Boomtown blues: when Fort McMurray got too big too fast

When several tarsands projects expand in northern Alberta, the town confronts a housing shortage in 1973.

Oilsands workers and their families were itching to escape mobile homes in 1973

Fort McMurray faces growing pains

50 years ago
Duration 10:16
When several tarsands projects expand in northern Alberta, the town confronts a housing shortage in 1973.

The money might be good for workers in a boom town, but it's no good when there's no place to live.

That was the problem confronting workers in Fort McMurray, Alta., a decade after companies including Suncor began exploiting the oilsands in the region. 

"These are not speculators," said a local housing expert, describing what type of person was eager to build a home in Fort McMurray.

"I've had a couple people come in and say, 'how much money do I have to leave laying on the table right now in order to guarantee that I will be assured a lot this summer to build a home?'" realtor Al Beery told CBC reporter Del Delmage in 1973.

According to CBC News, the oilsands project that opened in 2018 near Fort McMurray was probably the last of its kind. 

But when mining of the oilsands was still ramping up in the 1970s, Fort McMurray was a town going through growing pains.

Living in mobile homes

Oilsands workers and their families — as well as people in support industries — were living in mobile homes while they waited for more spacious digs to be built.

Almost 30 per cent of residents lived in mobile homes amid Fort McMurray's initial oilsands boom in 1973. (CBC Archives)

"These are not speculators," said Beery. "These are teachers and whatnot within the community."

Commercial construction topped $1 million in the previous year, reported the CBC, but housing wasn't keeping up with demand. 

Almost 30 per cent of residents were living in trailer parks, but "93 per cent of our people want a single-family dwelling," said Beery.

Delmage summed up his report with a prediction.

A golden future

"By 1986, 30,000 people could be living in the town," he said.

"A general consensus by teams of experts ... that McMurray's future is golden," Delmage added. "No longer a bush town, this thriving community could be one of the larger cities in Alberta. But a lot depends on how government, industry and the residents of Fort McMurray pull together." 

Delmage's forecast turned out to be mostly accurate: in 1986, the city's population was almost 35,000.

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