Moving through time

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Transportation has shaped our cities ... and will shape our future

How did you get to work today?

Most of you probably drove a car down a flat, straight road past long streets of homes with giant garages.

But if you were a young Bill Bocock, you would have used a horse.

“I went to school with a horse and sleigh and a horse and buggy,” the venerable farmer just north of St. Albert, recalls. Both vehicles were commonplace on local roads until the 1940s. It wasn’t until 1948 that he started taking a bus.

Transportation shapes where and how we live. The way we move had a profound impact on the settlement of St. Albert 150 years ago, and will have just as great of an effect on this city’s future.

The SUVs of yore

Foot power and dogsled were the go-to methods for getting around back in Father Albert Lacombe’s time, says Sharon Morin of the Musée Héritage Museum.

“The dogs in wintertime were essential,” she says, as the snow was too deep for carts or horses. Lacombe’s journals recount how he would often travel by dogsled by moonlight, the dogs so used to the path that they could drive the sled themselves.

Traders at Fort Edmonton also used dogs, notes Fort Edmonton Park public interpretation co-ordinator Tom Long. Owners let hundreds of them run wild in the summer, which made keeping livestock and small children safe a challenge. Each fall, they would bludgeon the dogs unconscious in order to wrangle them into their harnesses.

“Edmonton was the transportation lynchpin for pretty much all of Western Canada east of the Rockies,” Long says.

Water was the only practical way to move the tonnes of goods traders did, and portaging from Edmonton was the fastest way to go north to the Athabasca or west to B.C.

And by the 1840s, most of the people moving those goods were Métis working for the Hudson’s Bay Corp.

“These were really, really tough guys,” Long says, able to carry 180 pounds and row for months on end. Many would settle in places such as St. Albert.

Fort Edmonton switched to York boats from canoes to move goods in the 1820s, Long says. The descendents of Viking longboats, these trailer-sized vehicles were built from solid spruce for strength and had shallow keels to navigate low waters. Each could carry up to five tonnes and be rowed by just eight people.

Traders, especially Métis ones, used Red River carts when on land.

Red River carts were very versatile, Morin says. Modelled after the Scottish Highlands cart, the carts were made completely out of wood without use of nails, which meant they could float and be easily repaired in the field.

The carts had huge all-terrain wheels that were bound with shaganappi – buffalo hide applied wet and left to dry so it became hard as iron, Long says. Powered by a single animal, each cart could carry up to 1,000 pounds.

“It’s a real workhorse,” Long says of the cart.

The carts were infamous for the horrific wood-on-wood screech they made while in motion, say Morin and Long. The noise meant people would hear them long before they saw them.

“I wouldn’t want to travel in one,” Morin says, with a laugh.

St. Albert freighters such as Octave Bellerose made extensive use of Red River carts to run convoys throughout the West, Morin says. Starting in 1862, Lacombe would rely on these cart convoys to keep St. Albert supplied with goods, Black Robe’s Vision notes.

Rise of the machines

It was the arrival of the railroad in St. Albert on Sept. 24, 1906, that signalled the end of the cart’s dominance, Morin says.

Rail influenced the shape of communities, says Randy Kvill, curator of agriculture and industry at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum. Instead of just throwing down buildings wherever, communities set up main streets perpendicular to the lines and did 90-degree crossroads off of them.

“One of the big impacts (rail) had was reducing the costs of goods,” Kvill says, as trains could haul lots of freight for little money. Cheap goods drew more settlers and industries, which made bigger communities.

The railroad had a dynamic effect on St. Albert’s economy, Black Robe’s Vision reports. Instead of taking all day to haul grain to Edmonton for sale, farmers could now sell it on the spot at the mill next to their local railway station. With people and goods now moving into town faster, St. Albert saw a business boom, with banks, dance halls and other stores all setting up downtown.

The region’s growth prompted St. Albert businessman Raymond Brutinel to build an Edmonton-St. Albert interurban railway in 1913, Black Robe’s Vision reports. The railway’s gas-electric car was “a study in elegance” with its oak panels and green plush seats, and could carry up to 44 people at once into Edmonton in just half an hour.

The line was a smash hit, inspiring the creation of the Edmonton Canoe Club building on the Sturgeon and a new subdivision, Summerland, Black Robe’s Vision reports. It was short-lived, however, as the line’s only car was incinerated in a refuelling accident in April 1914. Brutinel returned to France to fight in World War One, and the line was sold for scrap.

St. Albert likely saw its first car sometime around the start of World War One, Black Robe’s Vision reports.

Alberta’s first car was a steam-powered Locomobile that arrived in Calgary in 1901, Kvill says. Like most early cars, it looked a lot like a buggy. The first licensed car was a 1903 Ford, and the “plate” was just a broomstick (as it was plate number “1”).

Poor roads limited the use of cars and trucks in those days, especially in winter, as antifreeze had not been invented, Bocock notes. When his dad, Geoff, tried to drive into Edmonton in 1926 for his honeymoon, the roads were so bad he had to lift the front end of the car out of the ruts to move around oncoming traffic.

While many magazines at the time dismissed the car as a fad, advancements such as enclosed cabins and electric starters soon made the car more popular, Kvill says. There were enough of them on St. Albert Trail by the 1920s that residents started calling for speed enforcement, Black Robe’s Vision reports.

The road ahead

People soon saw the speed and freedom of the car as a necessity, Kvill says – no longer did they have to spend all day on a wagon just to go to church. The car shifted from being a luxury item to a tool.

“By the time you get to the 1950s, everybody has a car.”

The car’s ubiquity changed how we plan communities, Kvill says. Since everyone had one, stores no longer had to be within walking distance from people, so businesses abandoned towns and formed huge shopping centres in big cities. Homes developed attached garages, and cities built wide ring roads.

Likewise, Black Robe’s Vision notes that cars had “a long term disintegrating effect on St. Albert’s industrial and commercial development,” as they encouraged residents to do their business in Edmonton.

Today, planners are facing the consequences of these changes. With residents now having to drive to get anywhere (as stores are beyond walking distance), cities like St. Albert face rising rates of obesity, spiralling road costs, and pollution in the form of smog and greenhouse gas emissions, smart growth advocates say.

Local governments are now making serious efforts to reverse these trends. St. Albert has committed to making more walkable communities and neighbourhoods built around mass transit under the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Growth Plan, for example, while Edmonton is building protected bike lanes on its streets.

The goal is to build places built not around the car but around the person, just as we did a century ago. To plan St. Albert’s sustainable future, we are turning back to the oldest transportation method of our past: the humble foot.

Links to the past

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until July 2017.

Got a suggestion for our next topic? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.