It’s often said, “You can’t know where we’re going if you don’t know where we came from.”
Many have the belief Fort McMurray was built for the oil sands. It wasn’t. This area has a long, rich history as a trading post, where traffic on local waterways rivalled that on the roads. Mail and other goods were flown in and out, ice was cut from the river for early ‘refrigerators’ and the train took people leaving from Waterways south to the big cities.
And thanks to the dedication of staff and volunteers, that colourful history has been preserved at Heritage Park, operated by the Fort McMurray Historical Society (FMHS). The park was started in 1963 by Bob Duncan and opened to the public in 1974. It’s here where you can walk the rooms where early settlers used to walk; see photos of how life used to be, check out early tools and kitchen utensils and learn the importance of the local waterways and skies to our history.
Did you know that back in the 1950s, officials installed a flagpole on Franklin Avenue to deter bush pilots from landing on the main thoroughfare? Visitors can learn who Peter Pond was and the people behind the names on streets and buildings like Hardin, Morrison, Biggs, Franklin and Hainault.
“I believe Heritage Park is an icon in the city. If we didn’t have history preserved here, we wouldn’t know what life was like in this community in the early days; what hardships residents endured and what they did for recreation and enjoyment,” says Roseann Davidson, the park’s executive director.
“I’ve been told by visitors that when they move to a new community, one of the first things they do is visit their local museum to learn about the community. They want to know what the base of the community is and where everything started.
“That’s the first thing I did. I moved to the community; I came to the museum; I got a job,” laughed Davidson, now at the park 13 years.
“The best part of working here, for me, is looking out the window and seeing all those little people just having such a great time … especially the little preschoolers, such fun,” she says. “They’re learning; they’re enjoying it; they’re having a good time. Heritage Park is a secure place; the teachers don’t have to worry about the children wandering off.”
Another high point is chatting with visitors to the park about what they enjoyed about their tour and what they learned. Some share memories of growing up in the area, recalling experiences of frequenting some of the buildings when they were in use such as the Royal Bank and Hill Drugs.
But as with operating any non-profit, the constant fund-raising can be challenging. Most funds are raised through fundraising events, donations and revenue generating opportunities including the Gift Shop. There are some government grants to help augment those efforts.
The park is home to a number of annual events such as Old Fashioned Christmas and Heritage Day and programming such as school programs, theatre camp and a seniors’ tea. Companies and local businesses hold meetings, conferences and seminars at the park.
In 2013, the park had planned to open its first Farmers Market in July. But Mother Nature proved disastrous for the 6.6-acre park in June 2013. It was submerged under water after the neighbouring Hangingstone River breached its banks and flooded the area’s lone historic village along with other areas in the Lower Townsite.
Though boardwalks and steps to the buildings were washed away by the flood waters, the majority of artifacts were saved thanks to the quick thinking and response of staff and volunteers at the park.
Original estimates pegged the damage at an estimated $8 million as many of the buildings have to be lifted to repair foundations.
“The rebuild work has started and is going well,” says Davidson.
The buildings are being restored, building by building, in priority, from the most to least damaged. Currently, work is underway restoring St. Aidan’s Church. The church – which dates back to 1938 - is a popular venue for weddings, but unfortunately won’t be ready for any nuptials this year.
In 2012, the park hosted an estimated 25 weddings. Approximately 20 were cancelled because of the flood.
“Every weekend during the summer months there was a wedding here; sometimes two or three. Couples are calling to see if they can book for this year. Unfortunately we aren’t able, but we are taking bookings for 2015,” says Davidson.
The heavily damaged North West Mounted Police and Wop May buildings are the next to be restored. It’s here visitors learn about the Laws of the North and the bush pilots that used to fly in and out of the area.
“Before the flood, our intentions were to continue expansion of the Aboriginal Village exhibit. The flood damaged the large tepee canvas and now we have to basically start over. Currently we are looking for someone to make a canvas for our large tepee.” The Aboriginal Village will depict the history of the First Nations peoples, their traditions and teachings.
Landscaping needs in the park, such as boardwalks and the community gardens, are also being reconstructed.
“If we had longer summers, we could get so much more done,” she chuckles.
“It is a seasonal wait because we don’t know when the snow is going to go and when the frost will thaw from the ground.”
Four of the historic buildings are being moved from their current location which was the hardest hit in the park to the higher south side, creating another ‘street.’ It will also open up the front space of the park.
“Folks are asking me: When is the park going to open?’ acknowledges Davidson. “To give a precise date is difficult. We have a timeline for the restoration work and if all goes according to plan, we hope to open later this summer. However, many of our exhibitions may be still be under construction and not open to the public.”
She predicts an official re-opening in 2015 with a celebration, but that is work and Mother Nature dependent.
The FMHS is working with the municipality to remedy grading issues within the grounds because “we don’t want to go through a flood situation again,” she admits. “We are also working on flood migration as we go through the rebuild process.”
Park staff are also working with the provincial government on the Disaster Recovery Program.
“We have spent a significant amount of time on the application with the assessor. We will also be submitting grant proposals to the Alberta Museums Association for the rebuilding of our site,” explains Davidson.
A grant application has also been submitted to the Alberta Archival Society for disaster relief funding.
Aside from the historic buildings, Heritage Park also houses thousands of historic photographs, documents and maps in in its archives.
Historical significance is also the catalyst for the FMHS to pay homage to water transportation in the area’s development and history at The Marine Park Museum. Being built in an area known historically as ‘The Prairie,’ it’s housed where the original ship yard used to sit.
Water was a primary source of transportation for the area for decades with vessels travelling from Waterways as far north as Hay River in the Northwest Territories. Even the Canadian Coast Guard at one time patrolled the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers and barges carrying uranium used to travel back and forth to the now decommissioned Uranium City in Saskatchewan.
“Considering how busy our city is today, it may be difficult for some to imagine how river transportation affected our community in the earlier days, but it was a strong industry and a very interesting part of our history,” points out Davidson.
The new exhibitions will also benefit the First Nations and Métis by showcasing their history in the region.
The FMHS is looking to host a quiet opening on Canada Day weekend.
Heritage Park before the June 2013 flooding.
Heritage Park after the June 2013 flooding.
Some Grey Nuns enjoy a break in Chateau Gai which still stands at Heritage Park. The nuns used this building as a retreat from nursing and teaching duties at St. Gabriel’s Hospital and St. John’s School.