A moment in history: June 10, 1967

A moment in history: June 10, 1967

· The Pulse
By Scott Lilwall

On this day in 1967, the City of Edmonton was mulling over the purchase of Big Island.

The proposal would have seen the city pay $245,000 for the 70-acre park, across the river from the current day neighbourhood of Windermere. The price tag would have also included the rusting remains of the Klondike Queen, a paddleboat that was beached on the island's banks.

At the time, Big Island wasn't the most impressive location (it also isn't always an island, depending on the height of the North Saskatchewan). The southern banks "looks like deserted war zones," Brian Kieran wrote in the Edmonton Journal. He noted that "stagnant ponds appear at intervals as if they were craters made by bombs."

Reading that, it's hard to believe that Big Island was once both a sought-after holiday destination and a vital resource for the growing city. When Fort Edmonton was first established, Big Island was seen as a bounty of natural resources, including coal and gold. But for a growing settlement, its timber was seen as the most important. Entrepreneur John Walter purchased the timber limit on Big Island in 1895. The trees would be felled and floated down the river to Walter's sawmill, located in the area that would eventually bear his name - Walterdale. That wood would fuel Edmonton's growth, providing material for many of the city's buildings over the coming decades.

Big Island's beauty attracted the occasional visitor in those times. But it wasn't until Walter bought two steamboats, the Scona and the City of Edmonton, that tourism took off. The boats pulled double-duty. On weekdays, they hauled cargo for Walter's business. On the weekends and holidays, they shuttled Edmontontians on excursions to Big Island. The three-hour trip from a dock under the Low Level Bridge to the island would include live entertainment and refreshments. Once on Big Island, visitors would enjoy picnics, outdoor games and nature walks.

Ever ambitious, Walter had plans to turn the island into a full-fledged summer resort. However, his plans were sunk by two unbeatable opponents - war and nature. The impact of the First World War and a devastating flood in 1915 destroyed Walter's businesses. The steamboats stopped running and were left to rot on the beach and Big Island park became mostly forgotten. It continued to see some visitors, often by canoe from the river, but nothing like its former popularity.

The city passed on the offer to buy the park in 1967, with park superintendent John Janzen calling it a liability. Since then, the park has mostly been abandoned. Twice it narrowly escaped being turned into a gravel pit. Recent years have brought renewed interest in Big Island, with talk of protecting it. Earlier this year, the province granted $300,000 to the city and the Enoch Cree Nation to study land use for the area, part of a plan to turn it into an urban provincial park by 2023.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.