The Great Fire


Raynor Whitely on Land Speculation

 The Commercial Boom

Between 1906 and 1914, Athabasca Landing experienced substantial expansion. These were boom years for both population and commercial investment. The Landing grew “from a village of around 200 souls to a frontier town with a population approaching 2000.” Assorted shops materialized all over the small village to meet the demands of newcomers and those passing through. Speculation was rampant and many real estate firms formed. The poet Robert Service, visiting the Landing in 1911, offered these observations in his book Ploughman to the Moon:

The Landing was abustle with spring activity and the Company was the centre of all movement. I went into the office where two men were standing over a blueprint. It was a plan of the newly conceived townsite. "There’s a corner lot you can have for three hundred dollars. In time it will be worth three thousand." If he had said "thirty thousand" he might have been nearer the mark. At that time I think I had enough money to buy up the whole townsite; but I am glad I did not, for then I might have become a multimillionaire, and such a fate I would not wish anyone. (Quoted in Athabasca Historical Society 1986, 117)

In anticipation of the Canadian National railway and the first train arriving in 1912, demand for land continued to grow. Railway fever was promoted by the town’s Board of Trade, and “this kind boosterism, a heady mixture of facts, promises, hopes and fantasies,” helped reinforce the town’s expansion.

If Aladdin came to Athabasca, he would throw his lamp away as unnecessary and get to work for himself and thus increase his self respect. There is no town which offers so many opportunities to the man who is willing to work as this good old town of Athabasca . . . In the lobbies of Athabasca hotels you will see trappers and hunters fresh from the wilderness, oil men from California and Pennsylvania, merchants from the north, west, east and south here to purchase stock from the wholesale houses . . . freighters, chauffers . . . and to add color to this, the uniforms of the fine looking officers and men of the famous North West Mounted Police. This scene typifies the varied resources of this wonderful town. There is bouyancy and hope and confidence . . . (Athabasca Times 8 January 1914, quoted in Athabasca Historical Society 1986, 124).

Despite the first of many fires beginning in January 1912 - the HBC store and the Imperial Bank were lost - optimism reigned and both were rebuilt that following summer. On May 14, 1912, the last of the railway tracks were laid to Athabasca and the first train arrived on May 25th, 1912. This was cause for a huge celebration as it was thought Athabasca would become the junction point on a line leading northwest to the Peace River country, and northeast to Fort McMurray. This optimism began to fade, however, following the Great Fire of 1913 when over one-half of the downtown area was destroyed. Only a few owners would rebuild, many others deciding to call it quits after the fire, especially as the writing was on the wall that new railway lines to Peace River would bypass Athabasca, putting an end to the need for riverboat transportation.

By May of 1914, the commercial boom had gone bust. While many still saw the town’s future as favorable, a few sensible people did not. First, the homesteading boom was nearly over. Second, many of the railroad companies that had previously planned to use Athabasca as a junction to the far north were having financial troubles. Third, Alberta had gone into a recession. Both the Northern Transportation Company and the HBC saw the impending doom. During high-water in the summer of 1914, NTC owner James Cornwall "undertook the dangerous and daring exploit" of running his two steamers through the Grand Rapids. And, at the close of 1914, the last HBC steamboat, the S.S. Athabasca River, "steamed away for the last time, bound for Lake Athabasca." (Athabasca Historical Society 1986, 148-49)

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