The Foundations of Irrigation

When it was formed in 1885, Lethbridge was a one-company, one-industry town whose fortunes relied on the North Western Coal and Navigation Company. The community did not boom as expected, even with a narrow-gauge rail line to Dunmore on the CPR, and another to Montana (completed in 1890 by the Galt’s second enterprise the Alberta Railway and Coal Company (AR & C Co.).

The Dominion Government had granted large tracts of land to the Galt companies in return for building of two rail lines. Land sales provided a further opportunity for profit, but the Galts needed people to buy and to farm the land. Charles Ora Card, the leader of a group settlers sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah County, bought land from the AR & C Co. for his followers. Because the area around Cardston was so dry, he encouraged Elliott Galt to undertake a major irrigation project. Unable to secure financing at a time of nationwide recession, Galt nevertheless formed the Alberta Irrigation Company to purchase AR & C Co. land for future irrigation projects. He and Charles A. Magrath, Company Land Commissioner, supported by the Lethbridge News, lobbied the government for almost ten years for additional funding.

Finally, in 1896, the Government and the CPR agreed to assist the irrigation plan with funds, a rail line to the Crowsnest Pass and forgiveness of survey fees on old land grants. By 1900, over 95 miles of canals had been completed, including the main canal from the St. Mary River near the Canada–U.S. border and branches to Stirling and Lethbridge.

By 1905, with promotion from Galt, Magrath, the Dominion Government and the CPR, the immigration boom was on. People lined up for homesteads every year until the outbreak of the First World War. Galt’s sugar beet industry at Raymond and his model farm near Lethbridge demonstrated that agriculture could prosper.

With irrigation, agriculture became a major industry in the Lethbridge area. Water flowed from the river to canals, into the farm ditches and out into the fields. Farmers inserted and shifted dams to force the water into a specific field for a specific crop’s needs. Modern irrigation systems have built on the foundation laid by Galt, Card and Magrath before the turn of the twentieth century.