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A Colourful History

Early People

Although Lethbridge officially became a city in 1906, the human history of the area dates back 11,000 years or more.  Artifacts unearthed in the vicinity testify to the presence of early hunter/gatherers on our landscape a short period after the last ice age had melted.  Native people and their culture flourished in the region for over 10,000 years.  A part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the territory withstood European penetration until the 1860's and the arrival of the traders.

The Whiskey Traders

When trading in alcohol with Native peoples was outlawed in Montana in 1869, American traders Healy and Hamilton headed north to the newly created North West Territories and built Fort Hamilton near the junction of the St. Mary and Belly (now Oldman) Rivers.  Native people burned the fort, but Hamilton and Healy rebuilt it and renamed it Fort Whoop-Up.  The fort whose chief trade was in 'whiskey' (usually made of pure alcohol adulterated with ingredients such as river water, chewing tobacco and lye), was one of a series of posts established on the southern prairies.  The whiskey trade did great harm to Native people and their culture.  The Canadian government resolved to stop the trade and formed the North West Mounted Police.  In 1874 the North West Mounted Police arrived at Fort Whoop-Up to establish order and soon after ended the whiskey trade.

Lethbridge Booms with Coal Mining, Railways & Agriculture

Coal outcrops were so frequent in the area that the Blackfoot gave the region the name "Sik-okotoks," or Place of Black Rocks.  Nicholas Sheran, an American searching for gold, discovered an abundance of coal in the river valley and began to mine it.  His market consisted of the newly arrived NWMP in the nearby Fort Macleod.  He also shipped coal 210 miles south to Fort Benton, Montana over the Whoop-Up Trail.

Coal mining began on a much larger scale with the arrival of Elliot and his Father Sir Alexander Galt in the early 1880's.  Galt knew the Canadian Pacific Railway was on its way across the Canadian plains and that copious amounts of coal would be needed to fire its engines and for the settlers it would bring.   Englishman, William Lethbridge made a large investment in the coal company later becoming its President, prompting Galt officials to name the community in his honor "Lethbridge North West Territories."

Growth of the mines led to building additional rail lines, and new markets in budding communities in the area.  The Galts, learning from Mormon settlers, also organized and built irrigation systems, and promoted farming and encouraged settlement.  A time of great boom and boosterism existed.

Development and the War Years

Eventually the CPR purchased the Galts' rail and coal interests and it was announced that the new city of Lethbridge would be the site of one of the world's manmade wonders - a bridge, a mile long and more than 300 feet high would span the river.  This bridge, the longest and tallest trestle bridge in the world, opened in 1909 and continues to be Lethbridge's most outstanding and memorable landmark.

Coal and rail, the prime industry and employer, were soon accompanied by a well-rounded industrial and agricultural base of irrigation and dryland farming.  In 1912 the boom ended and the population was nearly at a standstill until after World War II.  In 1942 Lethbridge saw the building of a prisoner of war camp holding over 13,000 German prisoners, nearly doubling the population.

Research & Education

Railroading, coal, irrigation, cattle, and dryland farming sustained the community through the slower times until the mid 1960's when coal and railroads became less prominent. Agriculture and its support services stepped to the forefront.  Canada's largest agricultural research station was established by the Galts early in Lethbridge's development and has been a continuing asset to the community, creating an influx of scientists and researchers. Their research has influenced agriculture world-wide. 

In the early 1960's the Lethbridge Community College was built, followed in 1967 by our University.  The continual growth of these institutions has been phenomenal and they are among the top employers today.

With its 125 year colorful history, Lethbridge has remained an ideal community in which to live, work and raise a family.  

To learn more read "A short History of Lethbridge, Alberta  By Greg Ellis, Archivist, Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives.  October 2001

For photos and more archival information visit the Sir Alexander Galt Museum.