It was a disaster that changed Edmonton's development for decades.

As rising water levels put the city on edge this week, city archivist Kathryn Ivany took a look back at the worst flood to ever rush through Edmonton's river valley.

Today's surging waters pale in comparison.

On June 29, 1915, the North Saskatchewan River flooded the river valley. By the time the flood waters began to recede, irreparable damage had been done and the face of the valley had been changed forever.

"It was a huge impact," Ivany said during an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. 

"A lot of people lost their fortunes, their businesses, as well as their homes."

In the end, 2,000 people were displaced, more than 700 homes were beyond repair, and more than 50 buildings were washed away completely.

The waters began to surge that Sunday, relentlessly rising at an estimated one foot per hour, climbing over the banks and creeping toward the tiny working class homes scattered along the river flats

Invany said Edmonton received a telegraph warning the water was on the way. 

"So they did manage to clear many people out, but nobody thought it was going to be as bad as it was, so there were still people trapped in their homes," she said. 

Hour by hour the water rose, and the river finally burst over the banks.

By morning, officials put out a call for help with evacuation and relief measures.

Tens of thousands of people stood at the top of the valley to watch the disaster unfold, while hundreds more scrambled to save what they could.

John Walter tied his steamboat to a clump of trees near his lumber mill as his dock washed away.

Jimmy Phillips of Walterdale moved all of his belongings to the second storey of his home before moving to higher ground. But he forgot his wallet. By the time he went back to retrieve it, he had to fight rising water, and climbed in through a second-storey window.

The Ross power plant was submerged, and the waterworks plant halted operations. Businesses and stores were submerged, while tonnes of debris floated downstream. 

The fast-moving water even threatened to swallow up the Low Level Bridge. Locomotives, loaded down with coal, were backed onto the bridge to keep the bridge deck from washing away. 

A change in current 

Over several days the river rose steadily, until it finally peaked at 10 meters above normal levels.

"It wiped out a lot of the industry that was in Rossdale and Walterdale, and the Riverdale area as well," said Ivany. "There was the ice plant, which of course in the summertime would have been filled with ice they harvested over winter.

"There was a huge lumber mill, so there were lots of stacks of lumber which floated down the river."

Losses were enormous, especially for Edmonton's growing working class who struggled to rebuild their modest fortunes.

The river valley would never be the same again.

Fear of another flood kept the riverbanks sparse of development.

"It did scare a lot of people off. After the economy picked up again, people didn't really build their houses and their businesses down on the river anymore.They built out on the outskirts of town, on the upper banks." 

But Ivany said there is a silver lining from this page of Edmonton's history book.

The exodus from the river valley continues to shape the city, and allowed the river valley to flourish as a natural asset, still largely untouched by industrial development.

Edmonton flood 1915

Edmonton’s police force assisted with the evacuation. An officer is seen on 100th Street, across from the Edmonton Brewing and Malting Company. (City of Edmonton Archives )

 

With files from the Edmonton City Archives