When the North Saskatchewan floods
Originally published June 30, 2005
Right from Edmonton’s early days, the North Saskatchewan River has had its say. Every few years, the river has risen and leapt its banks, flooding in a new way of thinking and changing the course of development and use in the valley.
In June 1915, the river rose 12 metres above its normal level, scouring the valley communities of Walterdale, Rossdale, Cloverdale and Riverdale. That great flood turned streets into rivers, submerging neighbourhoods with nearly a metre of water. The water was so high and moving so fast that a Canadian National Railways coal train was parked on the Low Level Bridge to hold it secure against the tremendous weight of the torrent of water.
The flood is considered to be the worst of the century, but there have been many others since the days of the fur trading posts of Fort Edmonton and Fort Augustus. Ignoring the advice of First Nations people, who knew from experience that the river would surely flood, the twin forts were erected in 1801 and 1802, near the site of today’s Rossdale Power Plant.
The two forts operated at the site between 1802 and 1810 and again between 1813 and 1831. As the Indigenous peoples had predicted, the river swamped them several times and apparently floods in 1825 and 1830 were the final straw. Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John Rowand decided to move the operation up hill to the bench land just below today's Alberta Legislature, building the final version of Fort Edmonton, which was dismantled in 1915.
Even the bountiful parkland in the belly of the valley owes its existence to river floods.
The foundation for the establishment of what is now the best urban river valley park anywhere in North America is found in letters to Edmonton City Council and the Mayor of Strathcona written by landscape architect Frederick G. Todd in 1907.
Todd observed: "Perhaps no one thing is more important for large cities or cities which are assured of a great future than that they shall early secure open spaces for the benefit of future generations." Todd encouraged decision makers of the two municipalities to consider the value of parkland in its future planning decisions.
Todd’s thinking was decidedly out of step with the prevailing direction of the time. Edmonton's river valley was an industrial beehive, populated with dozens of coal mines, brick yards, lumber operations and even a couple of gold mining operations and boat builders.
Councillors dallied over his recommendations and nothing much happened to further Todd's lofty ideals until Mother Nature intervened in June 1915. The resulting flood nearly washed away the Low Level Bridge and took the lumber fortune of John Walter, Edmonton’s first millionaire, to Saskatchewan.
The story goes that, right to the last, Walter refused to believe his community would flood. Long-time Walterdale resident Norman Guild, writing in the Edmonton Journal in 1978, recalled Walter striding up and down and repeating over and over again in his Scottish burr: "It'll nae come o'er the banks."
But that it did. Chicken coops, outhouses and wooden sidewalks floated away, along with Walter’s sawn lumber, leaving him in financial ruin. His coal mines and power plant were also flooded out.
That year, the Government of Alberta moved to adopt in principle Todd's visionary
thinking. In 1933, the City of Edmonton established a zoning bylaw in the spirit of protection.
The 1915 flood also marked the beginning of the end for Walterdale as a residential community. By the 1950s, the Kinsmen Club had acquired much of the property between the Walterdale (then 105th Street) and High Level bridges, houses were demolished and a grand park was born.
The North Saskatchewan River has jumped its banks more than 20 times in the last 150 years, but few floods can match the timing of the flood in August 1899 for driving home the point that Mother Nature is indeed the boss. That year, the Low Level Bridge was under construction, and when the water came up, it submerged the piers for the structure.
Newspaper accounts of the day paint a vivid portrait of the consternation that resulted when the river rose to 42 feet (12.8 metres) above the low water level and a full four feet (1.2 metres) above the top of the piers. Within days, plans had been made to add eight feet (2.4 metres) to the height of the piers. The bridge was then completed in 1900.
As the water rose in the 1899 flood, it carried the sternwheeler the Northwest – the “Greyhound of the Saskatchewan” – from its moorings at Walter’s Flat and smashed her into the centre pier of the bridge. In his book Edmonton, A History, J.G. MacGregor describes what happened. "For ten minutes she hung there and then, ever so slowly, her sides smashed in and her back broken, she swung free and set out on her last run down the river she had known so well. Three days later, 100 miles downstream, she was still recognizable as she passed the mouth of Saddle Creek, thenceforth to be seen no more."
In the 1915 flood, another paddlewheeler, the City of Edmonton, was saved from a similar fate. Capt. Christianson and crewmen Henry Burger and Bob McBride pulled her in on the top of the bank behind John Walter’s carpenter shop and tied her to a big tree. Despite Walter's urging, Christianson refused to leave his vessel and rode out the flood.
In 1918, the City of Edmonton was tied up for good and, as time marched onward, she silted up and dissolved into the mud. For years, the remains of the vessel were visible in a mudbank of the North Saskatchewan just west of the Walterdale Bridge. Just a few fragments remain, such as the vessel's bell and the fiddle Capt. Christianson played, both in the Edmonton Artifacts Centre.
The valley is the work of more than 20,000 years of weathering and erosion, as the river has carved deep into the land, 60 metres deep and as much as 1.6 kilometres wide. Floods are a natural part of the process, and even though the 1960s construction of the Bighorn and Brazeau dams upstream have helped to regulate the flow and reduce the severity of floods, they still happen.
Just so we know who’s the boss.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.