Saturday…oh, all right, Tuesday…Special from the Vaults: Introduction to Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw

My 2007 book Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw, published by Red Deer Press, is just what it says: a collection of 10 walking tours (eight in Regina, two in Moose Jaw) that take you past a number of homes and commercial buildings of historical or architectural interest, with a brief description of each.

It wouldn’t have been possible if not for the work of Heritage Regina, which created and researched the Regina walking tours long before I came on the scene. I adapted their tours and added additional information from various sources. I also walked all of the tours and took a photo of every single building, although not all made it into the book. During the long, cold walks I regretted the fact that the timing of the book was such I had to do the photography in winter, but on the other hand, that meant you could actually see some buildings that in summer are screened by leaves.

The introductions to each section were brief histories of Regina and Moose Jaw. And that’s what I’ve posted below.

Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw won a City of Regina Municipal Heritage Award.


Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw

By Edward Willett

A Brief History of Regina

At first glance—maybe even at second or third glance—there’s no reason for the city of Regina to be where it is. Before the construction crews working on the Canadian Pacific Railway main line reached Wascana Creek on August 23, 1882, there was no significant settlement here at all.

However, a few kilometres to the northwest, the banks of Wascana Creek are high and wooded (unlike here), and the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants used that terrain to construct “buffalo pounds,” corrals into which buffalo were driven, and then killed. (Sometimes buffalo were driven over the steep bank of the creek to be crippled or killed.) By the second half of the nineteenth century the Métis were also slaughtering a lot of buffalo in the area where Regina would take shape. As a result, the creek was littered with buffalo bones, which gave it its name: Wascana, a corruption of the Cree word for bones, oskana.

A cart trail from the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Qu’Appelle crossed Wascana Creek 19 or 20 kilometres downstream from Regina’s future location. This was known as the “Old Crossing.” When the railroad surveyors first passed through, they chose a spot about halfway between the present site of the city and the Old Crossing for the railway to cross the creek. Land speculators quickly descended on the site, however. To outfox them, the planned crossing was secretly moved farther south, to a treeless area where the Wascana ran between low banks. When a CPR survey crew reached the spot (near where the Regina Golf Club now stands) on May 18, 1882, there were only three settlers camped there.

Yet, by the time railroad itself reached the location in August, Regina had become a tent town. Not only that, it had already been settled on as the new capital of the Northwest Territories, replacing Battleford, which was far north of the railway. Edgar Dewdney, lieutenant governor of the Northwest Territories, had made the recommendation. As early as May 10, he wrote, “From what I can gather the crossing of Pile of Bones Creek appears to me to be the most favourable point and the country around it is magnificent.” He made inspection trips along the railway route to choose a final site for the new territorial capital, and settled once and for all on the Pile of Bones crossing. Acting on his recommendation, the federal government also named Regina the headquarters of the North West Mounted Police. (The name itself, announced upon the arrival of the first train, was chosen to honour Queen Victoria, and was suggested by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the governor general, the Marquis of Lorne.)

People second-guessed Dewdney’s choice at the time, and have second-guessed it every since. Regina’s townsite lacked water, was not well-drained, lacked hills to shelter it from prairie gales and blizzards, and offered no native timber for construction, fuel—or even shade. Dewdney himself didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement—he said it “was as good a point as any.” Its one important feature was that it had the railway (which bypassed Fort Qu’Appelle, a far more attractive location, offering water, wood and shelter, thanks to the valley it occupies). And, of course, it was surrounded by that “magnificent” country, specifically prime wheat-growing land.

It’s also true that a parcel of land just north of where the railway crosses Wascana Creek was owned by a syndicate what included Dewdney, two members of parliament, and various other prominent citizens. Dewdney denied his property interests influenced his choice, but it may have been an effort to thwart any possible gain on the part of him and his syndicate partners that drove the CPR to set up its station a bit over three kilometres to the east of the Dewdney-connected parcel.

Trouble was, the chosen station location was also some distance from the creek. As a result, when the railroad crossed the creek in August, there were actually two separate tent towns making up the nascent city of Regina.

Near the creek, according to a [Toronto Globe] report, there were two stores, two saloons (selling non-alcoholic beer only; the Northwest Territories was under prohibition at the time) and a livery stable. Near the station, located north of the main line and east of what is now Broad Street (in what was, unfortunately, a rather damp and muddy depression; a later joke held that in the spring, you could pick up enough soil in Regina to file a homestead just by walking down the street), there were other stores. The businesses operating near the creek quickly moved closer to the station, because they needed to be near the place where passengers and freight arrived.

The CPR owned most of the land along the railway, of course, along with its partner in promoting townsites, the Canada North-West Land Company, and was more than happy to sell them lots, many of them along what was then called South Railway Street, which later became Saskatchewan Drive.

It didn’t take long for tents and shacks to give way to solid, wood-frame buildings with false fronts. And the area where they took shape is still Regina’s downtown today. (Its development was cemented by the establishment of the city’s municipal railway on 11th Avenue in 1911.)

