The district which would later be called Riverdale was the first industrial suburb of Fort Edmonton and is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. Riverdale is like a small town unto itself, nestled as it is into a bend of the North Saskatchewan River and surrounded by high cliffs. It touches no other neighbourhood.
Once it was a sunny stand of trees and home to the Cree, a First Nations people. The search for gold in the 1860s saw early European visitors, and they were followed in the next 30 years by settlers who established wheat fields, steamboat landings, ferries, lumber and grist mills, coal mines and a brickyard. Workers first lived on site, but soon spread beyond the bunkhouses. Everyone called this area Fraser Flats, after the owner of the lumber mill.
Clay, water and abundant trees for fuel made this river flat a perfect place to make brick. The needs of a growing town and the enterprising spirit of James Brown Little combined in 1893 to found a century-long dynasty of brick makers. Said to be “the most consistently high-quality brick of its time,” the Little product helped build early 20th century Edmonton. J.B. and his descendants established many long-standing social traditions of the district and sponsored hockey and baseball teams for years. Today the brickyard has been developed into residential house, but J.B.’s brick house still stands and is home to a trendy café enjoyed by Riverdalians and river-valley visitors alike.
In 1905 the area was subdivided and a land boom quickly saw the present residential shape take form. Determined and hard-working neighbours knit together a highly-textured social fabric that continues to this day: some families are sixth-generation. But it wasn’t always easy: life was disrupted by devastating floods, collapsing coal mines and uncaring governments. Despite the stiff odds, the residents always emerged victorious, and their neighbourhood has become a paradise regained.
For the Riverdalians of today, home is a bountiful garden in the heart of a great city and a good place to grow up.
The summer of 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of a cataclysmic event involving the North Saskatchewan River that changed the life of thousands of Edmontonians: The 1915 Flood.
Fed by mountain streams via Abraham Lake and the Brazeau and Nordegg Rivers, the North Saskatchewan builds to become a significant Canadian river, its water eventually finding its way to the Hudson Bay. It is also a moody river, given not only to fluctuations of flow, height, colour and clarity throughout the year, but its sandbars constantly shift as well. And it floods.
Unlike other rivers across the prairies which tend to overflow their banks in the spring, the North Saskatchewan has its greatest volumes in early summer when the snowpack melts in the mountains. If sudden, hot weather on the eastern slopes is followed by torrential rains in the southwest, then this river can overflow its banks. The greatest known flood of our river happened in late June of 1915 when its troubled waters covered most of Riverdale — all the way to the alley east of 93rd Street.
At its peak, the river had risen over 45 feet above the low-water mark. The flood wrought more than $750,000 worth of damage across Edmonton. Nearly 2,400 of its people were left homeless as 60 houses were swept away and 700 more submerged.
Will such a disaster ever occur again? No one knows the frequency of such a gargantuan flood. In this context, the spectre of the 2013 devastation in Southern Alberta gives one pause. What if that storm over the Canmore region had taken place 100 miles farther north emptying into our river basin instead?
Certain factors point to a happier scenario. The North Saskatchewan has much more carrying capacity than the narrow, shallow rivers that run through Calgary and numerous towns — a significant advantage. And with the Big Horn and Brazeau dams controlling flows upstream, flooding can now be avoided for the most part, but not always.
Mother Nature always has last bat.
You can read more about the flood on the City of Edmonton website.