A narrative history about west-central Strathcona County
Looking at a map of Strathcona County, take note of the area on the west side of the municipality, north and south of Highway 16. Today this is largely an industrial area, where you hear the sounds of heavy traffic and industry along the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway. Now, turn your ear to imagine what you would have heard 50, 100 or even thousands of years ago.
Sounds from the distant past
If you were to go back in time over 5,000 years, you might hear the sound of rock striking rock and the crackle of a fire. Climbing up the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, a small group of people speaking their native tongue would be carrying quartzite, a hard stone used in the production of tools. Based on the archaeological record, we know the First Peoples used this area as a quarry and camping site1. The lithic (that is, stone) materials found here, along with animal remains and existence of fire pits, suggest intermittent use over the millennia by several groups. The evidence of cord-marked pottery indicates the site was being used by Indigenous peoples well into the late 1700s.
Over the centuries as the first occupants made their seasonal rounds, they developed a network of trails through the area. If you were to go back only 200 years, to the early 1830s, you might hear a very distinct sound along these same trails: the rhythmic screeching of the Red River cart. The insufferable noise, produced by the grinding of two large wooden wheels around a wooden axle, announced the coming of a trading caravan long before you'd catch sight of it. The group might be transporting goods to trade at Fort Edmonton, just a few miles upstream on the North Saskatchewan River. As it approached, the sound of the carts would mix with human voices in an air of excitement. Entire families would take part in the annual trading trip with a sense of festivity.
Pulled by horse or oxen, the large wooden carts were used primarily by the Métis people. Originally the offspring of French Canadian explorers and Indigenous women, the Métis carved out a niche for themselves in the fur trade. Over time, they developed a distinct identity, melding facets of European and First Nations cultures. The Métis way of life and the role they played in the economy of the Great Plains would not last. By the mid-1800s, the buffalo herds that formed the backbone of their trade were declining. The market for furs in Europe had collapsed and—not without difficulty and hardship—the Métis would adapt to an agrarian way of life in ranching and farming throughout the prairies.
The prospect of gold beckons
In the mid-1800s, a sound you might hear on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River was that of water, sand and pebbles being swirled in a metal pan or being rocked back and forth in a wooden rocker box. Then very likely would follow a heavy sigh from a disappointed prospector as he found little or no gold for his hard labour. It's from this period that Clover Bar gets its name.
A “Forty-Niner” who joined the California Gold Rush in 1849 and followed on to British Columbia's Caribou gold fields in 1858, Thomas H. Clover was lured further still by rumours that gold had been discovered on the North Saskatchewan River in the North-West Territories. Arriving at Fort Edmonton in 1860, he tried out several locations along the river and chose a small sand bar on the south bank2. The spot became known as Clover's Bar.
Tom Clover, as did others, achieved limited success mining for gold here as there was little to be found. Over a 49-year period ending in 1927, a federal official estimated that $313,201 worth of gold had been dug out from the North Saskatchewan3. While that might seem like a lot, it pales when compared to the $950,648 from a single claim in the Cariboo within a period of two months4.
The return for the effort wasn't enough to convince Tom to stay. After four seasons he left for Fort Garry and more adventure, bearing witness to the Red River Resistance of Louis Riel and the execution of Thomas Scott in 18705. He eventually settled in Leroy, North Dakota where he lived out his days to the age of 91.
While Tom himself stayed only four seasons, his name stuck. The apostrophe “s” was dropped, and Clover Bar soon became the name used for a large stretch of what is now west-central Strathcona County. It's perhaps noteworthy, or at least curious, that one stop on his life journey would hail fortune-seeker Tom Clover such an honour as to commemorate the region's official name.
Settlement gets underway
In 1871, the new nation of Canada embarked on a more-than-ambitious plan with the Dominion Lands Act—a plan meant to stimulate the settlement of the entire western frontier. While a lack of transportation infrastructure and accessible land dissuaded many people in the first years, a few hardy pioneers stepped up to enter claims on newly surveyed land in the Clover Bar area. In 1881, R.P. Ottewell, Thomas Jackson, William Carscaden and Edward Langrell, arriving from the Great Lakes, were among the first pioneers to take up homesteads in the Clover Bar area6.
They cleared land, planted crops and established their homesteads; it was hard manual labour. Aided by axe and saw, they built their first dwellings from local timbers, insulated from the elements with moss and mud. Superior quality soil and soil conditions made the area well suited for mixed farming, so you could expect to hear the sounds of pigs, chickens, cows, sheep and goats as you crossed the region. Even with the shorter growing season of a northern climate, the Clover Bar area was prized for its quality yields. For one, early settler Tom Daly produced award-winning grain and took first place at the 1901 World's Fair in Paris for his banner oats7.
As the population grew in the Clover Bar area, so too did the need for infrastructure and social organizations. The first mail was delivered in 1884 and children attended the first school in 18918. By the close of the nineteenth century, local farmers were uniting their voices, culminating in the formation of the influential United Farmers Association (UFA) in 19029.
The village of Clover Bar boasted a post office, church and school, and many homes—at its peak, the community flourished to the tune of 1,200 residents. With the advancement of industry and the start-up of Sherwood Park nearby, the village began to decline. Then in 1970 its 47 buildings were auctioned off and either moved or razed as a cloverleaf interchange was built at Highway 16 and Highway 216—and the village of Clover Bar was no longer.
