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Lethbridge - Early Settlement

Galt Gardens.

The birth of Lethbridge is closely related to the discovery of coal beds along the Belly River. In 1858 John Palliser, leader of a British scientific expedition, described the black soils of southern Alberta as a fertile belt and ideal for development. A decade later, two Americans, John Healy and Alfred Hamilton, built Fort Hamilton near the confluence of the St. Mary's and Belly Rivers. Later known as Fort Whoop-Up the post's main purpose was to trade whiskey to for robes and hides. Theft, murder and general debauchery were common occurrences at Fort Whoop-Up. In 1874, in an effort to curb lawlessness, the North-West Mounted Police sent an outfit to restore order. It took several years before authorities could proclaim the area around Fort Whoop-Up peaceful and ready for real estate development.

Nicholas Sheran, an Irish-American adventurer, opened the first commercial coal mine a few miles upstream from Fort Whoop-Up. He lived in a house on the banks of the Belly River with his two sons and a local Peigan woman. He sold most of the coal to the NWMP posted at nearby Fort Macleod. One such visitor to Sheran's operation was Elliott T. Galt who suggested that a company be formed to exploit the abundant coal resources upon observing Sheran's profitable enterprise. In April 1882, the North Western Coal and Navigation Company Limited (NWC & NCo) was created with William Lethbridge, a publisher from Devon, England, serving as its first president. The establishment of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company Limited confirmed the burgeoning of a coal town in southern Alberta. The construction of a rail line between Coalbanks and Dunmore (Medicine Hat) caused an influx of workers to the area. By the end of 1985 Coalbanks possessed over 60 buildings, including six stores, five hotels, 4 billiard halls and two barber shops. There were tremendous business opportunities for young entrepreneurs, like John Higginbotham, a 21-year-old from Guelph, Ontario, who opened a pharmacy in October, 1885.

Mayor Magrath Drive

Lethbridge, initially referred to as Coalbanks, was an indiscriminate collection of hastily built shacks along the Belly River. The town was officially renamed Lethbridge on October 15, 1885. Two institutions central to the development of Lethbridge were the church and school. In April 1886, a one-room school was rented and a teacher promptly hired. The following year the school board built a two-room facility to accommodate its growing student population. In addition, four churches were swiftly built - each one a small, modest building. The NWC & NCo quickly built homes for migrant workers and charged them rent at reasonable rates.

Lethbridge's prosperity was directly affected by the affairs of the NWC & NCo. The NWC & NCo depended almost entirely on sales to the Canadian Pacific Rail, a company created with the premise of rapidly developing the West's transportation network. In an effort to capitalize on the American economy Elliott Galt transferred all of the assets of the NWC & NCo to the Alberta Railway and Coal Company, which built a railway to the United States border in 1890. Nonetheless, local businessmen recognized their dependence on the local coal industry and were thus conscious of their own vulnerability.

On February 2 1891, the newly incorporated town held its first elections and chose Charles Magrath as mayor. During the 1890s, Lethbridge displayed all of the characteristics of an isolated, single-resource town with a migratory population. It was a town dominated by an overwhelming male population evident by its prominent red light district. Gambling was a common activity at local saloons or hotel backrooms.


Johnston, Alex and den Otter, Andy A. Lethbridge: A Centennial History. Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, 1991.

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