Articles

EDMONTON: A BOOM AT THE CROSSROADS

PIERRE BERTON July 15 1949
Articles

EDMONTON: A BOOM AT THE CROSSROADS

PIERRE BERTON July 15 1949

EDMONTON: A BOOM AT THE CROSSROADS

PIERRE BERTON

IN THE golden city of Edmonton, Alberta, fortune’s guises are legion and her smile is allencompassing. Every day, including Sundays, $100,000 in oil bubbles up from the rich black earth around the town. Every day 300 planes roar into Canada’s busiest airport. Edmonton’s green lawns hide a city-sized coal mine. Edmonton housewives get the cheapest heat in Canada, thanks to unlimited natural gas. Edmonton’s rich farmers have never known a crop failure. And directly to the north there lies a sultan’s ransom in fur and fish, gold and uranium.

In the face of this munificence, Edmontonians might be pardoned for indulging in some slight Oriental splendor an occasional street paved with

gold, an occasional Corona-Corona lit with a $20 bill. Alas, there is none of this in Edmonton.

Geologically and geographically she is one of the world’s luckiest towns. Psychologically and temperamentally her people are among the most cautious and best-behaved. Indeed many of them refuse to concede that Edmonton is going through another of her perennial booms.

“Boom?” says lawyer Ray Milner, whom many Edmontonians think of as Mr. Alberta. “We’ve never had a boom.” This seems a strange remark for a man who stopped in Edmonton in 1911 because he had no money to go farther and now finds himself director of a dozen companies, part owner of two newspapers, a radio station and a handful of oil wells, Conservative standard-bearer for Edmonton West and envied proprietor of the dog that once bit the hand of Mackenzie King.

Edmonton and its environs are full of the stories of men who refuse to let sudden success go to their heads. Spud Arsenault, who got 2,000

50-dollar bills for a handful of claims north of Yellowknife, still occupies his room in the Corona Hotel basement and occasionally runs the elevator for fun, gravely accepting 10-cent tips from fellow guests. John Rebus, who got a down payment of $200,000 from the Atlantic Oil Company, has bought a new truck but hasn’t got around to painting his barn yet. Gottlieb Wiedmann gets more than $150 a day from Imperial. His sole celebration was a one-week vacation in Grande Prairie, 400 miles away.

Few Edmontonians are plunging in oil stocks though a derrick has risen five miles from the Country Club. Last spring there was less talk of oil than there was of need of rain for the crops. Edmontonians, forming a football club to rival Calgary’s champion Stampeders, snubbed the suggested title “Oilers” and named them “Eskimos” instead.

Edmonton has been called “the dullest boom town in history.” Said Leonard Haynes, a visiting

oilman, a few weeks ago: “If this were Texas there’d be three saloons and a bawdyhouse in every block.” But a roughneck or a prospector on a week end can’t see a hootchy-kootchy dance or buy a whisky sour. Two years can go by without a murder, six weeks without a major crime. In Edmonton jaywalkers get fined 50 cents.

Yet the city in its quiet way is booming. Its population has jumped from 90,000 to an estimated 145,000 in 10 years. Even Lord Beaverbrook couldn’t get a room in the jammed MacDonald Hotel to have dinner in. Oil brought 68 new industries to town last year. Building has increased fortyfold since 1939, and is coming in at the rate of $2 millions a month. Retail sales have doubled in five years. Bank clearings in the first quarter of 1949 shot to $310 millions, a cool $100 millions over last year.

Last spring a Manila man read about Edmonton in a news magazine, promptly decided to move his $100,000 business to the town.

This doesn’t unduly excite Edmontonians, whose city in its 150-year history has seen a fur boom, a Klondike boom, a land boom, an air boom, a mining boom and a war boom. In addition it’s been on the fringe of two wild Calgary oil speculations (1914 and 1928) and got its fingers seared.

Walter Sprague, who worked in a Calgary drugstore in 1928 and has done well enough in Edmonton to run the city’s biggest drug chain and buy himself a racing stable, won’t buy oil

Furs, gold, hogs, wheat, and now oil, pour a sultan’s riches into Edmonton, but the big flat city (they call it “the crossroads of the world”) refuses to get excited

stock. In Calgary his store opened on the stock exchange and he still remembers the wire baskets stuffed with folding money and the crowds jamming the street outside.

