Bow City – the Metropolis of Southern Alberta

Save for the odd foundation or slag heap amidst the short native grasses, as you head west on Hwy. 539 past the Bow City Bridge, little evidence remains to be seen of the village that many predicted would give Calgary a run for the title of biggest city on the Bow. However, in the years leading up to the First World War, it was widely believed that coal would fuel the growth of Bow City – the metropolis of southern Alberta.

While squatters and cattlemen were wandering these plains as early as the 1890s, and the Blackfoot for centuries prior to that, it wasn’t until 1907 that permanent settlement of the barren plains on the south bank of the Bow River began in earnest. While agriculture proved a tough-go in these parts (and still does), abundant outcroppings of coal along the banks of the Bow proved a godsend for the residents inhabiting the vast treeless plains of southeastern Alberta. Almost immediately, the first settlers began to exploit the rich seams, selling coal to customers from a wide area for up to $1/ tonne.

Word of the abundant and largely unexploited seam along the Bow River soon spread.  The first big money attempt to exploit the Big Bow’s sub-bituminous bonanza was made by a Lethbridge-based group calling themselves the Bow River Collieries, Ltd.

The Bow River syndicate was headed by out-going Lethbridge mayor, Dr. W.S. Galbraith, who would also later become a partner in the Bow City Trading Post with his sister, Nellie, and brother-in-law, Daniel Scroggie. The list of partners in the Bow River group read like a “who’s who” of Lethbridge of the time, including R.F. Reeve, manager of the Bank of Montreal, Justice W.C. Simmons. and B.C. Moore, a funeral director and embalmer, and brother of Bow City homesteader, William H. Moore.

Organized in late December 1907 the group acquired mineral rights to over 6,000 acres along the south bank of the Bow River, and boasted of “a five foot seam of coal of excellent quality… a thick seam of iron ore which showed 57 per cent analysis…[and] a splendid sample of terra cotta and fire clay.”

Bow River Collieries, Ltd. also applied to the Alberta Legislature for a charter for a railroad running from a point on the C.P.R. main line near Cassils siding, south through the coal property to Taber, and onward to Coutts on the international border. The Charter was granted a year later, with very little else occurring with the property until the summer of 1909, when the Bow River syndicate was bought out by another group of investors called the Bow City Collieries Ltd.

Incorporated under Dominion Charter in 1908, Bow City Collieries Ltd. listed its head office in Ottawa, its founding officers and directors hailing from Pembroke, ON. and Montreal. Among their ranks was Charles R. Westgate ESQ, who with his son, Gordon, would play an instrumental role in maintaining the coal mining operations at Bow City for years to come.

In July 1909, Bow City Collieires representative Charles R. Henderson, who later served as the managing director of the Prairie Coal Company Ltd., entered an agreement with the Lethrbidge syndicate for the sale of the surface rights to 960 acres and the coal mining rights in 5,306 acres for $159,180. Bow City Collieries also surveyed a townsite for Bow City along the south bank of the Bow River, touting it as “A City With Many Advantages”.

“Bow City, having extensive frontage on Bow River, is assured of natural drainage, and since Bow River is pure glacial water, the town will have at it command an abundance of the purest water for domestic purposes and fire protection.

This new town is destined to be one of the leading agricultural and coal mining centres on the western prairies, since Bow City is the logical shipping point for grain from a vast area of irrigated farm lands. The town, being the headquarters of the Bow Centre Collieries, Limited, and Bow River Collieries Railway Company, must provide homes for 1,000 to 1,500 employees who will find daily employment in the coal mines and other departments of this company.”

With the survey of the townsite, the name “Bow City” would enter the common parlance for the region, and would create decades of confusion after attempts to change the name of the local post office to Bow City from “Eyremore” – after settlers Jack (W.T.P.) Eyres and his wife Francis (nee. Moore) – were unsuccessful.

A mine was opened in 1909, with a shaft driven into the south bank of the river. In 1910 a group called the Western Pacific Development Company, Ltd. in Vancouver undertook the task of selling lots for $50 a pop, seemingly with limited success.

It was around this time that talk of another rail link to Bow City began to surface. With work on the Bow River Collieries yet to commence, the Lethbridge Herald surmised in September 1910 that the reason must be because the C.P.R. was planning to build a line from the city, “north-easterly towards Cassils or Brooks” to Saskatoon or “another point in northern Saskatchewan.”

On the good authority of Lethbridge civil engineer R.E. MacArthur, the Herald reported that owing to vast amounts of coal in the territory, and with a vast area being opened by Southern Alberta Land Co. Ltd without any roads, there was “[p]robability of it being built in the near future.”

“…Additional weight is given to Mr. MacArthur’s opinion of the C.P.R.’s intention by the fact that the people behind the Bow River Collieries, about eighty miles north of here, were planning to build a line, but stopped suddenly, presumably upon some authoritative information as to the C.P.R.’s plans …”

Early in February 1911, C.R. Henderson wrote a letter to associates in Brooks while on a visit to Ottawa, also claiming some authoritative information as to the C.P.R.’s plans:

“Possibly you may be interested to know that the C.P.R. have filed plans to build from Brooks southwest, in a straight line, crossing the southwest corner of 17-17 and straight on to within 1 ½ miles of the south line of 16-18 straight west to the Carmangay line. Only one crook or bend is in the line of 6 miles. This will help Brooks, also Bow City. I have been up and seen the plans myself. It is expected they will build early in the spring.”

With heady hopes of a rail link abound, a townsite did began to grow up around the new mine. This abundance of potential attracted a group of Regina-based investors calling themselves the Prairie Coal Company Ltd., who would purchase the Bow City Collieries Ltd. with promises to build a “The Pittsburg (sic) of Canada”.

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