Bitumount Historic Site


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Bitumount, is located approximately 80 km north of Fort McMurray on the east bank of the Athabasca River, in a particularly rich and accessible area for the surface mining of tar sands. The objective of the project was to prepare a long-term conservation and redevelopment plan.

Site Development

The Government of Canada began geological investigations of the Athabasca tar sands as early as 1870. The impetus for serious exploitation of the tar sands came with the government’s reassessment of the importance of petroleum as a resource, beginning about 1912. By 1926 Dr. Karl Clark, in conjunction with the University of Alberta and the newly formed Research Council of Alberta, developed a process in Edmonton to separate bitumen from tar sands, with limited  success. By the late 1930s, Robert Fitzsimmons had successfully constructed an on-site separation plant at Bitumount, which he named in 1937, using a modification of Clark’s separation process. However his operations were not commercially viable and, after with many technical setbacks, he failed to attract investors. In 1943, he sold International Bitumen to Lloyd Champion who then entered into an agreement with the Province of Alberta to develop a new larger scale separation plant. Champion failed to fulfill his agreement to contribute 50% of the funding and the government carried on as sole investor under the direction of Dr. Clark. By the end of summer 1949, after 5 weeks of successful operations and despite many technical setbacks, the government declared the commercial viability of its operations and continued looking for investors. More than $750,000 had been spent on this well-engineered plant. Unfortunately, after the 1947 conventional oil discovery at Leduc, serious investors were never found and the plant, after intermittent operations, closed permanently in 1958.

Bitumount Historic Site

The 1930s Fitzsimmons plant and the 1940s government plant were designated as Provincial Historic Resources in 1974. Unfortunately, without sufficient maintenance, some of the buildings have seriously deteriorated. The Fitzsimmons separation plant has collapsed but much of the equipment is still in place. The 1940s government plant was much more substantially constructed and its steel frame buildings on concrete foundations are in good condition. The many wood buildings are in various states of disrepair and will benefit from conservation work as soon as possible.

Development Potential

Bitumount is one of the most important industrial historic sites in Alberta. If developed significantly, it has the potential to be a major attraction in the Fort McMurray area. In fact, in combination with other cultural and environmental attractions in the area, Bitumount would provide a significant contribution to the recreational and cultural opportunities for area residents and visitors alike. It is anticipated that visitors would arrive by land, helicopter or boat to participate in the experience. The history of the site would be interpreted, many of the buildings would be preserved and restored, and the site would be cleaned up to create a fascinating and safe place for people of all ages to learn about the history of tar sands development and the many individuals who have contributed to the story. The location of Bitumount on the banks of the Athabasca is a dramatic location for an outing and the site tells a compelling industrial story with a human face.

 Team Members

Client: Alberta Culture

Architects: David Murray and Next Architecture (Allan Partridge)