Walking down a curved cement pathway, with the white gleaming form of the Walterdale bridge overhead, the Rossdale Power Plant emerges with it’s seven stacks jutting high into the air. It’s form is reminiscent of a 1930’s ocean liner ready to depart along the sparkling North Saskatchewan River. The plant is part of a series of public tours being hosted by Big E Tours.
According to our tour guide, with the exception of one event hosted as part of the Singularity U Summit in April of 2019, the tours are the first opportunity for the public to gain entry into the building in three decades.
“This power plant provided power not only to all of Edmonton, but also to surrounding communities and other parts of Alberta,” says David Johnston, the Principal Heritage Planner with the City of Edmonton Heritage Conservation unit.
“It wasn't just a local plant providing power to nearby communities. It's this aspect that really does lend it provincial significance, hence why it is a designated a Provincial Historic Resource.”
The largest building on the site, the Low Pressure Plant, was built in phases between the 1930s and 1950s. Architect, Maxwell Dewar, designed portions of the building with a mixture of American industrial and art deco elements.
A large fissure up the length of the wall marks the point of expansion.
The tour begins in the large boiler hall which once housed seven boilers, until they were removed during decommissioning between 2011 and 2012. The boilers were originally coal fired, fed by rail cars that ran on a track right along the building. The plant was later converted to natural gas in 1955. From the original elevator, to a hand riveted steam drum, bits and pieces of the plant’s history still remain. The site, still owned by EPCOR, will see a transfer of ownership to the city next year when restoration work will begin.
“We’ve just engaged a consultant team to start some detailed assessment of the building, which will help guide us on the priority rehabilitation work needed,” says Johnston.
As guests move onto the second half of the power plant, they enter the turbine halls, where massive turbines converted energy into electricity, which also produced a lot of noise.
“The turbines were so loud, you could hear them across the river and some residents complained about the whirring,” shared the tour guide. “One older woman complained so often that managers visited her home to find she had very little that would produce a hum drowning out the sound. They decided to buy her a yellow canary to provide some pleasant chirping and this was actually coined, ‘The Birdie Solution’, on all of EPCOR’s official records.”
The turbine hall is constructed with art deco brick design work, soft arches and esthetic riveting that very much contribute to the plant’s form more than it’s function. Mint green control panels brought over from the administrative building, offer an almost futuristic element to the otherwise rustic industrial space. It truly is a marvelous building with plenty of potential for future use.
“It's been a fixture in the river valley since the early 1930s, and has grown and evolved as Edmonton and Alberta have. These stories are that much more impactful when the historic structure associated with them still stands. Preserving these buildings allows people to walk in the spaces, especially a building like this, and get a sense of what went on, the materials used...it allows them to touch the walls and feel that tangible connection to our past,” says Johnston.
“An empty site with an interpretive plaque simply can't convey that significance. These buildings are a piece of Edmonton's soul, and every time we tear one down, we lose a bit of that soul. Keeping them allows future generations to see how we lived, how we worked, how we built things, and what impacts they had on our lives.”
The city anticipates assessment work and some of the follow-up construction work to extend into 2022/2023. For now interested residents can book their tour of the building on weekends with dates being offered into October. Find out more on the Big E Tours website here.
The site upon which the plant was built also has historical Indigenous significance - linked to First Nations activity dating back as far as 1802, hosting a fur trading post and a burial ground. We acknowledge this site is on Treaty 6 territory, a traditional meeting grounds, gathering place, and travelling route to the Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Métis, Dene and Nakota Sioux. We acknowledge all the many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit whose footsteps have marked these lands for centuries.