Pitch and Timber: A History of Human Relationships with Trees in Alberta (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on the history of human relationships with trees in Alberta. Next week’s post will discuss the development of the forestry industry, modern research and the Heritage Art Series.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

People in Alberta have relied on trees since these woody plants colonized our ice-scraped province around 11,000 years ago. Millions of collective hours were spent by people gathering and chopping wood for warmth and cooking, but our relationship with trees runs much deeper than heat. People in Alberta have relied on them to build tools, homes, and transportation networks, and our forestry industry continues to shape the province.

Logging at Poplar Creek, Alberta in the late 1800s. Image A5085 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

What Trees Grow Here and Why?

Much of the prairies are too hot and dry for forests, but most of central and northern Alberta have ideal temperatures and moisture levels for trees: over 60% of the province is covered by forests. While our precipitation helps trees grow, Alberta is dry enough (over long enough periods in the summers) to be fire-prone. Most natural forests here rarely exist for more than 100 years before a fire re-starts the growth of a series of plant communities (called ‘succession’). Our ‘pyrogenic’ forests are younger and typically smaller than neighbours to the west where heavier rains and different soils produce massive old growth forests that often exceed 600 years old.

Alberta has two main tree types: deciduous (that lose their leaves in the autumn) and coniferous (trees with needles). Deciduous trees grow faster than conifers and tend to be common in Alberta’s more southern forests, like the aspen parkland that borders the prairies. But conifers have longer growing seasons than deciduous trees so they tend to dominate northern forests and at higher elevations (like in the foothills and Rockies) where cold climates limit the growing season for deciduous trees. Within those two tree types are a variety of species that are adapted to specific conditions, which creates several different kinds of tree communities in Alberta.

Alberta’s different latitudes and elevations give rise to broad forest regions. Within those regions, things like rivers, creeks, wetlands, and different landforms create millions of micro-habitats that host specific species and plant communities (infographic by Todd Kristensen with forest schematics adapted from Corns and Annas 1986).

Alberta has a variety of trees that shaped how people lived in forests and used wood products. Each tree species has a different wood hardness, weight, durability, straightness, smell, and other qualities that people found important for day-to-day tasks. Our cold climate favours slow-growing trees so Alberta wood is relatively dense and strong (because of tight and narrow annual growth rings), which makes good lumber nowadays but presented challenges to people thousands of years ago. On a big scale, fires create huge swaths of relatively densely packed trees, which could limit the movement of people and spread out game animals. The wide-open prairies were home to mobile people that often got together in large groups to hunt buffalo and for ceremonies. But the forests tended to be the home of smaller, dispersed families. When Europeans arrived, the Fur Trade, the building of railways, and early agriculture were all shaped by forests, their animals, and the wood products they offered. Young, fire-prone forests that are close to productive prairie soils created a unique ecological stage for homesteading in the 1800s, which influenced the development of Alberta’s major industries, including forestry (our province’s third largest industry).

Each of Alberta’s major trees has a suite of characteristics that made them valuable to First Nations and early European settlers for certain tasks. Some tree species have soft wood full of sap while others have hard wood that is strong and dense. Zoom in to this infographic to see the traits of each major tree and how they were used through history in Alberta (by Todd Kristensen).

First Nations and Forests

First Nations in Alberta have been shaping our forests for millennia through burning. Fires encouraged new growth and opened landscapes for buffalo and other game. In terms of wood products, winter movement by people often relied on wooden snowshoe frames and sleds while summer transportation, especially in northern Alberta, relied on birch bark canoes. Tipis in southern Alberta had frames of lodgepole pine while northern dwellings often had birch poles covered by sheets of bark. For thousands of years, First Nations were keenly aware of what types of wood were ideal for different purposes and they actively managed forests to serve their own needs.

First Nations sometimes travelled over a hundred kilometres to get the ideal pine poles for tipi frames (this image from the prairies is from roughly 1905). Some poles were used in travois (a type of sled attached to dogs and horses) to help move the buffalo hide tipi coverings and remaining poles from camp to camp. Image A3254 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
A Cree woman is gumming the seams of a birch bark canoe with boiling spruce sap (image courtesy of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives).