Sprague parlayed $50 into $1,000, lost it all. Now he says, “Anyone who speculates in oil is a fool.” Most of Edmonton seems to agree. “Let Calgary get excited,” the townspeople say.

Still That Small-Town Look

T TNLIKE Calgary, a town built by wheat farmers and ranchers who gamble to win and get their money in big yearly lumps, Edmonton’s retail trade is built on mixed farmers whose income is steady and whose ways are cautious.

Old-fashioned king-sized dollar bills still turn up in Edmonton, hinting at bank rolls stuffed in family sugar bowls. Farmers often pay for a new truck in cash rather than by cheque.

Edmonton reflects the stolidness of the polyglot European peasant strain which dominates the 100 miles of rich farming district around it. These farmers don’t need to gamble: what you lose on the oats one year you gain on the pigs.

It is the land that counts. An exasperated oilman trying to buy oil rights from a stubborn farmer finally shouted: “What if I offered you a million bucks for this farm?” The farmer scratched his head and answered quietly: “I think I like da farm da way it was.”

In the city proper, only now beginning to grow out of the small-town stage, some of the peasant distrust of newcomers still lingers. Edmontonians don’t quite know what to make of the antics of bluff Vancouver-trained publisher Hal Straight and his flashy Edmonton Bulletin. Straight, who has been known to mix appleblossom perfume with his ink in the springtime, recently hired a Jehovah’s Witness to walk through his composing room at deadline time bearing the placard: “It Is Later Than You Think.” His paper fights a running skirmish with the city council, chides Edmontonians for lack of booster spirit. Newcomers buy the Bulletin, but old-timers still prefer the grey, unspectacular Edmonton Journal.

Despite its Gargantuan sizeits 41.8 square miles makes it. bigger than Chicago —Edmonton still has the small-town look. It has no skyscrajïers and its department stores build outward rather than upward. It sprawls over the rolling prairie like eight or nine towns all pushed together, with the North Saskatchewan River cutting its midriff in a lazy serpent’s curve.

In 1885 General Thomas Strange, relieving the fort from Louis Riel’s metis, called it a “scattered little town.” Rupert Brooke used the same adjective in 1913. Only now are the blank spots in Edmonton’s heart beginning to fill up. Farmers still mow hay inside the city, and in 1941 wheat grown within the limits won the International Championship.

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The city’s size strains utilities to the limit. Only 75 of Edmonton’s 450 miles of streets are paved. This makes it a muddy city in spring and fall, a dusty one in summer. Sewers can’t keep up with population and homes nudging the city limits must make do with outdoor privies and hand-pumped water. All utilities except gas are cityowned and profits help keep the tax rate down.

Street numbers are astronomical (example: 10338 127th St.), but they serve to tell the puzzled stranger exactly where he is in the big, flat town.

Edmonton’s ponderous size is the result of the overambitious period of expansion which ended in the crazy land boom of 1912. In those days Edmonton boosters were predicting a population of half a million by 1920. This has left its mark on the city and helped make “boom” a naughty word in Edmonton.

It started early in 1911. By the year’s end alarm clocks were jangling continuously in the crowded real-estate offices to attract the throngs of speculators who answered the chalked signs to “Come In And Get Your Feet Wet.” Lots on Jasper Avenue sold as high as $2,000 a front foot. One Boston grain merchant on his way to California stopped off briefly, made himself $600 in four hours and never left town. People bought lots sight unseen on cliffs, marshes, hillsides. In May, 1912, the Hudson’s Bay Company subdivided its 6,000-acre reserve in the city’s heart and put it on sale. Close to

3.000 people lined up outside the Gospel Hall to draw for the 1,500 lottery tickets which would give them the privilege of buying four lots apiece. One man turned down $1,500 for his place in line.

Speculators paid $50 for the first copy of the Edmonton Bulletin off the press which announced that farmer James Walsh, 928th in line, had drawn ticket No. 1. He turned down $27,000 for it, bought two lots at $25,000 each.

