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Industry on the river
by Lawrence Herzog
It's Our Heritage | Vol. 25 No. 12  | March 22, 2007
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Photo supplied by City of Edmonton Archives, EA-551-18.

Rossdale and the river valley, circa 1912.

A century and more ago, proximity to easy transportation and raw materials made the North Saskatchewan River valley ideal for industries such as lumber, coal mining and brick making. Back in those days, the river was Edmonton’s highway.

Rivers provided a natural form of transportation and an easy way to move freight. Over the last century, transportation has become more road and rail based, altering the preferred location for industries.

In the early days of the 20th century, Emily Murphy described the buzz of the sawmills in the North Saskatchewan River valley as the typical sound of the Edmonton summer. In Edmonton’s formative years, industry – not recreation – was the dominant force that shaped the valley. Coal mining, lumber, brick making, ice harvesting and gold mining all played a role in the development of the valley.

Gold was identified along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River when Thomas Clover a small group of men began to pan in 1862. Word spread quickly as gold was found and soon prospectors began to pan for gold in earnest. Miners Flats (what is now Laurier Park) was home to more than 300 miners, with their tents and home-made gold panning gear scattered throughout the valley.

By 1894 the Edmonton area is recorded to have yielded almost $3 million in gold dust taken from the North Saskatchewan River. Gold miners eventually moved from low scale separating equipment to large mechanical dredges, many of which were manufactured in the valley by Walter and Hobson. These dredges were moored off the shores of the flats for years. Famous early miners included Sam Livingston and James Gibbons. The amount of gold taken from the river declined in the early 1900s and the industry ceased to exist.

The Edmonton Electric Light Co. Power Plant was built in 1891. It was the very first power plant in Edmonton and it was located west of the Low Level Bridge on the north side of the river below McDougall Hill. River water was used to cool the equipment.

When the river flooded in 1899, it destroyed the gear and the plant was closed for three weeks. Five years later, a new plant was built further west, right where the Rossdale Power Plant sits today.

In 1911 James W. Weir and James Buchanan purchased the premises of Inglis, MacDougall and Thom, located at the north end of the Low Level Bridge, and started the Edmonton Boat Company. The company built boats for export to British Columbia and later manufactured schooners and barges for use in the North by the Hudson Bay Company and North West Mounted Police.

During the Second World War, the company manufactured dog sleds, aircraft wings, airplane skis and tug boats. The company made speedboats that could reach speeds of more than 69 kilometres per hour. The firm was later known as the Alberta Motor Boat Company.

The Edmonton Seaport (Provincial Docks) was constructed in 1910, located just downstream of the Low Level Bridge. Logger rafts, river freighters and excursion boat used this mooring. If the water level is low and you look closely, you might even be able to spot the remains of the piers downstream beneath the bridge!

Tom Cairns, and two other men called Kelly and Myover brewed the first beer in Ross Flats in 1894. The Edmonton Brewing Company operated at a location just west of the Low Level Bridge until 1898 when it was moved to near the Royal Glenora Club.

William Henry Sheppard, owner of the Strathcona Hotel, purchased Cairns’ equipment from his brewing operation, built a brick plant in 1904 and formed the Edmonton Brewing and Malting Company, commonly known as the Rossdale Brewery. His Edmonton Brewing & Malting Company, near the shore of the North Saskatchewan River in Rossdale, was built in 1905.

More than 100 years later, the original building at 9843 100 Street has survived to become the oldest standing brewery in the city – and one of the oldest in the entire province. The brewery’s proximity to the river made for some interesting times. When the North Saskatchewan River flooded one day in 1911, the Edmonton Bulletin reported brewery workers hoisted vats to keep the flood waters from spoiling the beer.

Beer brewed by the Edmonton Brewing Company in the 1890s was made with water right from the river, except on occasions when the water was too muddy or fragrant for use. In these instances, a well dug near the plant provided a ready supply. Because business was so good, Sheppard moved his brewing operations to larger premises on 121st Street just off 104th Avenue at what is now Molson House.

Because there was no refrigeration, people needed ice to keep their food from going bad. And so businesses were started that provided big blocks of ice, delivered in a wagon pulled by horses, to houses all over Edmonton. Two of these companies were the Edmonton Ice Company, established in 1899 and the Arctic Ice Company, set up one year later.

Workers for the companies would cut big chunks of ice out of the frozen North Saskatchewan River and then take it to the plant, where it was stored and shipped out to customers. The Edmonton Ice Company had enough room to store 8,000 tons of ice.

Mill Creek, which ran across the flats and into the North Saskatchewan at present day Rafter’s Landing, was named after a grist mill established by William Bird in 1878, making it one of the first flour mills in all of Western Canada. It operated until 1881 and was closed because there wasn’t enough water in the creek to keep the wheel turning.

The Dowling Milling Company began milling flour in 1899. Their plant was situated on Curry Street and in 1906, the mill was purchased by A.G. Campbell and P. R. Ottewell, who renamed it City Flour Mills. The mill was the oldest established and best known plant in Edmonton. The company gave precedence to local Alberta farmers and also made shipments to the Orient.

Gallagher-Hull Meat Packing Plant began operating alongside Mill Creek shortly after 1891. It was the first company of its kind to start an abattoir business in this part of the province. Over the years it grew and became very well known for its excellent products as well as its modern refrigerators and quality machines. In 1908, a retail store was opened on Jasper Avenue.

Another famous Cloverdale company is the Edmonton City Dairy, which was located at the southern approach to the Low Level Bridge. Throughout the river valley in the early days of the 20th century, there were other businesses, including tinsmiths, carpenters, labourers, tailors, sawyers, bakers, shoemakers, chocolate makers, clerks, millers, engineers, bricklayers, grocers and butchers.

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