Sir Alexander Galt

Article by Jason Paul Sailer.  Re-edited by Chris Doering.

Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt wore many hats over seventy six years; politician, promoter, father, author, manager, railway man….  His portly, erect form was familiar for a quarter century of public life, during which he counselled various leaders and supported different ministries, but he never lost the respect of the common people. Galt was the generous, amiable personality of a robust, healthy man. He was a sincere and earnest speaker, with a well-modulated voice and an amazing mastery of facts.

Born in London, England on September 6th, 1817 the youngest of three sons of novelist John Galt & Elizabeth Tilloch.  His childhood and adolescence were steeped in the curious mix of adventure, literary creation, and speculative enterprises that he learned from his father. From childhood, Alexander must have dreamed of Canada, a country that promised adventure and swift success to the enterprising.  He would make his first introduction to Canada in 1834, as a junior clerk in the British American Land Company at Sherbrooke, Quebec.  He rose step by step until in 1844, he became Company Commissioner. He found its affairs in confusion, and by his ability and understanding brought them to order and prosperity.  His business success attracted notice, and in 1849 he was elected to Parliament for the County of Sherbrooke.  He sat through the stormy session of 1849, when the Parliament buildings in Montreal were burned, after the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill.  This seemed to sicken young Galt of politics for the time, for he retired to private life.

During the next four years Galt became President of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway, and extricated it from its difficulties by amalgamation with the Grand Trunk Railway, and participated in the construction of the Grand Trunk railway line from Toronto to Sarnia.  From 1852 to 1859, he was a director of the Grand Trunk Railway.  By 1853 he was back in Parliament, where he found scope for his talents in financial, trade and commercial questions.  Upon the fall of the Brown-Dorion Government in 1858, Sir Edmund Head, impressed by Galt’s striking speech that year in favor of a federal union, asked him to form a cabinet, but, realizing that his independent course, while spectacular, left him without a following, he declined.  George E. Cartier, who was called on at Galt’s suggestion, took Galt as Minister of Finance, promising to adopt federal union as a Cabinet policy.

Before tracing more in detail Galt’s contribution to Confederation, we should take a moment to mention his services in forming Canada’s financial policy.  His first duty in taking office in 1858 was to restore the shattered finances of the Province of Canada.  At that time, revenues were low and expenses high.  William Cayley, his predecessor, insisted protection in the tariff to several manufacturing industries.  Galt went a step farther in 1859, and raised the tariff from 15 to 20 %.  The object of this tariff, he told the House on March 18, was “to encourage the industrial portion of the community and to equally distribute the taxes necessary for revenue purposes.”  He ridiculed the idea that British connection would be endangered, but before many months his policy had made trouble in the old country and in the United States.  Another important achievement by Galt at this time was the introduction into Canada in 1858 of the decimal currency system, which replaced the pounds, shillings and pence of the motherland.

There had been discussion of union of the British American Provinces for years, but Galt forced the issue by his speech in the Assembly at Toronto on July 6, 1858.  He then outlined roughly the plan of union which was subsequently adopted.  He declared that unless a union was formed the Province of Canada would inevitably drift into the United States.  He saw merits in the union of the two Canada’s, which had organized municipal government, settled the clergy reserves and seigniorial tenure questions, and made the Legislative Council elective.  Yet the present Government, the strongest for several years, was unable to carry their measures.  The present system could not go on, it was necessary to change the constitution, to adopt the federal principle.  Questions of religion and race now promoted disunion.  If they adopted the federal principle each section of the union might adopt whatever views it regarded as proper for itself.
At this time the climax of the deadlock had not been reached, but political rivalries and racial jealousies were fast bringing about an impasse.  Cartier implemented his promise, and Galt and John Ross were sent to England.  Their memorandum to the Colonial Secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, urged confederation on grounds peculiar to Canada and considerations affecting the interests of the other colonies and the whole empire.  The memorandum set forth the desirability of uniting Canada, the Maritime Provinces, and Newfoundland.  Little encouragement followed this formal appeal.  The Colonial Secretary showed no enthusiasm for the union, and writing a month later said the Imperial Government could go no further at present, as they had received a reply on the subject from only one Province.

From now on, for the next two years, Galt was a virile leader in promoting the cause of union.  At the Quebec Conference, he played an important part in finally adjusting the financial relations of the Provinces under the union scheme, a point which at one time brought deadlock and almost wrecked the convention.  The spade work for Confederation in Canada had now been done, though much remained as yet to reconcile Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.  Galt had his part in the mission to London in 1865. All was then smooth, but in August, 1866, he startled the country by resigning as Finance Minister on the determination of the Government not to proceed with the Lower Canada education bill.  This bill was promoted by the Protestant minority of Lower Canada, and the Roman Catholic majority would not permit it to pass unless a similar bill with reference to the Roman Catholic minority in Upper Canada was also enacted.  John A. Macdonald, in voicing the Government’s position, said the policy advocated for the minorities would give the Maritime Provinces an unfortunate spectacle of two Houses divided against themselves.  Notwithstanding his resignation from the Cabinet, Galt’s abilities were requisitioned for the final stages of the Confederation bill, and he accompanied the Ministerial delegation to England in the fall of 1866 to draft the British North America Act.  He was reelected, and entered the first Confederation Cabinet as Minister of Finance, but in November, 1867, he again resigned from the Cabinet.  The portfolio of Finance was again offered him in 1869 if he would renounce his views in favor of the independence of Canada, but he declined.  In 1876, in a letter to Senator James Ferrier, he criticized Macdonald for his connection with the Pacific Scandal.  A year later the Mackenzie Government used Galt’s diplomacy with good result on the Fisheries Commission at Halifax, and in 1880, Sir John Macdonald made him the first Canadian High Commissioner to Great Britain, declaring him to be “the most available man for the position.”  To Galt, however, the post was a disappointment, as he felt he was little more than an emigration agent. After offering his resignation several times, he left his post on June 1st, 1883.

The 1880s also witnessed Galt’s return to the business world, this time in western Canada.  In 1881, while he was living in London, he had been informed by his eldest son, Elliott Torrance Galt, at the time assistant commissioner of Indian affairs in Regina, of the existence of coal deposits in the south of what is now the province of Alberta.  After inspecting the region, on 7 September 1882 Galt founded the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company Limited (NWC&NC) with William Lethbridge, a lawyer and partner in the firm W.H. Smith booksellers, as the first president of the company.  Although he never came to Canada, Lethbridge left a legacy in southern Alberta through the city that bears his name.  One of his aims was to supply coal to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which was still under construction west of Winnipeg, and to supply the settlers that would soon arrive out west.  To transport the coal Galt and his partners first set up a system of steamships the “Alberta”, the “Baroness” and the “Minnow” and barges on the Bow and South Saskatchewan rivers that operated in 1883 and 1884.  However, the rivers were shallow with numerous sand bars, and an unpredictable current that it sometimes took the steamships 5 days to travel between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat!  A more stable transportation system was needed, and the NWC&NC turned to a narrow gauge railway line.

