Whiskey Traders, Coal Miners, Cattle Ranchers and a Few Bordellos:

Locational Dynamics and the Historical Space Economy of Downtown Lethbridge

Field Trip Guide, March 11, 2005

Annual Meeting, Western Division, Canadian Association of Geographers

Ian MacLachlan
















The Oldman River Valley, Whoop-Up Drive and Indian Battle Park (Site of the last Indian battle in Canada)




1:30 PM          Individuals meet Ian MacLachlan at Department of Geography office, 8th level C, University Hall, University of Lethbridge




1:45 PM          Groups meet promptly in their vehicles at the circular roadway in front of the Main Entrance to the University Library (near Students’ Union entrance), University of Lethbridge in vehicles, ready to drive. (Extra seats will be available for pedestrians).





2:00 PM          Meet at the parking lot beside the Galt Museum, on 5th Avenue South, just west of Scenic Drive, just north of Whoop-Up Drive, five minutes south of the Lethbridge Lodge, Day’s Inn and Travelodge. Look for the crowd of geographers and a construction crane in front of this building which is presently closed for renovations.

2:05 PM          Walk to Oldman River Valley Overlook

 2:30 PM          Provincial Court House

3:00 PM          The Penny Coffee House (refreshment break)

3:30 PM          Chinatown

4:00 PM          Railway Station

4:30 PM          Post Office

5:00 PM          Return to Galt Museum

5:15 PM          Return to the university by car

(Circled numbers refer to locations on the map to be added)


The Urban Landscape of Downtown Lethbridge

This is a three hour, 3.5 kilometer walking tour though we shall carpool from the university to downtown. We’ll go rain or shine and in the latter case, Lethbridge is quite photogenic. Dress for the weather.


          We’ll meet at the Galt Museum parking lot, walk round to the “Wheel of History” and then out on the coulees to the edge of the Oldman River Valley.


Oldman River Valley

            Fort Whoop-Up is a centennial replica (1967) commemorating the whiskey trade which began here in 1869. American whiskey traders exchanged alcohol and firearms for buffalo hides with aboriginal people. The hides were then shipped to Fort Benton on the Missouri via bull train. The original Fort Whoop-Up was located some ten kilometers upstream of the location of the replica.


            Indian Battle Coulee In 1870 a Cree war party armed with muzzle-loading muskets attacked the Bloods who were much weakened by the smallpox epidemic of 1869. A running battle moved from the west side prairie level to the valley bottom where the Bloods were relieved by Peigans who, unknown to the Cree, were camped in the valley. Some 300 Cree, who had initiated the attack, were slaughtered by Blackfoot equipped with repeating rifles. The Oldman River is reputed to have run red with blood that afternoon.


            The second coal mine in the area was located immediately north of what is now the Whoop-Up Drive Bridge on the west side of the river. The drift mine was opened in 1874 by Nicholas Sheran, sometime whaler, soldier in the Union Army and whiskey trader. Only a small disturbance in the coulee ridge just north of the bridge approach remains to mark the mine.


            The Coalbanks mining camp was established in the river bottom in 1882 at what is now the eastern end of the high level bridge. River boat and barge shipment of coal to Medicine Hat failed. With the arrival of the narrow gauge railway in 1885, the mine was relocated to prairie level and operations shifted from horizontal drifts to vertical shafts.


            River Bottom After mining operations shifted up to the prairie level, the valley floor became a zone of discard, occupied by the poorest miners and prostitutes in decrepit shacks and some aboriginal people in tipis. Garbage was dumped in the coulees for many years. Floods in 1902 and subsequent years washed most of the early housing away. (The last major flood was in 1995.) The valley bottom became a pariah landscape of elderly and sick prostitutes, indigent miners, aboriginal people and garbage. After 1940 the valley became home to some market gardens, squatters and small businesses such as gasoline stations. It is now zoned as a conservation area and most housing and businesses have been removed.



