Urban Settlement: 1870-1904

Edmonton as we know it today began to develop in the early 1870s. Initially a very small community, it grew steadily until 1904, at which time it had a population of over 8,000.

After slowly expanding out from the fort, and facing many of the hardships experienced by the fur traders before them, many settlers came together to expand their community.  Built more for survival, and focused less on longevity or style, there are few remaining architectural examples from this period. Once the first rail line was connected, many additional main railways were extended through Edmonton to bring pioneers and supplies from the east, which accelerated the growth of the settlement in the coming years.


Wood construction was the standard method since trees were readily available. Log structures were popular even in town as many temporary structures were erected using basic building techniques. Many of these structures were later replaced with more permanent buildings.

By the 1890s, brick buildings were starting to appear among the frame structures in downtown, including a new two storey store for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Other examples of early brick buildings were religious structures, which had the benefit of a congregation to help finance construction. By 1898 the Municipal Council had passed a bylaw requiring new buildings on Jasper Avenue between 97 Street and 103 Street (Edmonton’s commercial core) to be built with non-combustible walls and roofs – steel, concrete, brick or stone – to guard against fire. 

Houses were simple, and form was often overshadowed by the function and the need for basic shelter. The simple style of small foursquare houses was popular. Some wealthier newcomers brought plans with them for larger and more ornate Queen Anne or French-style houses.

Historical Context

In May 1870, the settlement that later grew into Edmonton became a part of Canada when the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) agreed to cede vast the territory in northern and western Canada over to the new Dominion. As part of the agreement, the HBC received reserved land grants, totaling about 3,000 acres, around each of its posts. In Edmonton, the boundaries of the Hudson's Bay Reserve were roughly present day 101 Street on the east, 121 Street on the west, the North Saskatchewan River on the south, and 127 Avenue on the north. Development beyond the fort was timid at first; only an occasional homesteader ventured to farm outside the palisades. Edmonton eventually grew into a town, with slow growth occurring north of the river until the expansion of a rail line. 

Prior to 1881, the HBC would not formally subdivide its land, and the settlement of Edmonton developed some distance away from the fort. The first significant building was a Methodist church erected in 1871 about one mile from Fort Edmonton. Within a few years, straggling east along the top of the riverbank, Jasper Avenue emerged as Edmonton's main street. The centre of town initially developed on 97 Street and Jasper Avenue.  

In the decade that followed, a small group of entrepreneurs, namely John Walter, Malcolm Groat, Frank Oliver, Donald Ross and John McDougall, would radically change the economy of Edmonton. Some were former HBC employees, while others saw an opportunity and moved west from Ontario or Quebec. These men were pivotal in creating the early institutions necessary in a major city. The services they developed included providing a steamer service on the river; opening the first hotel; building a flour mill; establishing a local newspaper, the Edmonton Bulletin; running a ferry service across the river; and operating a small coal mining operation on the riverbank. 

In 1881, the HBC decided to subdivide its land west of 101 Street and south of Jasper Avenue, which allowed settlement to develop in another direction. This coincided with the survey of Western Canada undertaken by the federal government to facilitate homesteading. Edmonton started with a population of 263 in 1881 and the survey established the rights of several individuals who had staked out claims along the northern side of the river. Edmonton was incorporated as a town in 1892 and its first Mayor, Matthew McCauley, was elected. The town encompassed the modern neighborhoods of Boyle Street and McCauley. False-fronted, wood stores sprang up in an uneven line along both sides of Jasper Avenue east of 101 Street, creating a functioning downtown.

The town focused on essential services, which included fire protection, an electric power company and a telephone company. Rapid growth, for any prairie town, was dependent on the expansion of the railroad. However, the northern terminus of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway was built on the south side of the river in 1891, which created another small settlement, namely, South Edmonton. With access by railroad, South Edmonton grew quickly and within a few years was almost as big as Edmonton. As the two communities grew, years of rivalry ensued. South Edmonton was incorporated as the town of Strathcona in 1899. 

Edmonton was soon to become a lively place. In 1901, the town had only 2,626 inhabitants but this slow growth would quickly come to an end. In 1902, the long-delayed completion of the Low Level Bridge gave Edmonton its first railway link from the east.  

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