In late 1883 Sir Alexander Galt travelled to London for a meeting of the NWC&NC directors.  He wanted to discuss the creation of a new company, the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC), to build a 177 km narrow-gauge line from Lethbridge to Dunmore Junction.  The AR&CC would eventually take over the land assets of the NWC&NC, and use them as security bonds & stocks to pay for the railway construction.  In October 1883 the federal government granted the NWC&NC the usual land grant of 3,840 acres per mile of railway built (but at the discount price of $1.00 per acre plus survey dues).  On April 19, 1884 the AR&CC was incorporated with capital of $1,500,000.00.  The same day, Parliament passed the charter bill for the new railway.  The second pillar of southern Alberta’s development was put into place when the line was opened by Lord Landsdowne, Governor General of Canada, on September 24, 1885.  Why did Galt decided to build a narrow gauge railway, instead of a typical standard gauge railway?  The main reason was cost!  Construction costs & equipment costs were much lower than standard gauge construction & equipment.

With the narrow-gauge line now operating, the Galt companies looked to expand the customer base for their coal beyond the CPR, and prairie settlers.  The copper smelters of western Montana were within the reach of a railway, and Galt decided to build a narrow-gauge line south into the United States.  Lack of money and political considerations altered the plan somewhat, and the result was a railway from Lethbridge to Great Falls.  It opened in 1890 as two lines: the Alberta Railway & Coal Company’s 108 km track from Lethbridge to the border at Coutts, and the Great Falls and Canada Railway (GF&CR)’s 215.6 km line from Sweetgrass, Montana, south to Great Falls.  As was policy, the federal government provided land grants for construction of this line as well on both sides of the International Boundary.

By controlling all of these economic threads, Galt hoped to ensure the success of his investments in southern Alberta.  Railways created markets for coal and brought settlers to irrigated lands.  The settlers created a new market for coal, and in turn grew agricultural products that were shipped out on the railway.  Sir Alexander Galt developed an integrated approach to his enterprises in southern Alberta.  Each supported the others by creating new business opportunities.

After 1890, Galt, whose health had become delicate, scarcely ever left Montreal and his residence on Rue de la Montagne.  Early in 1893 he had to undergo a tracheotomy because of throat cancer.  Unable to speak, he communicated by writing.  He died shortly before dawn on September 19th, 1893.  Two days later an imposing funeral was held in Montreal, but the service was celebrated in Galt’s own home by a Toronto minister, John Potts, an old friend of his, who also delivered the funeral oration.  He was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Galt was seen as a complex man of worth who had succeeded brilliantly in several very different fields of activity. Dr Potts observed: “He belonged to a superior order. He was a deep thinker, a distinguished economist, an enterprising and courageous businessman.” Others called to mind his agreeable and flowing eloquence and the attention his speeches on financial matters commanded. “His writings bear the stamp of purity and elegance,” it was said.


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All images and content are copyright Great Candian Plains Railway Society unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Archives


Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, gathering on the steps of Prince Edward Island’s Goverment House for the Charlottetown Conference – September 1864. Alexander Galt is sitting in the front row on the left side wearing an top hat, Library & Archives of Canada C-000733


Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt Portrait, 1890. Courtesy of the Notman Archives, McCord Museum, Montreal


Posted in Galt Blog

Ogilvie Flour Grain Elevator Society – New Article

Check out our sister group’s efforts on preserving an 1925 gem!  The last Ogilvie Flour wooden grain elevator left in the Province of Alberta!


To join, simply download the membership form, send an cheque payable to ‘Ogilve Wooden Grain Elevator Society’ on the mailing address on the form.  You can also donate online through PayPal!





Posted in Galt Blog

Northwest Coal & Navigation Company ‘Big Hill’ Locomotive #6

Original article by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart, who are Galt Historic Railway Park supporters!  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.


The remains of an ancient steam locomotive can be found deep in the mountains, in a mostly unlikely place, near the town of Field BC.  Last used to haul construction materials during the building of a nearby railway tunnel it was dumped here, unceremoniously, over a hundred years ago when that job was completed.  It sits off to the side of a section of abandoned rail line, which that tunnel mentioned bypassed, forgotten and visited by very few.


This locomotive has a rather interesting connection to flat prairies of southern Alberta, strange as that may seem given its current location, which has it surrounded on all sides by precipitous peaks.


This engine once belong to the North Western Coal and Navigation Company, later the Alberta Railway and Coal Company (aka the Galt Lines, after their owners), a firm founded in the 1880s.  This railway ran from Lethbridge, to a connection with the CPR’s east/west mainline, at a point near Medicine Hat.  Constructed in the non-standard gauge of three feet (normal is four feet, eight and half inches), the line was mostly an outlet for coal. Later they would build other lines south to the Montana border, along with some side branches.


Operating as NWC&NC #6, this engine was built in 1885 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia PA, which during the age of steam was the largest firm of its type in the world.  Using the Whyte notation, this locomotive is a 2-6-0, meaning it has two lead wheels, six drivers and no trailing wheels, a type often referred as a “Mogul”.


Narrow gauge lines were not terribly common Canada.  They were less costly to build and engineer but difficulties in exchanging freight between them and connecting standard gauge railways was a BIG headache.


The CPR took over the Galt Lines and their associated coal holdings in the 1890s and. promptly started standard gauging the operation, starting with the Lethbridge/Medicine Hat section.  As a result, this locomotive was soon declared surplus.  It sat for a time before being sold to the MacDonnell and Gzowski Construction company around 1907.  That firm was contracted to the build the famous Spiral Tunnels near Field BC which bypassed the CPR’s problematic “Big Hill” a steep section of track that was both dangerous and an operational bottleneck.


A temporary railway to bring supplies in and to haul spoil out was built at the tunnel sites (there were two) and this locomotive, along with some others that also came from the former NWC&NC, were put to work here.  Once the project was completed in 1909, this locomotive, unwanted, unneeded and unsaleable, was simply abandoned nearby.


It has been stripped of some components but it’s not entirely clear when this happened.  It sits on it side and perhaps it was pushed over to gain access to what ever the salvager’s needed.  Or maybe the locomotive simply derailed while on the spur. It’s not a Big Hill runaway as has been suggested by some.


The cab is gone.  It was likely made of completely of wood and just rotted away over the years. Some wood on the pilot is still intact though, as are the beams that make up the tender frame. All are believed to be oak.


The firebox on the underside of the locomotive is open.  This was where the fuel was burned and affords us a good look at what otherwise is rarely seen. Normally this is all closed up.


The tender shows both the coal bunker and a U shaped water tank that wraps around it.  All the wheels on both the locomotive and tender are gone.


There were two other locomotives that worked on this same construction project, one being the sister engine to the one seen here (NWC&N #7 also built in 1885).  The disposition of them is not known, although this author has heard that one may have been dumped into a lake at the top of the old Big Hill grade.  That’s plausible.


The general public can view NWC&NC #6 by following the “Walk in the Past” trail from the Kicking Horse Campground near Field.  It’s a four kilometre trek round trip, with some elevation gain.  We’ve never seen another person on this trail, suggesting it’s too much work for most.  Nearby one can explore an old run-away track that was associated with the Big Hill operation.  This is bear country and we’ve had a couple close encounters here.  Travel in groups in recommended, or be bear prepared.