            CPR High Level Bridge The CPR’s Crowsnest Pass line (which was opened in 1897) had to cross the river via a byzantine system of switchbacks that took it far to the south of the town. In 1904 the Town of Lethbridge offered the CPR exemption from taxation for twenty years and 200,000 gallons of free water per day. In exchange for this incentive, the CPR shifted its divisional point from Fort Macleod to Lethbridge; built a passenger station, railway yards, locomotive shops and a round house in Lethbridge; and replaced the system of switchbacks carrying the Crowsnest Pass Line across the Oldman River Valley with the high level bridge. Completed in 1909, this is the highest bridge for its length and the longest for its height of any bridge in the world. (Though there are higher bridges and there are others which are longer!)


            The CPR’s southern Crowsnest Pass route, which breaks away from the transcontinental line at Medicine Hat, leads west to the mining towns of the British Columbia’s Kootenay and on to Vancouver via Cranbrook, Nelson, and Hope at the top of the lower Fraser Valley.


            City Power Plant and City Mine were operated from 1910 to 1941 when the municipally owned and operated plant was converted to natural gas. The plant was finally sold to Calgary Power in 1974, the plant itself was closed soon after, and Lethbridge became dependent on distant sources of electricity.


            Galt Number 8 was opened in 1935. The tipple itself was first erected at Galt Number 6 and operated there from 1909 until 1935 when it was disassembled and moved to its present site. Galt Number 8 was closed in 1957 and the property is now in private hands though a move is afoot to conserve the site and open it for heritage purposes.


            The University The decision to build the university as a “campus in the coulees” was undertaken as part of a student and faculty based movement to make the university (founded in September 1967) more autonomous and independent from the Community College at the south east end of the city. Arthur Erickson’s master plan (he also designed the quadrangle at Simon Fraser University and Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall) was unveiled in 1968, construction began late in 1969, and University Hall was opened in the fall of 1971. The design concept was inspired by the horizontal sweep of the high level bridge. The 1,000 foot long bunker-like building was intended to nestle into the valley side without breaking the prairie horizon. Fransden Manor, the apartment tower to the west of the university property, was built in 1978, compromising the design concept.


            West Lethbridge For four years the university was isolated on the west side with no nearby housing or services and connected to the city only by the Highway 3 bridge. Election of Peter Loughheed and a new Conservative government in 1971 was the impetus to build the bridge and Whoop-Up Drive in 1975. The bridge and roadway were twinned in 1985 making the west side more attractive for development.


The west side (West Lethbridge) was planned as a series of “villages” of about 640 acres each with a population capacity of about 6,000. Each was planned to have its own neighbourhood shopping, schools, churches and parks. The first house on the west side was finished in 1974 and the west side has grown rapidly ever since. It now accounts for over one quarter of the city’s total population. The development of Lethbridge’s west side is a good example of Harris and Ullman’s multiple nuclei model while the villages are a direct application of Clarence Perry’s neighbourhood concept.


            Looking to the south-west we can see the new houses in Paradise Canyon. In the river bottom there is more single family and low-rise condominium housing scattered in and around an 18-hole golf course.


Now let’s turn around and look east.


The Skyline

The Point Prostitution gradually migrated from river bottom up to the point in the late 1880s, close to the colliery’s dormitory. Red Lane was a dead end avenue leading west onto the point from 1st Street which by 1890 featured six brothels. The gaily painted two and three story wood frame brothels were visible from miles away and after the bridge was completed, the brothels were the first and most prominent landmark to be seen by train travellers arriving from the west.


            The core of this red light district is now the site of the Lethbridge Lodge (1978), the city’s largest downtown hotel. There was an understanding that the “soiled doves” were only at liberty to shop downtown on Tuesday and Friday afternoons between 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM, when “decent women” were expected to stay at home. An isolation hospital for patients with contagious diseases (largely tuberculosis) was also established on the point though the matron complained about the noise and revelry emanating from the adjacent brothels. Thus a new pariah landscape developed on the point. Debauchery of all kinds rubbed shoulders with contagion, hemmed in by coulees, which were filled with refuse. By the 1950s the point had become an auto wrecker’s yard, a function it retained for nearly 30 years.


