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Themes in Lethbridge History

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This summary of "Themes in Lethbridge History" was provided by the Lethbridge Historical Society.

First Nations
Railways
Coal Mining
Vice: Whiskey Trade and Prostitution
Place Names of Southwestern Alberta
Irrigation
Ranching
Military History
Corporate History of the Galt Companies
Some Prominent Early People
Galt Hospital
Southern Alberta Communities

First Nations

Long before European explorers and settlers arrived in the area, the area now known as Southwestern Alberta was home to a variety of First Nations groups. The most prominent in the area was the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot people call themselves niitsitapiiksi, which translates as the real people. Four tribes, Siksiika (Blackfoot north), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan north), Aamskaapiipikani (Peigan south also called Blackfeet in Montana), make up the Blackfoot nation. Other First Nations groups, including the Cree and the Kootenai, have also lived in this area.

Railways

The Galt Companies built a series of railways into and around southern Alberta. The first railway, a narrow gauge line from Dunmore, was built by the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company and reached Lethbridge in the fall of 1885. Shortly afterwards, in 1890, the Great Falls and Canada Railroad, completed a line to Great Falls, Montana. In 1893, the Dunmore line was leased to the Canadian Pacific Railway and the CPR replaced it with a standard gauge line. Other lines were built to increase transportation between communities south of Lethbridge and Lethbridge. Between 1901 and 1902, the Great Falls line was rebuilt with standard gauge and the Montana portion was purchased by the Great Northern. All the remaining Galt railways (including the St. Mary’s River Railways) were consolidated into the Alberta Railways and Irrigation Company which was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1912.

Coal Mining

Coal mining started in the area in 1874 when Nicholas Sheran started the first mine. Originally mining near Fort Whoop Up, Sheran soon moved to the Coalbanks area. Sir Alexander Galt and his son Elliott Galt started operations in the area in 1882 bringing in coal miners from Nova Scotia. The last mine in Lethbridge (Galt 8) closed in 1957 while the last mine in the area (Shaughnessy) closed in 1965. In just over 90 years of mining, approximately 100 mines operated in the area and Lethbridge’s early economic development resulted from the coal mines.

For more information see Lethbridge, it's Coal Industry.

Vice: Whiskey Trade and Prostitution

In 1870, Alexander Hamilton and Alfred Healy started Fort Whoop Up approximately eight miles up river from the present location of Lethbridge. The largest of approximately 150 whiskey trading forts across southern Alberta and south western Saskatchewan, the purpose of the fort was to trade whiskey to the First Nations for buffalo skins. Supplies were brought to the area and buffalo furs were taken to Montana on the Whoop Up Trail.

Fort Whoop Up and the whiskey trade became notorious and were part of the reason for the development of the NWMP. When the NWMP arrived in the area in the fall of 1874, they found Fort Whoop Up abandoned. After the arrival of NWMP some whiskey traders left the area, but others stayed on to help develop the communities that would soon grow in the area. Some of the more famous were George “Daddy” Houk, Eugene “Paddy” Hasson and Harry “Kamoose” Taylor.

Like many coal mining and frontier towns, prostitution was part of the development of early Lethbridge. Originally, the brothels were located on “The Point”, a coulee bluff overlooking the coal mines. Later, they were moved to an area known as the “segregated area”. Lethbridge had legalized prostitution until the 1940s. It was closed down in the 1940s because of concerns about venereal diseases in the military personnel stationed in Lethbridge in World War 2. At the time of its closure, Lethbridge had one of the largest red light districts in western Canada.

For more information see Southern Alberta's Whiskey Trade.

Place Names of Southwestern Alberta

The place names of southwestern Alberta are, commonly, of three types: translations of Blackfoot names, names of early settlers, or names given as a way of honouring or thanking supporters and investors (many of whom never came to Alberta). In several cases, communities and sites have abandoned earlier names which can add confusion when studying older maps.

Lethbridge, for example, was named after William Lethbridge, the largest investor in the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company and first President of the company. William Lethbridge never came to the community named in his honour.

Irrigation

Southwestern Alberta is a semi-arid desert and settlers soon realized that unpredictable precipitation and strong winds made early agricultural attempts frustrating at best. Over time techniques and equipment were developed so that dry farming could be done effectively. Irrigation, with its canals and reservoirs, was also built throughout much of southwestern Alberta.

Not until the late 1890s was the financing, labour and political will in place for the development of irrigation. One of the major partnerships formed to enable the development of irrigation in the area was between LDS (Mormon) settlers and the Galt companies. The LDS settlers provided the labour that helped build the early irrigation system in exchange for land on which to settle.

Water from the St. Mary River reached Lethbridge in 1901 and along the canal new communities, such as Raymond and Magrath, were developed. The expense and great labour requirements of irrigation made it essential that more high return crops, such as sugar beets, were introduced to the area.

The model farm under William Fairfield was developed in 1906 to demonstrate the best methods for farming in south western Alberta and to show what could be achieved. This farm has transformed over the last 100+ years into the Lethbridge Research Centre.