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All images and content are copyright Chris Doering & Connie Biggart – “BIGdoer” unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Remains of the tender – photo taken in October 2013 by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart “BIGdoer”

The center space held the coal, while the u-shaped tank (partially cut away) held the water – photo taken in October 2013 by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart “BIGdoer”

This locomotive was built in 1885 and was abandoned here in 1909 when the Spiral Tunnels were completed – photo taken in October 2013 by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart “BIGdoer”

It was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the United States for the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company of Lethbridge, Northwest Territories – photo taken in October 2013 by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart “BIGdoer”

This is the firebox, where the coal was burned – photo taken in October 2013 by Chris Doering & Connie Biggart “BIGdoer”

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Nellie McClung Comes to Purple Springs

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.  Additional information supplied by Chris Doering.

Maybe you notice the hamlet of Purple Springs when you travel between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, maybe you don’t.  Maybe you’ve bought gas or a pop at the store when it was open.

Like many of the towns in southern Alberta, it popped up from the ground in the settlement era, made a splash, and then settled back into dormancy – dominated by the larger towns of Taber or Bow Island.

Situated in a hollow, the town was named for the purple flowers that grew up along the ponds that were fed by runoff, and by the natural springs.  It also became a stop for the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NR) when it was constructed in 1885.  Purple Springs also gained a measure of literary fame when author Nellie McClung came through in a passenger car in 1920.  Nellie had many works of both fiction and nonfiction under her belt by the time she visited.  In two of her novels she had used the character of “Pearlie Watson”, introducing Pearlie in “Sowing Seeds in Danny” (1908), an witty portrayal of an small prairie town.  Her success carried on in 1910, when she published “The Second Chance”.

Nellie’s career became more noted for her activism, as her writings turned to the cause of the rights of women, universal suffrage for the sexes, and rallying for the cause of prohibition.  Her concern for less fortunate women grew out of deep religious beliefs and devotion to her family.  She had seen firsthand the suffering of women and children caused by neglect, overwork, poverty and alcohol abuse.

By the time Nellie visited Purple Springs, she had become nostalgic for Pearlie Watson.  While on a train trip through southern Alberta, Nellie took a look out her coach window and saw that the train had stopped at a town whose name enthralled her: Purple Springs.

The next year saw publication of the third and final installment of the Pearlie Watson trilogy: it was entitled “Purple Springs”.  That same year saw Nellie elected as a Member of the Alberta Legislature, where she carried on her civil rights work.  In 1929, along with fellow prairie activists Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Pariby, and Louise McKinney (“The Famous Five”), Nellie shared a victory in gaining the right for women to be declared as “Persons” in the British Empire.


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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton, Chris Doering, and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


Portrait of Nelly McClung – 1905
National Archives of Canada photo (PA-030212)

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Charles Magrath’s “Sane Scheme of Colonization”

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.  Additional information supplied by Chris Doering.


The following is the beginning of a lengthy speech made by Charles Magrath to the Empire Club of Canada, March 15th, 1928 discussing his and the Galt family’s efforts to develop southern Alberta. (Edited for length).


In taking up this question of colonization, my intention is first to make it clear to you why I think I am justified in talking about such an important subject. I intend to show you that colonists have always been financed, by indirect methods. We must believe if we talk seriously, that newcomers will be an asset to the country. There is no one in this room that wants to see people brought in who will not be an asset to this country, to join us in becoming citizens and to work out a destiny that will be fitted for Canada. And in saying that I believe I am saying a great deal indeed.


Well, …let me say that next month it will be fifty years since I passed through this city on my way to Northwestern Canada to join a survey party. It took us five weeks to reach the neighborhood of the present city of Saskatoon. I have seen buffalo grazing there. In October of that year we had worked westward into what is now known as the Province of Alberta. That was in 1878. From that time on I lived a great many years on the plains of Western Canada. In 1885. I entered the service of a company that was formed a couple of years previously by Sir Alexander Galt, then High Commissioner in London.


We were pioneers in coal mining. Galt coal today is a domestic fuel very extensively used from Winnipeg on the east to Nelson on the west in British Columbia and down to Spokane and other points to the south of the boundary. In the recent trials of Alberta domestic fuels in Ontario, Galt coal was not brought here because the only coals that reached this province were from the lands of the Canadian National Railway. We built in the neighborhood of 400 miles of railway, narrow gauge at first, afterward standardized: Over 100 miles of these roads were in Montana where we sought a market for our coal. We came into possession of over a million acres of land, and it was my special business to look after that land, and endeavor to get rid of it to settlers, and to that end we became pioneers in irrigation development in Western Canada, building 120 miles of main irrigation canals.


Sir Alexander Galt as a young man came to Canada and took hold of some colonization work in the Eastern Townships south of Montreal, and very successfully. His father before him undertook the colonization of the territory from Guelph to Goderich. John Galt was literally dragged, out of this country by his directors, because he undertook to spend their money in giving employment to the settlers in building roads and bridges, but it was discovered afterwards that John Galt was absolutely sound in his methods. Last year I was at Guelph when the city which he founded was celebrating its hundred years, and the tributes were all paid to John Galt. No one ever heard the name mentioned of a director of his company.


Now these Galts, father and son, Sir Alexander and Elliott, were founders of the present city of Lethbridge in Alberta. These men had in them the instincts of the colonizer. Last year the Lethbridge Herald in its Confederation number had a long article on the founder of the city, Sir Alexander Galt, as one of the Fathers of Confederation; and by the way, the writer ran across one of our early settlers who spoke of Sir Alexander Galt: The old gentleman was always interested in us; he seemed in some way to feel that he was responsible for us. Gentlemen, therein is the root and secret of sound colonization methods. The man who has an appreciation of his fellow man and sufficient intelligence to see what his fellow man is trying to do as a pioneer, and a willingness to stand be-hind that man as far as it is practicable to do so, understands colonization. It was under those auspices that I took hold of the land of which I have spoken.


At a later period, the Galts retired from that organization and it passed into other hands. The settlement policy changed and I resigned; otherwise I suppose I would be in that country still. If you will observe, John Galt gave employment to the settlers. He had the financial idea of indirectly assisting them. It was not long ago that I had the opportunity of looking at a letter written at Belleville 90 years ago, and the letter was praying that the Government of the day would spend some more money on navigation canals in order to circulate a little more money among the people.


There you have again the idea of financing. [Sir Francis] Bacon 300 years ago understood this problem. He appreciated that in planting settlers, it was necessary to finance them and said that the commercial mind was not suitable for that, because the man so endowed wanted interest on his money yearly, whereas, the nobility were willing to wait the 14 or 15 years that it took to root these people on the land. That requires only about a third of the time today. In the work we did in Southern Alberta, we were pioneers in irrigation, and gave employment to the settlers, paying them half cash, half land.


There again you get the idea of financing indirectly. We sold the land at $3 an acre, irrigated lands which today are worth $50 an acre. So I think I have made clear what I believe to be absolutely true, whether we recognize the fact or not, that in the planting of people it is essential to take the human point of view in respect of them, and help carry them until they get rooted on the land.