            Until the 1970s the Oldman River valley was on the edge of the city, something to be ignored from the city’s grimy coal mining past. Once residential development started on the west side, plans to begin developing the river valley as a recreational area began in earnest. By the late 1990s the downtown and the river valley are near the centre of the city. Far from being a pariah landscape to be ignored, the valley has become one of the city’s leading recreational amenities.


            Galt Hospital was built in 1891 on the edge of the valley and expanded in 1910 with funding from Elliott and Alexander Galt, who founded and financed the coal mine. Originally intended primarily for “sick and afflicted” coal miners employed by the Galts, the public hospital was closed in 1955 and it became a nursing home until 1965. The original frame hospital was demolished and the 1909 brick expansion is now home to the Galt Museum. Consider the location of the nineteenth century hospital on the edge of a pariah landscape!


            The Medican Condominiums were built in the late 1990s by a developer who constructed similar buildings in Medicine Hat. Lethbridge has a disproportionately large elderly population and is growing in popularity as a retirement centre. It draws retired people from farms and smaller communities all over the prairies due to its mild climate and low housing costs. Condominium by-laws restrict the residents in these buildings to people over the age of 55. These large structures are built of 2x6 frame construction (stick-built) instead of the reinforced concrete that is more common in buildings of this size.


Now we shall walk north and east to the Provincial Court House plaza on 4th Avenue.


Downtown Revitalization

By the 1970s the downtown area of Lethbridge, like many smaller cities, was suffering from competition from suburban shopping malls to the south, east and north. Redevelopment of the downtown area began with the construction of Lethbridge Centre in 1975, the city’s first downtown mall. The Lethbridge Lodge was completed in 1978 along with Chancery Court and Southland Terrace in 1982 and the Provincial Court House in 1983. Thus the first phase of downtown redevelopment was accomplished by demolition and infill with infusions of both private and provincial capital.


            The Court House has a larger set-back than most other structures in the downtown - some students see this as symbolic of the distance that the judiciary keeps from the citizenry. All of the civil, criminal and traffic cases arising in nearby municipalities are tried in this building, a good example Lethbridge’s many central place functions. But the court house is also a fascinating study in irony! We are standing at the centre of the “segregated area” in which the law, as it governed public morality, was effectively suspended for nearly 40 years.


The Segregated Area

As the houses of prostitution expanded beyond the capacity of the point they began to move east and into the town proper, mainly on 2nd and 3rd Streets. The house of “Swede Alice” at the corner of 4th Street and 4th Avenue was said to be the largest brothel in the city. Swede Alice’s house of ill repute was strategically placed as an intervening opportunity to intercept traffic headed towards the brothels on the point.


            From 1920 until 1944 the “segregated area” bounded by 1st and 5th Avenues and 1st and 4th Streets was wide open for prostitution, gambling and the sale of alcohol at all hours. The clergy and moral reformers decried the flagrant prostitution but most of the city’s businessmen silently approved of the carefully circumscribed zone of debauchery and they profited from it. There was the occasional raid but for the most part prostitution was tolerated within the limits of the segregated zone. By 1909 a system of regular medical examinations for prostitutes had been established. City police declared publicly that they were doing all they could to combat this social evil but it seems likely that they were on the take.


            During World War II, Lethbridge was ranked as second only to Montreal as the worst source of venereal disease in Canada. With the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan school at Kenyon Field in full swing, provincial officials delivered an ultimatum to end prostitution or the province would send in the RCMP. (Perhaps it was believed that the thirteen remaining brothels were interfering with the war effort.) A former RCMP Staff Sergeant was hired as Chief of Police in 1944 and within two months open prostitution in the segregated area had disappeared. The Provincial Court House and a number of law offices have erased most of the evidence of Lethbridge’s third red light district, replacing a pariah landscape with the authority of the judicial system.


