The Hudson’s Bay Company Owned Downtown Edmonton

Have you ever heard of the Hudson’s Bay Company Reserve? I knew it existed but I didn’t realize just how much of an impact it had on Edmonton’s development. Basically, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) owned downtown Edmonton, from the bank of the North Saskatchewan River to present day 118 Avenue and between today’s 101 Street and 121 Street. While most of downtown south of 104 Avenue was sold off in the late 1800s and early 1910s, a large part of the Reserve remained empty until the 1950s. Most of Edmonton’s early development was along the edges of the Reserve, in today’s McCauley neighbourhood in the east and Oliver and Westmount in the west.

The City of Edmonton Archives recently teamed up with the City’s Artifacts Centre and Historian Laureate to put together a display on the HBC Reserve lands. The Archives has many documents relating to the development of the Reserve. For example, we have City records from 1912 that show excitement at the possibilities of starting fresh and “breaking away from the old gridiron street plan.” Like the downtown airport land today, it was seen as an opportunity to try new theories of urban living (although they didn’t use those terms of course).

Part of the exhibit “How the Hudson’s Bay Company Reserve Lands Shaped Edmonton” currently on display at the Prince of Wales Armouries.

Part of the exhibit “How the Hudson’s Bay Company Reserve Lands Shaped Edmonton” currently on display at the Prince of Wales Armouries.

Please stop by the Prince of Wales Armouries and have a look at the exhibit! We digitized several maps that show the extent of the Reserve over the years (it’s weird to see such a large empty space in the middle of the City) and they are also available in our online catalogue.

While working on the exhibit I was thinking of my blogs on Edmonton stores – companies don’t get much older than the HBC. So, I thought I’d write a bit about the various incarnations of The Bay on Jasper Avenue. I picked my favourite images, but we have more online.

The earliest Bay store was of course within Fort Edmonton itself. In 1890 the company opened a store outside the Fort, located at present day 98 Street and Jasper Avenue. In 1894, they relocated to 103 Street and Jasper Avenue. There has been a Bay building there ever since, now it’s the University of Alberta’s Enterprise Square.

EA-10-581 “Hudson’s Bay co. Store” 1906

EA-10-581 “Hudson’s Bay co. Store” 1906

EA-29-112 “Hudson’s Bay Company Store” ca. 1920s

EA-29-112 “Hudson’s Bay Company Store” ca. 1920s

The current Jasper Avenue building was opened with much fanfare and enthusiasm in 1939. The newspapers described it as a thoroughly modern store with the latest designs in heating, windows and air circulation (we have the plans at the Archives). It cost $1 million to build, a huge figure in the 1930s. The building grew as Edmonton did, adding a third story and then doubling in size with an addition in 1954. It was designated a Municipal Historical Resource in 1989, although a bylaw was later passed to allow changes to the building to accommodate other businesses. 

EA-10-584 “Hudson’s Bay Co. Store” ca. 1940. This shows an unusually quiet Jasper Avenue, it may have been taken on a Sunday when the stores were closed.

EA-10-584 “Hudson’s Bay Co. Store” ca. 1940. This shows an unusually quiet Jasper Avenue, it may have been taken on a Sunday when the stores were closed.

The Bay store was a downtown hub and its Christmas decorations were a popular attraction for years, particularly the window displays featuring miniature houses and mechanical mice.

By the 1990s however, downtown was in decline, partly because shoppers were heading to malls instead, and in 1993 a new Bay store opened in Edmonton Centre (now City Centre Mall). The Jasper Avenue store closed in 1995 and the building remained mostly empty for years.

The newspapers reflect a long and controversial debate over what should be done with the building. One side insisted that a major overhaul was necessary to make it suitable for modern retail while the other maintained that the building’s historical importance needed to be preserved. Eventually, a compromise was reached that would allow changes while preserving historic features like the exterior carvings and the Tyndall stone.

Then, in 2005, the University of Alberta bought the building with help from the City as well as the Provincial and Federal Governments. After extensive renovations (that preserved the exterior historical aspects of the lower two levels), Enterprise Square opened in 2008 and it has been a part of the downtown revival ever since.

Do you have any memories of the Bay on Jasper? Please share them!

EA-275-43 “Jasper Avenue – 101 Street (west) Hudson’s Bay” 1960

EA-275-43 “Jasper Avenue – 101 Street (west) Hudson’s Bay” 1960


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About the Author
Elizabeth Walker
Elizabeth has a Masters of Archival Studies from UBC and she’s been the City’s digital archivist since September 2010. She’s passionate about outreach and increasing engagement between the Archives and the community.
  1. wader
    6 years ago

    When you walk by Enterprise Square and look at the large windows it would seem that they have built in retractable awnings. Are there any pictures with that detail? I’ve never seen them out but based on the design I can’t imagine they they’d be anything but awnings. I’m sure whatever is hidden behind those hinges is long deteriorated but it would be interesting to see what they did look like (if that’s what they were).

  2. Elizabeth Walker
    6 years ago

    Hi Wader,

    I had a look through the photographs in our online catalogue and there is one that shows awnings! I’ve never noticed before, I’ll have to remember to look next time I’m there. Interesting!

  3. wader
    6 years ago

    That’s awesome! I always knew there was something hidden in there. Thanks so much for that. Thrilling. I was secretly hoping that they’d be stripped but it’s wonderful all the same. I wonder what their condition is now?

  4. wader
    6 years ago

    Sidenote: I wish we could access larger pictures from the archives. So many places have put their collections on flickr and it would be wonderful to see more of the details.

  5. Adam
    6 years ago

    Ha, great find. I’m in awe (ha!).

  6. Elizabeth Walker
    6 years ago

    Hi Wader, stripes would indeed have been awesome (@ Adam, hah!).

    The City’s Heritage Planners may be able to help answer questions about the awnings:

    Regarding Flickr, we have considered it but decided that we would rather concentrate our efforts on our catalogue, this blog and our online exhibits. There are many reasons but I’ll give you two, context and resources.

    This may not be the right forum for this conversation because I’m going to oversimplify a lot…but, context is really important to us. One of the problems with sites like Flickr is the removal of the photographs from their context as a part of a collection. The images in our online catalogue are linked to the photographer or the person or organization that donated them to the Archives. And we catalogue as much information about the individual images and their collection as we can. The images were usually saved for a reason and they were donated to the City of Edmonton Archives for a reason. And, while the context is never complete, there is meaning in each photograph’s relationship to the others in the same collection. Even the numbering of the photographs can have significance. Archivists try and preserve collections in their original order because, while sometimes it is random, often the order is a reflection of the donor and why they saved these particular images. Our catalogue is designed to reflect this context as much as is allowed by the medium.

    Arguably, by highlighting images by subject in this blog the context is lost but the connection to the Archives is still there, as is the potential to find the context through the Archives. Each archives must make its own decision but to us, sites like Flickr are just too removed from us.

    As for resources, frankly we don’t have enough to duplicate effort by posting images in too many places. We chose to concentrate on our catalogue, sacrificing some functionality but preserving context. But I understand about wanting to see the details. If it’s any consolation you can order high resolution copies for $20 or, if you can come to the Archives, you can look at our digital copies.

    I hope this makes sense. Let me know if you have any questions.

  7. Elizabeth Walker
    5 years ago

    Wader, I may owe you an apology. Did you try and download an image from our catalogue? I’ve discovered that, due to a software upgrade, we’ve lost some functionality with our images. So you are not able to see as much detail as you would have before the upgrade. We’re working on it, hopefully the functionality will be restored soon!


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