Ranching

With the decimation of the buffalo in the 1870s, the prairies of south western Alberta opened up to ranching and cattle from the United States were brought up to fill the void. Thus started the time of the great cattle ranches in southern Alberta. While ranching continues in south western Alberta today, it was only for a short time period at the end of the 19th century that the ranches dominated southern Alberta before homesteaders and settlement fenced in the great open ranges.

Many of the early ranchers were NWMP officers who, upon leaving the force, became ranchers. Ranches in the area were also the private playgrounds of some of the nobles and royals of Britain. Thus developed an unique ranching industry that was influenced both by the American cowboy and British tradition. Some of the most prominent ranches of the time were the Macintyre, Bar U, and Cochrane.

For more information see Cowboy Politics; The Western Stock Growers' Association and its Predecessors.

Military History

Lethbridge and southern Alberta have a long connection with the military. In the 1885 Rebellion the Rocky Mountain Rangers were formed locally and several men from southwestern Alberta volunteered for service in the Boer War (South African War). Then, on 1 February 1908, an artillery battery was started in Lethbridge under the leadership of Major John Smith Stewart. Rising to the rank of Brigadier General, Stewart was the highest ranking soldier from Lethbridge in World War I. In World War I, partly because of a strong connection to the “home country,” Lethbridge had the highest per capita enlistment of any city in Canada. An internment camp was set up in Lethbridge during World War I to deal with so-called “enemy aliens.”

World War II once again saw many people from the area enlist in the military. But there was again activity on the Home Front. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan had bases across southern Alberta. In addition, Lethbridge was home to over 12,000 German Prisoners of War at POW Camp 133, the largest in Canada. And, starting in 1942, over 2000 Japanese Canadians were sent to southern Alberta to work in the sugar beet fields.

For more information see these publications:

Corporate History of the Galt Companies

The corporate history of the Galt companies is a complex one involving frequent name changes and incorporation. The original name was the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company. A subsidiary within the company was the Northwest Railway and Coal Company, whose name was soon changed to the Alberta Railway and Coal Company.

When the Galts built the railway to Great Falls, Montana, the Montana portion was done so under a company newly incorporated in Montana: The Great Falls and Canada Railroad. The Canadian portion of the railways was built by the Alberta Railway and Coal Company.

In the 1890s, the Galts also formed the Alberta Irrigation Company in order to purchase land from the Alberta Railway and Coal Company for the development of irrigation. The irrigation company’s name was changed to the Canadian North-West Irrigation Company in 1899.

All of the companies were combined into a new company known and the Alberta Railways and Irrigation Company. This was then sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1912.

Prominent Early People

In the early history of southwestern Alberta, there are a few names that keep coming up. One of the most prominent is Galt. Sir Alexander Galt, a Father of Confederation, and his son Elliott Galt were the driving forces behind the creation of the coal industry and the community of Lethbridge. Sir Alexander Galt promoted the companies in eastern Canada and Britain and found investors and supporters. Elliott was instrumental in keeping the companies running and promoting and developing irrigation in the area and has been honoured as the Father of Lethbridge.

Working alongside Elliott Galt, was Charles Alexander Magrath. Arriving in 1885 as a surveyor, Charles Magrath went on to have a distinguished career, being honoured as a National Historic Person for his role locally and nationally. Like Elliott Galt, Magrath was instrumental in the development of irrigation in the area.

The earliest white family in the area is the Sherans. Nicholas Sheran started the first coal mine in Alberta and his sister Marcella Sheran soon came out to help keep house for him. Not long after her arrival Marcella married Joseph McFarland. Other members of the Sheran family also came to the area.

Many southern Alberta families can trace their ancestry back to the early immigrants of the area.

Within the local Blackfoot community, several prominent persons also have a place of honour. Red Crow, who signed Treaty 7 on behalf of the Kainai people and has been honoured with a college named after him.

Galt Hospital

In 1891, Sir Alexander Galt built the first Galt Hospital to serve the medical needs of the coal miners and the community. The growing community soon needed a larger hospital and an addition was built to the hospital in 1910. This addition was officially opened by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada. The Galt Hospital was again enlarged in 1930 and continued to serve the citizens of southern Alberta until 1955 when the Lethbridge Municipal Hospital was built to replace it.

After serving as a hospital, the Galt served as a Rehabilitation Centre and Health Unit. The Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives moved into the building in the 1960s. Though the museum expanded again in 2006, the 1910 wing of the hospital continues to be a fundamental part of the Galt Museum & Archives.

Southern Alberta Communities

Many communities across southern Alberta have a long and interesting history. A few quick examples: Fort Macleod, where the first NWMP fort was built, is the oldest community in the area; Cardston was settled by Mormon (LDS) settlers who came up from the United States; and Raymond, Magrath and Stirling developed with the start of irrigation at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the communities of the area have been written up in the 40+ years of the newsletter.

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