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For Money, For Love & For a Fresh Start: Fort McMurray's Early Residents
Living in Fort McMurray is pretty great. From the long summer days and the plethora of outdoor activities, to the fantastic recreational facilities and overwhelming sense of community, Fort McMurray has many positive attributes. It can also have its challenges. Between the high costs of housing, the relative remoteness, and the chilly winter weather, living north of the 56th parallel can be a lot different than life “back home” for many YMM newcomers.
If this is the case, then why do people choose to move here?
Each of us has a reason, whether it’s for love, or money, or even just a fresh start.
You may be surprised to learn that people have been relocating to Fort McMurray for over 100 years, long before the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now called Suncor) or Syncrude were in operation. Ever since Henry John Moberly officially founded Fort McMurray in 1870 as a Hudson’s Bay Company post, people from all areas of the world have called this area home. The question is: why?
John McDonald: For Money
John McDonald is credited as being the first non-Aboriginal settler of Fort McMurray. It is believed he arrived in the area around 1872, only two years after its founding, to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). He built his homestead on what was then known locally as “The Island” (now named MacDonald Island in his honour, although the spelling of his surname McDonald was altered over time.)
According to the 1921 Census of Canada, John was born in Manitoba in 1855. While not a lot is known about John’s early life, we know that married a woman named Josephine and together they had 9 children. John raised his family on The Island and continued to live there until his death in 1942. After this, his house and other buildings were demolished and the Island remained vacant for decades until the original MacDonald Island Recreation Complex was built in the 1970s.
Like John, many of the area’s first residents were trappers and traders who were drawn to the area because it was hailed as the “Gateway to the North”. Situated at the junction of the Athabasca and the Clearwater Rivers, Fort McMurray held a favourable location due to its accessibility. Whether by canoe, barge or steamboat, it was possible to transport furs, minerals and resources to and from the larger urban centres for profit. Even better, there was promise of a railroad to the region in the future.
Just as it is now, people looking to make money viewed Fort McMurray as the answer. Charles Eymundson: For a Fresh Start
When Charles Eymundson and his wife Sophia arrived in Fort McMurray in 1911, they were part of one of the first population booms to the area. “Oil fever” had struck.
Entrepreneurs were beginning to flock to the area in an attempt to exploit the oil resources. There was talk that Fort McMurray was going to be the next big industrial and business centre.
When the Eymundsons arrived, the local population had risen to over 300 people. Downtown Fort McMurray could boast a hotel, an HBC post, a school and a Catholic Church. While many of the residents still trapped and traded, many men began to relocate to Fort McMurray for other employment opportunities such as labour, hospitality, retail, etc.
Like the Eymundsons, who were both of Icelandic descent, many of Fort McMurray’s residents came from faraway places. In the 1921 Census, people living in Fort McMurray listed various countries as being their place of birth, including: Scotland, France, Germany, Japan, China, and the United States.
As for Charles Eymundson, his reason for moving to Fort McMurray wasn’t for the money per se, but, as he wrote in a newspaper article in the 1940s, to “get away from all the deviltries of civilization”. Charles came here for a fresh start. As a child, Charles and his family left Iceland for the United States. He appears to have been a wanderer, travelling across the mid-western United States and Canada, working odd jobs, until he eventually meet his wife and settled in Alberta.
Upon his arrival in Fort McMurray, Charles followed the route of many other men in the area and trapped furs to sell to the HBC. In time, however, he began to trade his furs directly, even travelling to Chicago and selling them for a high profit. As the fur trade began its decline, Charles opened a small store in the front of his house and operated the telephone line that was strung between Fort McMurray and Waterways.
Whatever it was that Charles was looking for during his youth when he was travelling from place to place, he appeared to have found it in Fort McMurray. His son, the first non- Aboriginal child to be born in Fort McMurray, Romeo Eymundson, continued to live in the area until his death in 1990.
Gladys Hill: For Love
In 1923, Gladys Percy said goodbye to her home and family in England and boarded a ship for Canada. Awaiting her arrival was her fiancé, Walter Hill. Walter and Gladys met in England as children. In 1913, however, Walter and his family immigrated to Canada. Four years later, during the First World War, Walter was stationed in England for training. While there, he visited with old friends and family, including Gladys.
When the fighting ceased, the two were once again separated as Walter returned to Canada to study at the University of Alberta, becoming one of the first graduates of its pharmacy program. Upon graduation, Walter heard of a job opportunity in Fort McMurray. Angus Sutherland, Fort McMurray’s first pharmacist, was ill and needed assistance running his pharmacy, Sutherland’s Drugs.
Walter traveled north with the intention of only staying a few months. However, Angus offered Walter the opportunity to buy the pharmacy. Since he didn’t have the funds to buy the store outright, the two men agreed to a partnership, sealing the contract the old fashioned way- with a handshake.
With his career looking bright, Walter wrote a letter to Gladys’ father asking permission to marry his daughter. He agreed, and in the spring of 1923 Gladys embarked on the long journey first by ship, then by rail, to Edmonton, where she and Walter were married. Together they traveled to Fort McMurray by train, and then by boat. The rough and wild Fort McMurray was a stark contrast to the comfortable life Gladys had enjoyed in England, but she quickly adapted to her new surroundings with determination and perseverance.
While Gladys originally moved to Fort McMurray to support her husband’s career, this northern community became her home. Over the years, Gladys became well known for her community involvement. In 1950, she became the first female town councillor. She was also involved in a number of local organizations, including the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), the Girl Guide Troop as well as many local sport teams. All of this in addition to helping her husband Walter at the local pharmacy, Hills Drugs. Our Home
Each of us “transplanted YMMers” has a reason for relocating to Fort McMurray. We’ve all chosen to make Fort McMurray our home, whether it be for love, money or for a fresh start.
As the stories of John McDonald, Charles Eymundson and Gladys Hill show, our reasons for moving to Fort McMurray aren’t all that different from those brave souls who first made this area their home.
John McDonald (second from right) pictured in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of A.T. Penhorwood, Fort McMurray Historical Society.
The 1921 Census of Canada Showing the Different Countries of Birth of the Residents of Fort McMurray. Courtesy of ancestry.ca
Gladys Hill’s Ticket to Canada. Courtesy of ancestry.ca