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No. 17
A Town Bypassed: Grouard, Alberta, and the Building of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway

by Richard Brown

First Avenue, Grouard, Alberta (C-136064)

First Avenue, Grouard, Alberta (C-136064)

In the year 1913, Grouard, Alberta, was a bustling prairie metropolis of over one thou- sand residents. It boasted two schools, a dentist, four doctors, two lawyers, one eye specialist, two druggists and a veterinary surgeon. There were twenty general stores, two department stores, six hotels, three churches, two banks, a steamship company, the Anglo-Colonial Investment Company, and five land offices, including the Dominion Lands Office. There was a fire department, a picture theatre, an electric light plant, a post office, a bottling works, a skating rink, a motor garage and a grid of streets to sustain the pedestrian (two miles of sidewalk), horse-drawn and automotive traffic, a number of saloons, barbershops and eating houses, a detachment of the Royal North West Mounted Police, and no less than six pool rooms. There was even a brass band of twenty pieces. In true "boosterist" fashion, the letterhead of the Grouard Board of Trade was depicted with urban facings and optimistic mottos identifying the town as the "Coming Metropolis of the Great Peace River Country," the "First City in the Last Great West"; the reverse of the letterhead depicted the topography of a model community, nestled along the extreme north-west shore of Lesser Slave Lake, complete with parks and nature trails, orderly roads reaching out in all directions, a business centre and rows of cadastral lots awaiting homes. A contemporary guide to the town went even further, advertising Grouard as the "Capital of the North," and employing on its cover a historic-predictive iconography (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow) that proclaimed the advent of a first-order commercial centre. As the authors of the pamphlet confidently asserted: "Carried forward by the momentum of our present prosperity and a score of forces which have been set in motion, we are entering upon an era the like of which has not been seen before."

Nevertheless, it was during the summer of this very year that a decision was made which irrevocably dashed the hopes and aspirations of the Grouard businessmen and townsfolk. The new Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (EDBCR), then under construction northwards from the provincial capital of Edmonton, would bypass the town to the south by twelve miles. Grouard's "boom" was over.

Of course, it had never been the intention of the EDBCR to link up with Grouard in the first place. Through the years 1911-1912, none of the applications for route approvals before the federal minister of Railways and Canals in Ottawa even mentioned the town. In fact, all of the route maps filed with the minister showed clearly that this railway was headed elsewhere. On the other hand, the possibility that the EDBCR would place Grouard on its main line had never been categorically denied. Even as late as the spring of 1913, when confronted by the Anglo-Colonial Investment Company concerning rumours to this effect, the federal assistant deputy minister noted that it did not necessarily follow that the route thus far approved would be the one adopted, ''as the Company (EDBCR) may apply for a revision." This bureaucratic "bromide," as the mayor of Grouard would later call it, did little to allay the fears of local investors, and the Board of Trade soon discovered the serious nature of the town's plight. In response to its letter to the minister urging that the direction of the EDBCR be diverted to run through the town, a copy of the reply made by the railway company's Ottawa representatives, Pringle & Guthrie, Barristers and Solicitors, was transmitted west. In no uncertain terms, Grouard was rejected as a depot on the line: "The proposition of tapping Grouard does not merit serious consideration as it would entail the departure of nearly twelve miles from the general direction of the line of Railway and the same distance to get back again  -  a total of about twenty-four miles."

Right up to this point, without any assurances whatsoever, the Grouard Board of Trade had mounted a remarkably successful but wholly misleading public relations campaign that advertised the town as a distributing centre for four major railroads (the cover of its brochure actually said five), including, in addition to the EDBCR, the Canadian Northern Railway, the Peace River and Great Western Railway, and the Alberta, Peace River and Hudson Bay Railway, the latter to apparently link Grouard up to the centre of the commercial universe by providing a direct route to Great Britain via its marine terminus in Hudson Bay. With the railways, all else would follow, ". . .enough to stagger the credibility of the most optimistic stranger," as the literature predicted. This was, to say the least, optimistic-speculative capitalism of the highest order, and for sheer audacity, it was probably a contemporary scheme unmatched in scope and conception. If the philosophy of the urban booster in the Prairie West was surcharged with an optimism that sometimes resulted in self-deception, the supporters of the Grouard project were wholly deluded.