By Jody MacPherson
Fort McMurray Express, July 30, 1986
There’s a bit of history preserved in the most unlikely of places.
Take Dickinsfield for example. No one would ever guess that this shiny new subdivision has captured a bit of the past in its name.
There are a lot of local names that we use everyday without realizing the significance they hold.
Through a number of sources, including oldtimers Hugh Stroud and Walter Hill, the city planning department, historical books and resources at the Interpretive Centre, were compiled the following list of some familiar places, lakes and rivers.
Included is a description of where the name came from as far as can be determined.
Some names have been around so long that no one seems to remember how they came to be called what they are, but every name has a story to tell.
Mildred Lake – This lake at the Syncrude site, was named after Mildred Tarpening¹ (sic) whose parents looked after the Hudson’s Bay Company’s shipyards at the lake. The location used to used as the boat landing.
Athabasca River – A Cree Indian word meaning “where there are reeds.” So named because of the reeds growing in the muddy deltas and rich soil shallows of the Athabasca Lake. the lake appears on Peter Pond’s map of 1790 as “Great Araubaska.”
Clearwater River – The largest eastern tributary of the Athabasca, the Clearwater is so named because of the contrast of its waters with the muddy Athabasca. Peter Pond first travelled the river in 1778.
Fort MacKay – Named after Dr. William “Old One-Eye” MacKay, the first resident doctor in what was later Alberta. Originally named Old Red River House in 1870, it was changed in 1912 to Fort MacKay.
Fort Chipewyan – Named after the Cree Indian tribe. the word means “pointed skins” and was hence applied to the people who wear them.
Ells River – Sidney Clark Ells was among the first to realize the commercial potential of the tar sands. The naming of the river in 1923 spurred some controversy as Ells’ ideas were questioned in certain quarters. The river is located northwest of the city and runs between the Athabasca River and Namur Lake.
Waterways – there were in fact two villages named Waterways at one time. The original Waterways was located about six miles from Fort McMurray, south along the Clearwater. In 1926, the new Waterways sprang up and a railway shack that had a “Waterways” sign on it was relocated, but no one bothered to take down the sign.
Draper – The original Waterways was renamed Draper Station after Thomas Draper who owned the McMurray Asphaltum and Oil plant in about 1922. The plant was located one half mile east of the old Waterways. Draper was especially interested in the use of the tar sands in asphalt and paved a number of areas in Edmonton, a bridge in Medicine Hat and some roads in Jasper.
Christina Lake – Southeast of the city and fed by Christina River, a tributary of the Clearwater River, this lake is named after Christine Gordon. She was the first white woman to make Fort McMurray her home. Formerly known as Pembina River and the Red Willow River by the Chipewyans.
Conklin – Located on Christina Lake, this community was named in 1916 after John Conklin, the timekeeper for a contractor on the Alberta and Great Waterways Railroad.
Chard – Named after Alfred Chard who was the freight and traffic supervisor for the Alberta government. The station is along the railroad from Fort McMurray to Lac La Biche, just north of Conklin.
Firebag River – This river runs into the Athabasca about 40 kilometres north of Bitumount. It is named after the pouch used in early days to carry fire-making materials before the advent of matches.
Lac La Biche – The names means “lake of the red doe”, and was called this by early explorers from about 1790.
Slave River – This is named after the Etchareottine Indians, who were called “awokanak”, or “slaves” by the Cree for their timid disposition. The name Etchareottine means “people dwelling in the shelter.” The river runs north from Lake Athabasca.
Bitumount – North of the city along the Athabasca, this site was first occupied by A.W. Wheeler in 1922. The project he undertook was to extract oil from the tar sands. He named the post office after himself, but shortly afterward, the plant was taken over by R. C. Fitzsimmons who renamed it Bitumount in 1934.
Wandering River – Presumably named for the numerous bends in the river.
Calling Lake – From a translation of an Indian name for the lake, which makes a loud noise when freezing up each year because of its depth. The lake is located west of Wandering River.
Boyle – Named after John Robert Boyle, former provincial minister of education (1913) and supreme court judge. while a Liberal member of the legislature for Sturgeon, he started the debate which laid bare the Alberta Great Waterways railroad scandal and led to the resignation of Premier Sifton² in 1914.
Skeleton Lake – Located close to Boyle, this popular campsite is from an Indian name which is said to mean “place of the skeletons.” There is an Indian burial ground nearby.
Donatville – On the way to Edmonton, this hamlet was named in 1914 after Donat Gingras, who was an early settler.
Conn Creek – Closer to home, this creek is in the Thickwood Heights area and was named by Sidney Ells for Thomas Conn, one of the oldest inhabitants of Fort McMurray. He was a fire ranger on the Athabasca River at the time the creek was named in 1925.
Dickinsfield – This Thickwood subdivision is named after Clennell “Punch” Dickins, an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He completed the first air mail flight into Waterways in 1929.
Georges Lake – Located along the railway south of Cheecham, this lake is named after a trapper named George who lived on the lake. He married Mary Cheecham whose family the lake used to be named after.
Lynton – This station stop along the railroad was the original end of the railway and was called “Cache 223.”
¹Last name may be misspelled here. Her name was likely Mildred Terpening.
²This is incorrect and should have read Premier Rutherford. Alexander Rutherford was forced to resign and was replaced by Arthur Sifton.