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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Early Settlement and the CPR (1883-1905)

Medicine Hat was one of the first settlements established by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The site was chosen as a station in 1883 because it was deemed to be the best crossing point along the South Saskatchewan River. A town of several hundred comprised of mostly tents quickly formed around the train station. So too did a North West Mounted Police barracks, one mile east of the town. The town became an important divisional point for the CPR, featuring a railway depot, repair shops, and a large roundhouse.

First train across South Saskatchewan river, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

The first settlers of Medicine Hat were railway construction workers and others involved in the railway industry. Shortly thereafter, the area was filled with homesteaders and ranchers. Ranching was especially prolific in the area because Medicine Hat's landscape was predominantly high-nutrient short grass, excellent for raising beef cattle. The first well-established ranch was the Medicine Hat Ranching Company, formed in 1886. When the CPR began selling smaller plots of land to encourage mass immigration homesteaders began competing with ranchers for territory. Farmers quickly realized that the area around Medicine Hat was not ideal for farming because of severe drought. American journalists often referred to Medicine Hat's inhospitable terrain as a "blizzard factory", responsible for sending bad weather south. Drought was especially bad in the 1880s and the early 1890s, perpetuating the belief that southern Alberta was unsuitable for farming.

North-West Mounted Police, Police Point, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Gradually, Medicine Hat transformed from a tent town into a burgeoning community. In 1885, Medicine Hat was officially established as a village featuring a church, a school, a doctor, a carpenter, a lawyer, two hotels, and several stores. The first store in the area was founded by future mayor William Cousins, who initially set up a tent in 1883. The village's business district grew around South Railway, Main and Toronto Streets, notable for their 24 hour street lamps, powered by Medicine Hat's vast reserves of natural gas.

Tent town of Medicine Hat, Alberta. June 18, 1883

The construction of the Medicine Hat General Hospital confirmed Medicine Hat's transition from a village to a town. John Niblock, the regional superintendent of the CPR in Medicine Hat, was instrumental in securing a hospital for the small town. Incidentally, Medicine Hat's hospital was the first along the CPR route between Winnipeg and Vancouver. After four years of fundraising by the Ladies' Aid society, the 25-bed hospital was approved in 1888 and opened the next year. Medicine Hat soon opened a branch of the Merchants' Bank and the James M. Rae and Company Hardware Store. By 1898, the population reached 1000 and Medicine Hat was incorporated as a town. That same year, the landmark Assiniboia Hotel was built. The imposing hotel, built by Captain Horatio Hamilton Ross, had 63 rooms (most with en suite bathrooms), a dining room, drawing room, lounge, billiards room, barber shop, and even a bowling alley. By 1901, Medicine Hat had a population nearing 3000. At the turn of the century, Medicine Hat was poised to challenge the preeminence of Calgary and Edmonton. Town council was planning to expand its infrastructure to include gas lines, running water, and concrete sidewalks.

View of Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1884

Helping to fuel Medicine Hat's growth were its resources and industries. In 1884, Medicine Hat had its first lumberyard. However, the prairie region in and around Medicine Hat did not possess large amounts of wood for construction; however the area featured ample amounts of clay for brick making. A brick plant opened in 1886, producing the first red bricks west of Ontario. In 1896, another brick plant opened and yet another in 1901. The new brick yards had plenty of customers because of the early building boom in Medicine Hat. Large structures including the Tweed and Ewart warehouse (1886), John Ewart Mansion (1896), and the Century Methodist Church (1900) all prominently featured local brick work.

Medicine Hat was ripe for industrial growth because of its vast stores of clay, coal, and particularly natural gas. Natural gas in was first discovered in the Medicine Hat area by a CPR crew in 1883, while they were drilling for water. Initially, the gas discovered in the area was of low pressure and wet, making it difficult to use. Medicine Hat Gas Company was eventually formed, but the natural gas industry remained small. Many townspeople started to drill their own wells, until in 1901, when the city took public control of the industry, a move backed by its citizens. In 1904, the city drilled a high pressure well at 1010 feet, effectively securing a large supply of gas to fuel the town. The natural gas would soon propel the town into a new era of growth, and the town became a city on May 9, 1905.

References

Byfield, Virginia. A trek around a future province where a cow got into a drugstore. Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol. 1: The Great West before 1900. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Gould, Ed. Medicine Hat: All Hell for a Basement. Medicine Hat: City of Medicine Hat, 1981.

Jones, David C., L.J. Roy Wilson, and Donny White. The Weather Factory: A Pictorial History of Medicine Hat. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1988.

Mehrer, Peter. Run that by me Again. Medicine Hat news, 2000. Medicine Hat: Our Unforgettable History, 1885-2005. Medicine Hat News.

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