Walk east on 4th Avenue to 5th Street to the Penny University, Lethbridge’s independent downtown coffee house


Coffee at the Penny

We might see a few Hutterites on Friday afternoon though Thursday morning is when local Hutterite colonies typically “come to town” to visit the doctor, to shop, deliver grain and produce, and to meet and socialize with Hutterites from the many other colonies in the Lethbridge area.

Walk north on 5th Street noting Growly’s in what was formerly the Union Bank and cut through the Galt Gardens to stop opposite 2nd Avenue.


5th Street

To the left (west) note the Lethbridge Hotel. It was built on this site in 1885 but no part of the original structure remains in view. Across 2nd Avenue from the Lethbridge Hotel is the Higginbotham Block on the corner. It was built and occupied by one of the city’s early pharmacists in 1904. The building was vacant through most of the 1990s and renovation began in 1998. The builder has tried hard to reflect the original structure in a restoration project that was begun in the summer of 1999.


Galt Gardens was once known as “the square”: a reserve of native prairie at the centre of town where one might have seen mounted Blackfoot pulling travois, bull teams harnessed to wagon trains loaded with bison hides and the horse-drawn stage coach set for departure to Fort Macleod. The park was given to the city by Elliott Galt and in 1906 the trees were planted. By 1990 the park’s public washrooms were in a disgusting condition and they were demolished making it more difficult for street people to find a place to relieve themselves. The pergola was completed in 1994 which provides festival space for summer activities.


Turn left (west) on 2nd Avenue and walk west.


            The fire hall was first built on this site in 1890 but was demolished and completely rebuilt in 1910. At one time it was also the police station with a commanding view over the segregated and restricted areas. It still has cells in the basement. The building ceased to operate as a fire hall in 1975. After sitting empty for over twenty years, it was renovated and opened as a restaurant and bar in 1998.


China Town

Chinese immigrants began to appear in Lethbridge about the turn of the century when

railway work on the Crowsnest Pass rail line came to an end. Racial discrimination appeared in Lethbridge as it did in every western Canadian city at this time. The city passed a by-law in 1910 restricting Chinese laundries to the area west of 4th Street between 1st to 6th Avenues. The ostensible motives for the law were to ensure that laundries would not overload the sewer system and to satisfy residents who complained that neighbouring laundries were operated on Sundays and constituted a nuisance. Its practical effect was to segregate Chinese residents in a small and undesirable area that was more or less contiguous with the red light district: a new pariah landscape had been created. The law was repealed in 1916 but the “Restricted Area” of 1910-1916 is still visible in the one block China Town on 2nd Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets.


            The building at 310 2nd Avenue (1924) has a recessed second storey balcony reminiscent of turn of the century architecture in South China. Many of the older buildings in Vancouver's Chinatown also have this feature. The upper storey is the meeting house of the Chi Kung Tong or Chinese Freemasons. Immediately across the street is a competing club of the Kuo Min Tang or Nationalist League (1915). In the 1940s the Free Masons supported the Communists while the Nationalists sided with Chiang Kai Shek.


            At the corner, note the row of mostly abandoned cottages further west (to our left) on 2nd avenue. This was company housing built by Sick’s Lethbridge Brewery about 1902. (One wonders how the families of the brewery workers would have responded to the nearby brothels.) The three storey Castle Apartments on the northwest corner of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue was known as the Castle Hotel. It was considered to be a "first class commercial hotel" when it was built in 1909. It was a run-down rooming house in the 1970s when demolition was considered.


Turn right (north) on 3rd Street and walk north.


Downtown Revitalization and Railway Yard Relocation

As the main impetus for growth of residential areas was shifting to the west side of the city, the downtown was drawn closer to the physical centre of the city thus it was ideally situated to benefit from redevelopment. The most important change in the downtown area resulted from relocation of the city’s railway yards.


