The 1882 Edmonton Boomlet

Advertisement in Edmonton Bulletin January 7, 1882

Edmonton in 1882 was still a fur trading post at the western edge of the North West Territories. Since 1870 after Canada had gained control of Rupert’s Land, Edmonton was homesteaded by the people who were already in the area because they were working in the fur trade, or, had left the fur trade and decided to stay, along with a few adventure seekers from elsewhere.

The majority of the people living in or near Edmonton at that time were Indians or Metis. Senior and mid level trading occupations in the fur trade were held by people with European backgrounds, mostly Scottish and English for the Hudson’s Bar Company. Laboring and skilled manual occupations were done by men from Quebec, the Orkney Islands and Metis (the official term at that time was “half breeds”).

Teachers, preachers and bureaucrats trickled in. Estimated population by the Edmonton Bulletin was 250. Unsaid, the Bulletin was only referring to English speaking white folks. There would have been at least that many Indians, probably more. If you wanted a house or a boat built, you would probably have called on one of the local skilled workers from the fur trade, someone of mixed ancestry who spoke French English and Cree. The tiny settlement that would become Edmonton grew around the church built by Reverend George McDougall near the eastern boundary of the Hudson’s Bay reserve, the 5000 acres of land retained by the company when they sold their territory to Canada. The movers and shakers of the community were strict Methodists, who disapproved of just about everything except making money and the British Empire.

Getting to Edmonton from the east before there was a railroad could be difficult, dangerous and always time consuming. The overland Carlton Trail was a two to three month long, 1440 kilometer (900 mile) trek by ox or horse drawn red river cart, buckboard or heavy wagon from Fort Garry, (Winnipeg) in Manitoba. By 1870 Manitoba could be reached by rail or steamboat through the USA. The Hudson’s Bay Company also had steam boats and york boats on the North Saskatchewan when the river was navigable, which was only about 3 months of the year and problematic even then. Travel to Edmonton was limited to those who could afford a month or more travel by steam boat, or sufficiently hardy, skilled and having the equipment and supplies for a several month overland route through untamed country.

Before Rupert’s Land became Crown land, the people of Manitoba had homesteaded on river lots, a type of survey used in Quebec, and brought west by French Canadians. Narrow but long lots divided river frontage into ribbons extending back from the river for more than a mile. The importance of rivers for transportation meant a river lot was the equivalent of highway frontage, a place to locate docks, warehouses, industries and transportation related services. The long strips behind the frontage could be farmed.

George McDougall the Methodist missionary from Victoria Settlement was probably the first claim land for a mission on the eastern border of the Hudson’s Bay Company reserve in 1871. Other Edmonton “homesteaders” were actually managers and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company who claimed river lots on either side of the Hudson’s Bay reserve on the north side of the river and on the south side of the river opposite the reserve. By 1876 Anglican missionary William Newton found the land surrounding Fort Edmonton had already been claimed. The land he was able to find for his mission, The Hermitage, (at the north west corner of Hermitage Park) was seven miles from the settlement.

Others followed. Industries grew on the banks of the river. Coal was found and mined in river valley banks. Gold was searched for but never found in any quantity.

Until the survey reached Edmonton homesteaders were squatters on land still owned by the Crown, as in the government of Canada. The homesteaders farmed and operated businesses serving the community.

The Fort Edmonton Hudson’s Bay Company reserve, the land around the fort the company kept as part of the handover of Rupert’s Land was a block of land extending from the north shore of the river to about 137 avenue, and between 101 street on the east side and 121 street to the west.

In 1882 the company offered to sell 1000 lots in the “City of Edmonton” (Edmonton had yet to be incorporated as anything). There were few takers among the citizens of Edmonton, surrounded by empty unclaimed land as far as the eye could see in all directions.

The national railroad, which so far had laid down more scandals in Ottawa than track, had always said that the Yellowhead Pass would be used to cross the Rocky Mountains, which meant the railroad would pass through Edmonton. The tiny settlement at the edge of civilization was beginning to view itself as the natural, most obvious capital of the region.

In 1881 a new private sector syndicate had taken over the railway from the government. The way the United States government had gotten private investment to pay for railways through unsettled territory was to grant the railway land where the railroads were built. It worked for the USA the Canadian Pacific Railway or syndicate as they were known at the time, were men with US railway experience. The CPR was promised 25 million acres of land suitable for homesteading that they could sell, as well as the land needed for right of way, stations, yards, etc..

When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Winnipeg things were crazy, everyone wanted a piece of Winnipeg. Real Estate was being bought and sold for ever increasing prices. Paper fortunes were built by nearly everyone in Winnipeg, along with about 5,000 or so people who had arrived to participate in the land rush. As things went from crazy to stupid in Winnipeg, speculators started to buy properties on the proposed railway route despite warnings from the CPR that the route had yet to be determined, and that the CPR, not speculators, would determine the route and the location of the towns and cities on the railway.

One of the first decisions of the CPR was that they were not going to use the Yellowhead route, but instead were going to stay closer to the USA Canada border and cross the Rocky Mountains through the Kicking Horse Pass.