Towards the end of last century and the beginning of this, there seemed a wave of prosperity passing over the whole world. Vast numbers of people came into Western Canada. We had a Minister of Immigration who courageously let the world know that we had free lands; and we gave away millions of acres of some of the finest lands to be found in any country in the world. At that particular period we passed through a mad era of railway construction. I am not saying that offensively at all, but we circulated money in the country, and there again you get the idea of the settlers’ being able to fall back upon some organization that was distributing money and bringing money into the country.


Now we have pioneers; pioneers are not people who have money. A man who has money usually wants to stay in the country where he has been brought up. Most of our western settlers, in my judgment, come into that country so close to insolvency, that it is to the credit of the banks and the mortgage companies that they do as much as they do for the settlers.



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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton, Chris Doering, and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Portrait of Charles Alexander Magrath – Photo from Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Archives

Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company land advertisement from 1905 – Photo from Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Archives

Photo of the James Dodge family, shortly after arriving in Lethbridge in front of the Alberta Railway & Irrigation train station in 1913 – Photo from Galt Museum & Archives #19841022000

Posted in Galt Blog

John Baldwin

Original article by Warner and District Historical Society (1985).  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


When the Galt family received their land subsidy to build the Great Falls & Canada and St. Mary’s River Railway lines, they sought independent companies to sell this land. One was the O.W. Kerr Land Company of Minneapolis, who purchased three townships, mostly in the present day Warner area.  O.W. Kerr appointed two industrious farmers Frank Leffingwell and Charles Egan, to act as their agents to sell the land to prospective American farmers from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.  Special trains were commissioned to bring the colonists west on the Great Northern and into country on the Galt-owned lines.


Among those who assisted Kerr’s colonists was a porter named John Baldwin.  It’s not known if he worked for Kerr directly, or for the Great Northern, or even the Great Falls & Canada Railway.  Baldwin was born in Georgia and was among the many hundreds of black Americans who created a proud tradition as Pullman porters on trains in Canada and the US in the golden age of rail travel.  Baldwin himself was bit by the land boom bug, and purchased a 1/4 section, NE 2-5-16-W4, near Warner.  Baldwin never physically developed this land and rented it out to local farmers, but he always liked to tell the passengers he served about “his ranch in Alberta”, as a promotion for his employers.


Baldwin visited his property often and made many friends in the area.  He died in 1957 and the quarter was sold to the Graham family.  The Warner and district history book “Wagons to Wings” remembered him for “his cheery disposition and he loved to tell stories of his young life in Georgia and of the people and experiences he had while he was a porter on the train.”



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All images and content are copyright Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission



The only known photo of John Baldwin – scanned from the Warner & District History Book (1985) – page 247
















New pioneers at the Lethbridge Train Station from Dayton, Ohio – March 1914 – Galt Museum & Archives Photo 19821029000

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The Great Falls & Canada Railway

Article by Jason Paul Sailer.  Re-edited by Chris Doering.

The worldwide 1887 – 1888 recession struck the Galt family’s Lethbridge based coal company almost as soon as it went into production necessitating new markets immediately if it were to survive. The major customer for the Galt coal was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but having only one major customer meant that colliery was subject to the whims of the CPR in the orders – sometimes lots of coal was ordered, and the next time hardly any. To remain profitable the Galt’s installed modern machinery and expanded mine operations, and the search was on to find some additional major customers. With the recent boom of mining in Montana (copper, silver, gold, etc) Sir Alexander Galt began the planning on building a railway south to Helena, Montana to new markets. However, the economic downturn in the United Kingdom shattered investor confidence forcing Sir Alexander Galt through two years of tenacious negotiations (and the reduction of the railway line to Great Falls) in order to underwrite the new railway. However, it was not until October 2nd, 1889 that the newest of Sir Alexander’s charters was approved by the United States government: that for the Great Falls and Canada Railroad (GF&CR). Capitalized at $2 million, with equipment costs estimated at $4 million, the original Board of Directors was interlocked with that of the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC), through the presence of Sir Alexander Galt, Donald Grant, Alexander Kinsman, Samuel Grant, and William Barr.

Five months later, while equipment was being assembled in Lethbridge to extend the railway 65 miles to the International Boundary, a very similar construction camp was organized at Willard, Montana, two miles west of Great Falls. In March 1890, a plow, a pair of engines and thirty cars, accompanied by 500 men, began construction of the railroad. It progressed at the rate of three to four miles a day, following the water-courses which led generally northwestward, paralleling the deep-rutted “Whoop-Up Trail” most of the way.  Laborers were paid $1.50 per 10 hour work day! The actual distance was 134.37 miles to the border and this required the construction of many timber bridges, as well as two Howe-truss spans across the Teton and Marias Rivers. Construction progress was steady, so that by midsummer 1890, the railroad had reached Conrad and was heading for the Marias River. An railway yards and roundhouse facility would be built in Great Falls, located on the west bank of the Missouri River.

A port of entry was required for crossing the International Boundary so AR&RC engineer Mr. Barclay and NWMP Inspector Moodie chose the site for the location of the train station in June 1890. A 3,800sf International train station would be built over the summer months, and would be situated half in Canada and half in the United States. The construction company that built the station was run by a man by the name of Donald Grant. He brought the building materials up from Fort Benton on bull trains. The station was designed to include U.S. & Canadian customs areas, freight areas, and a dining room – the only evidence of the boundary marked by a painted line on the platform! Exactly 108 days after construction began; the AR&CC and the GF&CR met at the International Boundary and regular traffic began to roll over the 35-pound rail immediately, the first coal train leaving Lethbridge, Northwest Territories the day following, October 2nd 1890. The city of Great Falls reacted in much the same way as the city of Lethbridge had. The newspapers heralded the event and a magnificent dinner was given by Mr. Phillip Gibson at the Hotel Bristol in honour of the GF&CR officials. On October 20th, a special one-week excursion fore was announced, to augment the passenger traffic.For a $10 fare, a passenger could leave Great Falls for Banff; via Lethbridge and Dunmore, a round trip of some 900 miles. Leaving Great Falls in mid-evening, the mixed train arrived at Lethbridge after lunch on the following day. Today, the same distance is covered – albeit by automobile – easily in less than four hours! Almost from its inception excursions were popular on the narrow gauge line. The first was to run almost before the new roadbed had settled on May 25th, 1891, carrying Colonel Searles, editor of the Great Falls Tribune and 59 others northward to Lethbridge. His account of the journey was written from the ample comforts of Roadmaster H. L. Laughlin’s private car suggesting that the official served something stronger than Missouri River water. “The train was under the immediate supervision of that prince of conductors, Harry O’Brien, while cool-headed watchful Joe Carroll occupied the seat of honor and responsibility at the lever and throttle valve. It is not claimed that the Great Falls and Canada narrow gauge is the great “scenic route” to British Columbia. The road does not run through deep cavernous canyons, where the possibility of a land or snow slide under which a train might be crushed to pieces, adds just enough of the spice of danger to the tourist to make the passage through it intensely interesting, nor does it run over the brow of precipices from whose dizzy heights the trembling passenger may be dashed to eternity. Upon every hand broad plains extend as far as the eye can reach, broken only here and there by streams of pure mountain water, or on clear days by the grand old Rockies in the far distance and the Sweet Grass Hills in the near. Not a tree is to be seen between Great Falls and Lethbridge, and indeed, as far as the question of fuel is concerned, none are needed.”

