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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

North Eastern Alberta after the Second World War

Bonnyville, Alberta. 1948

The post-war period brought only modest gains in some parts of North Eastern Alberta. The Franco Albertan settlements of Bonnyville, St. Paul, and Lac La Biche grew slowly, while smaller, lesser-known settlements such as Cold Lake, Grand Centre, and Redwater were completely transformed by Alberta’s post-war economic boom.

After the Second World War, St. Paul and Bonnyville benefited from oil and gas exploration in the area, which aided their transformation from villages to towns. The oil and gas industry benefited Bonnyville in particular. In 1949, a natural gas field was discovered within town limits, creating hundreds of jobs. Two years later, oil was discovered in the area. St. Paul also expanded its largely agricultural economic base through the growth of its oil and gas industry. St. Paul attempted to further diversify its economy in 1967, when the town opened a unique tourist attraction for Canada’s Centennial Celebrations - the first UFO landing pad.

Grand Centre Hotel, Grand Centre, Alberta.

Lac La Biche, however, was having trouble maintaining its population. So, by the 1960s, the 1600 residents of the community were making an effort to have more children; consequently, the community’s welfare dependency and illegitimacy rates rose. Despite Lac La Biche’s wealth of natural resources, Alberta’s post-war boom left the community more or less untouched. By the 1970s, Lac La Biche had a stagnant population of 2000.

In contrast, the settlements of Cold Lake and Grand Centre were on their way to becoming major population centres, largely due to the creation of a major Canadian Airforce Base near Grand Centre in 1954. The 35 million dollar investment by the Federal government injected new life into Grand Centre. In 1951, Grand Centre had a population of merely 97. By 1957, Grand Centre was a town of 1008. Meanwhile, the Town of Cold Lake’s economy grew with a rapidly developing tourism industry on Cold Lake. In addition, the Cold Lake area was the site of major oil sands exploration in the 1960s. By 1967, there were about 15 major oil recovery experiments operating in the area. However, many of these projects were derailed by the recession in the early 1980s. In 1996, Cold Lake, Grand Centre, and Medley were amalgamated as the Town of Cold Lake. Four years later, in 2000, Cold Lake was incorporated as a city.

Wildcat well, Imperial Redwater number 1, Redwater area, Alberta.

The most incredible story of growth belongs to Redwater, a small farming hamlet that became nationally renowned after Imperial Oil made a major oil find on Hilton Cook’s farm in 1948. The discovery at Redwater came on the heels of a major oil discovery at Leduc in 1947. At the time, Redwater was a mere hamlet of 160, but in the ensuing oil boom, Redwater became a town of approximately 4000. The government began auctioning off crown lands for millions of dollars, largely to oil companies. Redwater’s housing situation became dire, and many of its new residents lived in tents and trailers, or slept on the streets. Imperial Oil developed a townsite on the north side of Redwater, building bunkhouses for the migrant oil workers. Within the first few boom years, many new businesses were erected, including Redwater’s first hotel, bank, liquor store, curling rink and movie houses. By 1949, Redwater was incorporated as a village, and the next year, it became a town. A total of 926 wells were drilled in the Redwater area and in nine years, they produced 167.5 million barrels of oil.

After the immediate boom and into the 1950s and 1960s, Redwater’s population leveled off to a bit over a thousand. Redwater was graced with a second great building boom in 1971 when Imperial Oil built a fertilizer complex seven miles south of the Town. In addition, a new culvert and drainage plant, as a well as a transit cement plant were built near Redwater, providing more employment to residents. The Town of Redwater now has about 2000 residents, but the focal point of the community continues the original “Discovery Well” derrick that transformed the community in 1948, and is preserved as a major historical site.


Alberta Municipal Affairs, Planning Branch. Census 1987: Town of Grand Centre. Edmonton: Alberta Municipal Affairs, 1987.

Brennan, Brian. “In a nervy game of chicken the Syncrude deal is done.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol. 11: Lougheed & the War with Ottawa. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

City of Cold Lake. “Municipal Development Plan 2007-2037. Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://www.coldlake.com/files/%7B5426F315-E6E9-46C6-9F94-3A102570C9E5%7D291_LU_07_MDP%20(web).pdf 

Collins, Robert. “Derricks stride across the land and great excitement follows them.” Alberta in the 20 th Century, Vol. 9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.  

Dolphin, Ric. “A love affair with the automobile – huge and flashy and finned.” Alberta in the 20 th Century, Vol. 9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Hrynchuk, Audrey. Memories: Redwater and District. Calgary: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 1972. 

Kerr, Aubrey. Redwater. Calgary: S.A. Kerr. 1994.  

Lac La Biche: Yesterday and Today. Lac La Biche: Lac La Biche Heritage Society, 1975.  

The Historical Museum of Bonnyville. “History.” Société culturelle Mamowapik. Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://cnc.virtuelle.ca/bonnyville/english/histoire/index.html 

Town of Bonnyville. “Bonnyville’s History Rich in Colourful Characters.” Retrieved March 5, 2009 from http://town.bonnyville.ab.ca/livingin/about/history/

Town of Redwater. “History of Redwater.” Retrieved March 5, 2009 from


Pereira, Joe and Paul Bunner. “When Albertans lived in dread of imminent attack over the pole.” Alberta in the 20 th Century, Vol. 9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.  

Verburg, Peter. “Oil sands alchemy: the key to Alberta’s biggest buried treasure.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol. 10: The Sixties Revolution & the Fall of Social Credit. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.  

Wittmeier, Carmen. “The great Alberta shake-out.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol. 10: The Sixties Revolution & the Fall of Social Credit. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

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