A brief history of the Galt Companies

Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, a father of Confederation and Canada’s High Commissioner to Great Britain, wished to have a hand in developing the Canadian West. His chance came when his son Elliott, an Assistant Indian Commissioner, visited Nicholas Sheran’s coal mine at the “coal banks” on the Belly River (now Oldman River) in the fall of 1879 (near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta). Galt was impressed with the abundance of the coal and mentioned it to his father.  He was instructed by Sir Alexander to return within a year to get samples of the coal for analysis. The test results proved that the coal was very high in carbon, used in steam generation and for making coke (used in steel production).  Another market was railway steam locomotives, something Sir Alexander knew would be eventually coming to the Canadian West.  He was well aware of the Federal government’s involvement with the CPR on the transcontinental railway, and its approximant route would be within the area of these coal sources.

Sir Alexander began canvassing British & American investors based in London, England to contribute to his new venture. Galt was soon able to raise 50,000 pounds sterling (approx. $12.9 million Canadian in 2023) to form the North Western Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) in 1882. One of the first tasks of the company was to hire a mining engineer, Nicholas Bryant, to survey possible coal mine sites. Of the four sites recommended the two at the “coal banks” opposite Sheran’s mine were chosen for development.

North Western Coal and Navigation Company

The next step was lumber for the mine supports, buildings, and the construction of a steamboat and barges for delivering coal to the CPR connection at Medicine Hat. Negotiations with the Federal government allowed a 50-square-mile timber lease in the Porcupine Hills to be obtained, where a portable sawmill was erected. Lumber was then transported to Fort Macleod by bull trains and then floated down the Belly River to Coal Banks. A contract was hammered out with the CPR to supply 20,000 tons of coal per year (at $5 per ton), and in October 1882 shovels and picks attacked a seam of coal in the side of a coulee on the east side of the Belly river.

The steamboat Baroness (named after the investor Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts) was built along with several barges in 1883. Two other vessels, Alberta and Minnow, were added to the small fleet in 1884. The plan to ship coal to Medicine Hat by river proved to be impractical, due to the short time of navigable high water, and shoals/sandbanks proved hazardous. A total of only 3,200 tons of coal were delivered to Medicine Hat in two seasons. By the fall of 1884, the three ships and the barges were docked at Medicine Hat with their futures in doubt. The NWC&NC went to plan “b” which was the construction of a narrow gauge railway line, which was approved by Federal charter. The line would run from Coal Banks 109.5 miles east to the CPR connection by Medicine Hat, with a future western extension to Fort Macleod. Construction began in the spring of 1885 and was completed in mid-October 1885, just a few weeks before the “Last Spike” of the CPR at Craigellachie, British Columbia. With the narrow gauge in place, the CPR was now at ease with the Galt’s being able to meet the contractual obligations. As well, the Galt’s received two subsidies to acquire a land grant of 700,800 acres in alternate townships (not sections as with other railways), without the stipulation that it had to be “fairly fit for settlement.” The company was also given the option to purchase 10,000 acres of coal land in the Lethbridge area at $10 per acre.

Alberta Railway and Coal Company

On the same day that the NWC&NC was empowered to build its railway, the Galts obtained a charter for the Alberta Railway and Coal Company (AR&CC) that allowed it to assume the obligations of the NWC&NC should the latter fail to fulfill them. In 1889 the AR&CC was incorporated to build a narrow-gauge railway from Coal Banks (now named Lethbridge) to the International Border, a distance of 64.62 miles. For this, the company received a land grant of 413,568 acres which meant that the Galts had acquired a total of 1.1 million acres of land.

To expand their coal markets beyond the CPR and local residents, the Galts went south to Montana to promote Canadian coal. Soon contracts were arranged with several copper & steel smelters, and the American railway, the Great Northern, which was CPR’s competition! A railway charter was applied for in Montana, for the Great Falls & Canada Railway (GF&CR), which would eventually run from the International Border 134 miles south to Great Falls. Construction of the narrow gauge line began in 1899 and the northbound and southbound construction teams would meet at Coutts/Sweetgrass on the International Border in the summer of 1890. At this point, an “International Train Station” would be built, half in Canada and half in the United States. Bull Train teams from Fort Benton brought up supplies to help build the Train Station and the adjacent NWMP barracks. The Train Station would house customs, baggage rooms, a combined dining/waiting room (where the International Border ran through), train offices, the local post office, and jail cells on the American side – due to Sweetgrass not having a jail!

Leased to the CPR in 1893, the original line from Dunmore to Lethbridge was purchased by CPR in 1897. This section of track would become part of the “Crowsnest Branch” that would eventually extend west to the Crowsnest Pass and into southeastern British Columbia to the vast lumber/mineral deposits.

Sir Alexander Galt would pass away in September 1893 in Montreal, Quebec.

Settlement and Irrigation

With the railway line running to Great Falls, the Galt’s soon realized that irrigation would be the key to developing the land they had received from the government. People who were irrigation experts were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the Mormons, who had developed an irrigation system in the arid regions around Salt Lake City in Utah. Discussions began between the company and the church, and a delegation came north in 1886 led by Charles Card to investigate further. He returned a year later to set up a settlement on Lees Creek (at present-day Cardston).

Ongoing negotiations resulted in a contract in 1891 where the company would lease 700,000 acres to the Mormons, help in transporting them north, and the new settlers would help build the irrigation canal system. The contract was then put on the back burner when the Baring economic recession occurred and capital had to be redirected to the other parts of the Company. Nevertheless, an irrigation company was set up in 1893 (the Alberta Irrigation Company), and the contract with the Mormons was revived in 1896. With an upturn in the economy and a new Federal government in Ottawa, led by the Liberal party, which promoted a new policy of immigration, things were starting to look up. An agreement with the Federal government on consolidating land along the St. Mary’s River to allow for irrigation was approved, which allowed the Mormons to move ahead with their part of the deal. The deal called for the payment of one-half in cash and one-half in land, with water rights included. The main canal would be completed in August 1900. The Galt’s incorporated the St. Mary’s River Railway Company in the same year to provide access to the irrigation lands and serve the Mormon settlers. It reached Cardston in 1903, with a future extension southwest towards Kimball.

In 1901, the GF&CR was sold to the Montana Great Northern Railway, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. The deal included upgrading the track from narrow gauge to standard gauge from the International Border to Great Falls. The track was also upgraded from the border north to Lethbridge, though a third rail was installed between Lethbridge and Stirling to access the St. Mary’s River track.

Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company

In June 1904 the Galt companies were reorganized into the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company (AR&IC). In 1905, a new Union Station would be built in Lethbridge to house the CPR and AR&IC offices. In September 1908 Elliott Galt and his brother John donated what is now Galt Gardens to the City of Lethbridge. Wishing to ensure that the park remained a park and not have buildings constructed, they retained ownership of the very centre of the park. The City would not acquire that portion until 1926. In the summer of 1909, the remaining narrow gauge track was upgraded to standard gauge. The narrow gauge rolling stock was sold off and new standard gauge locomotives and cars were purchased.  In January 1912, negotiations began with CPR on a possible merger, due to health issues with Elliot Galt. By June 1912, the AR&IC would be acquired by CPR under a 999-year lease, including all the rolling stock, land grants, irrigation canals, coal deposits, and the International Train Station at Coutts/Sweetgrass.