Sitting Bull was not the only fugitive to seek the northward sanctity of that mythical line as the whiskey traders had often fled for safety south across it. That white line beside the track was to provide still another sanctuary. Apparently US law officers chased a fugitive northward who beat them across the line at the depot. Since there was nowhere else to go, the officials decided to hang around and starve him out.  Taunting the lawmen, he had food carried to him over from the US side and ate it sitting on the depot bench on the Canadian side with the lawmen a few feet away, fuming! When a correspondent of the Winnipeg Free Press ate lunch at Coutts in March, 1891, his impressions described anything but the Harvey Girls, as a not nearly occurred. “The table (in the restaurant) bore a strong resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s cupboard and the waiter did not appear to be in any great hurry. The bill of fare consisted of ham and eggs, and when the waiter made his appearance with the first consignment it was plain to be seen that he was sad and lonesome there by himself and had been drowning his grief in Montana Forty-Rod. He brought in one piece of ham and two eggs to satisfy twenty hungry individuals.” Apparently the passengers devoured the only nourishment available, a portion of a barrel of pickles and its brine, since the only other food available in the kitchen was a small blackened piece of ham presided over by a brooding cook and “a boy whose shirt had been used to supply dish cloths when its owner was short taken.” The cook let the ‘howling mob’ board the train without paying but insisted the correspondent pay four bits since he was the only one to dine. Four months later following a change of management, a Great Falls bound excursion train was treated to as royal a repast as the writer’s meal had been frugal.

Prior to 1896, as many as four freight trains a day were working 200 to 300 tons per train southward. At Great Falls, parallel to the standard-gauge tracks of the Great Northern Railway (GN), a massive thousand-foot-long, 26-foot high interchange coal dock had been constructed, so that the self-dumping narrow-gauge cars of the GF&CR could dump their contents into the hoppers of the GN. Lethbridge coal was almost the only source of revenue for the road and little effort was made to attract other commodities.  It is likely that Canadian crews and motive power worked the AR&CC / GF&CR line from Lethbridge to a point about 94 miles south eastward, where United States engines and crews took over, although engines were frequently used interchangeably. This changeover point was Shelby Junction – actually Virden – three miles west of Shelby, Montana, the crossing point where the narrow gauge intersected the newly constructed mainline of the Great Northern Railway. A disused boxcar did duty as a station. The road’s roster of that time shows eight engines lettered GF&CR, six of which were new Baldwin moguls, with two consolidations of unknown ancestry. Probably because of their brand-new condition, the moguls were good steamers, but bailing Lethbridge black diamonds was no easy job on the twisting, uneven road bed and at least one fireman sheepishly admitted that his broken ankle was the result of an unexpected exit from the diminutive cab.

The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression in the United States that began in 1893 – it was marked by the overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads, resulting in a series of bank failures. Compounding market overbuilding and the railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply. The Panic of 1893 was the worst economic depression the United States had ever experienced at the time. This Panic would affect most of the railroads, including the GF&CR to a lesser-extent. The famed American railroad, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad would declare bankruptcy, followed by the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The prolonged effects of the Panic would also cause banks to close, businesses to fail, and numerous farms to shut down. A wave of strikes took place across the United States, most notably coal miner’s strikes that lead to violence in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. The more serious Pullman Strike would virtually shut down all the railroads in the United States west of Detroit, Michigan from the spring to the fall of 1894. The American Railway Union pitted the Pullman Company, several railroads (including Great Northern), and the federal government over massive layoffs at the Pullman company, and the general reduction of wages throughout the railroad system. At its peak 250,000 in 27 states were on strike – and 30 strikers were killed in response to the riots and sabotage that caused up to $80 million in damages. The violence occurred when the federal government sent in the Army to stop strikers from interfering with trains that carried mail. However, as this was occurring the GF&CR was unaffected by the strikes and was for the summer of 1894 the only source of railroad communication open to Great Falls. As a result, the GF&CR put in special freight rates from St. Paul, Minnesota over the lines of SOO, Canadian Pacific, and their own AR&CC to move items to/from Great Falls. Ironically, some of these freight rates were lower than what Great Northern was charging previously to the strike!

In July 1894, surveyors were busy locating a grade for a new branch to the Boston & Montana Smelter and the citizens of Bynum, Montana were clamoring for a 16-mile branch to their town. Plans were being prepared for a new $5,000 station at Great Falls, to be built just west of the Montana Brewing Company’s plant. The tract of land was to have been about nine acres in area, accommodating a yard 2,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. The right-of-way, coming in from Willard, was to have been 50 feet wide by two miles long. All this enthusiasm had been generated by the discovery of anthracite coal in the Crowsnest Pass and vastly increased tonnage on the GF&CR was anticipated. And with good reason: Pennsylvania anthracite was $18.00 per ton in Great Falls, while the Alberta fuel was expected to sell for $10.00. Alas the best planning did not achieve the anticipated result.

On the ” ‘lone prairie”, the wind normally howls at better than 60 miles per hour and under such conditions, the narrow-gauge empties being returned from the south ran the continual risk of being derailed. When the wind blew this hard, train schedules went by the board, as train speeds were reduced from a brisk walk to a careful crawl. As more land went under the plow of the homesteader, top-soil, driven by the raging wind, made operation of the railway a nightmare, with visibility dwindling to a few feet ahead along the winding track. Fires were a constant danger during the dry summers and the laboring locomotives frequently were the cause of large blackened patches along the right-of-way. The Canadian Pacific Railway, further to the north, had adopted the expedient of plowing strips on either side of the track, to “trap” the red-hot cinders.  The GF&CR, being subjected to high winds in all seasons of the year, found it impossible to prevent sparks from igniting the tinder-dry grass, sagebrush and tumbleweeds.  When one vast area of prairie, almost 600 square miles, burned over in 1894, the GF&CR was the target of ill-will and ugly rumors, which it needed not at all, considering the woes that the company already had.  The Sand Coulee, Montana coal mines went into full production in May 1896, their product being offered in Great Falls, delivered to the households, at $2.50 per ton, while the cost of Galt coal was twice as much. The market for the Canadian product evaporated rapidly. The railway’s future was so gloomy that it was not surprising that other alternative forms of traffic began to be sought.