            For many years 1st Avenue parallelled the railway tracks. But in 1983 the CPR relocated most of its trackage and all of its marshalling yards to the hamlet of Kipp, ten kilometers north-west of the city. In 1974 the federal government passed The Rail Relocation and Crossing Act, providing an incentive to move railway infrastructure away from congested downtown areas. Lethbridge was one of the smallest cities to take advantage of this legislation. Removal of the railway tracks freed up an east-west corridor leading to the heart of the city that became the Crowsnest Trail. An additional 95 acres of land at the centre of the city, known as Centresite also became available for redevelopment in 1984. Centresite is now occupied by the Rio Vista and Grandview Village adult condominiums, a new Police Station, Toys “R” Us, Park Place Mall, Garden View Lodge (a nursing home), the London Drugs strip mall and, on the north side of the Crowsnest Trail, The Brick and Thunderbird mall.


In 1990 the merger of Molson Breweries and Carling-Okeefe resulted in the closure of Molson’s Lethbridge Brewery, a fixture on the Lethbridge skyline since 1902. For some time the community debated the merits of retaining agri-food processing in the downtown area and a barley processing operation was considered for the brewery site. This was rejected due to the potential environmental impact on the downtown area and the old brewery lands are now occupied by River Ridge, another Medican adult condominium.


Cross 1st Avenue, turn right and walk six blocks east.



            The Park Place Mall was planned to have two important effects on the downtown. First, as a traditional shopping mall, internally anchored by Sears, Eatons and Winners, it draws shoppers into the downtown area. At a larger scale, the mall is itself one of two anchors in the downtown, the other being the Lethbridge Centre, two blocks away along 5th Street. This was Lethbridge’s main shopping street from the turn of the century until the 6th Street department stores were built after World War II. For example, the building occupied by Auction World (Chinook Trading Centre) was the Hudson’s Bay Company Store until it was closed during the Great Depression. Thus the core of retail activity has gone full circle over the past century. It has been hoped that the presence of two downtown malls would anchor 5th Street as a viable traditional shopping street articulating the two malls. Unfortunately, it seems that two blocks is too far to walk and some shoppers are frightened of this area.


            As we walk east we will note some functional change in existing buildings: a service station became the New Dynasty Restaurant. The former CPR Railway Station (built in 1905, closed with the termination of passenger rail service in 1971) is now far from the railway tracks. It functions as the clinic for the City of Lethbridge Health Unit which opened in 1987.


Continue walking east past the old railway station until we reach Stafford Drive (9th Street) and then turn south and walk to 4th Avenue.


            Just before we turn the corner, we should look east and note Ellison’s Flour Mill which is significant as the first food processor to establish itself in Lethbridge once the CPR made Lethbridge its divisional point. It is also symbolic of the growing Mormon influence in the local economy. The other, more distant but much larger structure, is the inland grain terminal built by the Canadian Grain Commission in between 1928 and 1931. Though it was started before the depression was truly underway, it was an important symbol of federal government spending in a community that might otherwise have felt quite forgotten by Ottawa. It is now owned by Cargill, an agribusiness giant that is argued by many to be the largest privately owned firm in the world.


Mounted Police Reserve

The new City Hall is under construction on one corner of what was the Mounted Police Reserve, a four block area that was set aside for the NWMP in 1886 when the town was first platted. It held barracks, stables and offices until the city acquired it from the RCMP in 1942. In the late 1940s and 1950s the barracks square was redeveloped as the Civic Square with a court house, city hall, concert hall and theatre, YMCA, RCMP Detachment offices, ice rink and the Fritz Sick Pool and Senior’s Centre.


            The availability of such a large area of land only blocks from downtown was a terrific opportunity for a well integrated civic centre of lasting utility. In 1944 the city hired an architectural firm to prepare a master plan for the entire parcel. But fifty years later it does not seem to have fulfilled its promise. The city outgrew the court house and the city hall which was so architecturally undistinguished that it was demolished in 1998 with hardly any complaint.


At 4th Avenue turn right (west) and walk to 6th Street.


