The Last Great Frontier
One of the final places to be fully settled by French and Anglo-Canadians, the lands upon the Peace and Smoky rivers share an eventful yet brief history that has developed in a single century, helping create the region's distinctive rurality and charm. Many of the children of original settlers are still alive.
Long Before Europeans, local tribes such as the Beaver (Dane-zaa) and Woodland Cree (Nîhithaw) inhabited the Smoky River region. Many toponyms are derived from the language such as 'Watino' (Valley in Cree) or 'Kimiwan' (Rain in Cree). Conflicts between the two tribes were commonplace as the Cree moved westwards from Saskatchewan. Later mingling with French and British fur traders would create marriages through negotiation, creating a cultural fusion; the result of this would be the Métis people.
The Fur Trade
What ultimately drove European explorer's westward was the continued interest in establishing forts to trade with native peoples for furs. The first European to travel through the region was likely Peter Pond (1739-1807) who explored the Peace and Athabasca waterways. No permanent fort was established upon the Smoky River itself, however Alexander Makenzie (1764-1820) established Fort Fork at the confluence of the Peace and Smoky rivers. It was during this period that the lay of the land was first surveyed, yet no significant settlement took place due to harsh conditions.
With the interest in the north growing due to the advent of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899), the expansive boreal forests of the largely ignored Peace and Athabasca regions became sought after. Grouard, on the shore of the Lesser Slave Lake, eventually became the largest town north of Edmonton in the newly established province of Alberta, and groups of settlers travelled to north to the settlement by steam boat, hoping to use the town as a staging ground. Furthermore, male farmers above the age of 21 were promised 160 acres of free land grants if they were able to 'prove' (develop) the land under the Dominion Act of 1871.
Falher, Dreau and Giroux
Émile Grouard O.M.I (1840-1931), First Bishop of Athabasca and namesake of Grouard, perceived the region of the Smoky River as a possible area of settlement for French Catholics, and thus tasked Father Jean-Baptiste Giroux and his assistant Constant Falher to rally French-Canadians in Quebec and New England to settle the lands of the north. About 35 families followed, and the first arrived to prove their land in 1911 and 1912. By 1914, almost 300 francophones inhabited the land between the Smoky River and Kimiwan Lake. The St-Jean Baptiste Church and Registry, 4 kilometers southeast of Falher, was built 1914 by Augustin Dumas and volunteers, and Father Marie Dreau became the first resident priest. The building still stands and is a rare example of a church of dual functionality, with the upstairs providing residence for the clergy. In 1919, the colony split into Donnelly and Falher. Ever since, Falher and its entourage of communities has remained one of the few enduring centres of French-Albertan settlement, with the 2016 census reporting over half of Falher's population as bilingual.
The Railroad Arrives
The idea of opening up the Peace River region to more settlers became enticing, and the largest barrier was transportation. In 1912, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia railway began work on establishing rail connection to Peace River through Westlock. Construction reached the Smoky River region by 1915, at which point McLennan was established and named after Dr. John K. McLennan, vice president of the railroad corporation. The region saw steady growth as farmers gained access to a large market, and many small communities such as Culp, Tangent and Dreau were established. Passenger service allowed residents to leave and return to Edmonton much more easily, however the ED&BC ran into financial troubles and sold the railway to NAR (Northern Alberta Railways) in 1929. Passenger service was discontinued in 1974, and floods in 1987 forced the closure of the rail line between Girouxville and Rycroft. The communities that once thrived on the business brought by means of the railway have experienced a decline in population since, some dissolving entirely.
The unique traditions of the area, both Indigenous and French-Canadian in origin, have been largely preserved, and the short yet robust history of the region is often a point of pride for its residents. The Girouxville Museum, with over 6,000 artifacts from pioneers, has been dedicated to preserving the tools of the frontier that may seem so foreign to the modern world, while the Northern Alberta Railway Museum has preserved much of the region's railroad heritage, housed in the old Falher Railway Station. The Société Historique et Généalogique de Smoky River (Historical and Genealogical Society of Smoky River), founded in 1983, is a bilingual society that specializes in local history and French-Canadian genealogy; containing an impressive collection, the facility holds an entire archive of information. Across the Village of Donnelly are stop signs upon which are scenes from local history, painted to honour the original establishments that created the central foundation of the community.