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A Short History of Lethbridge, Alberta

Several times in the recent years I have fielded questions about the history of Lethbridge or the origin of the name of the City. Since I am no expert in that particular area, I often refer people to one of my favorite local sources of information, The Galt Museum and Archives. Below is an article which they have provided explaining the history and origin of the City of Lethbridge and how it developed in the past 100 years. This article is also available in brochure form and on the City of Lethbridge website.
Robert May

A short History of Lethbridge, Alberta

By Greg Ellis, Archivist
Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives
October 2001

Based on the work of Alex Johnston

Native People and the Coming of European Traders
The Lethbridge region formed part of the homeland of the Blackfoot Confederacy,
who resisted European penetration of their territory until the 1860s.  The Blackfoot
Confederacy comprised three nations: “Sik-si-kah” or Blackfoot, “Kai’nah” or Many Chiefs and now call the Bloods, and “Pi-ku’ni” or Scabby Robes and now called the Piegans.   Collectively, they were known a “Sow-ki’tapi” or Prairie People.  European fur traders along the North Saskatchewan River first came into contact with the Blackfoot, and applied their name to the entire Confederacy.

In 1869 the American Army outlawed trade in alcohol with Native people in Montana. 
American traders looked to Canada for new opportunities.  John J. Healy and Alfred B.
Hamilton took advantage of the newly created North West Territories, and in December
1869 finished 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 was one of a series of posts established on the southern
prairies.  The chief trade article of these posts was ‘whiskey’, usually made of pure
alcohol adulterated with ingredients such as river water, chewing tobacco and lye. 
The whiskey trade did great harm to Native people and their culture, which flourished for 10,000 years before the arrival of the whiskey traders.

The excesses of the whiskey trade peaked with the 1873 massacre of Assiniboine Indians by Americans in the Cypress Hills.  The Canadian government resolved to stop the trade.   Prime Minister Sir John A, Macdonald formed the North West Mounted Police in 1874, and sent them west to establish order.  The NWMP arrived at Fort Whoop-Up on 9 October 1874, and soon after ended the whiskey trade.

In September 1877 the Blackfoot Confederacy signed Treaty No. 7.  Fifty thousand square miles of Blackfoot territory passed to the Dominion of Canada.  In 1883 the Blood people chose the region between the St. Mary and Belly Rivers as their reserve.

Lethbridge was founded on three economic pillars: coal mining, railways and irrigated
agriculture.  Of these, coal was the first.

Coal outcrops were so frequent in the vicinity of what is now Lethbridge that the
Blackfoot gave the region the name “Sik-okotoks”, or Place of Black Rocks.  By the late
1860s the traders were also aware of the abundance of coal here.  American adventurer and entrepreneur Nicholas Sheran began to mine a coal seam on the west side of the Belly (Oldman) River, about 460 meters north of the present Whoop-Up Drive.  Sheran sold his coal to traders from Fort Benton, Montana and to the newly arrived NWMP.
In 1879 Elliott Torrance Galt visited Nicholas Sheran at his mine.  Galt lost no time in
advising his father, Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, of the potential of a mining operation. 
The elder Galt was interested in the idea because he knew that a trans-continental
railway was to be built on a route across the southern prairies.  The railway and the
settlers it would bring would make a profitable market for coal.
Sir Alexander Galt hired William Stafford and Captain Nicholas Bryant to examine five
possible sites for a large coal mining operation.  The site they all chose was across the
river from Sheran’s mine.  On 13 October 1882 Stafford and a group of Nova Scotia miners opened the first drift mine of the North Western Coal & Navigation Company.
Sir Alexander Galt created the company with the participation of English investors.  The
NWC & NCo. was capitalized at $250,000 and the biggest shareholder, publisher William
Lethbridge, became its first president.
Once coal was being mined, the next problem was transporting it to the Canadian Pacific Railway main line at Dunmore Junction, east of Medicine Hat.  The railway wanted 3,000
tons per month from the NWC&NCo. In 1883-1884 riverboats were tried as a means of hauling coal to market.  The boats – Alberta, Baroness and Minnow – were plagued by low water and strong currents to the point that they were discarded in favour of construction of a narrow gauge railway.  Sir Alexander Galt received government help to build the narrow gauge line from Lethbridge to Dunmore Junction, and it was officially opened by the Governor General on 24 September 1885.

