Grande Prairie is a city in northwest Alberta, Canada within the southern portion of an area known as Peace River Country. It is located at the intersection of Highway 43 (part of the CANAMEX Corridor) and Highway 40 (the Bighorn Highway), approximately northwest of Edmonton. The city is surrounded by the County of Grande Prairie No. 1.
Grande Prairie is the seventh-largest city in Alberta with a population 55,032 recorded by the 2011 Census, and was one of Canada's fastest growing cities between 2001 and 2006. It is the largest city between Edmonton and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The city adopted the trumpeter swan as an official symbol due to its proximity to the migration route and summer nesting grounds of this bird. For that reason, Grande Prairie is sometimes nicknamed the "Swan City". The dinosaur has emerged as an unofficial symbol of the city due to paleontology discoveries in the area west of the Grande Prairie.
Grande Prairie was named for the large prairie which lies to the north, east, and west of it. In the 18th century, the prairie was occupied by bands of the Beaver First Nation who began trading with the North West Company at Dunvegan in the early 19th century. The earliest recorded reference to the prairie was by trader Samuel Black in 1824. In 1880, a Hudson's Bay Company post called La Grand Prairie was established by George Kennedy northwest of the present city. In the late 19th century, the prairie was settled by Cree and Iroquois from around Jasper and Lac Ste. Anne. When 17 townships were surveyed for homesteading in 1909, a land rush soon followed, with many settlers arriving over the Edson Trail. In 1910, the Grande Prairie Townsite was sub-divided. By 1912, it included a bank, hotel, post office, and land office, making it a district metropolis. In 1916, it became the terminus of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway from Edmonton.
The Edson Trail from Edson to Grande Prairie was opened in 1911 as a means for settlers to reach the Grande Prairie area. It was basically nothing more than a tract of clear cut bush and forest, and thus was a very difficult route for many settlers, especially during wet weather. Because of this, large scale settlement came late compared to other major farming regions further south in Canada. Grande Prairie was incorporated as a village by the Province of Alberta in 1914. It was not until the arrival of the railway in 1916 that farmland quickly expanded as waves of settlers came into the Peace region. This drove up Grande Prairie's population past the 1,000 mark, allowing it to incorporate as a town on March 27, 1919. A local recession in the 1920s caused a temporary depopulation of Grande Prairie. But the population rebounded afterwards by the 1930s, by which time the population had reached 1,464. Settlement continued unabated even into the 1930s during the Dust Bowl era because the Peace Region was able to escape the severe drought conditions that plagued the Canadian Prairies further south at the time.
The Second World War saw the US and Canadian military establish Grande Prairie as a part of the Northwest Staging Route for the construction of the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to Alaska. Although Dawson Creek was chosen as the major starting point of the construction of the Alaska highway, Grande Prairie was a major stopover point for military aircraft during the war, and benefited economically from this.
Although Grande Prairie was well located in the southern edge of the Peace Country, it was competing with the towns of Peace River and Dawson Creek for the title of the most important centre of commerce and agriculture in the region until the late 1950s, when its population growth began to outstrip these towns as oil and natural gas exploration was underway in the Peace Region, especially since the first major discovery of oil further south in Leduc near Edmonton in 1947 and the construction of a large pulp mill in the early 1970s.
The construction and paving of Highway 43 (originally sections of Highways 2, 34, and 43 from the BC border to the Yellowhead Highway just west of Edmonton) in 1956 cut down on the travel time by road significantly, further enhancing Grande Prairie's accessibility and economic status. The town was incorporated as a city in 1958. At that time, its population was approximately 7,600.
The opening of the Procter & Gamble kraft pulp mill in 1972 and the discovery of the Elmworth deep basin gas field spurred an economic boom. Grande Prairie's population went from just over 12,000 in the early 1970s to over 24,000 by the time the oil boom went bust in 1981.
A tornado struck the downtown area and east side of Grande Prairie on July 8, 2004. Although the tornado was considered a very weak one (F0-F1 on the Fujita scale) and the weather was not severe at the time, it was still strong enough to incur damage to houses and flip vehicles over. There were no casualties or fatalities.