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Capital of the Tar Sands

There were signs in the1960s that the Town of McMurray was headed towards major real estate development. The Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) Company, incorporated in 1953, had been effectively studying the problem of separating oil from the tar sands. After discovering an efficient solution in 1962, the company approached the Alberta Oil and Gas Conservation Board asking for permission to construct an $110,000,000 oil sands plant on Tar Island 20 miles north of McMurray. The plant was expected to produce 31,500 barrels of oil a day. After receiving permission, GCOS hired Canadian Bechtel to begin developing a test plant, which operated between 1963 and 1965. Construction of the actual GCOS plant was started by Canadian Bechtel in 1964 and was completed in 1967.

The plant created two waves of immigration during the 1960s. The first occurred during the construction of the plant when thousands of workers from Canadian Bechtel took up temporary residence in Fort McMurray. There were 2500 workers housed in on-site trailers while hundreds more resided in town. The second wave occurred when the GCOS plant opened in 1967. About 1000 permanent employees came to Fort McMurray with their families. The population, a mere 1186 in 1961, skyrocketed to 5930 in 1968, with the majority of the growth occurring in 1967.

Because of the difficulty of housing the new workers in the small town of McMurray, GCOS created Athabasca Realty to create housing specifically allocated to GCOS employees. By 1969, there were 500 employees working directly for GCOS, and many others working for affiliated companies. Athabasca Realty developed housing mainly in the “Prairie,” the empty lands between Fort McMurray and Waterways. By 1969, Athabasca Realty had developed 205 trailers, 80 duplexes, 24 suite apartment blocks, and 438 houses. Athabasca Realty also aided GCOS workers with down payments of their houses.

The real estate boom was a difficult adjustment for the long time residents of the once quite northern community. McMurray burst at the seams, and the new residents clamoured for modern services, businesses and improved infrastructure. Building permit values were in the millions throughout the 1960s, peaking at $5,728,783 in 1967. To keep up with the incredible growth, the town council opted to incorporate McMurray as a “new town” in 1964, meaning that management of the town would switch to a provincial committee, which would ensure better and quicker access to provincial funding. The word “Fort” was also re-added to the name. Among the most important construction projects were the Fort McMurray General Hospital (1966), Highway 63 connecting with Edmonton (1966), the Athabasca River Bridge to Tar Island (1965), two banks, the Peter Pond Hotel (1964), the Peter Pond Shopping Centre,two new schools, and a slew of new retail and office buildings.

With barely a break, Fort McMurray entered its next incredible building boom in the mid-1970s, due to the construction of the Syncrude oil sands plant. In 1969, Syncrude, a consortium of several oil companies, was granted an application to the Alberta Oil and Gas Conservation board, to open a tar sand plant in the vicinity of Fort McMurray. The plant was expected to produce 80,000 barrels of oil a day. That number was increased to 125,000 barrels before the plant even opened in 1978. When construction began in 1974, 2,500 workers and their families established residences in Fort McMurray. Once the plant opened, the peak workforce was closer to 4,400 workers.

Fort McMurray once again experienced an enormous population surge. Over six years, Fort McMurray’s population rose from 5,943 in 1968, to about9,500in 1974. By 1978, the population had again doubled to 24,586. The New Town of Fort McMurray began hiring teams of city planners to develop new subdivisions like Thickwood Heights, Beacon Hill, and Abasand Heights. Housing was very difficult to come by, forcing many families to reside in campgrounds at Lion’s Park and Centennial Park. There was even a shortage of trailer stalls. Real estate developers like Norman Simons and George Brasseau made large sums of money by developing new apartment complexes, and office and retail space such as the Plaza 1 and Plaza 2 shopping centres. Fort McMurray became home to yet another hospital in 1980 when the Fort McMurray Regional Hospital opened. That same year Keyano College opened its doors to students. This decade of growth culminated with the incorporation of Fort McMurray as a city in 1980.

The new found city of Fort McMurray had a population of 27,784 at the start of the 1980s. That population continued to increase, reaching 30,772 the next year. Even when a province-wide recession hit, the population continued to grow, attaining 33,375 in 1982. However, the National Energy Plan, instituted by the Federal Government nearly shut down oil investment in Canada. New tar sands projects that were being considered were shelved.

Fort McMurray was not a city for long. On April 1, 1995, Fort McMurray incorporated with Improvement District No. 143, to become the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Fort McMurray was now an Urban Service Centre and the headquarters of the municipality.

From 1987 to 1999, Fort McMurray’s population went from about 34,000 to 36,452. However, a spike in oil prices encouraged tar sands investment nearly doubling the population between 1999 and 2007.As a result of rampant population growth, housing shortages became critical, and Fort McMurray became infamous for its high real estate prices, averaging $494,502 for a new home in 2007, compared to the next highest, Calgary, at $348,622. To alleviate some of this pressure for buyers, the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation, committed to providing affordable housing, has coordinated the building of more than a thousand multi-residential units in and around Fort McMurray.

The tar sands industry in Fort McMurray continues to thrive, injecting billions into the economy of Fort McMurray and area.

Among other major industries in Fort McMurray is forestry and tourism. Tourism in the area is on the rise due to Alberta’s booming economy. Lake Athabasca is famed for its fishing lodges, and the Athabasca area has may prized lakes. In addition, Fort McMurray’s Oil Sands Discovery Centre, opened in 1985 as an interpretive centre explaining the history, technology and significance of oil sands development, has been attracting visitors to the area.


Alberta Government Publicity Bureau Department of Industry and Tourism. Survey of Fort McMurray. 1970.

Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program. History of the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, 1890 to 1960s, Volume 1: Socio-Economic Development. Alberta Environment and Environment Canada: 1980.

Choose Lethbridge. “Average Home Price Comparisons.” Retrieved June 16, 2008, from http://www.chooselethbridge.ca/chooselivability/housing_1.jpg

“Fort McMurray & Syncrude. An exciting supplement illustrating the dynamic growth of FM, marked by the Official opening of the Syncrude Oil Sands Project.” Edmonton Journal, September 18, 1978

Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce. Fort McMurray Community Profile. 1975.

Kerri, J. N. “ Fort McMurray: One of Canada’s Resource Frontier Towns.” (MA Thesis) University of Manitoba: 1970.

“Historical Overview of the Fort McMurray Area and Oil Sands Industry in Northeast Alberta.” Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. Earth Sciences Report, 2000-05.

Huberman, Irwin. The Place we call Home: A History of Fort McMurray as its People Remember. Historical Book Society of Fort McMurray: 2001.

Update ’83. Fort McMurray Today, Wednesday June 29, 1983.

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