Coal was lifted up to the narrow gauge railway from the drift mines by means of an
inclined railway.  However, shaft mines were soon started at prairie level.  By 1900
about 150 men were employed and they mined about 300 tons of coal daily.  Coal production peaked during World War 1, when 2,000 miners in 10 large mines extracted 1,000,000 tons of coal a year.  The coal industry gradually declined after 1919 with the development of oil and natural gas resources.  The last mine at Lethbridge, Galt No. 8, closed in 1957 and the entire industry collapsed when the mine at Shaugnessy closed in 1965.

The end of mining doesn’t mean that there isn’t any coal left in southern Alberta.  All
the mines in the region extracted only a fraction of the available coal.  The seam still
lies about 300 feet deep over an area of about 400 square miles.  Estimates are that
about 800 million tons of coal is still there to be mined.

Lethbridge Municipal History
When the community was founded in October 1882, it was called “The Coal Banks” or
“Coalbanks” after the original Blackfoot name.  The Post Office assigned the name
Coalhurst, however, the settlement’s residents who were already calling the place
Lethbridge after NWC&NCo. President William Lethbridge.  The Post Office resisted, as
there was already a town in Ontario called Lethbridge.  In the end, the citizens
prevailed and the community was officially renamed Lethbridge on 15 October 1885.

In 1890 the NWT legislature passed Ordinance No. 24 that provided for the incorporation of Lethbridge as a town.  Lieutenant Governor Joseph Royal signed the proclamation on 15 January 1891.  The town’s first Mayor, by acclamation, was Charles Alexander Magrath.

City status for Lethbridge came with an Act of the Legislature of Alberta on 9 May 1906.  Mayor George Rogers presided over the first meeting of Lethbridge City Council on 26 May 1906.

Agriculture is the third pillar upon which Lethbridge was built.  It evolved as the
result of assistance provided to the Galts by the Canadian government for construction
of the narrow gauge railway.  The assistance took the form of land grants totaling 1.5
million acres south of Lethbridge.  The land was to be sold by the Galts to pay for their

The land given to the Galts is semi-arid, and the challenge was to make it attractive to
settlers.  Irrigation was the obvious answer.  Elliott Galt and his brother-in-law Charles
A. Magrath organized the Canadian North West Irrigation Company (CNWICo.) to carry
forward their plan of irrigating the lands of southern Alberta.  Magrath and Galt also
turned to the leading experts on irrigation in North America – the Mormon farmers of

Mormon leader Charles Ora Card first came to southern Alberta in 1886, and in 1887
purchased land from the NWC&NCo. near the St. Mary and Waterton Rivers.  Settlers from Utah followed.  Elliott Galt and the Mormon Church concluded an agreement in 1898 that saw church members build the main canal from the St. Mary’s River to Lethbridge, with branches to Stirling and Magrath.  In return for these 95 miles of canals, the CNWICo. paid the workers half in land scrip and half in cash.  Charles Ora Card ploughed the first furrow for the project on 26 August 1898, and on 4 September 1900 the main canal reached Lethbridge.

There have been five milestones in the development of irrigation in southern Alberta. 
First, many small projects involving no more than a few acres each were built in the
years 1877 to 1895.  Next came the large company projects engineered by the Galt
companies, CPR and others during the period 1898 to 1915.  Third, user owned and operated irrigation schemes such as the Taber and Lethbridge Northern Irrigation Districts came into existence after passage of the Irrigation Districts Act in 1915.  The end of World War 2 in 1945 brought more large projects such as the St. Mary River Development project.  The final milestone was the development of pivot irrigation systems that allowed irrigation of rougher land than could be irrigated before.

The history of dryland agriculture has been the struggle to find methods to combat
southern Alberta’s semi-arid climate and incessant winds.  Four principles have evolved: break the velocity of the wind by farming in strips; keep the soil covered by dead or
living vegetation; keep bare soil lumpy or ridged; and, stop active erosion by whatever
emergency means are available.

The Agriculture Canada Research Station at Lethbridge had much to do with the development of these principles.  The Station is the largest regional agriculture research facility in Canada.

Agriculture has become the mainstay of the regional economy.  In 1996 there were 11,216 farms in southern Alberta with a capital value of 11.3 billion dollars.  Over 130
businesses processed food or feed for markets here and around the world.

