Prince Albert celebrated its one-hundredth birthday in 2004. As one of the oldest settlements in the province, this city has enjoyed a rich and celebrated history. Settled in 1866 by Reverend James Nisbet, our area seemed like the ideal spot to build a life on the Prairies. In the broad valley of the North Saskatchewan River that divides the rich agricultural land of the south, from the broad band of mixed forest to the north, the possibilities seemed endless. Nisbet named his new settlement Prince Albert, in honour of the Prince Consort to England's Queen Victoria.
With the skills of Nisbet and his party, the evolution of the settlement began. James Nisbet was a Scot who came to Canada at an early age. He graduated from Knox College in Toronto and was called west by the Presbyterian Church in 1862. Physically hardy, skilled from his youth in carpentry and possessing some experience in farming, Nisbet was well fitted to be both pioneer and missionary. One of the first buildings in Prince Albert built by Nisbet still exists today. The First Presbyterian Church now sits on the north end of Kinsmen Park, and was moved to that site for the Prince Albert Historical Society in 1932.
Prince Albert's municipal history began with our first election in 1885, resulting in the election of the honourable Thomas McKay as mayor. It was also the year that the community was incorporated as a town. One year later, in 1886, Prince Albert became the Saskatchewan Headquarters of the NorthWest Mounted Police. Located on the Visitor Centre grounds, one can still see the original guardroom of the NWMP that has been remodeled into the Rotary Museum of Police and Corrections. This museum, open seasonally from mid-May to the end of August, displays artifacts of the RCMP, the Federal Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Provincial Correctional Centre, Saskatchewan Provincial Police, and the Prince Albert City Police.
With Prince Albert being so close in proximity of abundant timber, wood for fuel and fertile land, that frequently, but not always, required little clearing was the major factor in attracting our early settlers to the Prince Albert area in the late 1860's and early 1870's.
The first train arrived in October 1890, and thus Prince Albert was opened to the newly emerging culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some notable figures to live in Prince Albert during this time include famed author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of "Anne of Green Gables" and some thirty-two other books. Also a young Boris Karloff, honing his skills with Prince Albert's Harry St. Clair Players before becoming one of the most famous villains in Hollywood history.
Prince Albert officially became a city on October 8, 1904. By 1910, the new city was booming. The newfound optimism born at the turn of the century was infectious, and the situation in Prince Albert was no exception. In addition to the wealth of the forest and agricultural industries, Prince Albert was a hub of steamboat and railway activity and a centre for commerce. The population had grown by over 65% and elaborate homes were built, many of which still stand today. Samuel Mcleod, who served as mayor both in 1886 and later in 1919, built Keyhole Castle (1925 First Avenue East). This home, encompassing the individualism popular in early 1900's architecture and featuring keyhole shaped windows and scrolled gables, has been named as a Canadian Historic Site, as has the original town hall built in 1893 (now known as the Prince Albert Arts Centre at 1010 Central Avenue).
Built in 1911, the old Fire Hall, at the north end of Central Avenue, is now home to the Prince Albert Historical Museum. Open between mid-May and the end of August, the Museum contains three floors of fascinating displays of early fur traders and settlers, Aboriginal artifacts dating back to the 1800's, and many other items that bring to life the grandeur of Prince Albert's past. Along with the displays, the Museum contains a souvenir shop, a video presentation, and The Mary Nisbet Tea room, with a balcony overlooking the river.
Another reason for the sudden growth of Prince Albert early in the 20th century was the construction of the La Colle Falls Dam. The city went ahead with the project, during the boom years of 1910-1913. The population jumped 60% in two years, and properties along Central Avenue brought in up to $1,000 per frontal foot. The project had the promise of turning Prince Albert into a centre for industrial power that would rival other power centres, like Winnipeg or Chicago. This dream soon turned into a nightmare as cost estimates rose by over 350%, and design problems, changes in government policy, and cancelled grant promises helped drive the city to the brink of bankruptcy. On July 29th, 1913, construction was halted and the site abandoned only partially completed. To this day you can visit the site and see the dam as it was left at the 293-foot stage of development.
Archibald Stansfield Belaney, born in Hastings, England in 1888, came to Canada admiring the lifestyles of our aboriginal peoples. He became Grey Owl, naturalist and writer, making his home in what is now the Prince Albert National Park and fashioning his lifestyle, doning buckskins and growing his hair in long braids. His literary works include Men of the Frontier, Pilgrims of the Wild, Sajo and the Beaver People, and Tales of an Empty Cabin. Grey Owl gained international fame for his environmentalist views; the gifted author and orator traveled extensively promoting his work. The pace was hectic, and took its toll; he died on April 13th, 1938 of pneumonia. The legend of Grey Owl was soured by the revelation that this celebrated author was really an Englishman. However, this discovery does not minimize his contribution to the environmentalist cause, and to this day many admirers make the hike to his cabin on Ajawaan Lake in the Prince Albert National Park to see the home of Grey Owl.
A Prince Albert lawyer named John G. Diefenbaker was first elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and later became Prime Minister of Canada between 1957 and 1963. He then became the leader of the Official Opposition until 1967. Affectionately known as "Dief the Chief", his Prince Albert home has been turned into a museum. The Diefenbaker House is located at 246 19th Street West and is open seasonally from mid May until the end of August.
Despite the setback of the La Colle Falls project, Prince Albert was by no means at a standstill. In 1928, both the Provincial Courthouse and a provincial Sanitorium were constructed at a cost of $1.3 million. Prince Albert was the home of many large businesses, including a brewery and flour mills. By the end of 1965, Prince Albert finally paid off the last of the La Colle Falls debt. With the development of the Pulp Mill in 1968, Forestry became the second most important industry (Agriculture being the first). Numerous gold and uranium discoveries in the 1970's and 80's increased employment and stimulated Northern Saskatchewan economy. Throughout the 1990's, the city has seen Tourism emerge as its third largest industry. As a result of this prosperity, Prince Albert was twice named "One of the Ten Best Places to Live" in Canada by Chatelaine magazine in 1992 and 1993.
The beginning of the 21st century marked another period of growth in the city, including the building of the Cornerstone Development Shopping District, the E.A. Rawlinson Centre for the Arts, and the Provincial Forestry Centre. With diamond exploration in the Prince Albert Area, growth in the commercial and industrial sectors, and an active cultural and recreational community, Prince Albert's future promises to be as exciting as its past!