But a bright line was on the horizon – the federal government granted AR&CC (and its predecessor NWC&NC) large tracts of land (in excess of one million acres) in return for building the rail lines (from Dunmore to Lethbridge and Lethbridge to Great Falls). Land sales would offer profit back to the AR&CC, but the AR&CC needed people to buy the land and farm. But on the semi-arid prairie, irrigation would be the key to keep people on the land. Irrigation was proposed back in 1881 by William C. Pearce, a senior federal civil servant in Calgary, after a study of systems in Colorado and Utah. The only people with the extensive knowledge of irrigation at that time were the Mormons, based out of Utah, USA. In negotiations between the company and the Mormons, it was decided that the AR&CC would sell the land to the Mormons for $1 per acre, on the basis that the Mormons would dig an irrigation canal. However two obstacles came up; the first was the church did not want to assume the whole burden of the project, and that custom of granting alternate sections of land prevented efficient irrigation, because they would have to dig the canal through the government, school, and private lands as well as their own. The deal was put on the back burner for a few years, while talks continued. It was then after the federal election of 1896 that Clifford Sifton, the new Liberal minister of the interior, became involved with the negotiations and offered any assistance to speed up the processes. The minister worked with the Galt’s land commissioner, Charles Magrath, and the lobbying efforts of the Lethbridge News, to allow the AR&CC to consolidate its land holdings into large blocks, and assisted with the necessary survey & research work into where the proposed irrigation canals were to be built. Again, the AR&CC re-approached the Mormons and this time was able to work out a suitable agreement. The Mormons would supply all the labor to build 100 kilometers of irrigation canals from the St. Mary’s River, in return for a payment of one-half in cash and one-half in land with the water rights included. As well, the Mormons were to establish two settlements with 250 inhabitants in each (future Stirling & Magrath).  With the deal signed on November 3rd, 1897, the Mormon leader, Charles Orca Card, plowed the first furrow for the irrigation canal ten months later. The GF&CR gained its new form of railway traffic – transporting Mormon settlers north from Great Falls into southern Alberta. The railway would lessen the new settler’s feelings of isolation from Utah, and sped up the colonization of the AR&CC owned land.

In 1897 and ’98, the GF&CR filed applications to become a bonded carrier and there was speculation that the line would be standard gauged. More rumors followed in 1901, probably generated by Elliot Galt’s application to Ottawa, in February, to lease the remaining Canadian and United States holdings to the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was followed by a trip to England, where Galt attempted to convince the shareholders to standard gauge the line. There was the additional possibility, so it was said; that the line might be sold to the Great Northern Railway and James Jerome Hill. The AR&CC / GF&CR threat to sell to Great Northern’s main competition was recognized by J.J. Hill, who was not about to allow the GF&CR to slip through his fingers, as the SOO Line had recently done. Hill therefore quickly moved to incorporate the Montana and Great Northern Railway (M&GN), which would purchase the Great Falls and Canada. On August 1st, 1901, this strategy was successfully accomplished. What may have surprised the officials of the Great Falls and Canada was the purchase price – apparently, Hill paid only $750,000 for his new property, but simultaneously assumed indebtedness of $2 million, most of which was held by a New York City bank. While the Montana and Great Northern was not to assume control of the property until October 30th, 1902, thus giving the GF&CR time to standard gauge its line, it was the natural elements which were to deal the final hand to the narrow gauge. Almost as soon as the agreement of sale was signed, a third rail was laid and business went on as usual until May 1902. After that, the line was closed when heavy rains caused severe flooding and innumerable washouts, several major bridges being swept away by roaring streams. The M&GN rapidly under took the replacement of bridges and culverts, relocating portions of the line to reduce curvature and lower grades, and replaced light iron with heavier rails. On January 1st, 1903 standard gauge service commenced between Lethbridge and Great Falls, Montana. In 1907, the GN officially assumed operation of the rebuilt railroad to Sweetgrass, Montana, just south of the International Boundary from Coutts, Alberta.

While a narrow-gauge railway had at first appeared to be a viable enterprise to the Directors of the AR&CC, it had some negative aspects. At a time when most railways in North America were building to a 4-foot-8 1/2-in standard gauge, Galt and his associates chose to build to the less expensive 3-foot narrow gauge. They saved on the main line costs, but spent much more on expensive freight transfer facilities, necessary wherever the narrow gauge touched the standard gauge. Moreover, the AR&CC/GF&CR had been built primarily for the purpose of hauling coal and little effort had been made to diversify its traffic into general merchandise until it was too late. The final blow was dealt when the Sand Coulee coal mines began to produce. This destroyed the GF&CR’s main source of revenue and, to economize, the railway deferred equipment and right-of-way maintenance, a decision that resulted in rapid deterioration of the plant that rising profits could not forestall. As such, some of the equipment was sold off to raise funds – a good portion of the equipment went to the Kaslo and Slocan Railway on the west side of Kootenay Lake in central British Columbia, while other engines and cars went to various narrow gauge railways in the Pacific Northwest, and to Alaska.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission



“Great Northern Railway Mileposts” – April 2011 – James C. Mattson, Seattle, Washington USA
Atlas of Alberta Railways – University of Alberta –
Dictionary of Canadian Biography “Elliot T. Galt” –
Great Falls Tribune – May 26, 1963
Canadian Rail Magazine – #273 – October 1974
Canadian Rail Magazine – #376 – September 1983
Irrigation in Southern Alberta: 1882 – 1901 – A.A. Den Otter (1975)

View of an wreck of the GF&CR steam locomotive #12 on the Sun River curve, 7 miles north of Great Falls, Montana – June 1891 – Galt Museum & Archives P19760234080

GF&CR steam locomotive #13 (former Alberta Railway & Coal) at Shelby Junction, Montana. From left to right; Andy Niven (fireman) & Tom Nolan (engineer) – 1897. Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1167-11

Alberta Railway & Coal Company steam locomotive #17 in Great Falls, Montana in 1894. From left to right; W. Niven, T, Nolan, R. Gikey, W, McDonald, and R. Hardy – Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1245-1

View of one of the GF&CR sleeper cars – 1890 – Galt Museum & Archives P19891046021-066

Irrigation flume near Stirling, NWT – 1900 – Galt Museum & Archives 19731721000-016

Irrigation canal of the St, Mary’s project – southwest of Lethbridge – 1911. Galt Museum & Archives 19740030053


Posted in Galt Blog

Victorian Prairie Christmas Event ~ 2014

All performances this week Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the Station – 1:00 pm

Cowboy Poetry, Christmas Carols, Storytelling, tours of the station…Light refreshments served

Tickets at the door – $20 per person; cash or cheques made out to Great Canadian Plains Railway Society

Any questions please email us at or phone Ray Oldenburger at 403-756-3313

Posted in Galt Blog

Coutts’ Saskatchewan Twin – Customs & Immigration Facilities at North Portal

Original article by A.R. Lyall & the Estevan Community Access Project Customs.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


The North Portal Customs, designated at that time as a Preventative Station, opened in June 1893, possibly at the time the Canadian Pacific and Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railways connected across the International Boundary (while the railway was not officially opened until September 24th, 1893).  A.C. Paterson was the first Sub-Collector and the port was raised to the status of an Outport of Customs and Warehousing Port on July 1st, 1895, under the survey of the Port of Winnipeg, with Paterson receiving his permanent appointment as Sub-Collector at an annual salary of $800.  For some unknown reason the Outport of North Portal was detached from the Port of Winnipeg, and placed under the Port of Calgary on January 1st, 1896.  One possible reason being that the Province of Manitoba had been formed and the North Portal office was to remain within the North West Territories.  At this time Regina was also an Outport under the jurisdiction of the Port of Calgary but was raised to Port status on July 1st, 1902, taking over the jurisdiction the Outport of North Portal until July 1st, 1904, when North Portal was erected into a Customs Port of Entry and Warehousing Port.  It is interesting to note that the first year’s collections was $58,328, while today it runs in excess of nine million dollars.


