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Northern Alberta Region

In the 1880s, George Dawson, J.B. Tyrrell and R.G. McConnell conducted research over an area of 259 000 square kilometres, in the western interior of Canada, including what is now northern Alberta. In 1890, Richard George McConnell of the Geological Survey of Canada explored the Peace-Athabasca region, with an emphasis on the oil sands around Fort McMurray. These surveys were conducted to study the feasibility of mineral exploration and transportation routes. For the most part, each was content to record the names as known, rather than provide names of his own.

The pressure on the Dominion Government to have a unified British North America from Atlantic to Pacific, brought it to negotiate with the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1870, the Hudson's Bay Company formally transferred Rupert's Land to the Canadian government, with appropriate compensation, of course. This massive territory took in much of what is now northern Ontario and Quebec, Manitoba, much of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, and part of the Northwest Territories.

In order to prepare this large area for settlement, the land had to be surveyed. To this end, the Dominion Lands Act was brought into force in 1872. The Dominion Lands Surveys, which differed in purpose and scope from the work of the Geological Survey of Canada, were responsible for the next wave of naming in the Canadian west. Using a system similar to one developed in the United States, the surveyors came west as early as 1874 to block the land into the township and range system used to this day. However, it was not until the 1890s that they began systematically surveying north of Edmonton. The baseline surveys were completed between 1905 and 1915. Baselines ran from east to west, 24 miles apart, starting at the Canada-U.S. border. They functioned as starting points for delimiting townships. Names along these lines were reported by local residents, while others were adopted to commemorate members of the survey crews. J.N. Wallace and A.W. Ponton, both Dominion Land Surveyors, for example, had features named after them. Other crew members and their relatives also were commemorated in this way.

In looking at a base map of the province, it is easy to see which areas in northern Alberta have been surveyed. These areas are quickly spotted by the telltale township squares that have been further subdivided into sections. The Peace River Country was first systematically surveyed for settlement in 1909, although baseline surveys were being done in the area as early as 1883. This was the result of pressure to prepare this fertile area for homesteaders. To this day much of northern Alberta has not been surveyed for settlement, because of its unsuitability for farming.

The development of more modern modes of transportation influenced place names. This included the use of steamboats on the major water bodies such as the Peace and Athabasca rivers. A number of steamboat captains have their names on features, including Alexander Island. More influential in modern establishment of northern names has been the railroads. To provide a transportation corridor to exploit the oil sands, and to provide access to the north country, the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway was chartered in 1909. In 1922 the line was completed from Edmonton to Waterways, which is now part of Fort McMurray. The line which served the north-west was the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (the E.D. & B.C.R.), which, as the name suggests was to follow a route to the Peace River Country from Edmonton via Dunvegan into British Columbia. It had reached as far as Wembley, just west of Peace River in 1924, and Hythe by 1929. The Central Canada Railway, chartered in 1913, extended north of McLennan in 1916 and as far as Whitelaw by 1924, just west of Peace River . Because of financial difficulties, these three companies, along with a number of other, smaller lines, amalgamated in 1929 to form the Northern Alberta Railways. It was owned jointly by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. Other lines and branches have been established, such as the Alberta Resources Railway and the Great Slave Lake Railway, all which fall under the jurisdiction of the Canadian National Railway.

Each of these companies named stations after railway employees and families, places in other countries, and nearby geographical features. For example, Aggie was a relative of J.D. McArthur, the general manager of the E.D. & B.C.R. J.B. Prest, an engineer of the E.D. & B.C.R., named a number of stations along the line after places in his home area of Surrey in England. Prestville is in turn named after him.

Another group that had a significant impact on toponymy was the settlers. In the geographical area covered in this volume the largest number of settlers came to the Peace River country. The potential of this area for farming was recognized by some as early as the 1870s. It was not until the 1890s that settlers began trickling in. At the time of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, some prospectors ventured no further than the Peace River country, while others stayed on their return journey. Local promoters waged an advertising campaign at the turn of the century, extolling the area's virtues, and lobbied for improved access. Railroad transportation, in the form of the E.D. & B.C.R. line, commenced in 1911. Boosters such as Sheridan Lawrence and James Cornwall, whose names are legend in the north country, were also responsible for getting some federal government money for some roads to be constructed. At the same time survey work was being done in 1909, settlers were arriving to stake claims for land under the homesteading provisions of the Dominion Lands Act. Many left their mark on the names in northern Alberta.

It is in the early established post offices that we find the names of the homesteading pioneers. There were no postal codes in the early days, so post offices needed unique names to ensure delivery to the proper locality. Names chosen were either descriptive, such as Poplar Ridge, or commemorative, after the person on whose land the post office was established, such as DeBolt. If post offices were formed after the communities were established, the post office would take the name of the community. This happened in Slave Lake. Post offices would often change location within a vicinity, but would retain the old name. In this book, the locations listed for the post offices are the first ones. Where the post office name survives only as a locality, it is the current position of the locality that is described.

Some pioneers are commemorated in names of physical features. When people settle in an area, over time, the rivers, lakes, creeks, hills and mountains sometimes become identified with the names of the landowners. Examples of this would be Elford's Hill and Mulligan Creek.

Names have arisen out of the development of industry. The main industries in this area have included forestry, coal mining, oil drilling, tar sands extraction and trapping. Industry also has been closely tied with the development of the railroads. All have had an impact on naming. From the primary resources we get names such as Tar Island, Coalmine Lick Creek and Lignite Creek. Kaybob was named after people involved in oilfield development around Grande Cache. The former Pegasus (now Little McLeod) Lake was named for the activities of the Mobil Oil Company in the area. The winged horse is the symbol of that company. From the time of the fur trade, trappers have been commemorated. Some examples include Furlough Island, French Lake and Eymundson Creek.

Although some casualty naming occurred after World War I, in 1947 the Geographic Board of Alberta began to compile lists of those Albertans who had died during the two world wars. The intention was to use these names when it became necessary to apply a name to a feature. Following World War II there was increased activity in remote parts of Alberta as the result of mineral exploration and forestry. Detailed surveys and mapping of these more remote areas became necessary. Consequently the need arose for reference points and for names to be used on the maps and in reports. As much as possible, the Board tried to use names of those casualties who had been resident in the districts in which features were named. In the northern reaches of the province, this was not always accomplished. In 1947, the Board began to use the casualty names and continued to do so until the early 1970s, which resulted in nearly 50 features being named after war casualties; 11 from World War I, 36 from World War II, and one from the Korean War. These include places such as Lessard Creek, Mearon Creek and Patenaude Lake.

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