Beer Is for Men Only

Next year the bubble burst and

75.000 lots went back to the city in lieu of taxes. The city still has 22,000. The vast reserve stayed vacant for 25 years, a desolate area of scrub bush broken by the two-and-a-half-mile diagonal line of Portage Avenue (now Kingsway), a broad paved street with double-width sidewalks and streetcar tracks down which no streetcar has ever run. No houses were erected there until wartime cottages began to scar the land in 1943.

Ultimately the land boom was a godsend to Edmonton. The city’s quiet - spoken mayor, Harry Dean Aynlay, points out that you can buy lots for $400 which speculators might, otherwise be selling for $1,500. Revenue from these lots—a million a year— helps keep the mill rate down. And, thanks to the town’s big open spaces, Edmonton has the only airport in Ganada which is a five-minute taxi ride from the leading hotel.

A fur boom created Fort Edmonton in 1795. William Tomison, the “inland chief” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, built his log fort a musket shot away from the rival Northwest Company, 20 miles downstream from the city’s present site. He named it after John Gilpin’s city, his bosses’ English home town.

A stubborn, unpopular, strict Presbyterian, Tomison lost trade to his

rivals because he refused to sell liquor to the Indians. Significantly, Edmonton still bans hard liquor by the glass, and couples who want to drink beer together must go seven miles out of town to St. Albert.

Chief Factor John Rowland, who took over Fort No. 3 on the city’s modern site in 1819, was a different breed. Contemporary accounts call his fort and stockade a “baronial castle.” The factor’s own house, “Rowland’s Folly,” was the most lavish establishment west of York Factory on Hudson Bay.

A fierce, lion - bold man, Rowland often successfully bearded hostile Indian chiefs in their own camps while alone and unarmed. He made more money for his company than any three of his colleagues, and when he died in 1854 Indians stole a piece of his heart to eat for courage. His bones, according to one tale, were shipped East in a barrel of rum at his own request.

Edmontonians are trying to forget that they tore down Rowland’s famous fort and destroyed the original logs to make way for the Albert^, Parliament Buildings in 1915.

In 1870 Methodist pastor George McDougall staked two claims for his church and Edmonton was incorporated as a village. The settlers began to trickle in. Hon. Frank Oliver brought his printing press by Red River oxcart, bought the first business lot for $25 in 1878 and founded the Edmonton Bulletin. (Sample news story: “Sitting Bull is again talking of going south.”) Oliver lived to become a famous Edmonton figure and the only man who got away with profanity in the provincial Parliament.

When the Klondikers came through in 1898 the boom was on again. Edmontonians grew rich outfitting stampeders with everything from fur hats to wild range horses. Some of the stampeders stayed on: Texas Smith tried to make an amphibious train out of barrels, got nine miles, then quit.

Others came back. One was Joseph Andrew (“Fighting Joe”) Clarke, who, before his death a few years ago, was able to boast that he’d run for some political office every nine months of his last 40 years.

In ’98 Edmonton’s population was 1,200. By 1901 it was 4,000. By 1910 it was 50,000. Then came the land boom and the end of a perfect decade.

The Call of Eldorado

Edmonton settled down reluctantly as Alberta’s capital and second city, watched Calgarians go crazy over oil, and catered to its farmers and its quiet university-civil servant population.

Then the air age hit Edmonton. Bush pilot Wilfrid (Wop) May froze his lips and hands flying serum into a tiny diphtheria-ridden Peace River town in January, 1929, and 10,000 citizens carried him shoulder-high from Edmonton’s grass airfield. Next year the town voted itself a better airport, held Canada’s first air show. Post and Catty took the Winnie May off from Portage Avenue and established Edmonton as “The crossroads of the world.”

Meanwhile a green and gold monoplane had taken prospector Gilbert La Bine into Great Bear Lake whose wild, rocky shores hid a fortune in silver and pitchblende. Nobody cared much about pitchblende, but some 200 prospectors laid out $350 apiece for charter trips to Great Bear when the news got out in 1932 that LaBine had a million dollars in silver ore near the surface. Today the Eldorado mine sends an estimated 700 tons of uranium concentrates a year through Edmonton.

