Edmonton

Big Island Provincial Park? A look back at Big Island as an Edmonton destination

Big Island in Edmonton's river valley was once a big draw for turn-of-the-century Edmontonians keen for a communion with nature or an afternoon picnic.

'People got out of town on these steamboats and had a great time'

Edmontonians enjoy a steamer excursion to Big Island in the early 1900s. (City of Edmonton Archives)

Big Island in Edmonton's river valley was once a big draw for turn-of-the-century Edmontonians keen for a communion with nature or an afternoon picnic.

Every weekend, for decades, women in lace collars and men dressed in their Sunday best would board steamships and head upstream on the North Saskatchewan River for a day of leisure.

"They would go out and people would picnic all day long," said Shirley Lowe, former historian laureate for the City of Edmonton.

"They had music and dancing. It was an important excursion. People got out of town on these steamboats and had a great time." 

Edmontonians would spend all day picnicking at Big Island. (City of Edmonton Archives)

Big Island fell out of fashion long ago as a weekend destination, but a plan to designate the area as a provincial park may change that.

The idea, first raised in early 2016 and revived by Mayor Don Iveson last year, will be discussed in a closed-door meeting at an executive committee meeting Wednesday at city hall.

In collaboration with the Enoch Cree Nation, the city sent a letter in late 2017 asking the province to develop the concept.

The Big Island-Woodbend area — which covers more than 400 hectares of mostly privately-owned parcels of land — extends from Anthony Henday Drive in the southwest to the town of Devon, covering two islands, some narrow ravines and an old-growth white spruce forest.

The stretch of river valley is underappreciated for its natural beauty and unique foothold in Edmonton history, Lowe said.

Rich in coal, timber, even gold, it was mined and logged throughout the 1880s.

Most of the houses built during the early 20th century were built with timber from Big Island, Lowe said.

It would mean that we could picnic there again.- Shirley Lowe

John Walter, the proprietor of Walter and Humberstone, purchased the island's timber limit in 1895. For years to come, thousands of logs  would be sent floating downstream to the city to be processed at Walter's sawmill in Walterdale.

In the 1890's, the Hudson Bay Company had two steamboats that regularly transported commercial and human cargo to and from from Big Island, but it was Walter who truly popularized the river boat cruises. 
The Big Island-Woodbend area covers more than 400 hectares of mostly privately-owned parcels of land in Edmonton's river valley. (City of Edmonton)

In 1911, Walter purchased Big Island outright and put two steamboats on the river.

"It became a really big deal when John Walter put out the Scona and the City of Edmonton," Lowe said.

"He used them as freighters during the week, and on the weekends, they were the party boats." 

Walter dreamed of building a resort at Big Island. He built a large dock and made plans for a large pavilion, but his plans were soon washed away by war and natural disaster.

The First World War and the flood of 1915 took a toll on Walter's fortune. When his business collapsed, the ships were left to rot on the banks of the river.

Lowe described plans to preserve the park as wonderful.

"I think most people would rediscover it," Lowe said. "The trees have all grown back. it won't look anything like it did in the early 1900's but it would be preserved.

"It would mean that we could picnic there again."

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson wants to see the stretch of North Saskatchewan River valley containing Big Island as an urban provincial park. (Sierra Club Canada Foundation)