          At 7th Street the Beaux Arts Post Office (1913) in buff Tyndall stone (dolomite) still serves as the city’s main post office and mail sorting plant. Note how the Royal Bank’s new main branch is also built in Tyndall stone to match the post office as is the former Royal Bank branch (now a furrier and coffee shop) across the street. Note too how discreetly a wheelchair ramp was built into the structure in the late 1980s, in contrast to the boorish modern style extension of the 1960s.


LA Transit Terminal

The corner of 4th Avenue South and 6th Street is the transfer point for all of the city’s bus routes. Most of the city’s bus routes converge at the same time every 30 minutes and they all depart at the same time. For many years this corner was the hub of downtown shopping. Eaton’s built its two storey department store at the south-east corner, S.S. Kresge’s was on the south-west corner and F.W. Woolworth’s went up at the north-east corner. The art deco MacFarland Building on the northwest corner gives a sense of the commercial block buildings that were demolished to make way for these department stores.


            In trip hammer succession Eaton’s was closed and demolished to make way for the Bank of Montreal’s new main branch, S.S. Kresge’s with its hardwood floors was closed and remodelled to become a miniature mall and Woolworth’s was closed and the store occupied by an independent discounter. The free standing department stores have all disappeared yet the downtown and this intersection remain reasonably vibrant. Several of the chartered banks have remodelled or rebuilt their main branches within a block of this corner while many of the city’s downtown retailers have migrated west to the Lethbridge Centre and north to the Park Place Mall, closer to 5th Street, the city’s original main shopping street bounding the edge of the square.



Our “three hour tour” has provided some examples of western Canadian heritage in the built environment and illustrated trends in Lethbridge that will be familiar to students of other Canadian cities. Some will be a little disappointed in the paucity of Victorian architecture and how little remains of the city’s wild western past. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of quite attractive and well built buildings were demolished which can never be replaced. But it should also be remembered that until the 1950s, Lethbridge was a mining town and never terribly prosperous. At a time when cities of similar size in Ontario were accumulating capital and their merchant and industrial capitalists were building spectacular Victorian piles of brick, stone and gingerbread, Lethbridge’s immigrant miners were building their own small frame cottages out of the catalogues and eking out a modest living subject always to the vicissitudes of coal industry.


            Prosperity only came to this city in the post war era as manufacturing and services for irrigation agriculture and public sector investments in post secondary education and agricultural research began to bear fruit. Despite all of the “free market” and “level playing field” rhetoric of western populists, Lethbridge’s development was in large measure the product of government intervention at the federal, provincial and municipal levels: land grants, tax incentives, subsidies and direct investment in public works. And the form of the city owes much to municipal planning visionaries, who have been responsible for so many of Lethbridge’s amenities that make it uniquely liveable as a small prairie city.


            Finally, the social geography of the downtown area is being transformed by a number of senior’s residences and condominiums restricted to the over 55 set. These “adult communities” demonstrate a preference for downtown locations by senior citizens with the means to purchase $150,000-$200,000 condominiums. Judging by the number of recreational vehicles around the back, many of these residents spend the winter months in the southern states. The 2001 census shows some population growth, rising incomes and an aging population in Lethbridge’s downtown census tract.



Baker, William 1992 Lethbridge: Founding the Community to 1914: A Visual History

            Lethbridge Historical Society

Den Otter, A.A. 1981 “Lethbridge: Outpost of a Commercial Empire” in Town and City ed. by Alan F.J. Artibise Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina: 177-202

Gray, James H. 1971 Red Lights on the Prairies Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Book

Johnston, Alex and den Otter, Andy 1991 Lethbridge: A Centennial History 2nd edition Lethbridge: Lethbridge Historical Society

Johnston, Alex; Gladwyn, Keith G. and L. Gregory Ellis 1989 Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry Lethbridge: Lethbridge Historical Society

Viel, Aimeé 1998 Lethbridge on the Home Front Lethbridge: Lethbridge Historical Society



Special thanks are due to Greg Ellis (City Archivist), Bob Harri (City of Lethbridge Planning Department), Kel Hansen (City of Lethbridge, Corporate Land Management), Bernie Wirzba (University Photographer) and Irma Dogterom.