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COUNTY OF GRANDE PRAIRIE No. 1 - Excerpts taken from the
"Story of Rural Municipal Government in Alberta 1909 to 1983"
by the Association of the Municipal Districts and Counties
Contributed for use in Alberta Digital Archives by Darlene Homme
While the Peace River country, part of which was to become the first county in Alberta,
is still new frontier, it has a long history in the development of western Canada.
It was Peter Pond who in 1778 first pushed northwest in search of new trapping territory,
penetrating where no other white man had ventured. Pond's map of the rugged hinterland as
he knew it, published in 1785. was a guide for the North-West Company, formed two years later
and in which he had a partnership. The map proved of intense concern to the rival Hudson's
Bay Company, its roughly indicated lakes and waterways studied with urgent purpose and in
1791 the British government directed a Hudson's Bay Company surveyor into the North-West
Company's territory to verify water courses for future exploration. Alexander McKenzie's
second trip the following year yielded for his North-West Company valuable knowledge of
Peace River as a trade route and by 1798 the North-West Company had erected a trading post
near the present site of Fort St. John, fifth in the north country to be established by that
company. It wasn't until 1803 that the Hudson's Bay Company built Mansfield House near today's
Fort Vermilion in opposition to their rivals, first of its posts to be erected in the Peace
River country. Fort Dunvegan, started in 1805 by the NorthWest Company under direction of
senior partner A. N. McLeod, preceded by a year news that the Hudson's Bay Company had set
up a post near Fort St. John. By 1821 when the two fur companies amalgamated, the vast,
silent hinterland knew only trapper and trader.
Nearly four decades later the British government commissioned Captain John Palliser of the
British Army to "explore that portion of North America which lies between the northern
watershed and the frontier of the United States and between the Red River and the Rocky
Mountains and endeavor to find a practical route through them." In his reports, the phrase
"fertile belt" caught public interest, kindled a new kind of political concept and in 1867
led to a 2,300,000 square mile land deal when rights of the Hudson's Bay Company were bought
out by Canada and this vast territory was transferred to the Dominion of Canada for the sum
of 300,000 pounds sterling.
By the turn of the century the first, thin trickle of land-hungry frontiersmen was seeping
over the Athabasca Trail across Ia grande prairie that lay between the Big Smoky River and
the British Columbia boundary. Some, frustrated in their search for Klondyke gold, were lured
by the virgin open parkland waiting only for a plow to tame it; cattlemen were attracted by
its lakes and shoulder-high wild grasses. Beaver Indians and traders, sighting smoke from
railway and land surveyors camps, knew that the era of the trap and pack trail was ending
and the era of the homestead and hamlet was to begin.
An Edmonton promotional organization calling itself The Argonaut Company Ltd. was incorporated
late in 1909 with Alphaeus Patterson, president and W. A. Rae, secretary-treasurer. Designed
primarily to establish a town site on the Canadian Northern Railway survey at Bear Creek which
they called Grande Prairie City after the rolling parkland, the company was largely responsible
for opening the flood gates for the great surge of pioneers that subsequently washed over the
south Peace River country.
To accomplish their objective, the company took advantage of a land survey made that spring.
According to the February 21, 1909 issue of the Edmonton Journal, "W. G. McFarlane, dominion
land surveyor, leaves Edmonton bound for the grande prairie country with a survey party of 31
men, 24 horses, 20 tons of supplies and four tons of iron posts. He expects the 500 mile trip
will take a month. A parcel of 56 miles long and 18 miles wide is to be surveyed this year.
The property lies north of the junction of the Wapiti and Smoky Rivers and covers the district
of which the Hudson's Bay Company post at Saskatchewan Lake (Lake Saskatoon) is the centre."
McFarlane and his brother James, the next year, left Ontario, arriving in the Peace River
country March 17, 1910. Their outfit of l2sleighloads this time hauled some 30 tons of farming
machinery and supplies. Heading west from Grouard. The outfit made Sturgeon Lake and in the
teeth of a strong Chinook, started down the Simonette River, its ice already awash with inches
of water. On reaching the Smoky, water was up to the freight racks and the river ice uncertain,
but the western shore was made without mishap. James selected land in the Lake Saskatoon area
and eventually built on Cut Bank Lake. Walter, who surveyed the embryo town site of 80 acres for
The Argonaut Co. settled near Buffalo Lakes and in 1913 was an unsuccessful candidate for election
on the Liberal ticket, as member of the Alberta Legislature, withdrawing early in the bitter
campaign. The brothers, introducing purebred stock, encouraged the country's steady improvement
of horses and cattle through their own prize-winning animals.
