Downtown Lethbridge has a rich and storied history.
With a diverse past of railways, coal mining, industry, commerce and residences – the area west of 5 Street South, between 3 Avenue South and Park Place Shopping Centre, may stand out more than others.
In recognition of this assorted and unique collection of pastimes, the City of Lethbridge's Heart of Our City Committee, Historic Places Advisory Committee and the Lethbridge Historical Society have recently partnered to fund and produce a new historical interpretive sign.
It is located on the north side of 2 Avenue South, just east of 3 Street, and its design has several informational panels dedicated to "Black Diamonds, Blue Collars and Red Lights" to showcase the various enterprises that once frequented the area. Subsections are titled Coal Mines and Railways, Early Industry, Wet Your Whistle, Civically Speaking, Where Prostitutes and Communists Meet? and Recent Developments.
As Scotiabank was re-developing the lot in 2015, their development application approval included creation of a historic display. It was initially planned as a standalone installation but was later incorporated into the brick retaining wall and Tyndall Stone base.
"This project was a great collaboration with a common goal of properly documenting and showcasing several important early pieces of Downtown Lethbridge history," says Ross Kilgour, Senior Community Planner. "This specific focus area really was an industrial catalyst and hub of the city for many decades."
"With the redevelopment of the area, we did not want the history of the area to be lost," says Belinda Crowson, City Councillor and president of the Lethbridge Historical Society. "Lethbridge's beginnings as a city were based around the coal industry. The earliest mines were small ones in the river valley, with tunnels dug directly into the sides of the coulees. From 1888 to 1897, the first large mine, Galt No. 1, operated just north of this site before being replaced with larger mines."
As explained on the interpretive sign, coal needed to be transported. Railways were thus expanded, which helped quickly transform the small settlement of Lethbridge and led to rapid expansion of the community. The railyards, which separated north and south Lethbridge, grew over the years, eventually reaching a width of 20 tracks. The CPR marshalling yards were relocated to Kipp in the 1980s.
The next segment is dedicated to Early Industry, specifically Lethbridge Iron Works, Sick's Brewery and Bell's Welding. In 1901, Fritz Sick started what would become the Sick's Brewery at the far west end of 2 Avenue South. The site was close to water and the railway, so supplies and products could be easily transported. By 1928, the company was the largest brewing company in western Canada and the second largest in Canada. The Sick family sold the brewery to Molson in 1958 and Molson ran the brewery until 1990. The brewery was demolished in 1991, though Brewery Gardens remains to share the story.
"The coal miners and labourers of course needed places to eat and relax, while visitors required a place to stay," says Crowson. "So various hotels and restaurants – such as the Queens, Windsor, Arlington, Castle, Cosmopolitan and Cecil – operated in this area providing reasonably priced rooms, great food and a place to share a drink after a long workday."
Some of the earliest municipal buildings were in this area of Downtown Lethbridge. The best known was Fire Hall No. 1, originally called the Municipal Building. The original building was constructed in 1891 to serve as council chambers, administrative offices, fire hall and police station for the new Town of Lethbridge.
In 1908, a new building was erected on the same site, providing space for the Mayor's office, City Council chambers, City engineer and waterworks offices, Police headquarters and Fire department facilities. In 1917, City Administration and Lethbridge Police services moved out of the building and the fire department took over the building entirely, remaining there until 1975.
The interpretive sign's final primary panel is titled 'Where Prostitutes and Communists Meet?' Around 1920, Lethbridge's red light district, also known as the Segregated Area, moved to this area around 3 Avenue and 3 Street South, where it remained until the 1940s.
"Religious, temperance and other groups worked to close the brothels. However, while prostitution was illegal, convictions were difficult to obtain and the unofficial tolerance of some members of the community allowed the brothels to operate in relative security," says Crowson. "The provincial government ordered the City of Lethbridge to close down the red light district in the 1940s or face having the city police replaced by the RCMP. The district closed around 1944."
Red Square was the designation given in the 1930s to an empty lot at the northwest corner of 2 Avenue and 4 Street South. For this was the meeting place of the unemployed and labour groups in Lethbridge, who held rallies and protests at the site. This area of Lethbridge also overlapped with Lethbridge's Chinatown.
"This area has changed dramatically since the 1970s and today is becoming home to commercial spaces, banks and law offices," says Crowson. "New stories are now being written for this area of Lethbridge."