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Edmonton’s Early Recreation and Sports Facilities: Part Two

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  • Edmonton’s Early Recreation and Sports Facilities: Part Two

    Some months ago I promised to add a bit more detail on the history of Edmonton’s early recreation facilities, and with the recent announcement of work beginning on the new North Central Community Recreation Centre at Commonwealth Stadium it seems like a good time to talk about how this area became the hub for sports in Edmonton.

    Most Edmontonians probably do not know that the land that Clarke and Commonwealth Stadiums occupy began as a federal penitentiary. In early 1900s the federal government acquired a 95 acre parcel of land on the north east edge of the Town of Edmonton and started construction of a penitentiary for what was then still the Northwest Territories. The original building was in use by 1904 and had 21 cells for men and 7 for women. The institution quickly expanded to 108 cells and included a fascinating complex of industrial and agricultural shops. A 1908 newspaper report indicated that prisoners grew their own food on the penitentiary farm, baked their bread in a bakery, made bricks, and perhaps most intriguingly, worked a coal mine on the prison property.

    Despite this auspicious start, during World War I the Edmonton Pen closed. The old penitentiary building was converted into a storage and warehouse business and the surrounding land was opened for possible redevelopment. Various schemes were proposed, but in 1928 a City of Edmonton Athletic Park Association was created to lobby for the acquisition of the old penitentiary grounds as a civic sports centre. The association was led by one of Edmonton’s most colourful local politicians, “Fighting Joe” Clarke, a former mayor and alderman.

    Clarke was ideal for the job. He was a noted athlete in his own right, and his excellent connections to federal politicians allowed the city in 1930 to acquire 26 of the 95 acres on a long-term lease. The new grounds were quickly developed and a plan of the area from 1930 shows baseball diamonds, rugby football and soccer fields, a cricket pitch and sports ground with a cinder running track on the land.

    By 1935 Clarke was back again as mayor of Edmonton and able to promote even more ambitious plans for a stadium and an enhanced athletic park. Newspaper reports in 1938 indicated that the city spent about $46,000 on the various facilities in the park, including about $7000 for a football stadium, named for Fighting Joe. It included bleacher seating for 2040 people, dressing rooms for home and visiting teams, and parking for spectators’ cars. The following year City Council paid for floodlights and the Edmonton Eskimos’ first home game under the lights in 1939 brought in a gate of $800 – 16% of which went to the city!

    As the popularity of football continued to grow, a largely professional football league, the Western Interprovincial Football Union, was formed after World War II. In 1949 the Edmonton Eskimos joined this league which would evolve into the West Division of the Canadian Football League.

    Professional football attracted ever larger crowds and in 1954 a new west grandstand was built raising seating capacity at the old stadium to 20,667. In 1961 the stadium was expanded again when the east grandstand was built, raising total capacity by another 5,500 seats. The stadium also hosted track and field events, high school football games and other local sports, but by the 1970s it was showing its age.

    When Edmonton was selected to host the 1978 Commonwealth Games, brief consideration was given to refurbishing Clarke Stadium. Most preferred though to build a completely new, significantly larger venue beside the old stadium. Work began on the new Commonwealth Stadium in 1976, and the Eskimos played their last game at Clarke Stadium (a 14-8 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) in August 1978.

    Interestingly, those same Commonwealth Games really reshaped sports facilities throughout the City. In addition to Commonwealth Stadium, Council also approved construction of the Kinsman Centre for swimming and diving events and the Argyle Velodrome for cycling. Badminton, wrestling and some other sports would be staged using new or refurbished University of Alberta sports facilities. The legacy of Clarke Stadium is not completely lost, however. A smaller, rebuilt Clarke Stadium is still used a secondary sports venue hosting high school and amateur sports teams literally in the shadow of its larger neighbour, Commonwealth Stadium.

    So the new North Central Community Recreation Centre is really just the latest chapter in a long standing Edmonton sports and recreation tradition. The construction of a prison on the north east edge of Edmonton kept a large block of land open for development as an athletic park in 1930. Joe Clarke’s vision and political connections enabled the City to acquire the land and build a stadium and a variety of other sports facilities on a portion of that land. The popularity of professional football led to the construction of a large stadium on the grounds. Finally a successful Commonwealth Games bid enabled the City to turn Clarke’s athletic grounds into a collection of civic sports and recreation facilities to suit everyone from people who want to take fitness and Pilates classes to the concert goers and soccer and football fans who visit Commonwealth.

    One wonders though how the poor souls working in a prison coal mine in 1906 might view these changes. I hope they would be amazed and even a little proud of what has become of the Edmonton Pen lands.

    To view images pertaining to this column, please click here. >>

    -- Michael Payne
    Last edited by NoreneS; 18-07-2009, 02:17 PM.

  • #2
    Hi Michael,

    Is it Tony Cashman who tells the story of how Joe Clarke obtained the funding for the stadium? As I recall, in the late 1930s, he was down on his luck and done as a politician. When he heard city council was sending a delegation by train to Ottawa to ask for funding, he begged to go along, claiming he and Mackenzie King were old friends. The rumour around town was he just wanted a free ride back east, and when Clarke jumped off the train at Sudbury(?), the Edmonton politicians were sure they'd seen the last of him.

    As things turned out, Clarke managed to beat the train to Ottawa, called his friend the prime minister, and secured the cash before the lobbyists set foot in the nation's capital.


    • #3
      You are correct. This story appears in Tony Cashman, The Best Edmonton Stories (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1976) p. 131. Your memory of the story's details is almost dead on, except that Cashman indicates Clarke left the train at North Bay not Sudbury.

      It is a great story. Clarke was a very colourful polician and was no doubt quite capable of such a strategem. I have not found any references to these details in the records at the City Archives, though they may exist. Unfortunately Tony did not include his source for the story in the book and I suspect it may have been told to him by one of the other participants. Perhaps if he reads this, he can now reveal his source since there is probably no confidence to be broken any longer.

      Certainly it would add detail to the career of one of Edmonton's most intriguing political figures. I suspect we will never see the like of Mayor Clarke again - just imagine the response of his communications advisors were he to run for office today.

      If readers are interested, short biographies of Fighting Joe are available at the Mayors and Councillors Recognition Exhibit at City Hall and on the Edmonton Public Library website. He also features prominently in many histories of the city.


      • #4
        ^ Thanks, Michael. Joe Clarke succeeded my great-grandfather, H.M.E. Evans, as mayor in 1919.
        Last edited by Green Grovenor; 17-07-2009, 10:20 AM.


        • #5
          Note the fantastic historical images that have been recently added to Michael's column.
          Edmonton: Capital of Canada's Bold West!