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The Gas-fuelled Real Estate Boom and its Aftermath (1906-1918)

Natural gas well, Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1905.

In 1907, Rudyard Kipling toured across Canada. When he visited Medicine Hat, he is reputed to have said that it had "all hell for a basement," referring to city's vast stores of natural gas. Kipling's quote garnered international recognition for Medicine Hat at a time when the fledgling city was on the verge of major growth, due in no small part to its natural gas industry.

Redcliff, Alberta. 1910s.

Because Medicine Hat's natural gas was municipally-owned, city council and the Medicine Hat Board of Trade were able to lure companies to the area by offering up their product at an affordable cost. Moreover, they mailed out pamphlets extolling the low costs of running a business in Medicine Hat. Natural gas was much cheaper in Medicine Hat relative to the rest of Alberta. For example, in 1913, natural gas cost 13 and a half cents per thousand cubic feet for homes and a mere nickel for industries, as compared to $1.00 to $1.75 in other cities. In addition, in 1912, the city began issuing permits to allow citizens to drill wells for personal use.

Panoramic view of Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1912.

The gas bonanza also impacted nearby communities like Carlstadt, Redcliff, Winnifred, and Suffield. Each community grew at a remarkable pace during the real estate boom in the early 1910s. Redcliff began directly competing with Medicine Hat for real estate development. The burgeoning town had grown around Doctor R.R. Stoner's Redcliff Brick and Coal Company and possessed huge stores of natural gas and thriving industries. The Redcliff Realty Company began selling industrial property, attracting buyers by advertising cheap natural gas. Redcliff soon had a cigar factory, iron manufacturer and Dominion Glass Company. By 1912, the Town of Redcliff had 1000 citizens while its population eventually peaked at 3000.

Alberta Hotel, Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1910.

Meanwhile in Medicine Hat, the construction boom was taking off. In 1910, more than 5000 homesteads were bought out, eventually driving ranchers up north. By 1912, Medicine Hat had the highest rate of building permit growth of any Canadian City. The city's population grew from 3000 in 1906, to 5600 in 1911, and peaked at 15,000 in 1913. This rapid growth meant a chronic housing shortage in Medicine Hat, forcing the homeless into a "tent town" on the north side of the city. For those lucky enough to have housing, Medicine Hat had a slew of services including a modern and efficient fire department, graded streets, waterworks and sewers, eight banks, eight public schools, four parks, 20 gas wells, 30 major industries and 190 businesses. In addition, Medicine Hat had almost 200 realties, speculating on the booming real estate market.

Clay Products factory, Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1910.

During this construction boom, many of Medicine Hat's landmark buildings were erected. The Empress Theatre, built in 1913 by Mr. A.P. Day, at a cost of $5000 was a 50 by 150 feet, two-storey theatre with the largest performing stage between Regina and Calgary; it could hold an audience of 726. Another groundbreaking Medicine Hat landmark built during the boom was the St. Patrick's Church, a massive gothic revival church and one of the first buildings in North America to be built entirely of reinforced concrete.

Army camp, Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1915.

At the time, Medicine Hat was known less for its architectural marvels and more for its industrial supremacy. The city was called the "Pittsburgh of Western Canada," and it was being envisioned as a major manufacturing and distribution centre. To ensure that this vision was met, the Medicine Hat Board of Trade mounted a massive advertising campaign, sending out 40,000 pamphlets and 16,000 copies of the Medicine Hat Manufacturer throughout Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. By 1912, some of the largest factories included the Alberta Clay Product Company, the Ogilvie Flour Mills, the Canada Cement Company, and Maple Leaf Milling. Medicine Hat had many brick factories, to keep up with the demands of the construction boom. Alberta Clay Products was the largest brick producer in the country, shipping three million bricks to Edmonton and half a million bricks to Saskatoon in 1912 alone. Charles Pratt founded Medalta Stoneware Ltd. in 1915. This industry survived the later recession and grew, eventually gaining national prestige until it closed its doors in 1954. In addition to thriving flour, brick, and clay industries, Medicine Hat was also famous for its greenhouses.

By 1914 the city's boom witnessed a sharp decline. The CPR chose Calgary over Medicine Hat as the location for its repair shops. By this time, Alberta was in a province-wide recession. Moreover, the city, which had been dishing out concessions to industry such as free real estate, cheap natural gas, and tax exemptions - was going broke. Medicine Hat's population shrunk. By 1915, there were less than 9000 citizens; many buildings stood empty and unemployment rates were high. Real estate prices tanked, and industries were losing markets and closing their doors.

While the situation was bad in Medicine Hat, it was still worse in Redcliff. On June 25 of 1915, the town was devastated by a tornado that destroyed 12 commercial buildings, numerous homes, and its knitting factory and cigar factory, causing $150,000 worth of damage. Redcliff did not recover from the tornado, and it would never again rival Medicine Hat in any capacity.

In 1917, as the war neared its end, a farming crisis struck due to drought, leading to the highest farm abandonment rates in the Medicine Hat area's history. Suffield, in wheat heartland, became a ghost town. For the next two decades, Medicine Hat region's population stagnated and shrunk under the pressures of drought and an international recession.

References

Keer, Stephani. The Hat was a Boom Town until the CPR shops went to Calgary. Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol. 2: The Boom and the Bust 1910-1914. 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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