Historical Sites

Self-Guided Walking Tour

historical walking tourSignage all around the Town of Athabasca points out historical buildings, interesting stories, and unique characters that are part of Athabasca’s heritage. Available for purchase is the Athabasca Historical Walking Tour booklet, which includes over 60 pages of descriptive text and historic buildings and locations, numbered on the fold-out map. Photos from yesterday and today show how the Town used to look when it was first settled.

More information on this and other historical literatures are available from the Athabasca Heritage Society.

Athabasca Train Station

Courtesy Athabasca UniversityLocation

In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, significant attention was paid to the development of the railroad infrastructure of the Canadian west, notably the branch line network in what would become the province of Alberta. The Edmonton & Slave Lake Railway (E&SLR) was chartered in 1899 to reach Slave Lake via Athabasca Landing, which was a riverboat transportation hub on the Athabasca River.

The E&SLR was acquired by the Canadian Northern Railway in 1902 and construction on the line finally commenced in 1909, reaching Athabasca in early 1912. The town experienced a significant real estate and construction boom, fuelled largely by speculation the railway would continue on to the Peace River District and the CNoR terminus at Port Simpson, British Columbia with Athabasca becoming a major railway hub. Ultimately, these hopes were unfounded; the CNoR elected to bypass Athabasca and accessed the Peace Country via a line through Grande Prairie. This decision resulted in Athabasca becoming the end of a minor branch line rather than the central hub which it had aspired to be.

The railroad station in Athabasca was built in 1912 according to the CNoR standard plan No. 100-39. The interior of the Athabasca station was simple and did not feature any specialized passenger waiting areas or dining rooms and had smaller baggage storage capacity. Regardless of being scaled down, the station in Athabasca was still substantial, befitting a large community on what was originally expected to be an important rail transportation corridor.

The Athabasca train station occupies a prominent position on 50th Avenue, the main east-west road through town, which runs parallel to the railroad right-of-way, and at the head of 51st Street where it is highly visible down the entire length of that road. Today, the Athabasca Heritage Society is renovating the property to reflect its original historic state. The Visitor Information Centre is housed in the train station during the summer months.

Photo courtesy of Athabasca University.

Text adapted from Alberta Registry of Historic Places.

Athabasca Public School


The Athabasca Public School was built in 1913 during a wave of optimism that swept the town of Athabasca as well as other small western towns. Athabasca had long been the gateway to the north, and recent railway and other development in the area suggested the town was poised on the brink of rapid population and economic growth. It is one of the best examples of buildings constructed during the pre-war boom existing in the town, and one of just a handful that remain. It was the centre of education from 1913 to the 1950s. This building displays the most impressive architectural features of any brick building in Athabasca. The school is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Athabasca.

Built with an eye to architectural style – its facade reflects a number of Doric design elements – it was also constructed using the best quality materials, such as Calgary red brick and Bedford limestone, available at the time. It was also designed to take advantage of the latest developments in teaching methods and ideals and could house students from grade one to grade twelve in its four original classrooms. It was very much a typical urban school of the period, similar to schools found in Edmonton, Calgary or Medicine Hat, but a very unusual school for a northern community like Athabasca.

The building was home to Family and Community Support Services until Spring 2014. Currently, discussions are underway to determine the next chapter in its story.

Photo courtesy of Athabasca University.

Text adapted from Alberta Register of Historic Places

Grand Union Hotel


In 1913, a fire devastated the downtown core of Athabasca. With the buoyant optimism of the time, however, the business district was soon restructured to accommodate extensive future growth. Among the edifices to grace the new town centre, was the largest and most lavish hotel north of Edmonton at that time, the Grand Union. Owned and operated by W.R. Day, this brick structure replaced the earlier wood frame Grand Union that had been destroyed by the fire. The new hotel included 50 rooms, many with private baths, and centralized steam heating. The building itself also included a café, tavern, billiard room, bowling alley and writing room.

As the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia (ED and BC) Railway by-passed Athabasca in 1914, however, the community and hotel did not come to serve many of the settlers bound for the Peace River Country. In 1919, the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway was completed to Fort McMurray, and another major traffic flow was diverted from Athabasca. In the years that followed, the community held its own as lumbering centre with some mixed farming in its vicinity, but it did not attain the development level anticipated in 1914. The prominent placement of the structure at the town’s centre would always render it a familiar landmark and a common watering hole for local residents.

Today, the Grand Union Hotel hosts the Heritage Grill, Trappers Pub, and renovations are underway on the hotel rooms upstairs.

Photo courtesy of Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management.

Text adapted from Alberta Registry of Historic Places

Amber Valley & Obadiah Place

HCI Obadiah Place (2)Location

The historical significance of Obadiah Place lies in its association with the Afro-American settlement of the Amber Valley area of the County of Athabasca in north-eastern Alberta, and two of the community’s leading citizens, Willis Reese Bowen and his son Obadiah Bowen.

In 1911, a group of black Americans emigrated from Oklahoma and filed for homestead on lands north of Edmonton and east of Athabasca Landing. Obadiah Place is located on one such homestead, settled by Willis Reese Bowen in 1913. Bowen’s original log cabin served as a central part of the community, housed as the first post office and was the site of the community’s first telephone. The log cabin was replaced in 1938 when Obadiah Bowen, his son, built the current house. Obadiah was very active in the community, and served as pastor at an interdenominational church built in 1953 on land he donated about a half mile from the house.

The dwelling is a one and one-half storey square prairie vernacular wood frame building that retains most of its original architectural features. The farmhouse, yard and outbuildings, represent the experience of homesteading in an isolated area as well as vernacular basic wood frame construction that is becoming increasingly rare in rural Alberta. Though not the original homestead dwelling, this house is the oldest structure in the community. Owing to its size, it was frequently used for social gatherings.