It’s a long wait for a railway
A reliable and fast connection with eastern Canada had been a long-gestating dream for the region. In the 1870s, a small group of speculators organized the Edmonton and Saskatchewan Land Company of Canada, taking a gamble on the Canadian Pacific Railway choosing this route to British Columbia. They imagined Clover Bar becoming a major centre12, envisioning a bustling Clover City! Their hopes were dashed when a shorter route was announced in 1883; the CPR rail line would be built through Calgary instead, leaving the Edmonton-Clover Bar area high and dry without a railway until a spur line from Calgary to Edmonton was completed in 1891.
The lumbering locomotive with its rotating driving wheel and steam whistle would come to dominate Canada’s east-west transportation routes in the early twentieth century. But a long time would pass before the settlers the Clover Bar area would get a rail line direct from the east. First came the Canadian Northern railway in 1905, followed by the Grand Trunk Pacific railway—with its massive steel trestle that still bridges the North Saskatchewan—in 1909. By 1928, there were three rail lines zigzagging through the Clover Bar region13.
Coal industry takes off and mechanization takes hold
As more settlers arrived, increasing demand for coal for heating homes and operating steam trains and other burgeoning enterprises allowed the coal industry to prosper in Clover Bar and the Edmonton region. Beginning in the 1890s, the sound and scale of the coal industry would quickly eclipse earlier activities along the North Saskatchewan as the number of mines increased over many decades. Those in Strathcona County included the Black Diamond mine, Fraser-McKay, Marcus, Ottewell and Kent.
Day in, day out, men would trek below ground, boring holes and setting explosives. Bringing the coal to the surface involved the clamour of mine carts and the neighing of horses used in mines well into the late 1940s. It could be dangerous work, made all the more perilous by occasional disregard for safety and provincial regulations10, 11. The industry would continue to prosper until the 1950s when newer sources of energy led to the bottoming out of the coal market. Mirroring the rest of Alberta, one by one, the coal mines in Clover Bar shut down or were abandoned.
For localized and personal transport, the automobile became a common fixture with the first vehicles—such as the Ford Model T—appearing in Clover Bar in 190814. Car traffic necessitated the establishment of roads; a number built in the first half of the twentieth century. Where once trotted the horse, now the automobile was beginning its reign. Equine power would have a brief resurgence during the Great Depression with the Bennett Buggy, the colloquial term (named in dubious honour after Prime Minister R.B. Bennett) given to horse-pulled vehicles, a practical solution in the face of widespread economic hardship. Alongside the chugging of trains, the sound of the tractor and car engine, and the rumble of tires over gravel roads would usher in the mechanical revolution. In the post-World War II era, the availability of the diesel tractor and mechanical threshing machine would cement the place of the motorized engine in rural life.
Petroleum industry takes over
It goes without saying that the shift in fuel sources from coal to oil in the mid-twentieth century had a profound impact on Clover Bar and the entire region. Just as the coal market was waning in 1947, Imperial Oil would strike it big with its derrick, Leduc No. 1. Looking to locate the region’s first refinery nearby, the company decided on Clover Bar, due to its accessible transportation corridor and the availability of river water for processing.
From these beginnings of Refinery Row at Clover Bar has grown today’s Alberta's Industrial Heartland Association, Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region, which hosts over 40 companies from five participating neighbouring municipalities.
Day and night, today’s sounds of development have come to define Clover Bar; the constant buzz of traffic and industrial machinery signifies a strong local economy. And yet, if we take the time to listen closely, we can still hear in the distance echoes of the first settlers and first peoples who came this way before us. They have passed down to us a rich heritage; their voices are not to be forgotten. Because of their story, we have a history.
- Strathcona Site (FjPi-29) Excavations. Archaeological Survey of Alberta Manuscript Series, No. 2, 3 & 4. Alberta Culture Historical Resources Division. 1985.
- Berry, J.P., Clover Bar in the Making. 1931.
- Redekop, L. and W. Gilchrist. Strathcona County: A Brief History. 1981. p. 10.
- Cariboo Sentinel, 31 July 1865. Cited in The Cariboo Gold Rush [electronic resource]. url: http://www.cariboogoldrush.com/timeline/. Accessed: October 26, 2015.
- Cowie, I. Life Story of Tom Clover.
- Berry, J.P. Clover Bar in the Making. 1931.
- Handwritten accounts of history of Clover Bar pioneers notably Tom Daly. Provincial Archives of Alberta. Accession #79.366.
- Berry, J.P. Clover Bar in the Making. 1931.
- Cherished Memories. Ardrossan Unifarm: Ardrossan, AB. 1972.
- Department of Mines, Ottewell Mine #91, 1928-1951. Provincial Archives of Alberta. Accession #72.90/110.
- Department of Mines, Marcus Mine #699. Provincial Archives of Alberta. Accession #72.90/112 (a, b).
- Berry, J.P. Clover Bar in the Making. 1931
- Berry, J.P. Clover Bar in the Making. 1931. p. 14.
- Redekop, L. and W. Gilchrist. Strathcona County: A Brief History. 1981. p. 47.
- Redekop, L. and W. Gilchrist. Strathcona County: A Brief History. 1981. p. 85.
This article was published in a condensed version in Strathcona County Living newsletter, June 2019.