Fort McMurray

Fort McMurray, Alta, Urban Centre, population 61 374 (2011c), 47 705 (2006c). Fort McMurray is the largest community in the regional municipality of WOOD BUFFALO. It is located near the confluence of the ATHABASCA and CLEARWATER rivers in northeastern Alberta and lies near the centre of the vast Athabasca oil sands deposit (see BITUMEN). Incorporated as a city in 1980, it merged with Improvement District No 143 in 1995 to create Wood Buffalo, one of Canada’s largest municipalities by area.

A former NORTH WEST CO post, Fort McMurray was rebuilt in 1870 and named after HUDSON'S BAY CO Factor William McMurray. It functioned primarily as a fur-trading post and transportation centre connecting EDMONTON to the Athabasca country. The horse and sternwheeler were critical to its survival until 1921 when the railway reached Waterways (now Draper), 12.8 km south. The railway was extended another 6 km north in 1925 and this site became the permanent location of Waterways. Several fish plants and a salt-extraction industry developed thereafter. During World War II the town was an important base for the CANOL PIPELINE. All this activity led to Waterways and Fort McMurray incorporating together as the village of McMurray in 1947. A year later McMurray gained town status and changed its name to Fort McMurray in 1962.

Modern Fort McMurray was born in 1964 when Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor Energy Inc) was given permission to start construction on a plant to separate oil from the oil sands. The town grew from 1200 people that year to 10 000 by the mid-1970s. A second project 10 years later (Syncrude Canada) spurred more growth so by 1981 the population was nearly 31 000. In the late 1990s, Fort McMurray began a third phase, which continues today. With limited taxation income, the city was not able to keep pace with the growth and merged with the tax rich improvement district. Some two-thirds of its population work directly either for one of the oil companies or their contractors. Fort McMurray is also the centre for administration, service and trade for Wood Buffalo.

Having now shed its "boom town" image, Fort McMurray is modern and vibrant, complete with college facilities and a thriving cultural and artistic community. Attractions include the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, which presents and interprets the history, technology and significance of the industry, and Heritage Park, which traces Fort McMurray's history from its fur-trading days to the 1970s.