it out.
When the group made their way to Canada, the Northern News reported the following:
“A bunch of Coloured Folk accompanied by their families and household goods came in from Edmonton last week. We understand it is their intention to locate somewhere in the vicinity.”
While the doors opened for black settlers under the immigration campaign of Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, to bring more settlers to the prairies, Sifton was not happy with African Americans coming to Canada. He had wanted European immigrants for the most part. He then sent a letter to the immigration officers in the American South to have them dissuade black farmers from coming to Canada. He would also implement clearly racist policies that created barriers to immigration, which made it more difficult for black immigrants to come to Canada. These policies included putting out warnings such as this one:
A black medical doctor from Chicago was hired by the Canadian government to go to Oklahoma and speak about how those who immigrated to Canada would starve or freeze to death, and that the soil was poor.
Those policies would remain in place until 1962 when they were overturned, with help from Violet King Henry, whose parents had settled in Amber Valley
Even getting into the country during that brief period of 1909 to 1911 was not easy. The first wave of settlers had to deal border officials who scrutinized the immigrants for anything, medical or moral, that would justify keeping them out of Canada. After rigorous medical examinations, which included looking at the livestock and children, the group was granted entry into Canada. One child, aged five, was rejected simply because he had a broken leg.
At first, the living was difficult, and the harsh winter weather of Alberta was not an easy adjustment for the settlers from Oklahoma. In addition to the harsh weather, the settlers had to clear and cultivate the land, and build houses from the ground up. Typically, these were log cabins, and the land was mostly muskeg that had to be made ready for crops. Most of the settlers had to wait two years before they could harvest their first crops. In addition, they had to cut their own road to the community.
The settlers were tough and worked hard on the land and 75% stayed in the area and farmed their land long enough in order to secure their homestead patents. The percentage of black settlers who remained on their land long enough for the patent was higher than the percentage of other settlers’ groups in the prairies.
By the 1930s, Amber Valley had become the largest community of black people in Alberta, and it would receive a post office in 1931 and the name would change from Pine Creek to Amber Valley. The name came at the suggestion of a local teacher who said Amber Valley matched the colour of the land.
At the time, 300 people lived in the community and they even had a two-room schoolhouse for the large influx of children in the area.
Racism was still seen in the area, with occasional racist slurs yelled when one of the black settlers was in a predominately white community. Slurs and some discrimination were the extant of what the black settlers faced, with no threats on their lives as was seen in the American South at the time. Nonetheless, the resistance to the settlers was extreme at times.
The Edmonton Board of Trade would say of the influx, “Those negroes who have been here some time have had a square deal and been treated as whites, but if you get a few thousand more in, conditions would be much changed.”
The Board of Trade was one of the leaders of the opposition to black immigration and were able to attract 3,000 signatures on a petition opposing the immigration, despite Edmonton only having a population of 25,000 at the time.
The United Farmers of Alberta also had a similar racist view saying, “We consider negroes undesirable as fellow citizens of this province.”
That being said, there were some big differences between Oklahoma and Alberta. Jefferson Edwards told a story of being in a bar in Athabasca and staring down a fight with another person in the bar. Suddenly, Francophones dropped what they were doing to defend Edwards.
The Ukrainians of the area, who had dealt with discrimination of their own, would work together with the black community to improve both group’s lands.
As the 1930s progressed, and into the 1950s, the population of the community began to decline as more people moved to different areas of the province and into the cities. There were still various improvements though. In 1946, Keyes School was added onto the new school, to form a two-room school.
By 1968, the post office had closed, and the community would progress to the point of being a ghost town. The school would be demolished but a replica would be built and currently sits at the Canadian Museum of History.
While the community of Amber Valley no longer exists, the settlers and their descendants have improved Canada in many different ways.
On Aug. 5, 1913, Athabasca would go through one of its darkest days when a massive fire tore through the community. It was in the middle of the night when a fire began, from unknown origins, and started to burn through the community.
R.H. Campbell would say quote:
“It has not been discovered where or how the fire started but it was eighter in the Grand Union hotel, where I was staying, or in the building next door, or both simultaneously.”
Campbell woke up at 1:40 a.m. by two men who were banging on doors and yelling fire. At first, he thought it was just two drunks, but he soon realized that the building was on fire. He would say quote:
In the hotel, there were 50 to 60 people, and they were all running out of the building.
At the time, there was little in the way of firefighting in the community and most people were confused and unorganized in their response to the fire. No water system was in place and the only way to fight the fire was with a bucket brigade. By the time the fire was finally out, the entire business section of the community was destroyed. In all, 32 businesses burned to the ground but thankfully, no one was killed. The estimated damages were $500,000, or about $15 million today. Hundreds had lost everything in the fire and a relief train was sent from Edmonton carrying food supplies, tents and bedding. Ike Gagnon was the person hit the worst by the fire. He owned a number of buildings, and it was estimated he lost $200,000 in the fire and he had no insurance at the time.
The immigration hall was opened and services including food and handing out of provisions and other items was initiated. Guests who were in the hotels were also able to stay there.
The fire was not going to keep the town down though. The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:
“Harvey Cull, druggist, whose entire stock was destroyed, will open Friday morning with brand new stock. This exemplifies the spirit of the men of Athabasca. A dozen new buildings are already being arranged for.”
Another story states that within two hours of the fire being subdued, the Royal Bank and Bank of Commerce were unloading lumber at new locations, while a party of businessmen left for Edmonton to obtain new stocks.
In 1970, Athabasca University was created by the Alberta government in an attempt to expand higher education to cope with rising enrollment in the province. At the time there was the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge. The government of the 1960s wanted a fourth public university but this was delayed until the 1970s.
Finally, Grant MacEwan, the Lt. Governor of Alberta, established Athabasca University through an Order in Council. The university was started as a pilot project to allow students to achieve their educational goals without leaving their homes, families or jobs. As a result, Athabasca University became a distance-learning centre. From 1972 to 1976, 650 students took part in the pilot project, and the first convocation ceremony was held in 1977. In 1978, the Alberta Universities Act was revised to grant the university self-governing status. While the university was named for Athabasca, the main campus would not actually be relocated to Athabasca from Edmonton until 1984. Today, the campus remains there with satellite campuses in Calgary, Edmonton and St. Albert. Today, the university has an enrolment of 40,000 students, with a faculty and staff of 1,233. The university offers 900 courses in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs. Many notable people have also studied through Athabasca University including Olympian Christian Farstad, former premier Ralph Klein and NHL player Alyn McCauley.