The first Customs Office was located in the CPR Depot, but this space was apparently required for other purposes such as a church, dance hall, concert hall and for meetings of all kinds, with the result the CPR provided a separate building on their right-of-way.  This was fortunate for in 1908 the depot was destroyed by fire. Paterson while Collector also acted in the capacity of the first Immigration Officer.  However, he was promoted to District Inspector and transferred to the Port of Calgary in 1912 and a few years later transferred to the same position at the Port of Regina where he remained until his retirement in 1926.  Two other Collectors, J.S. Hornibrook and W.R. Davis remained at the Port for a couple of years with C.P. Wright in that position until retirement in 1946.  A.R. Lyall then assumed the Collectorship until retirement in 1971, followed by H.A. Gardiner, 1971-74, Earl Clarkson, 1974- 76 and the position now known as Area Manager taken over by D.W. Marshall.


During the early years, for people to have to report to Customs was considered an infringement upon their rights.  Many were reluctant to do so, and in some respects, owing to the location of the office, they cannot be blamed.  However, this was made easier with the construction of Highways 52 and 39 joining in the same manner as the railways, with facilities being provided on both sides of the junction.  The first Canadian office, intended for handling highway traffic only, consisted of one room for office space, a coal bin and very primitive facilities.  To heat this building it required two space heaters during the severe winter weather.  A few years later, improvements being made to Highway 39 resulted in the road surface being higher than the office with the result it was difficult to keep rain and melting snow from entering the building.  This was overcome by raising the office and provided a full-sized basement with a pipeless furnace installed.  The primitive facilities were then moved to the basement, which had to be enlarged upon, with the appointment of female officers to the staff.  The small coal bin was then remade and converted into office space for the Collector and all other duties formerly performed in the railway office being done in the highway office.  This proved too congested and with the increase in truck traffic a separate warehouse was constructed providing additional office space as well as two bays for the checking of freight.  Later this building, being cold and inadequate, was replaced by the present warehouse.  However, with the construction of the present quarters in 1954 working conditions were very much improved.


Undoubtedly with the connecting of the railways the main traffic would be trainloads of settlers and their effects destined to many points in Western Canada.  However, it later developed into a main freight and passenger train point.  In the earlier years all less carloads of freight was checked and transferred to cars for various destinations in bond for Customs clearance.  Over the weekend this could entail, at times, fifteen carloads – not a very pleasant job working inside a steel box car during the winter months, then returning to the office with nearly frozen fingers to do all the paper work in connection with the freight!  Passenger traffic also developed very rapidly, and at one time a train known as the Spokane Flyer entered daily en-route to Spokane.  How long this operated in not known but was replaced by a train known as the Mountaineer which operated between Chicago and Vancouver.  As well, numerous special trains would enter or depart from Canada at this port, travelling on a 20 minute block, which didn’t allow much time for Customs and Immigration examination.  Each train would carry approximately 200 passengers, about half of what can be put aboard a jumbo jet at the present time.  The CPR also operated a local passenger train making a return trip between Moose Jaw and North Portal 6 days a week.  The Mountaineer arrived at 5:20 a.m. and all work in connection with checking express and passengers baggage was done en route to Weyburn with the officers returning on the local in the afternoon.  Sometimes this could not be accomplished and it was necessary to travel to Moose Jaw to complete the examination.  Due to the early arrival of the train it was often necessary to awaken the passengers to examine their baggage.  At that hour of the morning some of the passengers were very scantily dressed.  I recall of one occasion of an officer going to examine the baggage of a passenger in an upper berth who turned out to be a beautiful girl dressed in her birthday suit. This caused the officer to stare for a few moments, to which she asked if he wanted to examine her or her baggage!


No mention has been made as to seizures but from an old register the first recorded seizure was made on July 13th, 1904, by A.C. Paterson and consisted of horses, wagon, harness, saddles and trunks at an estimated value of $550 which was released by payment of double duty on one horse in the amount of $46.  While all types of goods and materials are mentioned in the register, the most interesting are the seizures made during the rum running days, covering automobiles of types no longer made, from all over the Northern States.  So far no mention has been made as to how and when the service became known as Customs and Excise.  This was during the First World War, when the Special War Revenue Act was passed.  Under this act, Excise Tax was collected on certain imported goods and like goods made in Canada, as well as the Income Tax.  I understand this was to be a temporary measure but instead became two acts now known as the Excise Tax Act and the Income Tax Act.




Full time Immigration Officers were not stationed at North Portal until 1908.  Up until that time the Customs Inspectors were handling the Immigration examination.  In 1908 the Immigration operated under the Department of Interior and was administered by 3 customs officers, Patterson, Potvin and McIntyre.  Later with the port being serviced by the Soo Line and CPR having 3 trains a day, it was handled by 2 Immigration officers.


The work was arduous and the hours long.  The officers met the trains at the boundary line and in order not to detain them the officers accompanied the trains to Moose Jaw conducting the examination on the way.  Should an undesirable person be encountered it was necessary to accompany them to the inland point and then return them by the first available train.  It was decided some other alternatives would have to be found and it was decided to send the Immigration officers down into the USA some 50 miles or so and board the train conducting the inspection on the way to the border.  Undesirables would be taken from the train at Portal, North Dakota and return to their homes in the USA.  The train from St. Paul arrived at Portal at 3:30 a.m.  In the fall of 1908 the traffic over the Soo Line to Canada was very heavy and the CPR was requested to provide adequate accommodation for examining passengers in their new station.


The influx of settlers continued through-out 1909 and 1910.  A normal day in March 1910 revealed 288 settlers for the Canadian West.  At 3 regular passenger trains a day it is obvious that western Canada was acquiring immigrants at a tremendous rate.  Between 1908 and 1919, the administration of Immigration was handled by a commissioner in Ottawa.  It then came under the Department of Immigration and Colonization, and the Port of North Portal was administered through a Commissioner of Immigration, Western Division, Winnipeg, Manitoba.  In August of 1917 it was noted in the records that North Portal was the most important Port in Saskatchewan and in so far as bringing in of stock and effects is concerned, the most important point in the west.  Inspector in Charge at that time was W.H. Dorsey with Inspectors M.A. Kemp and H. Watson.


In 1910 a new Immigration building was completed in North Portal for the Immigration officers and detention quarters for undesirables.  This building was rented from the CPR at $1 per year.  This building was the “Immigration Hall”.  The staff of the Immigration department in February of 1928 was comprised of W.H. Dorsey, Inspector in charge, Aylward, and Davis.  Mr. Dorsey was succeeded by Stan Gunn as Inspector in Charge and Gunn, by W.I. Dorsey.  It is interesting to note that March 31st, 1925 the furniture of Immigration Hall sold for the following prices: 2 cots – $1.00, 4 single blankets – $5.00, 1 kitchen range – $12.00, 3 beds with springs – $2.00, 3 lamps – $0.25, 1 table – $0.80


Present Day


North Portal is still used as an port of entry – it is the second largest port of entry between Canada & the United States in the geographical center of North America!  It is open 24 hours an day and has an major inspection center for commercial truck and rail traffic.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.