Early Wood uses in the 1800s

The earliest settlements in Alberta often had sawyers (workers who sawed timber for use in buildings). The first commercial sawmills appeared in southern Alberta in the 1880s to supply settlers and the railway. Railway construction was a major consumer of timber (3000 ties were needed for every mile of track) plus their need for trestles, bridges, and railroad stations. Rails forever changed our forests because they spurred our logging industry and brought widespread fires. Sparks and cinders from engines, brake shoes, and hot-boxes ignited thousands of fires across Canada. In 1914, a major figure in the Federal Government’s Department of Interior wrote that “A railway penetrating a new country was a sure indication of wholesale destruction of timber by fire.” So vast was the devastation that it led to the formulation in the 1890s of some of the first forest reserves in Alberta that were protected to ensure a perpetual supply of timber to major settlements (like the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve near Edmonton) and to prairie farmers (like the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve that ran along the edge of Alberta’s western grasslands).

In both northern and southern Alberta, milled lumber was in constant demand. By the 1890s, there were sawmills at the Roman Catholic mission at Fort Chipewyan (northeast Alberta) and at the Anglican mission at Fort Vermilion (along the Peace River in northern Alberta). Many farmers harvested wood on their own and sawed it for immediate needs but in southern Alberta they often had to travel five days in some cases to reach forests. Northern farmers had an advantage in terms of access to trees for lumber but often faced challenges removing trees on their homesteads to plough the land. Aside from lumber, people needed wood for heating. A homestead from the 1800s up to about 1930 (when rural electrification began) needed about five cords of wood a year to fend off the cold nights and winters: a cord is 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet and represents about 20 trees. So every year, families needed to chop about 100 trees worth of wood just for heating and cooking.

Homesteaders loaded up with timbers for building. Image A9015 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
A boy chopping wood at Smoky Lake, Alberta in 1927. Image G181 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.


A series from ‘Lodgepole pine’ by Edmonton-area artist Elaine Funnell created for the Heritage Art Series, which is a project designed to foster a greater awareness of Alberta’s past and instil a deeper respect for it. 


Further reading:

Alberta Forestry Association. 1986. Alberta Trees of Renown: An Honour Roll of Alberta Trees, 2nd edition. Alberta Forestry Association, Edmonton, Alberta.

Bleiker, K.P., S.E. Potter, C.R. Lauzon, and D.L. Six. 2009. Transport of fungal symbionts by mountain pine beetles. The Canadian Entomologist. 141(5):503-514.

Corns, I.G.W., and R.M. Annas. 1986. Field Guide to Forest Ecosystems of West-Central Alberta. Northern Forestry Centre, Canadian Forest Service, Edmonton, Alberta.

Cullingham, C.I., J.E.K. Cooke, S. Dang, C.S. Davis, B.J. Cooke, and D.W. Coltman. 2011. Mountain pine beetle host-range expansion threatens the boreal forest. Molecular Ecology 20:2157-2171.

DeWald, S., S. Josiah, and B. Erdkamp. 2005. Heating with Wood: Producing, Harvesting, and Processing Firewood. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Drushka, K. 1998. Tie Hackers and Timber Harvesters: The History of Logging in British Columbia’s Interior. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, British Columbia.

Government of Alberta. Mountain Pine Beetle in Alberta. https://www.alberta.ca/mountain-pine-beetle-in-alberta.aspx (Accessed in November, 2019.)

Huth, R. 2002. Guardians of the Forests: History of the Alberta Forest Service, the First Hundred Years. Wombat Press, Silverton, British Columbia.

Johnson, D., L. Kershaw, A. MacKinnon, and J. Pojar. 1995. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, Alberta.

Murphy, P.J., R.E. Stevenson, D. Quintilio, and S. Ferdinand. 2005. The Alberta Forest Service, 1930-2005: Protection and Management of Alberta’s Forests. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Government of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

Wetherell, D.G., and I.R.A. Kmet. 2000. Alberta’s North: A History, 1890-1950. Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press, Edmonton, Alberta.

3 thoughts on “Pitch and Timber: A History of Human Relationships with Trees in Alberta (Part 1)

  • A question for anyone who might be able to help as I am located in the Philippines and the Wainwright Museum (CN Train Station) is asking me if they are listed as a heritage site on any Canadian or provincial registers?  The Town of Wainwright says they are not listed but Wainwright Town Hall is. Can anyone verify or send any information on the status of Wainwright CN Train Station? Thanks so much for your consideration. G. Gordon Snyder.  snyderfinearts@yahoo.com

  • Hello,
    Major trees of Alberta and their uses through history is such a great poster. Can I purchased one please.
    Thank you.

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