Historic Land Use and Planning

Before the arrival of European settlers in the final decades of the 19th century, the South Saskatchewan River Sub-basin (SSRSB) was home to Native Canadians typically belonging to the Blackfoot and Cree nations. Explorations into the region by Europeans occurred as early as 1754, but early development of the region met with opposition from Natives.

The arrival of the North West Mounted Police in the 1870s brought a measure of law and order to the region, and created conditions safe enough for people moving West across Canada to settle down.
Canadian Pacific Railway
The Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line was chosen to run through Southeast Alberta for two reasons, to “lessen the economic influence of American roads” and to allow for faster construction of the line than if it had taken a more traditional, Northern route through the province. The CPR line reached the Medicine Hat river valley in 1883.

In 1885, a narrow-gauge line was built from Dunmore to Lethbridge. Nicknamed the “Turkey Trail”, it allowed coal to be transported from the Galt Mines near Lethbridge to the main CPR line in Dunmore. The CPR converted the line to a standard size in 1893 after leasing the line from the independent company that built it. Branch lines were built as required by economic conditions, leading to a few smaller length tracks connecting the towns and villages in Southern Alberta.

Only a few lines remain in service in south east Alberta, including the CPR main line through Medicine Hat, the track from Medicine Hat to Crowsnest Pass, and a line between Stirling and Etzikom.

Medicine Hat

The Medicine Hat area is home to the largest population centres in the South Saskatchewan River Sub-basin, the City of Medicine Hat and the Town of Redcliff. In order to get a good understanding of modern day land use planning, it is important to look at the development of these municipalities in the past.

Medicine Hat is the largest city in the South Saskatchewan River Sub-Basin but the City had a humble beginning as a small tent town in 1883. Thanks to the “Naturally graded, flat floor of the Ross Creek area,” Medicine Hat proved useful to the railway, and with the construction of a rail bridge in 1883, the CPR main line was able to cross the South Saskatchewan River and continue across the prairie. Due to a good supply of water and coal in the region, the CPR developed Medicine Hat as a divisional point, building shops, a roundhouse, stock and freight yards, and more bridges across the South Saskatchewan River. Home to the transfer station between the Turkey Trail and the CPR main line, Dunmore threatened to outgrow Medicine Hat, but the CPR decided that due to tradition, Medicine Hat was to become a divisional point, and the City of Medicine Hat soon outgrew its neighbour. As the divisional headquarters for the CPR, almost 1100 kilometers of track were built within City limits, and frequent train service drew industry to the area, including the clay manufacturing businesses. Natural gas, found in abundance beneath the City, provided a huge incentive for industry, offering an inexpensive source of energy.

Read more… about the history of the clay industry in Medicine Hat.


The town of Redcliff, located a few miles northwest of Medicine Hat, had its beginnings in the 1880’s with the discovery of coal and natural gas. The town has an odd track record of industry, drawn to the area due to coal and gas reserves. Redcliff suffered a cyclone in 1915 that destroyed many businesses and homes, starting a decline in the prosperity generated by industry.

Read more… about the history of the Town of Redcliff.

Coal and Agriculture

Coal mining originated in the 1880’s, with mines opening in the Medicine Hat area as well as across Alberta. Mines in the Medicine Hat and Redcliff area were typically small operations used to produce coal for the CPR or to heat homes for new settlers. The Ajax Collieries (or Ansley) mine a few miles west of Medicine Hat was the last to shut down, closing in 1967.

Ironically, in the CPR’s search for water, drills struck huge stores of natural gas, leading to the discovery of a massive gas field beneath the City. This gas was supplied by the City to all residents of Medicine Hat starting in 1904, providing the City with a reliable, inexpensive form of energy. Natural gas helped to draw industry to both Medicine Hat and Redcliff.

The practices of agriculture and ranching were both commercialized from the moment settlers began to populate the area. Typically, ranchers and farmers raised some food for themselves, but sold the majority of their crops and livestock for profit.

Around 1870, ranching began to develop in the region, dominated by large, incorporated ventures. In 1885, Sir John Lister-Kaye attempted to develop large tracts of land across Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. With financial support from Britain, 10 large tracts of land were obtained from the Canadian government, one of which, called the 76 Ranch, was located near Dunmore. Horses and cattle were imported from Eastern Canada, but after several years, ranchers were unable to overcome a lack of water in the area. In 1892, the farms were allowed to return to prairie grass. Investors were hit with huge losses after the Lister-Kaye experiment failed. The Medicine Hat Ranching Company opened up in 1886, becoming the first large ranch in the Medicine Hat area. It found a moderate amount of success compared to the 76 Ranch.

By 1908, under pressure of land and market forces, large-scale ranching had given way to smaller, more constricted operations. Over the next several decades, ranchers fought to stabilize the livestock industry. By 1949, the American export market, consumer purchasing power, and the inclusion of feed grain in provincial land-use patterns had helped to develop the beef industry and insure its survival.

Despite the failure of the 76 Ranch, a plan was proposed around 1900 to develop the land near Suffield to the point where it could produce crops on a large scale. Over $10 million in capital was spent developing the hamlet of Suffield between 1909 and 1911. Companies involved in the project began to develop an irrigation system to stimulate the land. However, a severe drought occurred in 1914, destroying that year’s crop. The drought, coupled with the outbreak of World War I, led to the abandonment of the farm project and irrigation system. The land was given to local farmers and businessmen.

Farming did not progress to any great extent in the area until the arrival of settlers in 1883. The practice of agriculture developed slowly at first, but accelerated between 1896 and 1914 thanks to better technology and the immigration campaign carried out by the Canadian government. The introduction of an effective irrigation system, coupled with an expanded rail network and better grain handling and marketing systems helped farming in Southern Alberta develop successfully. Despite advances in technology, farmers were hit especially hard during the depression years in the mid 1930’s. Many left the land, and rural communities were gradually abandoned. World War II also affected farming in Alberta, with the end of the war bringing the trend of urbanization. Agriculture has seen a general shift to larger, but fewer, farms over the 20th century.

Read more… about the history of Agriculture in Alberta.

The natural vegetation of the Palliser Triangle is short grass prairie and precipitation insufficient to support the type of agriculture of eastern North America. Irrigation was first considered for use in Alberta in the late 1880’s, when the semi-arid conditions of Western Canada proved too difficult to settle for many immigrants.

Construction of the St. Mary Project (SMP) began in 1898, following other attempts to start a large development in irrigation. As the SMP developed and spread out from its origins near Lethbridge, the need for reservoirs became apparent. The St. Mary Dam, completed in 1951, facilitated the creation of the first reservoir of the district. Water from the SMP reached Medicine Hat via a canal constructed in 1954.

The River and Transportation

With several towns and cities located on the banks of Alberta rivers, early settlers toyed with the idea of using riverboats as transportation between municipalities. Early businessmen in Medicine Hat attempted to develop this idea from the 1880’s to 1908. A fleet of three boats was deployed on the South Saskatchewan River with the intention of shipping coal from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat. This proved unfeasible, for two reasons. The boats could only run on the river during high-water flood periods in summer, and more coal was used to power the boats on the journey than the boats could ship between the cities. In place of the ferry system for transporting coal, the Turkey Trail, discussed previously, was built between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. The idea of riverboats on the South Saskatchewan lingered on, despite earlier failures. Three more boats were built, which offered pleasure cruises and limited transportation of goods.

By 1908, however, every boat had either been wrecked on the river or had been shipped elsewhere. The South Saskatchewan River proved unsuitable for any commercial boat transit.