Lethbridge’s Early Water System

By Galt Museum Curator, Aimee Benoit

In the 1890s, the town of Lethbridge contracted the Alberta Irrigation Company to supply water to the town-site. Water was pumped up the coulees from the river and stored in a standpipe at the rail yards. It was then delivered to residents three times a week using horse-drawn water wagons, for 25 cents per barrel. The water was only “gravel strained,” meaning it was not filtered. During spring run-off, there could be up to a foot of silt in the bottom of the barrel, which residents would have to clean out before the next load of water was delivered.

In 1902, Mayor William Oliver hired Toronto engineer Willis Chipman to design a new waterworks system for Lethbridge. It was completed in 1904 and consisted of a series of wooden water pipes wrapped in wire. Within two years most houses and businesses were connected to the waterworks system, except in north Lethbridge where residents continued to buy their water from horse-drawn tank carts, or from a standpipe on Westminster Road (13th Street North).

Because water was pumped from the Oldman River in a raw state, it was not always safe for drinking. In 1916, a severe typhoid epidemic broke out in Lethbridge, making more than 100 people sick and killing 15. Eventually, officials traced the bacteria to an outbreak of typhoid in Fort Macleod the previous fall. The town had dumped raw sewage directly into the Oldman River, which froze during the winter. When the ice broke up the following spring it contaminated Lethbridge’s water supply.

As a result of the outbreak, residents voted to build a new filtration plant, which was rushed to completion in 1918. The City’s medical health officer declared, “the filtration plant has fulfilled all the claims made for it. No city should be able to appreciate perfect water better than a dweller of Lethbridge.”

Take some time to learn more about the Oldman Watershed and how it has shaped our community, visit the Galt Museum & Archives exhibit Water in a Dry Land. Admission fees apply. Admission is free to annual pass holders.