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It was not until 1860 that Canada learned about the fertile land in the west. In 1857 the team of Dawson and Hind, sent out by the Canadian government, reported that the west was suitable for colonization and agriculture. Before this report, the prairies were perceived to be a desert. About that time Palliser discovered the mountain passes through which the CPR now runs and proposed a railway line from eastern Canada to the Pacific.
Although Canada was established as a Dominion in 1867, the prairies were still a vast wilderness when a survey of the then Northwest Territories was authorized in the 1870s. The survey used the American system of 6-mile square townships. In 1879, the Dominion Lands Act opened up the land for homesteads. By 1902, 11,845 receipts had been issued from the Edmonton Dominion Lands Department Office.
Camrose was rather late in the game, as far as development in the district, as you can see from this list of important dates in the district from 1862 to 1905.
Important dates in Camrose history
Wetaskiwin, our neighbor to the west, came into being in 1892 with the arrival of the railway into Strathcona. There was a trail heading east from Wetaskiwin as far as Bittern Lake which then headed northeast beyond Pretty Hill. Some work was done in 1901 on a government road from Bittern Lake to what was to become Camrose. From 1900 to 1903 many settlers were arriving from the United States to look over the land east of Bittern Lake. At that time the only way to reach the Hamlet of Stoney Creek (now Camrose) was to walk or use horses.
In 1904 the construction of 25 miles of railway grade began east from Wetaskiwin through this pretty parkland region toward what is now Camrose. This was part of the Canadian Pacific Rail line to Winnipeg through Saskatoon. The engineers had been over the route and surveyed the townsites. This centre, named Sparling by the railway, was located on the banks of Stoney Creek, the homestead of Ole Bakken.
The homestead shack of Ole Bakken, who emigrated from Norway, was made of sod and dug into the hill. Built in 1893, Ole’s home was typical of the modest homes first erected on the prairies: ten by fourteen feet, built of poplar logs with a sod roof, one door and a small window. The furnishings included a stove, table, chairs, a bunk and a coal oil lamp. It was a centre of hospitality in its day – with Ole happy to share his homemade bread. His sod home has been reproduced and can be seen at the Camrose Centennial Museum.
Ole Bakken’s home – from the Camrose and District Centennial Museum collection
The townsite as first surveyed had an eight-block modest beginning when lots were open for sale in October 1904. Francois Adam, a civil engineer and land agent for the CPR had an active hand in the development of the townsite.
Our main street, measuring 100 feet wide, can be directly attributed to Francois. Sparling became the Town of Camrose in 1906.
The first businessmen were young, optimistic and got along well.
In short order there was a general store, stopping house, harness shop, two hotels, two lumber yards, hardware and tinsmith shop, farm implements shop, jewelry store, drug store, law office and insurance office.
Map of Sparling - the first townsite.
In addition to these retail establishments, a farmers’ elevator was built, with financing from local farmers. Two doctors’ offices opened in 1904 and 1905. The first issue of the Camrose Mail was published July 27, 1906. The Camrose Mail was eventually sold, and the renamed Camrose Canadian was first published in the fall of 1909. In 1911 Camrose had a surveyed area of 2.5 miles by 3 miles.
By June of 1905 the railway was completed, including a bridge over Stoney Creek. A train came to town three times a week, turned around and returned to Wetaskiwin. Late in the fall of 1906 the track had been laid to Daysland. The “Blue Flea Special”, a daily passenger service between Wetaskiwin and Daysland was inaugurated, extending to Hardisty early in 1907. The line was completed to Saskatoon by 1909.
Pictured below: First team of horses deliver freight to Camrose - courtesy the Camrose and District Centennial Museum collection
With recognition as a town, a mayor and town council were elected. The first Mayor was Thomas Dahl. That first town council got right to work and appointed a Secretary-Treasurer, Medical Health Officer, Auditor, Assessor, Town Constable, Night Watchman, Bell Ringer and Pound Keeper.
In March of 1907 council contracted the building of a fire hall and three underground water tanks for fire protection purposes. They purchased a Waterous gasoline fire engine in 1907 and formed a volunteer fire brigade.
A school opened in a Presbyterian church in July 1905 and later moved to a larger Lutheran church building. The school enrollment was 90 in the fall of 1906. A four-room brick veneer dedicated school building was opened in May 1907.
First Steam Freight into Camrose
From the recollections of Thomas Phillips, Methodist Church Minister who came to Camrose in 1904:
“In thinking of those crude pioneer days, I am strangely impressed with the rapidity with which they gave way to orderly established and permanent improvements in town and community. It was hustle and bustle; it was bang and rush to get places of business and homes erected. Shacks and huts were replaced by substantial homes.
Planting trees, making lawns, and laying sidewalks became the order in Camrose, and one is not surprised the citizens manifest much pride in “Watching Camrose Grow”. The aggressive zeal with which the homesteaders broke the virgin soil, fenced their claims, made roads and established farmsteads, indicated they were there to stay and make permanent homes.”
1904 – Hamlet of Stoney Creek
1905 – Village of Sparling
1906 – Town of Camrose
1955 – City of Camrose
The Golden Trail, published in 1955, contains a wonderful summary of the first twenty-five years of Camrose. It is such a fun and informative read that we have included those sections on our website.
Main Street 1909
Courtesy the Camrose and District Centennial Museum collection
Early History of Camrose Alberta and District – published in 1947 by the Camrose Historical Society
The Golden Trail – published in 1955 by the Lions Club of Camrose
A Light into the Past A History of Camrose 1905 to 1980 – published in 1980 by the Camrose Historical Society
Camrose Canadian - August 14, 2005