The history of Fort McMurray through major floods and fire
By Susan Walker, Fort McMurray Heritage Society
Fort McMurray has always been a community for the strong, and the resilient.
Henry John Moberly, the founder who established a Hudson’s Bay post where Fort McMurray is now, chose the site for its thick poplar wood and proximity to water – fires and floods were inevitable.
1871 – DUTCH HENRY & THE TWO BUILDING FIRE
In the spring of 1871, the area was as ‘dry as tinder’, and a whirlwind picked up a coal and carried it to the loft of the store, igniting the roof where a powder keg had been stored.
Gentleman Dutch Henry was visiting the fort. Unaware of the keg, he ran upstairs with a pail of water and ended up having his face badly injured in the resulting explosion. Barely able to see, Henry ran for his most prized possession – a bail of furs – and escaped the burning building.
Moberly was very amused by Henry’s appearance, and the most sympathy that the injured man got was Moberly howling with laughter. It took the rest of the summer to replace the two buildings destroyed in the fire.
1875 – ICE BREAK & LOST OXEN
The next disaster was the spring of 1875, after a particularly snowy winter and sudden rise in temperature. When the ice broke, it created a jam forcing the ice up 40 or 50 feet high and blocked the river. In less than an hour, the water rose 57 feet and flooded the whole flat, mowing down trees as wide as three feet in diameter.
All of the people ran for high ground, except Henry Moberly. He had to swim for his life “like a duck,” after he stayed in his house too long. They did not return to their houses for another five days, only to discover that all of the oxen – except one – had been lost in the flood.
He took four men and they walked to Lac La Biche to buy every available oxen, and returned to Fort McMurray with them. This journey took 20 days. For his handling of the flood, Moberly received two promotions in the Hudson’s Bay Company. Moberly remained in Fort McMurray until 1878, when he was reassigned to a starving post that needed his hunting expertise.
1918 – THE FLOOD OF THE CATHOLIC MISSION
In 1918, a flood occurred in Fort McMurray destroying a number of local buildings in the tiny town and leaving a layer of silt in the Catholic Mission. Much to the delight of the Oblate Missionaries posted there, a pair of nuns arrived just in time to clean the mission for them.
For the next twenty days, the nuns pulled all of the items out of the mission to clean them. In the midst of the cleaning, they found a wet box of chocolate bars, which they were instructed to “leave alone.” The young nuns could not resist the treat, and ate all 18 bars by themselves. After that incident the Oblates purchased a house for the nuns passing through town to live in.
1919 – THE SEVEN MILLION ACRE FIRE
Fire is a part of the lifecycle of the Boreal Forest. In 1911, the first eight fire rangers came to the region. Fort McMurray’s district consisted of 12,000 square miles of land along the Athabasca River and the surrounding area from Grand Rapids to Lake Athabasca.
In 1919, the first recorded major local fire destroyed seven million acres of forest in Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. This heightened the realization that more rangers were needed, and from this point on the force increased.
1934 – THE WEST SIDE FRANKLIN FIRE
The next major fire was on the west side of Franklin Avenue in 1934. The fire started in the Franklin Hotel pool hall, and rapidly travelled to the other wooden buildings which were all in a row.
Fearless townspeople, used to not having much, ran into the hotel and grabbed cutlery, which came in handy when the meat market finished burning down and the town decided to have a feast on the perfectly cooked meat which remained.
Ronnie Morrison sat on the side of the street with a phonograph playing. When asked what he was doing, he explained that he was Nero and Rome was burning.
1936 & 1943 – CLEARWATER RIVER JAMS
In 1936, a destructive flood sent residents of Fort McMurray and Waterways running for higher ground. A jam on the Clearwater River formed a thirty foot wall of ice, which descended on the town and cut through houses.
Water on Franklin Avenue was deep enough that it came up to a horse’s belly. The O’Coffey family provided the displaced citizens with soup as they camped out until the water receded a few days later, leaving a ton of silt and empty foundations where houses had floated away.
Even the American Army’s short stay in Fort McMurray and Waterways for the Canol Project did not escape the frequent flooding. Despite the Army’s attempts to build a dam on the Athabasca River in 1943 – and then blow up the ice to prevent the flooding, the Clearwater still overran its banks.
The tents and equipment on the Prairie in downtown Fort McMurray were flooded during the spring break up. Since the project was close to completion for the Fort McMurray section they did not build anything more permanent to mitigate future flooding.
1945 – ABASANDS OILS PLANT FIRE
In 1945, the small community surrounding Abasand Oils burnt down with very little left standing. An expansion and rebuild of the plant from a previous fire in 1941 was in the final stages of completion, when some sparks off the welding equipment started a large blaze.
The fire devastated the community, and marked the end of the financially struggling Abasand Oils plant. After the second fire, with the Second World War over, the Canadian Government lost interest in the plant and withdrew completely.
1977 – CLEARWATER TRAIL COURT FLOOD
A flood occurred in 1977 when the water level rose about 15 to 20 feet causing approximately 3.5 million dollars in damage. Nearly 500 houses were affected with the worst affected area being the Clearwater Trailer Court. People canoed around the downtown retrieving their belongings from their houses.
1995 – THE MARIANA LAKES FIRE
A lightning strike in 1995 started the Mariana Lakes fire, which eventually grew to 133,000 hectares and jumped the highway, blocking off Fort McMurray for almost six days. The dense smoke was so bad that the Conklin residents evacuated to Fort McMurray, where residents banded together to help their neighbours to the south.
Grocery stores and gas stations both ran short since they were not able to restock. Some Fort McMurray students attending a sporting event were on the south side of the fire and tried their hardest to revive a heart attack victim in Mariana Lakes. In order to protect Fort McMurray, fire fighters built a hundred foot fire break, but fortunately cooler weather put the fire out before it became a threat to the city.
1997 & 2013 – THE HANGINGSTONE RIVER FLOODS
Since 1977 there have been additional notable floods, including in 1997 and 2013 when Heritage Village flooded twice when the Hangingstone River overran its banks. Although Waterways escaped major damage in the 1997 flood, the water came up higher in the 2013 flood and some of the houses and businesses were affected, as well as Keyano College and Home Hardware in downtown Fort McMurray.
Through these many events, as well as smaller disasters, Fort McMurray has learned to adapt to the unpredictable. The people of the region have always been community oriented and generously look after their own through these events. “Fort McMurray Strong” is a concept deeply embedded in our history.
Susan Walker is an archivist for the Fort McMurray Heritage Society (FMHS). FMHS provides regular content to Connect Weekly for the ‘Region Reflections – A look back in time at our heritage’ feature, which is shown within the publication on a weekly basis. Learn more about the Wood Buffalo region’s history by visiting Fort McMurray Heritage Village or go to www.fortmcmurrayhistory.com
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