Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Heritage Park, Fort McMurray: A Flood of Historic Proportions

In my basement there is an old wooden chest. It is not that old, really, only about thirty-five years or so, but it was lovingly made by my father for my mother. It is a cedar chest of the old style, lined with pale red rosewood, infusing the blankets stored there with a fresh clean scent that always reminds me of my parents. When my mother died it was the only thing of hers I asked to keep, and it was trucked here in the back of a pickup all the way from Saskatoon. It is one of my most precious possessions, and while it is perhaps not vintage now some day it will be, as I will pass it on to my daughter, and on it will go. It is a little piece of my family history, a small reminder of a past when my parents were alive. It is of value to me because it preserves some of that history, and I will always treasure it for that reason alone.

You see history matters. History is what helps us make sense of the present, and prepares us for the future. History is not some dry and dusty thing, only relevant to historians and social science teachers. It matters to all of us because it is the narrative of who we have been, and is crucial in understanding who we have become. I suppose that is why I have always been drawn to Heritage Park, the small museum in downtown Fort McMurray where the history of our region lives.

When the Hangingstone River began to overflow its banks I knew the park was threatened. When I saw Lion's Park disappear under the water I knew Heritage Park was next. And when I saw the photos of the flooding I was heartsick, because I love Heritage Park. A very close friend was married in the small white church there, a wedding I attended. One of the last photos I ever took of my mother was inside the old brown church, a church she said reminded her of growing up on the Saskatchewan prairies in the 1930's. And last August I hired a professional photographer to take some photos of me so I could remember my time as "McMurray Musings", and I wanted to take them in place that was, to me, iconic Fort McMurray - and so one bright Saturday morning we wandered through the park, him taking photos and me just loving the history in the park that keeps our memories safe.

Yesterday, on a bright sunny afternoon, I toured the park again, but this was a very different tour. I went to see the damage the flood left behind, now that the water has receded. I want to make very clear that the people who work at Heritage Park and those who work to preserve our history are a resilient bunch, and they will bounce back from this - but the damage is extensive and they are going to need help. In particular they will need financial assistance, as many of the artifacts, being museum-quality pieces, will require professional restoration and cannot simply be given to volunteers to clean. There will be a need for volunteers too, to help with cleaning the yard, and removing all the debris that washed up against the fences. I imagine as time goes on they may even need carpenters to help replace the boardwalks that simply lifted up and floated around the park, and those with other skills for other tasks. Right now they also need us all to have some patience as they assess the extent of the damage and devise a plan of attack to address it - but I ask you this, Fort McMurray: Please be ready to help. They will need the community to help them to restore the park to it's normal state. Because of the flood many of the events they normally host will likely need to be cancelled, having a negative effect on their ability to generate revenue. This, coupled with the increased financial demand of restoration work, will be an immense burden on those who run the park, and I ask that we all be ready to help them in whatever way they ask and need.

One of the interesting things to note is that this all could have been much worse if it were not for a man named Torchy Peden. Torchy, seeing the waters of the Hangingstone begin to rise, told the Heritage Park staff that they needed to move items to higher ground, as flooding was imminent. Now, Torchy knew this because he has, in his time here, seen this land flood twice before, and so his knowledge of history quite likely saved the park from total devastation. And perhaps that is why such history is so important, you see. Torchy's knowledge of history was quite relevant to the present day, and of tremendous value. He was able to advise the park staff to start removing items, and so they did, even as the waters were rushing in. They were able to save many pieces, and they were able to do so because someone knew the history of the area. There is a lesson in that little piece of information, I think.







One of the hardest parts of this is just as with most home insurance Heritage Park has an insurance policy that does not cover damage from flooding. Even though I expected that to be the case I was still deeply saddened to hear it, because it means that likely the worst catastrophe to ever befall the home of our history is a financial burden that Heritage Park will need to bear.

Heritage Park has a Facebook page where you can stay informed about their progress, and a website. There is a heartfelt note on  that website, so beautiful and honest because these folks don't just work at a historical park, you see. They love this place, they love the history, and seeing the place they love like this hurts them in a deep and profound way, I think. I am reposting the message here, and included in it is an email address. If you are able to help - donating money, time, volunteer manpower - please contact them, but do not fret if they do not reply immediately. They are a bit overwhelmed right now, but they will regain their footing. 


Sadly our beautiful Heritage Park is in ruins.

Because of amazing and caring people, today we were able to remove more of the artifacts, archives, our office files and computers from the buildings. The historical buildings have flooded and we will be assessing the damages as soon as we are able to safely do so. As of this evening, Heritage Park Gift Shop and the main building remain safe and dry. ...

Although we are not out of danger yet, we are encouraged and very thankful for the support we continue to receive from E Construction management & staff, Brad & Dunvegan staff, Wilson Industries, Smitty's, ATCO Power, RCMP, Peace Officers & Sheriffs, Forestry staff, Mrs.Jean and the RMWB.
I am extremely graceful to Torchy Peden, because of his knowledge and insight on the rising waters of the rivers, early Monday morning we began to move our archives and artifacts to higher grounds and many of our assets have placed in storage units. 

Many,many thanks to Brad & Carmen Ramstead (our Society President), Tammy Plowman (my daughter) and Torchy Peden who continue to keep watch and give directions at the park. 

Thank you to our Heritage Park's staff Tammy, Elisa, Emma, Nastassia, Susan, Nick, Eva, Tyler, Kailey, Heather and all our summer students for their hard work during these times. 

Words can not express how appreciative I am to all the incredible volunteers who have been showing up to help in so many ways.

Though these are difficult and trying times, with the support of our community, Heritage Park will once again be a beautiful, beautiful place!

We are seeking assistance both financially and in volunteers/manpower. 
Unfortunately, we have never been granted flood insurance as Heritage Park is located on a flood plain. There is a tremendous amount of clean up needed to the landscaping, the buildings and the artifacts. If you or your company is willing to assist us, it would be greatly appreciated!
As our Executive Director, Roseann Davidson says "Our Heritage Park is in ruins." This is a very difficult and devastating time for us as we have worked hard over the years to get the park to where it was.
If you are able & willing to assist us, please 
Be sure to include your full name, email address & phone number(s), what you are interested in helping with and when. Please be patient, we are working remotely as our office is still closed and without power. It may take us some time to contact you but we will. 
The community support has been overwhelming and amazing! Thank you for your willingness to assist us at this difficult time!

One of my favourite pieces in Heritage Park is an old red fire truck, the kind of fire-engine red that gets my heart racing. Yesterday it looked like this:

This is perhaps my favourite photo from that photography session last summer. 

That's me, on the firetruck above, sitting in the sunshine surrounded by lush green grass, beauty, and history. Yesterday Heritage Park looked considerably different than in this photo, but I believe it will look this way one day again, when all the mud has been cleared away. the grass once again green, and the present - and past - back to normal. We are a resilient community, and a giving one. We value our community, our residents - and our roots, and so I believe we will ensure that the place where history lives in our community will be returned to its former glory, and be the place where we go find our past, understand our present, and plan for our future. It will need us, though. It will need us all to recognize the value of preserving history, and work towards it. For myself all I need to do is open that rosewood cedar chest in the basement, pull out a blanket, and bury my nose in it. The scent reminds me of the true importance of preserving our history, because that past is what has brought us to the present. Our history? Well, that is who we are.

Please contact
for further information
and to offer assistance.

1 comment:

  1. Good work Torchy. Glad you were there to help. With your being in Fort Mac for approx. the past 50 years and knowing the situation, helped to save important items of History for the People of Fort McMurray. You get the thanks you deserve. Your brother