With the rush of settlers, the Peace River Land District with headquarters at Grouard,
was subdivided and the Grande Prairie Land District was formed. The government land office
with A. S. McLean in charge, set up in a log building near the townsite, opened its doors
to a crowd of 50 waiting homesteaders the morning of July 15, 1911. Within a few months,
the Edson Trail would be completed through to the town site, its ruts and bogholes, its
hills and fordings alive with the creak of wagon wheels, the slow tread of ox teams, the
voices of families bound for free land and elbow room.
The first rural municipality to be formed in the area was the Rural Municipality of Bear
Lake No.740, its initial meeting held in Abbott's Hall, Lake Saskatoon, December 11, 1912.
Yellowing pages and fading ink set out that these councillors were present: James McFarlane,
W. C. Dillon, J. H. Adair, and A. Craig. "Councillor Adair moved that J. McFarlane be
Chairman" and "that Councillor Dillon be Vice-Reeve." The minutes were signed by McFarlane
as reeve and F. Lukey as secretary-treasurer.
Nearly four weeks later, the first session of the Rural Municipality of Grande Prairie No.
709 "was held at the residence of Mr. Brims at 2 p.m. January 6th, 1913. Councillors present:
J. H. Harris, A. W. Carveth, Leo Schroeder, John Oatway, and J. W. Shortreed. The vote for
Reeve was then taken and resulted as follows: Harris 2 votes, Carveth 3 votes. Mr. Carveth
was declared elected. Moved that Mr. Harris be Deputy Reeve. The application of Mr. D. H.
Axon for the office of secretary-treasurer was read and on motion was accepted."
Carveth and his eldest son, Rupert, had set out June 1, 1911 from Ontario for the Peace River
Country, transferring their carload of effects at Edson's end-of-steel to wagons for the nearly
300 mile trek over the newly slashed-out Edson Trail, arriving on Ia grande prairie three weeks
later. By July 15, among those settlers waiting since 2 a.m. for doors of the new land office
to open, Rupert was second and his father third in the lineup of 50 to file, their land selected
in the Five Mile Creek district east of the townsite. A little over five months later, their
tent replaced by a large log house and a completed barn, Carveth Sr. returned to Ontario for
the rest of his family and another carload of settlers effects. This time he was accompanied
back to the Grande Prairie also by his sister Dr. Annie Carveth Higbee and her husband, Dr.
Higbee to contribute indefatigable dedication and medical skill to south Peace history. Mr.
Carveth was to contribute a lifetime of public service to the area as well as respected for
his good farming practice.
The Rural Municipality of Grande Prairie extended west from the Smoky River through range 5
and from the Wapiti River on the south, north to township 73; the Rural Municipality of Bear
Lake included Ranges 6, 7 and 8 and from the Wapiti River in township 70 north through township 73.
While first action to be taken by both municipalities was to set up herd laws, wagon roads
and railroads were of immediate concern to the isolated area. At a special meeting of the
R. M. of Grande Prairie held March 16, 1913 and first since its organizational session,
councilors agreed to press for a government wagon road extending from the Smoky River west
to the eastern boundary of the R. M. of Bear Lake. At that meeting also, it was decided
that "the 5 councilors act as 5 road commissioners and that each commissioner look after
the roadwork in his part as he sees fit. Moved that $5.00 be levied on each quarter section
for the construction of roads and bridges."
At their next meeting held April 7, 1913 the council passed a motion that "the time used by
this municipality shall be known as Dunvegan Time. Moved that $2.50 per man per day or $5.00
per man and team per day be the schedule for roadwork done by ratepayers in this municipality.
Moved that each road overseer shall be empowered to let out road scrapers to residents of this
municipality at the rate of 25c per day which receipts shall be turned over to the treasurer."
The second meeting of Rural Municipality of Bear Lake convened April 5th,1913, appointing F.