With LaBine’s Eldorado find as an

incentive, prospectors poured thiough Edmonton to the North. A group of geologists on their way to Great Bear halted on Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake. By 1936 the Yellowknife find had outclassed Eldorado and within three years pushed Edmonton’s population ahead of Calgary’s (in 1936 one company alone paid out $625,000 in work in the Yellowknife area).

Building permits in Edmonton doubled from month to month. The city’s three largest department stores announced a million dollars each in new construction. Yet the second Yellowknife boom, in 1945, dwarfed the first: in that year more than 100 companies were probing the district, tunneling 4,000 men through Edmonton, using 10 charter planes regularly as well as 25 private planes.

By this time the city had had its war boom. The “invasion” as it is now called began in 1942. The next year 42,000 American civilian and army personnel poured through town.

Molotov at the Airport

The Americans took over 59 office buildings, giving the city its highest tax income in history. G.I.’s outnumbered Canadians two to one on the streets and the odd high-booted Russian strolled down Jasper Avenue.

At the airport a plane landed every 10 seconds over a clocked two-and-ahalf-hour period.

One-worlders Henry Wallace and Wendell Willkie stopped off in Edmonton. Molotov stayed at the airport overnight, "took over a whole building (with holes bored in the floor so he could see what went on underneath him), brought his own staff, own cooks, own food.

Individually and collectively the Yanks were spenders. One of them walked into a newsstand and bought $290 worth of fountain pens. One Sunday the U.S. Army flew two entire football teams, plus a 25-pieee band clad in fur parkas, from Ladd Field, Alaska, and Butte, Montana. Cost for one game: $10,000.

Edmontonians prospered. One local refrigeration expert hurried back from the U. S. to his home town and an $800-a-month salary. His wife worked for the Americans for $250 a month. His 17-year-old son drew $300 plus overtime as an Alaska Highway grease monkey. Baby sitters’ pay jumped from 40 cents an hour to $1.25. Liquor sold for $35 a quart.

Through it all Edmonton kept its head, and when it was over reverted to its quiet ways. Two enterprising local newsmen put out a book on the Alaska Highway, sold 90,000 copies to Americans at $1 apiece. But the sale to Edmontonians was almost nil.

U. S. soldiers and civilians astonished and intrigued the citizenry by sporting parkas, mukluks, great checkered shirts and wolfskin caps. Edmontonians followed suit, but when the G.I.’s left went back to wearing ordinary winter overcoats and overshoes.

Today the city remains calm in the face of an oil boom that has upped Edmonton payrolls by an annual $10 millions. “Maybe this boom’ll have fishhooks in it,” says Walt Bown, the pioneer auctioneer, cautiously. “Maybe it’s here to slay.”

But to Edmontonians mixed farming is still the ace in the hole. Oil or no oil, livestock production in the district has doubled since 1941 to a hefty $70 millions. Boom or no boom, the grain yield is still 20 million bushels.

The farming community has helped make Edmonton a vast melting pot. West from the town lie solid German settlements. Southeast you get into Scandinavian territory. French domi-

nate’the north; central Europeans the east.

There are more than 50 religious sects in Edmonton. In the space of a few city blocks off Kingsway 14 churches stand almost spire to dome.

The days are gone when big Ukrainian women in bright babushkas and bearded men in sheepskin coats headed north through Edmonton with their oxen and carts (causing Forbes-Robertson, the actor, to exclaim: “I’ve seen it! The very beginning of things!”) But the former Baron Huene, a huge (6 foot 6) swarthy Russian ex-Royal Guardsman, drives his truck through town, and Lord Rodney, a big and beefy English nobleman, brings his potatoes in from Fort Saskatchewan.

Edmonton’s most modern home is owned by Jim Louis, a Chinese who made a fortune in juke boxes, and here Canada’s only Mohammedan mosque was built with money from Assyrians who grew rich in the fur trade.

For (Rugby) Eskimos: SI00,000

Some of Edmonton’s polyglot farms hide strange treasures. An antique dealer visiting one of them found it housed 15 grandfather clocks. Rain dripped through the barn roof on genuine Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture. Hens fed out of solid silver Queen Anne entrée dishes.

