Fort McMurray: from “black pitch” and salt to oil sands


© Greg Locke 2007


By Brian Brennan
May 7, 2016

The story of Fort McMurray is one of long hibernation followed by rapid growth. The oilsands developments turned it from a sleepy little northern frontier town into Alberta’s most explosive boom city. But it took almost two centuries for the development to happen.

The boom had been foretold from the time fur trader Peter Pond explored the region in 1778 and marked the location of a deposit of black pitch, along the banks of the Athabasca River, that the aboriginal people used for caulking the seams of their birchbark canoes. Eleven years later, a federal government geologist reported that the region was “stored with a substance of great economic value.” When developed, it would “prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”

For the next century, however, the oilsands remained a natural oddity, much like the Sargasso Sea or the petrified forest of Colorado, and the promise of Fort McMurray remained unfulfilled. Not until the late 1890s was any serious exploration done in the area.

The first flurry of claim-staking activity occurred in 1898, but not for oil. Klondike gold seekers seemingly misread the map and started looking for nuggets in the streams around Fort McMurray. A few years later, oil explorers drilled a well to see if the bitumen was seeping from a conventional oil reservoir below the sand. The drillers didn’t find any oil but they did find salt, and that became a commercial industry in Fort McMurray for a couple of years during the 1920s. Other local industries included sawmilling and a commercial fishery on Lake Athabasca.

During the First World War, Fort McMurray asphalt was used for road paving in some Canadian locations – including Edmonton, Camrose, Jasper and Ottawa. However, this use soon proved to be basically uneconomic and was discontinued.

By Unknown - MIKAN no. 3592868, Public Domain,
Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, c. 1900 Photo: Collections Canada

During the Second World War, the arrival of 3,000 U.S. troops caused the population of Fort McMurray to swell from 1,000 to 4,000. The troops were there to establish a base for the ill-fated Canol pipeline project, which was meant to pump oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse but ended up becoming what a U.S. Senate committee described as a $120 million “junkyard monument to military stupidity.” After the war, the population of Fort McMurray dropped back down to 1,100. There was some oilsands development during this period, when Abasand Oils began producing diesel oil on a small-scale basis west of Fort McMurray, but that project died when the plant burned down.

Continued interest in developing the Athabasca oilsands came from growing postwar concern about Canada’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. This changed dramatically when a huge conventional crude oil reservoir was discovered at Leduc, Alberta in 1947. As a result of this and other conventional crude discoveries, which were easier and cheaper to recover, oilsands development and the growth of Fort McMurray stalled for several years.

In 1950, an Alberta government report finally concluded that the oilsands were “entering the stage of possible commercial development.” But it took another decade before large-scale commercial development became a reality and Fort McMurray was ready to take flight. In 1961, Fort McMurray was a railway outpost with little more than one gas pump, a rundown hotel, a few stores, no highway link to the rest of the province, and about 1,200 people. Two years later, Fort McMurray and nearby Waterways (then a separate community, now one of the neighbourhoods severely damaged by fire) were bursting at the seams as construction workers poured into the region to build the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant.

By 1973, the population had grown to more than 10,000, and the town wrestled with a housing crisis as southern invaders found temporary shelter in tents and trailers. But this crisis was nothing compared to the chronic housing shortage and other social problems that developed over the next five years when an additional 8,000 migrant construction workers flooded into Fort McMurray to build the giant Syncrude plant. Wayne Skene reported in Maclean’s magazine that it was like a scene out of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

“The less fortunate and the less perceptive camped in drafty tents and trailers along ditches of the highway leading into Fort McMurray. The few hotels that existed then were always full. New bungalows – when available – were priced at $80,000 to start. Recreation facilities for the population of 18,000 consisted of a single community centre and any tavern where you could grab a seat. Like ghosts from a Dawson City daguerreotype from the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Fort McMurray inhabitants lined up for the once a week delivery of fresh vegetables at the Safeway store.”

Basic community services such as medical care, fire fighting, and education were woefully insufficient to meet the demand, and crime increased beyond the initial capacity of the police to handle it. “Fort McMurray was all things Canadian communities are not supposed to be,” concluded Skene. “Visually uninviting, socially sordid, and violated by an invasion of single, unemployed transients.” Yet for many of those transients, Fort McMurray was a mecca for partying, brawling, big wages, and ripping off the company. Working on the Syncrude project was – as one worker put it – “the softest touch ever in the States or Canada” for the building trades.

Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons
Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons

Colourful tales of equipment theft and featherbedding, while impossible to verify, have become part of the folklore of the project during that period.  Canadian Business  magazine writer Robert Bott reported that some of the stories were amusing, if implausible: “A D-9 Cat allegedly turning up grading roads in Stettler, Alta., nearly 400 miles from the Syncrude site … an East Indian youth fired when he was found sitting down, after two weeks of standing around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do … Newfoundlanders staggering into the Fort McMurray post office to mail 100-pound cartons of stolen tools back home … guys who would check out their brass ID tags in the morning and sleep all day until it was time to check them back in at night … workers wandering around the site for days, pretending to look for a missing tool or an absent foreman.”

By 1980, things had settled down. The partying construction workers had moved on, and Fort McMurray had become a stable city of 28,000 with a new hospital, transit system, radio station, community theatre, schools, churches, recreation facilities and door-to-door mail delivery. Crime statistics were down, and the community was no longer being portrayed in the national media as a Wild West town where the per-capita sale of liquor was the highest in the country. “We did it and we survived,” said one seven-year resident. “We didn’t fall apart at the seams, become gibbering idiots, or end up in Valium City.”

The population of Fort McMurray continued to grow during the years following. By the mid-1990s, with Syncrude and Suncor gearing up for massive expansions, the population had reached 38,000. With almost half the residents hailing from Atlantic Canada, the community was – in the words of one local wag – “Newfoundland’s third-largest city.” The community now boasted three golf courses, a dozen shopping malls, nine movie houses, two dozen bars, one gourmet restaurant, 10 liquor stores, and the largest mobile home park in Canada.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Alberta’s most explosive boomtown had become home to more than 40,000 permanent residents, and also had to deal with an influx of 13,000 construction workers contracted to build new or expanded facilities for the big oil companies. While many of these temporary workers were able to find accommodation in company-owned work camps outside the municipal boundary, others scrambled to find shelter in a municipality where all the hotels and motels were full, and as many as five or six workers would cram into one small apartment because of what one realtor described as “zero, zero vacancies.”

In preparation for these new mining developments, the municipality and private sector created a computer model that would give some indication of the future impact of these developments on Fort McMurray’s infrastructure and work force. They expressed the hope that this type of “SimCity” computer-game approach would help Fort McMurray avoid some of the withdrawal pains of other one-industry communities when the oilsands boom eventually turned to bust. Since that time the permanent population of Fort McMurray has grown to more than 80,000, and the municipality has been gearing up to celebrate its history this coming August with the opening of a heritage village containing 17 buildings. That celebration is now on hold following the recent wildfires.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2016

Related stories:

Fort McMurray: Boom, bust …burned, by Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton

A convoy of evacuees from the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray drove through the heart of a massive wildfire guided by police and military helicopters as they sought to reach safety to the south of the burning city. “Our life is here. We will go back and rebuild,” vowed one.  …read more

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS
Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Brian BrennanBrian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.

Visit him at his website,

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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