The CPR’s warning about speculating on yet to be determined rail routes did nothing to slow the by now beyond stupid, feeding frenzy of land speculation in Winnipeg. Having swallowed up all the available land in and around Winnipeg, speculators were buying lots in places promoted by real estate operators as the next big opportunity. A Winnipeg real estate broker / confidence man, had obtained 400 or so of the lots that the Hudson’s Bay Company had been trying to sell in Edmonton without success.

Edmonton untamed bush was magically transformed into neat subdivisions complete with streets. They were quickly snapped up for the bargain price of $300.00 a lot (HBC could barely get $25.00 a lot in Edmonton) and subsequently traded back and forth for ever increasing prices by speculators who had not bothered to look at a map. The CPR route change from the Yellowhead Pass to Kicking Horse Pass meant that Edmonton would be a five day stage coach ride from the yet to be built railroad.

When the news got back to Edmonton that their ‘city’ lots were going for silly prices in Winnipeg, the cash poor Edmontonians began to see dollar signs, but there was not much that most of them could do about it beyond counting chickens hatched from eggs that had not even been laid. Edmonton homesteaders did not even have legal title to their land, but were abiding by Eastern Canadian squatters rights, if you were able to stay on the land for at least 10 years without anyone disputing your right to live there, it would be yours. No one knew for certain if those squatters rights would even apply under the new Dominion Lands Act.

Amateur lawyers reasoned that if land had to be occupied for ten years by the claimant, there were opportunities for the nimble in Edmonton. A property originally claimed by a Mr. Sinclair had never been occupied by Mr. Sinclair but had been sold to others and subsequently rented to the A McDonald & Co. who built a store on the property. Based on what was happening in Winnipeg, it was thought that this property should be worth between five to ten thousand dollars. Missionary George McDougall’s claim had a church and manse on it managed by the local Methodist society who were not legally incorporated. McDougall died in 1876, lost in a blizzard near Calgary. The Methodist Church on his claim was being used for services but was lacking a resident minister in 1882, the Methodists were renting the Manse to a Mr. Mcauley.

An American gentleman named Mr. George, staked a claim and started to build a shack on the Sinclair claim, on the assumption that it had been improperly claimed and never occupied by Sinclair. Some far sighted types, who may have been nervous about the properties they had managed to accumulate felt that this potential claim jumping trend needed to be firmly nipped in the bud. They confronted Mr. George, who apparently waved his gun at the 100 or so citizen vigilantes who were demanding he leave. Fortunately Mr. George was disarmed before anyone was shot. The vigilantes then pushed his half built shack over the side of the 200 foot high river bank. They also threatened to evict the A MacDonald & Company’s store employees and all of the store’s contents unless the store owners stated they did not intend to claim the land on which the store was situated and that they would pay rent to the land owners. The store manager sent to Fort Saskatchewan for the police.

Two weeks later another attempt was made at claim jumping by a Mr. Bannerman, this time on the Methodist church property. The arm chair legal thinking here was that the Methodist Society not being formally incorporated and without a minister at the time, had no rights of ownership on the McDougall claim. Vigilantes pushed Mr. Bannerman’s shack over the edge as well.

Boundary disputes and other instances of claim jumping were reported in each weekly issue of the Edmonton Bulletin throughout 1882. The vigilantes were acquitted of criminal charges brought by Bannerman, the magistrate ruled that Bannerman had been asked to leave the property, only after he refused did the vigilantes eject him and his shack. When Bannerman sued for damages however, the magistrate made the vigilantes pay, reasoning that all they had needed to do was move Bannerman’s shack off the property. Tossing it over the river bank was apparently over the top.

Not long after the Edmonton lots had been sold to Winnipeg speculators someone must have actually looked at a map to see where Edmonton was. The thoroughly inflated Edmonton land was offered for sale once more, but for the first time since the Winnipeg land boom had launched there were no takers. The speculators knew that the only way they were going to make money was to sell out before the bubble burst. The Edmonton land sale was the first indication that the boom might be over and that it might be time to sell.

That spring Winnipeg’s Red River overflowed its banks. Anyone holding Winnipeg property purchased for ridiculous sums obtained on credit saw their properties deeply under water literally as well as figuratively. The great flood had dampened the enthusiasm of western land speculation (sorry).

Winnipeg was a disaster for most of the speculators, but the CPR was moving rapidly west. There would be more opportunities. But not in Edmonton. Newspapers in Winnipeg and London were reporting that the buyers of Edmonton lots had been swindled. Edmonton would remain next year country for a while longer.

Hope remained in Edmonton that the CPR would not be able to find a pass west of Kicking Horse Pass through the Selkirk mountain range. And that the railway would have to use the Yellowhead after all. It was not to be. Railway surveyor Major Rogers found the pass through the Selkirks that would bear his name. It would prove difficult, but the CPR ultimately succeeded in keeping the railway to the southern route. Edmonton would not see a train for another nine years, when a branch line from Calgary to the south side of the river was completed in 1891.

Postscript; Edmonton Bulletin May 13 1882
“There is a strong feeling that Edmonton should seek incorporation as a town shortly, not because we have a large population or because we wish people to think we have, but so that we can compel the owners of the two thousand pigs (more or less) which now go grunting around door steps and into gardens, to keep them at home.”