Thursday, July 15, 2010


This rather quiet, unassuming place (pictured below), known as Waterways, may not look like much, but it has played an important role throughout Canada's history. At one point, Fort McMurray was actually made up of three communities - McMurray, at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers; Abasand, along the nearby Horse River, which I'm sure I'll mention more about later; and Waterways, lying in the Clearwater valley, 5 or 6 miles south of present-day downtown Fort McMurray.

Looking west along the Clearwater toward Waterways.

Two centuries ago, the area around Waterways served as a resting point along the old fur trading route leading into the Rockies. More recently, it served as a major link in the chain supporting the construction of the Alaska highway and the CANOL pipeline. Supplies were shipped (and later sent by train) to Waterways before being loaded on to barges to be sent to points north. Having read up quite a bit on both these important Northern projects, I've long been familiar with the name Waterways but since I knew at the time that it lay so close to Fort McMurray I always assumed that "Waterways" was simply an older name for the present Fort McMurray. But no, the two places were separate, and at times, fiercely rival communities.

Due to limits imposed by geography, the rail line ended in Waterways and never quite made it into Fort McMurray. As a result, the place had a lot going for it and quite possibly would have outgrown its northern rival were it not for the closing of a salt plant there in the early 1950's followed shortly thereafter by a disastrous fire which razed its popular hotel (and social hub) to the ground. The opening of the Suncor and Syncrude in the 1960's and 70's sealed the deal.

Today, Waterways is a quiet residential area on the edge of town. Most of the historical building are long gone, though some of them have found a second home at the local heritage park. Its a place we like to visit when we can to take in the views of the valley or take the kids to a nearby water park. In a quiet moment, I like to take a moment and imagine in my mind's eye a bustling place back at the beginning of the last century.

Further up the valley along the Clearwater.

Toward the end of the valley shortly before you run out of road. If I'm not mistaken, the dirt track on the left is what remains of the old rail bed.

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