Fort McMurray Bridge over the Athabasca River
Fort McMurray is a community within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alberta. It was a city between 1980 and April 1, 1995, when it was merged with Improvement District No. 18, creating the municipality of Wood Buffalo. Fort McMurray remains a designation used by Canada Post for mail delivery in this area.
View of the Clearwater River valley from Highway 63Before the arrival of Newfoundlanders in the late 18th Century, the Cree were the dominant First Nations people in the Fort McMurray area. The oil sands were known to the locals and the surface deposits were actually used to waterproof their canoes. In 1778, the first of the European explorers, Peter Pond, came to the region in search of furs as the European demand for this commodity at the time was strong. Peter Pond explored the region further south along the Athabasca River and the Clearwater River, but chose to set up a trading post much farther north by the Athabasca River near Lake Athabasca. However, his post closed in 1788 in favour of Fort Chipewyan, now the oldest continuous settlement in Alberta.
In 1790, the explorer Alexander MacKenzie made the first recorded description of the oil sands. By that time, trading between the explorers and the Cree was already occurring at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company were in fierce competition in this region. Fort McMurray was established there as a Hudson's Bay Company post by 1870, and continued to operate as a transportation stopover in the decades afterwards.
The community has played a significant role in the history of the petroleum industry in Canada. Oil exploration is known to have occurred as early as the early 20th Century, but Fort McMurray's population remained very small, no more than a few hundred people. By 1921 there was serious interest in developing a refining plant to separate the oil from the sands. Alcan Oil Company was the first outfit to begin bulk tests at Fort McMurray. The nearby community of Waterways was established to provide a terminus for waterborne transportation, until 1925, when the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway reached there.
Abasands Oil was the first company to successfully extract oil from the oil sands through hot water extraction by the 1930s, but production was very low. Fort McMurray gradually grew to over 1,100 bpd by World War II, and Fort McMurray was set up by the US and Canadian forces as staging ground for the Canol project.
Fort McMurray and Waterways amalgamated as the village of McMurray (the "Fort" was dropped until 1962, when it was restored to reflect its heritage) by 1947, and became a town a year later. Fort McMurray was granted the status of new town so it could get more provincial funding. By 1966, the town's population was over 2,000.
In 1967, the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) plant opened and Fort McMurray's growth took off afterwards. More oil sands plants were opened up, especially after 1973 and 1979, when serious political tensions and conflicts in the Middle East triggered oil price spikes. The population of the town reached 6,743 by 1971 and climbed swiftly to 30,772 by 1981, a year after its incorporation as a city.
The city continued to grow for a few years even after the oil bust caused by the collapse in world oil prices and the National Energy Program, which was scrapped after the Progressive Conservative Party formed the Government of Canada in 1984. The population peaked at almost 37,000, just before it declined to under 34,000 by 1987. Low oil prices since the oil price collapse in 1986 slowed the oil sands production greatly, as oil extraction from the oilsands is a very expensive process and lower world prices made this uneconomical. However, the oil price increases since 2003 have made oil extraction profitable again.
On April 1, 1995, the City of Fort McMurray and Improvement District No. 143, a portion of the former I.D. 18, were amalgamated to form the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Since then, Fort McMurray lost its status as an incorporated city, and is referred to as an urban service area. The entire regional municipality is under a single government, although Fort McMurray is the seat of this government. By 2006, the population of Fort McMurray reached 64,441.
Fort McMurray is considered the heart of one of Alberta's (and Canada's) major hubs of oil production, located near the Athabasca Oil Sands. Besides the oil sands, the economy also relies on natural gas and oil pipelines, forestry and tourism. The two largest oil sand mining companies are Syncrude and Suncor Energy.
Fort McMurray's growth is characteristic of a boomtown." Housing prices and rents are far higher in Fort McMurray than one would expect in such a remote area. In 2006, Fort McMurray had the highest prices in Alberta. The Albertan government has promised to release more Crown land for residential construction, particularly in Timberlea on the north side.