Customs staff at North Portal, Saskatchewan, 1912, Photo courtesy of











Photograph of a crowd gathered in a baseball field to watch baseball game at North Portal, Saskatchewan on June 6th, 1914 . Photo courtesy of Peels Prairie Provinces – University of Alberta Libraries











North Portal Railway Station – No Date – Courtesy of the RM of Coalfields #4.











Canadian Customs and Immigration Office – 1950 – Photo courtesy of the RM of Coalfields #4.











Posted in Galt Blog

Early Operation of the Customs office in the Coutts Railway Station

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-edited & posted to web blog by Chris Doering and Jason Paul Sailer.


David Mittelstadt, our archival researcher has found a book entitled “The Collectors: A History of Canadian Customs and Excise” (Dave McIntosh, pub: NC Press/Revenue Canada, Customs & Excise, Toronto, 1984) which includes some timely passages about how the Customs & Immigration office worked in the 1890 International Train Station. The following is from that book, and nicely amends the information on Coutts history from a previous web blog post on the Coutts / Sweetgrass station.


In 1890, when the railway arrived at Coutts, on the border 60 miles south of Lethbridge, Fort MacLeod was still the only major customs port on the western prairies.  Seven miles east of the old Whoop-Up Trail, Coutts was made an out-port that year.  The town is named after Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, philanthropist, friend of Charles Dickens and substantial stockholder in the Alberta Railway and Coal Company which laid the rail to carry coal from the Galt Mines at Lethbridge to Great Falls, Montana.  The railway station at Coutts straddled the boundary and housed both Canada and US Customs and Immigration.


The station itself caused one of the first customs problems at Coutts.  The customs officer in charge, Edwin Allen, reported in October 1890 that ninety-six feet of the station was on the Canadian side and twenty-five feet on the American, and that the builder was seeking a refund of $62.93 duty paid to Canada on $478.90 worth of American materials used for construction on the American side.  Canada kept the duty and the railway reimbursed the builder.


The next month, Allen was writing ET. Galt, manager of the company, to complain that railway employees were smuggling liquor into Canada and selling it in Lethbridge.  He had found ten gallons of whisky in the tool box of engine No.17 (engineer, William O’Neil) and was compelled to recommend a $400 fine against the company.  However he would reduce the fine to $100 if Galt would agree to crack down on smuggling by his employees.  The company accepted and the fine came out of O’Neil ‘s pay.


Much of Allen’s work, and that of his successors, was taken up trying to keep track of enormous American cattle herds grazing in Canada.  Allen reported January 2nd 1891, that he had ridden 25 miles west on a Sunday to visit a “camp of cowboys” attending a US herd on what he believed was the Canadian side of the border.  He judged the camp itself to be one mile south of the boundary, though he couldn’t say for certain because he couldn’t locate any mounds, a reference to the earthen mounds which were supposed to mark the frontier.  Another camp 65 miles farther west was rounding up 20,000 cattle, at least half of which were in Canada.  And east of Coutts, the St Louis Cattle Company had 10,000 head, all in Canada north of the Sweetgrass Hills.


On February 24, 1891, Allen seized 30 gallons of liquor on car No. 288 of the Alberta Railway and Coal Company.  On April 18 he found 4 bottles of liquor in the water tank in the caboose of Train No. 6.  In August, he exchanged posts with WJ Cooper of Killarney,Manitoba, because there was no school for his children in Coutts.


Henry Tennant took over as customs collector in 1893.  He was former Conservative MP for West Lynne, Manitoba, and was also the postmaster, keeping the mail in an apple box beside his customs desk.  The Americans in adjoining Sweetgrass, Montana, Coutts’ U.S. counterpart, also picked up their mail from Tennant.  Tennant had even more trouble than Allen with living conditions.  In December, 1895, he reported that the wind blew through and under his rented house.  He blamed the draughty house for his wife’s illness and sent her to Winnipeg for treatment.  He sent the rest of his family to Lethbridge to live.


On April 28, 1896, Tennant reported to George H. Young inspector of ports at Winnipeg that he had ridden to the south fork of the Milk River to collect duty and on cattle and horses belonging to the Mormons James Cunningham and William McIntyre, who had bought one and a third townships on the north side of the Milk for ranching.  The 2 Americans had 3,809 head of cattle and 42 horses.  He had allowed them 32 head duty-free as settlers and collected $6,319.70, accepting a Cheque drawn on the Union Bank, Lethbridge, which he had immediately sent to the collector at Calgary.


On August 6, Tennant reported the arrival of another party of “refugee Canadian Indians” under an escort of one troop of the 10th U.S. Cavalry.  There were several cases of measles among the Indians and he had telegraphed for a doctor.  “This makes the fifth party of Indian refugees, 526 all told, brought home by U.S. Troops”, Tennant wrote.


Later that month Tennant said 100,000 head of US. cattle were roaming in Canada: “The whole country seemed to be alive with cattle.”  The NWMP were driving them back across the border but they had difficulty getting enough horses, and Canadian settlers’ cattle had to be cut out of the herd.  The police were taking a man from each detachment along the border as range riders.   On April 27 1897, Tennant said a line rider named Thompson stationed at Writing-On-Stone had just resigned: “He got the winter through very easy and now the actual work begins as he leaves.”


An appointment to Coutts could present its incumbent with the drawbacks of the frontier well into this century: On November 4, 1921, WB. Rose, inspector-in-charge at Coutts wrote to his superior in Winnipeg: “I presume nothing has been done yet in the way of having a lavatory installed. I built a temporary one myself, which blows over every time we have a windstorm, which is often in this part of the country.  There was no lavatory of any kind on the premises when I came here.  Will you please give me authority to purchase a Sanitary Chemical Closet, at a cost of about $12, which may be connected to the chimney flue leading from the furnace.”  The request was granted.


Coutts and Sweetgrass, like so many other border communities, have been close to each other by inclination as well as geography.  The first private dwelling in Coutts was occupied by a US customs officer.  The water tank for both communities was in Sweetgrass.  The first school in Sweetgrass had Alberta pupils, and the hospital, Alberta patients.  Once when a US president died, the Stars and Stripes was flown at half-mast at Canadian Customs because the US. Customs house had no flag pole.  There have been or still are an international service club, international oilfield male chorus, international study club, international Campfire Girls, and international drum and bugle corps.  Oil refineries were built in Coutts in the early 1920s but vanished in the depression of the 1930s.  Families moved – and their houses moved with them.  But Coutts became an important port of entry when the Alaska Highway was built in 1942 and the modern highway is part of the Alaska system.  A new Canadian customs house was opened in 1952, and remained in operation until being replaced by a $40 million dollar combined American / Canadian border crossing in 2004.  This border crossing is the third largest border crossings in North America (with 1.3 million travelers and 413,000 shipments passing through each year).  The border crossing facility includes a three-story main building and six ancillary buildings that are designed to the highest environmental standards.



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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission



Warning Sign at the International Border – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1915. Glenbow Museum & Archives photo NA-1293-2












Customs officers examining American luggage on the Train Station platform – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1918. Glenbow Museum & Archives photo NA-4611-61












Train Station & Customs staff – Coutts / Sweetgrass – 1890s to 1900s. Galt Historic Railway Park photo












View of International Train Station from Canadian side – 1912 – Galt Historic Railway Park photo










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