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A Brief History of Lethbridge, Alberta

Updated on August 23, 2011

Coal and Whisky

If I had to sum up the history of Lethbridge in two words, those are what I'd choose. In less than 150 years, Lethbridge has gone from part of a Blackfoot nation to a coal-mining town and major trading post to a University town, and coal and whisky were behind it all.

The Whisky Trade

In 1869, the region that would become Lethbridge was still part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which consisted of four related tribes of Montana and Alberta. That year, the American Army outlawed alcohol trading with the Montana natives, prompting John J. Healy and Alfred B. Hamilton to set up a whisky trading post at Fort Hamilton, near the future site of Lethbridge. Within a year, the fort burned down (local folklore claims the natives burned it down) but it was immediately rebuilt and dubbed Fort Whoop-Up. Many goods were traded at the fort, but whisky was its claim to fame, as Alberta did not yet have an active police force and the alcohol trade was being outlawed in surrounding areas. Traders at Fort Whoop-Up took advantage of this fact, notoriously overcharging for their alcohol.

In 1873, mounting tensions between American hunters and traders, Metis freighters and an Assiniboine camp resulted in the Cypress Hills Massacre in what is now Saskatchewan. Canadians were outraged by what they saw as an American attack on their sovereignty, and pressured John A. McDonald to form the North-West Mounted Police (later to become the RCMP). The NWMP took control of Fort Whoop-Up in 1875, keeping it in operation until the 1890’s.

Alexander Galt
Alexander Galt

The Coalbanks

After his service in the American Civil War, Nicholas Sheran, an entrepreneur from New York, followed a fellow soldier (Joseph Healy, John Healy’s brother) to Montana where they worked as traders and prospectors. In 1874, Sheran continued north to Fort Whoop-Up. While there, Sheran started a ferry service across the Belly River (later renamed the Oldman River) and mined coal from a seam in the coulees, selling it to traders that came to the Fort.

Elliott Galt visited Sheran at his mine in 1879, and immediately advised his father, prominent Canadian politician Alexander Galt, of the mining potential. Not quite three years later, the elder Galt formed the Northwestern Coal and Navigation Company and opened their first drift mine. William Lethbridge served as president of the company, though never actually lived in Alberta.

A couple of years prior, the Blackfoot Confederacy had signed Treaty #7, handing 50,000 square miles over to the Dominion of Canada, and so the area that would come to be Lethbridge was dubbed Coalbanks. Three years later, community members changed the name to Lethbridge.

Mormon Settlers, Telephones and the Viaduct

In the 1880's and 90's, many Mormon settlers came to the Lethbridge region, and became a major part of the telephone system. Charles A. Magrath, the first mayor of Lethbridge, and commissioner for the NorthWestern Coal and Navigation Company, began negotiations with the Mormons and the Mounties to create the Lethbridge and Cardston Telephone Company.The Mormons helped cut and and mount the telephone poles, the Mounties funded the project, and by 1894, Cardston, Lethbridge and the Mounties all had telephone service.

Another major boost to Lethbridge's economy at this time was the railway system. In 1885, the first railway was opened by the Alberta Railway and Coal Company,which ended up buying the North Western Coal and Navigation Company in 1890. By 1909, construction of the Lethbridge Viaduct (known to locals as the High Level Bridge), the longest and highest railway bridge of its kind in the world, was complete. The strength of the bridge removed all weight and length restrictions, and Lethbridge quickly became the distribution hub of Southern Alberta.

The University of Lethbridge, hidden in the coulees
The University of Lethbridge, hidden in the coulees

Modern Times

The World Wars meant hard economic times for Lethbridge (and most everywhere else), but after World War II, irrigation of farmland near Lethbridge gave a much needed boost to the city's population and economy. In the 1950's and 60's, the focus shifted from farming and coal-mining to education and retail services. Taco Time Canada, Minute Muffler and H&R Transport were all based out of Lethbridge at some point, and Old Style Pilsner was invented there in 1926. Lethbridge Community College opened in 1957 and the University of Lethbridge opened in 1967. Today, approximately 10,000 students attend the U of L.


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  • Robikan profile image

    Robyn J Williams 6 years ago from Canada

    Thanks, Judi! Lethbridge is my hometown, and I always found its history interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image

    Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

    Good Hub - very interesting.