But due to the battle between Dewdney and the CPR, the first government buildings were widely scattered, strung out over four kilometres of mostly empty, windswept prairie. Government House (the Lieutenant-Governor’s residence) and the North West Mounted Police barracks rose on opposite sides of the creek near the railway bridge, while the North West Council and Indian Offices were built on a block on Dewdney Avenue halfway between the police barracks and the station. Meanwhile, the Customs Office, Dominion Lands Office and Post Office were located in the station area. And finally the Registry Office opened on Albert Street, midway between the station and the North West Council Offices, all by itself.

The press was not kind to the fledgling city. The [Manitoba Free Press] claimed, “The place is no more fitted for a town site than any other flat, dry, barren section of the line of railway.” An editor of Forest and Stream wrote, “I have never in all my travels seen so wretched a site for a town.” And the Ottawa Free Press said the name “Regina” for the former “Pile of Bones” was “too utterly utter. It reminds us of the woman who wanted a grand name for her boy and christened him ‘Britannia Rex.’”

It’s probably true that today Regina still has a reputation among people who have never been here for being flat, boring, and uninteresting.

Those people are wrong. In Regina, beautiful and historic buildings abound. The lush urban forest—every tree and bush of it planted by hand—provides beauty, shelter, and shade. The creek that the Toronto Globe once wrote of as consisting of “a series of shallow stagnant pools . . . of a dark brownish brackish appearance” has been transformed into Wascana Centre, one of the largest urban green spaces in the world, a sanctuary for wildlife and the crown jewel of what has become the Queen City of the Plains.

Don’t believe me?

Start walking, and you will.

 A Brief History of Moose Jaw

Although Aboriginal people had been camping at the Turn in the Moose Jaw River (today’s Kingsway Park) for decades or centuries, the town can trace its birth to a scouting tour by the CPR conducted in 1881, designed to identify the best location for its divisional point.

The origin of its unusual name is a little more difficult to trace. There have been a number of fanciful explanations, but the most likely is that it is an Anglicized version of the Cree word for “warm breezes,” moosegaw.

The railway settled on the union of the Moose Jaw and Thunder Creeks, halfway between Winnipeg and Calgary (the West’s other two divisional points). James Hamilton Ross had a hunch the railroad would choose that location, and so on January 2, 1992, he, Hector Sutherland, and three others arrived and set up camp. Ross established his homestead four days later, making him Moose Jaw’s first permanent resident.

Eight months later, the railway reached Moose Jaw. Tents, shacks, and small stores sprang up to handle the rush of homesteaders. The population boomed to between 2,000 and 3,000 people by May of 1883, by which time the city already boasted 100 buildings and 20 general stores.

Moose Jaw was incorporated as a town in February 1994, with John Edgar Ross as the first mayor. Construction, as was typical of prairie towns, spread out from the railway station—in Moose Jaw’s case, along Main Street, which was made extra wide in optimistic expectation of continued growth.

The early buildings were mostly of wood. On December 12, 1891, fire raged through them, destroying the first block of Main Street and, in all, a total of 21 homes and businesses. Four people died.


 The Great Fire of 1891

The devastating fire of 1891 resulted form a combination of booze and kerosene, according to Moose Jaw: People, Places, History, the 2001 history of the city by John Larsen and Maurice Richard Libby, published by Coteau Books. According Larsen and Libby, the fire began at Jackman’s Hotel, and the man to blame was a lodger named George Waterfield. Bill McWilliams, the son of a man who was an attendant at Jackman’s, recounted:

“This guy came back from River Street and went upstairs and Dad went up shortly afterwards. He was drunk and was galloping around with a kerosene lamp, and Dad tried to get it away from him, and of course he said he could see where that was going to be disastrous. So he tried talking him into putting it down on the table, and hoped he’d go to sleep. Well, he did, but not till after he had dumped the lamp somewhere and started the fire. There was no hope, there was no fire department; just no hope at all.”


Just four months later, another fire destroyed most of the second block of Moose Jaw. And over the years, fires have destroyed many other Moose Jaw landmarks.

In an effort to prevent further devastating fires, Moose Jaw town council passed a bylaw requiring all further downtown buildings to be made of brick—one reason why so many fine buildings do still remain to be seen in Moose Jaw’s core.

The flood of people immigrating to Moose Jaw also led the building of an exceptional number of hotels, many of them along River Street West. When immigration leveled off in the mid-1920s, Moose Jaw gained a reputation as “Little Chicago.” Rumours abound that Al Capone and other gangsters from Chicago frequented Moose Jaw during the years of Prohibition in the United States. Whether that’s true or not, the city—or at least River Street—was certainly known as the “sin city of Saskatchewan.”

By 1929, Moose Jaw residents had reason to believe their city would one day be one of the largest and most vibrant on the prairies. But the Great Depression brought those dreams, and many others, crashing down. Moose Jaw may well have been the hardest-hit city in Canada. Construction almost stopped, businesses closed.

The only plus side is that many buildings that might otherwise have been torn down instead survived until their worth as heritage buildings could be recognized.

In recent years, Moose Jaw has rebounded, with the construction of the Temple Gardens Spa, its popular Tunnels of Moose Jaw attraction, and other efforts, many of them centred on the rich heritage you will enjoy on these two tours.


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