The melting pot is at once a blessing and a drawback. It has given Edmonton a dignity and calm not always shared by rowdier Calgary. But it has made the city something less than community-minded. The town is rather a grab bag of small communities, each with its own culture. Even the Ukrainian community is split three ways. And South Edmonton, the old city of Strathcona across the river where the university is set, has little in common with the rest of the town.

Edmonton has yet to build a civic auditorium for itself. In 1946 the voters turned the idea down flatly. Last April Eleanor Roosevelt was shocked to find she was to speak in a pavilion built to judge prize cattle. Concert stars still sing in the acoustic chaos of McDougall United Church. Yet this year the citizens quickly raised $100,000 for a football club.

This is one of the paradoxes that spring from Edmonton’s split personality. The town caters on one hand to bush pilots, trappers, mining and oilmen who think in terms of thousandmile hops, on the other to farmers who know they must count every square yard. At the opening of the Legislature last February men in striped sweaters, ski jackets and working clothes looked down from the gallery to where Premier E. C. Manning sat, a blond, mild young

Bible student, whose pulpit-thumping, Daniel-style prophecies will soon be delivered from an Edmonton tabernacle. '

Again, Edmonton, which is a great monument to private enterprise, has elected a socialist mayor for the last four years and long ago socialized its telephone system, water supply, power plant, streetcar and bus line, swimming pool, airport and golf course.

It has always been politically unpredictable. It sent Percy Page to the Legislature largely because he was the man who made the Edmonton Grads into an undefeated world's champion women’s basketball team. In the hungry 30’s it put “Fighting Joe” Clarke into office as mayor although Clarke was penniless, near relief, had no campaign funds whatsoever and was opposed by heavy political guns. (“I’ve just gotta be mayor,” Clarke told one newsman, “I need the money.”)

Today, both geographically and psychologically, there is more cohesion in the town. Ten thousand new homes are filling up the blank spaces and a third generation is blurring community lines. The chamber of commerce has built up from a weak membership of 343 in 1941 to a solid 1,200. Recently it boosted Edmonton onto the TCA main line.

And the unseen boom goes on in the golden city. Although civic expenditure has doubled in three years to $26 millions, unexpected taxes have kept the city’s mill rate constant for seven years. In May the Army decided to make Edmonton its great arsenal for northern defense and announced an initial expenditure of $3 millions.

From the North the great stream of wealth still pours in: $2 millions in fish every year, $4 millions in furs, perhaps $9 millions in gold. For Edmonton wholesalers this means big orders: Sam Peffer, an Aklavik trader, for example, alone orders $125,000 worth of merchandise each year.

“Out of the Hay Days”

The Edmonton airport, which in 1943 set a world record for take-offs and landings, may break its own record by the year’s end. Last April it chalked up 10,000 take-offs and landings on its three-mile-long runways. The story of the airport’s development—one of Canada’s most dramatic—will be told in the next issue of Maclean’s. It is helping to make Edmonton a cosmopolitan city.

“We’re out of the hay days and into the big-city stuff,” says John (Mike) Michaels, proprietor of Jasper Avenue’s famous Mike’s Newsstand. Mike himself is a symbol of Edmonton’s steadily growing prosperity. A Jewish newsboy from New York’s Third Avenue, he came to Edmonton in 1911 and started selling papers. He married the daughter of a man who made a killing in the land boom. He built up his business, grubstaked many a prospector and trapper.

When the air age hit Edmonton he backed bush lines. He has been in on gold and uranium rushes, once ran a general store in Yellowknife. Now he’s in oil.

Today one of Edmonton’s prosperous, best-respected citizens (he helped organize the 1930 air show, sent his Edmonton Newsboys’ Band on a European tour, still pours hot coffee for firemen called out on a night alarm) Mike looks back on almost 40 years of steady progression.

Like many an Edmontonian he is humble when, discussing the war boom, he sums up Edmonton’s story in a single sentence.

“The whole thing fell right in our mitt,” says Mike. ★