Today, Amber Valley is active in the community with twice-annual friend chicken suppers, baseball tournaments, and monthly music jams in the spring, fall, and winter.

Photo courtesy of Heritage Collaborative.

Text adapted from Alberta Register of Historic Places

Athabasca United Church


The heritage value of the Athabasca United Church lies in its association with the growth of Athabasca prior to World War One and its Gothic Revival architecture.

Founded as a Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.) post in 1875, the settlement at Athabasca initially developed as a vital transportation hub for the fur trade and the Klondike Gold Rush, connecting traders and prospectors with a vast land and river network extending into Northern Alberta and the Western Arctic. The heady optimism of the times is evident in the large-scale of the Athabasca United Church (originally the Athabasca Methodist Church) built in 1913. One of Alberta’s largest frame structures with a capacity exceeding 600 people, the church was built at the height of hopes for Athabasca, before railway lines bypassing the settlement brought the town’s rapid expansion to an abrupt halt.

Adapting the Gothic Revival style of architecture to the particular needs and sensibilities of the community in Athabasca, well-known Edmonton architect Ernest William Morehouse designed the Athabasca United Church as an elegant, spacious building. The Gothic Revival style in evident in the twin corner towers, the trefoil gable window, and the pointed, arched windows. The church resembles other Protestant houses of worship in Alberta derived from the Gothic Revival style, but is distinguished by its use of wood as the primary building material and its roof supported by walls, rafters, and ceiling joists without any interior pillars. The plan of the church, with its many windows and almost square design, was intended to create an atmosphere of spaciousness and grandeur centred on the preacher proclaiming the Gospel.

The Athabasca United Church continues to hold weekly services and serves as an occasional venue for musical performances.

Photo courtesy of Athabasca University.

Text adapted from Alberta Register of Historic Places

St Alban’s Anglican Church

st alban's churchLocation

St. Alban’s Anglican Church was one of a series of churches constructed in the Athabasca Landing area between 1912 and 1915 to serve the needs of the incoming settlers. These churches included Holy Trinity, Pleasant Valley; St. James, Pine Creek; St. Mark, Flat Lake and St. Andrew, Colinton.

Settlement of the area was underway as early as 1905, but completion of the Canadian Northern (CN) Railway branch line to Athabasca Landing in 1912 accelerated the process. One of the Anglican clergymen active in the area was Reverend Robert Little, whose visits led to the decision to build St. Alban’s Church. Two acres of land were donated for use as a site and funds for the purchase of materials came from England. Volunteer labour under the direction of a local carpenter named Tarrant built the church. Construction was initiated in 1914 and then completed in August of 1915.

The parish was a quiet one, in which few exceptional events occurred. During the Great Depression, St. Alban’s Church took its part in the provision of relief services. In 1937, for example, St. Alban’s Church followed a member’s suggestion and collected a boxcar of vegetables for shipment to destitute settlers at Hilda, Alberta. The parish history gives the impression of steady community participation, and the church helps to illustrate the Historic Sites Source Master Plan theme of settlement underway before World War One.

St Alban’s Church remains part of the Athabasca Parish of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Photo courtesy of Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management

Text adapted from Alberta Registry of Historic Places

West Athabasca School


In 1903, the Athabasca School District 839 was incorporated; by 1910, homesteaders began to enter the district around Athabasca, with the land having just been surveyed. Then, in the summer of 1912, the Canadian Northern (CN) Railway arrived from Edmonton. This made farming in the district even more viable, and, that very year, three school districts were incorporated to the south and east of the town. In 1914, a school district was incorporated for the people living just straight west of Athabasca.

As time passed, the district of west Athabasca did not grow considerably. As a result, there was no clamour for a larger school in west Athabasca, and so, the original 1914 structure was able to survive. By the end of World War Two however, district roadways had improved to such an extent that it made sense to have the children of the district bussed a few miles into town. In 1948, the 1914 structure was also moved into town, among several other early twentieth century dwellings. Here, it was made to accommodate mostly elementary students. It was closed as a school in 1951, but used occasionally after that as a church and a Sunday school for the Missionary Church Society.

Photo courtesy of Athabasca University.

Text adapted from Alberta Register of Historic Places

Athabasca Landing Trail

Athabasca trailThe Athabasca Landing Trail was constructed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1876, generally following a traditional First Nations route. It was the first overland road from Fort Edmonton to the southernmost point of the Athabasca River. The ALT was constructed through trees, creeks, and boggy territory and became known for bugs, mud, and moonshine. It was constructed at a total cost of $4059 and was Alberta’s first Dominion Highway and Canada’s first toll road. In 1898, some 600 gold rush prospectors started out along the trail, intent on reaching the Klondike. The ALT was dubbed the ‘100 Mile Portage’ since it linked two major waterways – the North Saskatchewan River and the Athabasca River.

After the railway was completed in 1912, the ALT lost its importance as a freight route but was still the primary route for regular traffic. Within a few years of the trail being declared a public right-of-way by the federal government, many homesteaders claimed land along the route. Many of these settlers provided food, shelter, and a variety of other services to travellers on the trail, and their homes were known as stopping houses. As traffic increased on the trail, schools and churches were built. Additional homesteads were developed near these facilities and when the railway came through in 1912, they became thriving communities. Many of the original public buildings stand today, and some are still used for community functions.

The original trail from Edmonton to Athabasca is being recreated and can be travelled from Athabasca to Perryvale in our region.

Photo courtesy of Athabasca Archives.

Text adapted from Athabasca Landing Trail