Oil Sands history and archaeology featured in award winner’s poems

In the spring of 2010, I took award-winning poet David Martin on a tour of Bitumount, an oil sands separation plant located on the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. This provincially-designated historic site was founded in the late 1920s by Robert Fitzsimmons, a man whose unique sense of entrepreneurship and ability to stir convention made him one of the most colourful characters in oil sands history.

Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray  (Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).
Bitumount Site Provincial Historic Resource, near Fort McMurray
(Historic Resources Management Branch, July 2005).

Fitzsimmons’ story is an important element of David’s recent work, a collection of poems that examines the oil sands milieu from historical, archaeological and even geological perspectives. His compositions have been published in literary journals such as The Malahat Review, Grain magazine, The Fiddlehead and CV2, and he won the 2014 CBC Poetry prize for his oil sands themed poem “Tar Swan.” Fitzsimmons and the oil sands archaeological record are also featured in “Ballad of RCF,” a song from Stone Boat, the second album from David’s pop rock group The Fragments.

Our visit to Bitumount, and the pre-contact period archaeological excavations nearby, provided David with insight into the oil sands past that he could not gain by other means. This illustrates an element of historic resource preservation that is rarely documented: literary inspiration. I spoke to David about the trip, oil sands as poetry and how he incorporates archaeological information into his work.

The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
The powerhouse at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What drew you to write about Robert Fitzsimmons and Bitumount?

I felt that the Fitzsimmons story offered me a smaller, more manageable way to write about the oil sands, rather than to focus on current industrial operations. Fitzsimmons was undoubtedly a very charismatic person, so naturally I was drawn to his experiences. I read about him in several history books, as well as in his personal letters and a small pamphlet that he published; although I quickly learned that he was not always the most reliable source in discussing his own work.

How did the trip to Bitumount and the surrounding area influence your writing?

I had done a great deal of research before the trip, such as reading books and examining documents in the Provincial Archives. However, being at the actual site offered me many details that I would never have discovered in books or photographs. I was able to incorporate these small details into the poems, which I believe helps to give my work a sense of verisimilitude.

I was keen to visit Bitumount because it presented a tangible way to understand the development of the oil sands, and it was fascinating to see it in the context of the surrounding environment: an abandoned industrial site hidden within the boreal forest. As well, there are different phases of history within this single space, such as the original Fitzsimmons plant, the larger provincial pilot plant that was later built and the modern debris left by people who have passed through the area.

Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).
Remains of a small barge at Bitumount (photo by David Martin).

What site feature or landscape feature struck you the most?

I had previously seen a brief archival film of Fitzsimmons piloting his boat, The Golden Slipper, and it was an amazing moment for me to see the same boat tucked beneath a small A-frame shelter. The boat is slowly falling apart but the name is still visible, and this was a powerful way for me to connect the history I had been learning about with a physical object in front of me. It’s always inspiring when history appears in a concrete form.

It was also interesting, and a bit eerie, to see handwritten words at the entrance to one of the buildings, supposedly from Ernie Eakins, a long time caretaker of the Bitumount site. In neat blue cursive it reads: “You will never never make it home again if I catch you in this lab.” He probably wrote this note to scare off trespassers, but it was unsettling to read it in the abandoned building.

The incorporation of boreal forest archaeology in your poems is certainly unconventional. What role does archaeology play in your compositions? What source information did you draw upon?

The archaeological work in the Athabasca area was important for my poems because it reveals a historical context that extends back thousands of years. Just as important, though, was my learning about excavations of more recent sites, such as Fitzsimmons’ early drilling camp. The archeological dig serves as a narrative frame for my work; it demonstrates a way of literally uncovering history.

Another archaeological idea that is central to my work is debitage: making inferences about the past based on debris and fragments. Debitage analysis seems like a fitting analogy for what my poems are aiming for — building a connection to the past by using the imagination and the fragments that have survived from that time.

Will you continue to mine historical information for future compositions?

Currently I’m researching about lake sediment sampling for some poems. I’m drawn to the idea that a core sample can contain a great deal of information about what the environment was like thousands of years ago.

Written by: Robin Woywitka, Cultural Land Use Analyst, and a special thanks to David Martin for his participation.

David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).
David holding a piece of bitumen (photo by David Martin).

Below is an excerpt from David Martin’s oil sands poetry manuscript:

The road, paved with bitu-phalt,
rutted, dimpled, summer-soft:

a stubborn swipe between
Fitzsimmons and Government.

Frogs draw in counterpoint
behind the boiler house.

Across the river, the Horizon Project,
a mouth-brooding grandnephew,

punctures its dull tonic
with bleats of backfiring cannons –

Where do you stand?
Where do you stand?

The boat is slack, leaves
and moss rising, no one to bail.


South: other minds left behind
a beached steam engine, fridge

shamed in the woods, wind-hewn
garage, stalagmite-filled pump house,

and clutches of tanks and tubs –
all mute actors in a government-funded

play that closed on opening night.

Behind the scrum: a muskeg’s frame
freed of its burden.

Topographic hills relent; a drop
of bitumen syrup galls the whorls,

stains the finger.
The song resents the singer.

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