The name “grande prairie” appears on the earliest geological survey maps of this region to describe, not a city, but the largest area of open prairie in the Peace River Country. Formerly called Buffalo Plains because of the vast herds of buffalo which ranged there along with large herds of elk, “la grande prairie” was criss-crossed by the trails of the Beaver, Cree and Iroquois Indians as they traveled and traded from Jasper and Sturgeon Lake to nearby Flyingshot and Saskatoon Lakes, and on to Spirit River and Dunvegan further north. These routes were followed by explorers, fur traders and missionaries as they made contact with the native groups.
As early as 1872, other groups such as Canadian Pacific Railway engineers and Geological Survey men visited the grande prairie, reporting on the great agricultural potential and rich resources of timber, coal, oil and gas. At the turn of the century, the rush to the Klondike brought more than 700 prospectors through the area, and the conflict over land rights began. The Royal North West Mounted Police were dispatched north, and Treaty No. 8 was pushed through as quickly as possible. This cleared the way for the Dominion Land surveyors and settlement, and a trickle of hardy souls undertook the months-long hike through the muskeg and bush over the Long Trail into the “Last Best West.”
Like many northern communities, Grande Prairie germinated because it was surrounded by rich resources, but unlike others it was not a one industry town. By 1905, when the future site of the city was occupied only by three bachelor shacks, Louis Callihou was already experimenting with agricultural crops. In 1906, Harry Clifford, the first man to bring his non-native wife into this region, came looking for oil and gas. In 1907, S.H. Tuck came to explore the timber possibilities in the region.
By 1908, land on the site of the future city had been surveyed and staked out for the proposed railway. Nearby, blacksmith George L. Breeden operated a dirt-floored, sod-roofed cabin as the “Breeden Hotel” for travelers coming to check out the area.
In Edmonton, W.A. Rae carefully examined all the reports, realized the potential for a town, and persuaded a group of businessmen to form the Argonaut Co. In 1909, they purchased 80 acres beside the proposed railway from bachelor Joe Germain, registered it at the land office in Grouard, and hired a surveyor to divide it into lots. This “town” was promoted with great excitement as “Grande Prairie City.”
Within two years, the nucleus of a community had formed around a post office, store, bank, livery barn, two churches, Royal North West Mounted Police barracks, and the Dominion Land Survey Office. A stage coach ran from the end of steel in Edson to Grande Prairie, but the passengers had to walk and push as often as they rode.
By 1913, a school and a hospital had been built, as well as Tissington’s Empire Hotel, the Selkirk Trading Company and the Hudson’s Bay Store in the downtown core. That same year saw the first representative from the community sent to the Provincial Legislature and the first issue of the Grande Prairie Herald.
When the hamlet became a village in 1914, it already had a baseball league and hockey teams and boasted a social life including hay rides and dances, a picture show, musical entertainment and theater productions.
Electricity arrived in 1915, courtesy of the Grande Prairie Power Plant. However, the town was yet without a railroad, and everything had to come in over the Edson or Long Trail. Items such as the 2 1/2 ton bank safe, an entire printing press, and equipment for lumber and flour mills were only occasional problems, but the Selkirk Trading Company promised “fresh groceries arriving every month over the Edson Trail.”
Finally, in 1916, the railway reached Grande Prairie, providing transportation to market for agricultural products and opening the floodgates for settlement. Growth slowed for a few years during WWI, when the area lost many of its British-born bachelors to the war effort, but tripled in one year after the war was over. By then, many of the amenities of a modern community were available: drug store, jeweler, cigar store, bakery, hardware stores and a barber shop. In 1919 the population reached 1000, sufficient to apply for town status.
During the decade of the twenties, the original investors began to see some financial return on their investments. Local farmers won world championships in both wheat and oats at the Chicago World Fair, proving the area’s agricultural potential. Richmond Avenue was extended around the corner into “Carriage Lane”, running along the ridge of Bear Creek (now 102 Street), and fine residences were built overlooking the creek valley. AGT introduced a long distance telephone service and Northern Aviation built an aerodrome and landing strip west of the town, providing freight and passenger services in the Peace Country. Comfort and convenience had increased dramatically in less than 20 years, and continued with the addition of the Library and CFGP radio in the next decade.
Although far removed from the material devastation of W.W. II, Grande Prairie saw plenty of war action. Its airport was a key link on the American air route to Alaska and Russia, and as many as 500 Canadian and American Air Force personnel were stationed there. In the decade after the war, Grande Prairie experienced a modernizing boom, as did many other Canadian communities. The town was introduced to local natural gas for heating, door to door mail, traffic lights, dial telephones, and television. Construction boomed and people flowed in.
On a February day in 1958, many of these people lined Clairmont Road to cheer as Henry McCullough rode into town on his horse Diamond. In minus fourty temperatures, he had followed the grueling trail of early pioneers from Edmonton to Grande Prairie. With him he carried the City Charter, presented to him by the premier on the steps of the Alberta Legislature. Finally it could truly be called “Grande Prairie City”.
Now, national and international companies like Northern Canadian Forest Products (1961) and Proctor & Gamble (1973) came, resulting in local forest products being sent as far afield as Japan. In the 1980s, development of the Elmworth Gas Field, one of the largest natural gas fields in North America, brought international expertise and involvement. The decade of the 90s saw further development of the retail business sector until it was of a size to service the entire Peace River Region of Alberta and British Columbia.
When A.M. Bezanson toured the region in 1906, there were few agricultural settlers. While he was convinced of the potential of this area enough to promise success for “those who desire to leave the well-beaten path and lead the invasion into this practically unknown, but most highly favoured, part of the Last West,” he could not have envisioned the city which is now the hub of the Peace River Country.