Arts & Culture(Archives)
Moments in Time
Looking back to the Midcentury Oil Boom
A morning spent with some longtime residents in Fort McMurray!
One might wonder, what life was like at that time? To get a better understanding I spoke with some members of the ROMEO CLUB…if you don’t know what ROMEO stands for, just keep reading.
I met up with this group one morning in July; it was a sunny day and that atmosphere was reflected inside the Legion - from the wonderful staff that served us, to the warm welcome I received when we sat down together. I discussed a multitude of topics with the ROMEO’s ranging from stories about their childhoods to the current economic state of the region. For those of you who don’t know, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer, the ROMEO Club is a group of Retired Old Men Eating Out, and they are absolutely lovely. Being a relatively new resident to Fort McMurray, I found their insights and thoughts both entertaining and informative.
I was asked to find out about some of Fort McMurray’s semi recent history (let’s call the last 50 years or so, modern) to understand how industry and population has impacted life here. After doing the standard research (reviewing books and news articles) I decided to connect with those who actually lived here during these times. To my good fortune, a coworker suggested speaking to the aforementioned ROMEO’s (who, by the way, are actual ROMEOs – no, I’m not talking about star-crossed lovers, but gentlemen of an unfortunately increasing, by-gone era).
Upon my arrival, I was greeted and invited to join the table as these fellows, teased and joked with each other, making me feel right at home when they included me in their teasing. To gain a better understanding of why some of the members of the ROMEOS decided to settle in Fort McMurray, let’s take a look at what Fort McMurray was like in the 1960’s and 70’s and ask them, what many of us are asked, “Why would you live in Fort McMurray?!!”
Fort McMurray has grown substantially since the first of the large oil companies started to set up shop [Suncor in 1964, and Syncrude in 1974]. Many of Fort McMurray’s recent fame is based on these oil companies, but we need to remember that the history of Fort McMurray has always been rooted in industry including but certainly not limited to – oil. Fort McMurray has been known for its fisheries, salt plant and as a Hudson’s Bay trading post. Knowing that industry has always played a pivotal role in the population growth of YMM, it is interesting to see how these early oil companies impacted the community when they first opened, putting YMM on the map for its oil production.
In speaking with Jack Avery, my main contact with the ROMEO’s, he shared a bit of his story about why he decided to settle here, and the first impressions of his children when they arrived. Jack was one of the first to migrate north from Lacombe Alberta, to Fort McMurray, with what some call the first of the modern oil boom, in September of 1966. “When I first came here, I was maybe a part of the advance party for the new set. Suncor now claims to be the third largest oil company in the world. Now when I started in September of 1966 – with Great Canadian Oil Company - that world contingent was all in one room.” [according to Jack]
As a point of fact he shared, “When you come to work, they give you a badge - my badge number was five!!!” Now they are in the six or seven digits. I was one of the first ones here with the Suncor boom, and then in 1973 there was the Syncrude boom.”
At this point Tom Weber, joins in with his perspective. Tom moved to Fort McMurray in July 1960 predating the “modern oil boom”. At that time, the population of Fort McMurray was approximately 1,100 - 1,200 people according to Tom, “In our minds it was all kind of mushed together [the two oil booms]; the town just got more and more…busy. But the one that was noticeable was the first one because that was the big change.” His eyes twinkled as he recalled, “We’d work for a while, then the long weekend would come and you’d just quit. It didn’t matter how long you were gone, we’d come back and we’d be just hired back on… yea because they needed people who had the skills.”
The motivation for people to move here today is the same as it was in the early days when both Suncor and Syncrude first opened. People come here to make a living and support their families, to create that sense of home and belonging. I asked Jack, what was it like for his children when he first came up here? “When we came down the hill [Beacon Hill] the first time into Fort McMurray my kids said to me “Father, we have finally hit the ends of the earth!” We all shared a laugh at that! He went on to say, “The first four years out here were probably the best four years we ever had, because we did something really stupid [this was said tongue in cheek] we got to know people, we talked to people and we visited people. We all went to the post office to get the mail, so we talked to one another. And there was no television, and we were fortunate some days to have radio. But our kids loved it here! Because they had the freedom here that you wouldn’t normally have in our society. The kids would be out playing at night just before dark and you never worried about them…the only time they’d come home is when they got hungry.”
Industry has been the main employer in this region for many years, and it is the main reason people choose to come here - the search for jobs (that are more and more elusive in other regions of Canada)! I asked Jack what his thoughts were on the challenges that face the oil industry now.
“The trouble is, this is a money town. [The economy] will depend on what happens: do they build the pipelines in the US? Pipelines in BC? Or are we going to ship oil all the way to the East coast? The trouble now is that we just don’t know. There is no question that the economy of Alberta is built on oil. If you can change that economy so that it is coming from two or three directions rather than just one…then things will be different. But we will never see another [company like] Suncor or Syncrude built in Fort McMurray, well probably not. In the early days they should have built plants in this country to finish the product instead of shipping the bitumen to be processed. It should have been processed here and shipped as oil. Why they didn’t do that, greater minds than ours decided those things.”
Fort McMurray is famous for its oil, but, in my opinion, our greatest strength is our community – the people with a diversity that rivals any major city worldwide, that is welcoming and accepting; that is what binds us and drives us to make this place home.
Members of the ROMEOS that participated in the interview includes Jack Avery, Jim Cowie, Bruce Laxton and Tom Weber (alphabetical by last name). I thank you for sharing your morning with me and enlightening me on Fort McMurray’s recent history.
· It cost only $18 dollars to fly to Edmonton from Fort McMurray in the early nineteen sixties with PWA (Pacific Western Airlines)
· The bridge over the Athabasca River was the first “piece of pavement” (thanks Tom!) in downtown Fort McMurray; the only other piece was at the Airport - the landing strip!
1. Construction of the Grant MacEwan bridge over the Athabasca River, circa 1964. Credit Lawrence Tolen, FMHS.
2. Construction of Grant MacEwan Bridge, 1964. Credit GCOS, FMHS
3. The Grant MacEwan bridge over the Athabasca River, 1965. Credit Lawrence Tolen, FMHS.
4. The Grand Opening of the Grant MacEwan bridge, 1965. Credit Lawrence Tolen, FMHS.
5. Northern part of downtown and the MacEwan bridge Fort McMurray, 1960’s. Credit Bob Duncan, FMHS.
6. Northern Edge of Fort McMurray, circa 1970. Credit Fort McMurray Historical Society.