|If youve driven Rossdale Road, youve passed over human history. Literally. Beginning in the early 1800s and continuing through most of the century, the area around 95th Avenue and 104th Street was a burial ground for Fort Edmonton.|
This spot, on the broad flat scoured by the North Saskatchewan River and now at the north end of the Walterdale Bridge, is a place First Nations peoples camped for thousands of years. The river was the principal transportation corridor in prehistoric and early historic times and it became the site, beginning in 1801, of the fur trading outposts of Fort Edmonton and Edmonton House. In the early days of the 20th century, it was the birthplace of Edmonton Power.
Today it is known as Rossdale, named for pioneer settler Donald Ross, who arrived in 1872 and the following year became the third white man to build a house in Edmonton. He was also a farmer and prospector and he bought 70 acres of what soon became known as the Ross Flats. The first river lot and township survey, completed in 1882, shows that Donald Ross was the owner River Lot 4 which is a good chunk of todays Rossdale.
The log home of Donald and Olive Ross evolved into Edmonton House, which opened in 1876 at the bottom of what is now MacDougall Hill. It was the first hotel west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. The hotel also boasted the first billiard tables in Alberta which also doubled as spare beds when the inn was full. The Edmonton House expanded three times over the next 25 years and burned to the ground in 1925.
Ross also started the areas first coal mine as well as the first market garden and greenhouse. And he went on to become a member of the first public school board in 1883 and, in recognition of his standing in the community, was given the honour of driving the last rivet to complete construction of the Low Level Bridge in 1900.
The Rossdale Historical Land Use Study, completed for the citys Planning and Development Department and released in March, examines the many uses that have occurred and continue to occur within the Rossdale neighbourhood and most particularly within a designated 17.1 hectare study area. The study is one of several initiatives now being undertaken by the city to commemorate the former Fort Edmonton burial ground and to relocate a portion of Rossdale Road that crosses the burial ground site.
The study includes chapters on the human and natural history, the fur trade, the local history and archeology of the study area. In the early days of the 19th century, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company established forts here. Fort Augustus and Edmonton House, which are now referred to as Fort Edmonton versions two and four, occupied this site between 1802 and 1810 and again between 1813 and 1831.
The North Saskatchewan River rose over the forts several times and apparently the flood in 1830 was the final straw. The Hudson's Bay Company decided to move the operation up hill to the bench land just below today's Alberta Legislature.
The study notes that as the ownership of much of the land was gradually transferred from the Hudsons Bay Company to the city over the years, Rossdale became a place for utilities and transportation routes. They included the power plant, the water treatment plant, a gravel pit, roads, railway lines and bridges. It narrowly missed becoming a manure depot, an incinerator and, in the late 1960s, an expressway.
The Edmonton Industrial Exhibition Association bought 55-acres of Ross flats land from the Hudsons Bay Company in 1899 and, for the next ten years, it was home to the Edmonton Exhibition. The site is south and east of todays 96th Avenue and 104th Street and is now occupied by part of Telus Field.
In 1903, the association sold 1.94 acres at the southwest corner of the property to the Town of Edmonton for use as water and power treatment plants. Construction on the powerhouse began in 1902 and, as Edmonton grew, so did the need for more electricity.
Built in stages between 1930 and 1954, the three buildings of the Rossdale Low Pressure Plant are rare and significant examples of industrial architecture of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 2001, the Alberta government designated the Low Pressure Plant, the Administration Building and Pumphouse No. 1 as Provincial Historic Resources.
At the burial ground, bodies have been accidentally excavated several times, including 1967 when Edmonton Power was doing some work on the north transformer yard. First Nations people say some of their forefathers are buried in that cemetery and they are understandably indignant about any threat to this sacred ground.
There's no disputing this is a special place in Edmonton's past and, if wise decisions are made, will remain special into the future. Spend some time along the river just below the plant and chances are you'll see beaver swimming along, scouting for an unsuspecting sapling or bigger tree to fell. You'll hear birdsong and maybe even a flock of geese will pass overhead.
It's remarkable that, in the lap of one of Canada's major cities, all the natural wonder has survived. Even more remarkable is the survival of historic artifacts, such as pieces of bone and fragments of tools, found a metre below the surface, right in the lap of an industrial site.
To protect the areas precious archeological resources, the Rossdale Historical Land Use Study recommends effective consultation with stakeholders, the avoidance of additional surface disturbance to the area believed to contain the traditional burial ground and the adoption of a preservation strategy. The report also says that prior assessment for archeological resources should be required for any proposed development in the Rossdale Historic Land Use Study Area that occurs within the areas show as having highest archeological sensitivity.
It additionally recommends that, since previous investigations of the Fort Edmonton burial ground have been inconclusive, further geophysical investigations should be conducted to establish the limits of the burials. As well, initiatives should be undertaken to commemorate and interpret all the significant history of the Rossdale Flats. The study, an outstanding document prepared by Commonwealth Historic Resource Management, has it exactly right. The birthplace of Edmonton is a treasure trove of the past and one that is certainly worthy of greater exploration, understanding and interpretation.
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