home
History Flora and Fauna Geology Climate Tourism Maps and Access Economics Education
 
History
 
    The City of Lethbridge has a very complex and lengthy history. Characterized by five distinct aspects of change and expansion, take a walk through the rich history of this area... 

THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLES OF THE PLAINS

    There is early evidence of the existence of aboriginal plainspeople inhabiting the area which is now Lethbridge, dating back to 11,000 years. Although highly debated, archaeologists have found fluted spear points and bones of infants, that date that far back. They say that due to the scarcity of the objects the tribes were small and nomadic, the weapons were simple, to allow for enough food to live. They followed the Buffalo herds and lived for subsistence, never taking more than they needed.

    The Lethbridge region of today once formed part of the Blackfoot homeland, which was comprised of three tribes: the "Sik-sikah," or Blackfoot; the "Kai'nah," "Many Chiefs," known today as the Bloods; and the "Pi-ku'ni," "Scabby Robes," or Peigans. Together they formed the nation of the "Sow-ki'tapi" or "Prairie People" and their history is recounted in the interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

THE WHISKEY TRADE

    A major change to the area came in 1869 when the American Army outlawed the alcohol trade on American native reserves which saw many whiskey traders look to British Canada for new opportunities. That same year, some of these Americans built a post near the junction of the St. Mary and Belly (now Oldman) Rivers. This post, near modern Lethbridge, became known as Fort Whoop-up and was the most notorious of its kind in Southern Alberta.

    It was the activities of these American whiskey traders, spurned by the massacre of Assiniboine Indians in Cypress Hills in 1873, which forced the government to take control. Their response was to form the North-West Mounted Police, now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to bring law and order to the West. The police reached Fort Whoop-up on October 9, 1874 and immediately put a stop to the whiskey trade.

THE DISCOVERY OF COAL

    By the late 1860's the presence of coal at "The Coal Banks" was known to the fur traders, though to the aboriginal peoples of the plains this was no news, their having christened the area today known as Lethbridge as "Sik-okotoks" or "the place of black rocks" many years earlier.

    Yet it was not until 1872 when Nicholas Sheran began to mine the coal from a seam along the Belly river, that this precious resource was first made use of. In 1879, Sheran's mine was seen by Eliott Galt who interested his father, Sir Alexander Galt (after who the museum below is named) in the mining possibilities of the North West Territories. Their first mine was opened several years later and represented the beginning of the coal mining trade around which the city of Lethbridge grew.

  photos by: S. Pigeon

    By 1883, coal was being mined in quantity and shipped to Medicine Hat by barge. But low water and shifting sand bars forced abandonment of river transportation and spurned the development of transport by rail. Two years later, a narrow gauge railway line was constructed from Dunsmore on the CPR main line to Coalbanks. With this, coal mining began in earnest.

    When the CPR then agreed to take 3000 tons of coal per month, the North-Coal and Navigation Company was formed in England with William Lethbridge named as its first president and Elliot T. Galt, the General Manager. Though long known as "Coalbanks," this new community unofficially adopted the name of "Lethbridge" after the president of the mining company which employed most of its members. Although the first official name of the post office (see above) here was "Coalhurst," the name was officially changed to suit the people, on October 14, 1885.

THE HIGH LEVEL BRIDGE
               Taken from film by Dr. Van Christou

    About this time, construction began on what was to be the longest and highest of its kind in the world. At its highest point, it measures 307 feet and it stretches 5516.908 feet across the river valley. This latter fact made construction of the bridge a monumental task of engineering. Upon its completion in 1909, the people felt it so great that it was popularly labeled as one of the great wonders of the world

When the CPR division point was changed from Fort Macleod to Lethbridge, there was a need to build a bridge to cross the valley, creating a need for a monumental project. Taking a total of 3 years to build, the bridge was built out of steel in order to avoid repairs. Surveying and measuring began in 1906, the actual steelwork began on August 15, 1908 and it was completed on June 22, one year later. The first train crossed the bridge on June 23, 1909 and the last train is still to come.

THE BIRTH OF AGRICULTURE IN SOUTHERN ALBERTA

    Beginning in 1882, the rich coal fields of the Lethbridge region were exploited. In order to get the coal to market, a more efficient railway system was needed and in order to promote such development the North-West Coal & Navigation Company and its successor, the Alberta Coal & Railway Company, received grants of about one million acres of the semi-arid lands of southern Alberta. With dryland farming techniques unknown to them, the company began to irrigate these acres so they could be sold to settlers.

    At first, settlers began many small irrigation projects which were followed by larger ones sponsored by the mining companies. This spurned the creation of such irrigation districts as Table and the Lethbridge Northern from 1915 to 1935. Immediately after World War II, these projects were expanded by the government with such innovations as the St. Mary River Development scheme.

    Later, dryland farming was discovered to suit the semi-arid climate of the Lethbridge region. Thus, the agricultural focus shifted to breaking the velocity of the wind by farming in strips; keeping the soil covered by dead or living vegetation; keeping bare soil lumpy or ridged; and stopping active erosion by whatever emergency measures were available. Much of the evolution of farming and irrigation principles in Southern Alberta, owe their success to the Agriculture Canada Research Station, located on the eastern outskirts of the city.

FROM TOWN TO CITY - LETHBRIDGE, ALBERTA

    On January 15, 1891, in accordance with Ordinance No. 24 of the North West Territories of 1890, Joseph Royal, Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Territories, signed the official proclamation declaring Lethbridge a Town. The first meeting of the Town Council was held on February 3 of that same year with Charles Alexander Magrath as the first Mayor.

    On May 9, 1906, under the guidance of Mayor George Rogers, the City of Lethbridge was incorporated by Act of the Legislature of Alberta. Today, Lethbridge boasts over 66,000 people and spans 122 km2.

Lethbridge's 5th street south                             ... in 1998, it looks like this.
looked like this in 1931.
 
    photo taken from Lethbridge: A Centennial History, p. 127.                                                                             photo by S. Pigeon


Let's return HOME

Let's take it from the Top