 Lethbridge and War
Lethbridge made important contributions in both World Wars, and the Korean Conflict. 
About 2,600 men signed up for military service in World War 1; 261 died.  The city had
the highest percentage enlistment of any community in Canada.

World War 2 saw 1,750 enlist in the armed forces.  122 never returned.  The city’s
airport, Kenyon Field, was transformed into stations of the British Commonwealth Air
Training Plan: No 5 Elementary Flying Training School (1940-1941) and No. 8 Bombing & Gunnery School (1941-1944).

German prisoners of war were interned at Camp 133 in north Lethbridge from 1942 to 1946.  The 12,500 POWs nearly equaled the population of the city at the time.

Until 1905 there was no clear regional center in southern Alberta.  That changed in
November, when the CPR moved the divisional point of its Crowsnest Line from Macleod – now Fort Macleod – to Lethbridge.  Changes to straighten and shorten the line were
launched soon after.  The CPR high level bridge at Lethbridge was the most important
part of those plans.  At 5,327.625 feet long and  314 feet high, it is the largest
viaduct-type bridge in the world.

Once Lethbridge achieved status as the main marketing, distribution and service centre
in southern Alberta, a development boom occurred from 1907 to 1913.  Municipal
improvements in Lethbridge included: a water treatment plant, power plant, streetcar
system and exhibition buildings.  Real estate prices soared and construction of all kinds
moved along at a frantic pace.  Lethbridge exploded from its roots as a company mining town to become a full-fledged city.

After World War 1, the city slumped.  Development slowed to a crawl for the next 20 years.  Drought from 1919 to 1926 emptied many of the farms of southern Alberta, a prelude to the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939.  The coal industry began its slow decline after 1919.  Only irrigation provided a measure of economic stability in an otherwise bleak time.

It was not until the end of World War 2 in 1945 that Lethbridge experienced its second
boom.  Irrigation expanded across the region, immigration swelled the city’s population
and business flourished.  Only one new school was built in Lethbridge from 1918 to 1945.  Between 1950 and 1970, 23 new schools went up.  Lethbridge Community College was founded in April 1957, and the University of Lethbridge opened its doors in 1967.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the city’s landscape underwent a fundamental change.  The CentreSite Project resulted in the removal of the CPR yards from the center of Lethbridge to Kipp, west of the city.  The former railway land became home to a variety of retail, residential and service developments.  The rail yards, traditional dividing point of north and south Lethbridge ceased to exist.

The Urban Parks Project was another mega-project that transformed Lethbridge.  The
riverbottom from Indian Battle Park to the northern boundaries of the city were turned
into a series of parks, with varying levels of recreational facilities.  Also included
in the Urban Parks plan was renovation and additions to the Sir Alexander Galt Museum and Archives, completed in 1985.

In recent years, the southeast corner of Lethbridge has seen an explosion of residential
and commercial growth.  The west side is also growing again with the construction of
Paradise Canyon and Riverstone subdivisions.  The demographics of the city are changing as well, as more and more senior citizens are calling Lethbridge home.

The future of Lethbridge and southern Alberta lies in a mix of the traditional –
agriculture and agriculture related businesses – and the new economic impact of our
aging population.

Robert May



Robert May is the broker and owner of Rainbow Realty of Lethbridge Alberta. He is also a licensed mortgage associate and financing expert with Canada First Mortgage of Calgary Alberta. He has been in the real estate industry since 1993 and offers full MLS real estate services to Lethbridge and surrounding area, as well as mortgage financing, refinancing/renewals, preapprovals, and home equity financing to Lethbridge and Southern Alberta. He can be found online at

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Robert W May is a Real Estate Broker in Lethbridge Alberta, having now been in the industry for over 23 years. . He was also a licensed Lethbridge mortgage broker and financing expert with Canada First Mortgage of Calgary Alberta for the past 10 years.  He is an industry leader always willing to help train and educate others in how to improve their business models for financial and personal benefit.



Comment balloon 0 commentsRobert May • January 03 2009 01:41PM
A Short History of Lethbridge, Alberta
Several times in the recent years I have fielded questions about the history of Lethbridge or the origin of the name of the City. Since I am no expert in that particular area, I often refer people to one of my favorite local sources of information,… more