Lukey secretary-treasurer, assessor, and tax collector at $700.00 per annum. "A notice was
read from Pringle and Guthrie, solicitors, Edmonton, that an application would be made to the
Parliament of Canada at its present session for an Act to incorporate the Athabasca and
Grande Prairie Railway Co. with power to construct and operate a line of railway from some
point at or near the junction of the Solomon River with the Athabasca River in the Province
of Alberta in a north-westerly direction to a point at or near the junction of the Smoky River
with the Muskeg River, thence by the most feasible route in a northerly direction to Dunvegan,
Alberta, passing through Grande Prairie at a point on the westerly side of Bear Lake. Councilor
Dillon moved that a letter be sent to Pringle and Guthrie expressing approval of this
application and that if built would be greatly in the interest of Grand Prairie."
When the Rural Municipality of Bear Lake reconvened April 29, 1913 it was to meet with a
delegation from Lake Saskatoon "to discuss feasibility of cutting a road south from Lake
Saskatoon to the Smoky River, the distance being in the neighborhood of 90 miles, a sleigh
road having already been built from the Smoky River to Hinton on the G.T.P. Railway.
Moved that the land for purposes of assessment be valued at $750 per quarter section and the
assessment be 1% on the $1; that $2.50 be paid in cash per quarter and the balance in work
or cash and all lots situated within the Municipality be assessed at $2 per lot. Moved that
the rate of pay to officials be as follows: Reeve $4 per day and lO cents per mile for
attending meetings; $4 per day for inspecting roads and other required work. Councilors $3
per day and lO cents per mile for attending meetings; $3 per day for inspecting roads and
other required work. Road overseer and weed inspector $3 per day for any day when actually
employed carrying out respective duties. Men for day labor $2.50 per day, man and team with
necessary implements as required by overseers not including scrapers $5 per day. Moved that
a day's work constitute from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with one hour for dinner and that telegraph
time be used.
Moved that A. W. Cameron be appointed auditor, the salary being $25.00. By 1937 in an effort
to derive additional taxes necessary to carry on its 85 rural schools, School District No.14
was enlarged, leading to the eventual amalgamation of the two rural municipalities seven
years later. Reported the weekly Herald-Tribune December 16, 1943 "Bear Lake and Grande
Prairie Municipalities have received notice from the Provincial Government that the two
municipalities will be merged and will be operated as one big unit. The proposed boundary
lines are from the Big Smoky on the east to the B.C. boundary on the west. The north boundary
line will be the north line of township 74. The new plan will take in the Teepee Creek,
LaGlace, Buffalo Lakes, and Valhalla areas. The new policy is supposed to go into effect
January 1, 1944.
At the final session of Rural Municipality of Bear Lake Reeve William McLevin was in the
chair and council included E. J. Holtom, Barney Throness, Jean Lozeron, and Benny Foster.
The year ended for the Rural Municipality of Grande Prairie with Reeve E. J. Grant, T. A.
Warden, Ira McLaughlin, Tom Corlett, William Garrett, and H. Gouchey comprising its council.
By March 2, 1944 issue of the press, organization of the enlarged unit was completed with
an election. At its initial session, James Smith was named Reeve. Council also agreed that:
"D. W. Patterson be secretary-treasurer and assessor at a yearly salary of $6,840 and that
Catherine Humphrey be appointed assistant secretary, the salary to include all salaries
necessary for the work; any extra cost of assessing to be paid for in addition", and that
"the name of the district be the Municipal District of Grande Prairie No.780."
In another six years ratepayers were to see the controversial County Act become law by
July 1, 1950 and the M. D. of Grande Prairie cease to exist by 1951. More than a year
before, the M. D. of Grande Prairie had approached the Department of Municipal Affairs
suggesting that a form of county system be tried. According to the July 13, 1950 issue
of the Herald-Tribune, residents of the area gathered in Grande Prairie's Legion Hall to
hear the Hon. C. E. Gerhart, Minister of Municipal Affairs, explain that area. The county
now includes a major pulp and sawmill, and a number of gas plants. In 1980 the county
conducted its own census and the population had grown to 11,269. In 1980, the council
celebrated its 30th year of operation as a county.