The area that Coaldale sits on today was right in the middle of the territory of the Blackfoot for centuries. The Cree would occasionally move into the area but this primarily happened closer to when Europeans arrived in North America and began to disrupt territories of the Indigenous. The Stoney Nakoda were also found in the area. It was near Coaldale that a 12,000-year-old Clovis point arrowhead was found, the first of its kind in Alberta.
Nearby to Coaldale, you can find the Ross Archeological Site. This is a site rich in Indigenous history dating back to 1400 AD. The site encompasses 35 acres and was occupied at least six times between 1400 AD and 1700 AD. Artifacts from the site have been collected and are now found at the Royal Alberta Museum and the University of Calgary. Archeological excavations occurred between 1957 and 1980, and yielded stone and bone tools, shell and bone beads, pottery, pendants, buffalo stones and fragmented animal bone. Activities at the site included tool manufacturing, animal butchering, meat roasting, marrow extraction and grease preparation. Typically, the Indigenous occupied the site on a seasonal basis, as there is a bison kill site located nearby. Due to its historic nature, it was made a Provincial Historic Resource in 1981.
The bison were an incredibly important part of the life of the Blackfoot and huge herds would migrate through the area of Coaldale, which the Blackfoot followed through the year. Eventually, the bison were hunted to near extinction by the Canadians and Americans and the Blackfoot were forced to sign Treaty 7. Today, Coaldale sits on Treaty 7 land and an Indigenous reserve is located one hour southwest of Coaldale.
The history of Coaldale itself begins in the mid-1890s when the railway was being built through. The Canadian Pacific Railway had been built north of the area in the 1880s but it would be a decade before it was built south of that line into the area of Lethbridge and Coaldale.
While it may seem obvious that the name of Coaldale comes from coal, since it is in the name, that is actually wrong. When the first rail siding was built east of Lethbridge, the name Coaldale was chosen by the Canadian Pacific Railway in reference to Coaldale Home, the residence of Elliot Galt. Galt was a well-known figure in the early mining history of Lethbridge, who also had a lot of land in the area and worked with the railroad. Galt was instrumental in getting the CPR to build a narrow gauge line between Lethbridge and Dunmore.
It was also Galt who helped get a massive irrigation project started in southern Alberta. The Galt Canal would eventually provide water for irrigation to Coaldale in 1905, changing the town and the surrounding area forever. Water would come in from the St. Mary River about 97 kilometres away from the town. With this new irrigation system, there was enough water to cover the entire district in two feet of water during the irrigation season.
In the area, the Southern Alberta Irrigation Farms Company owned much of the land and they would erect the first house in Coaldale. The land in the area was quickly bought up, which proved to be good for farming, especially when irrigation was built through. The Lethbridge Telegram wrote quote:
“The soil throughout the district is quite uniform, being a dark chocolate of good depth, underlaid with a clay subsoil. The older parts of the district have been under irrigation for about 12 years and alkali deposits are practically unknown.”
Up until 1905, there was only a section house in the community but settlers started to arrive in Coaldale in 1908, and soon after a church and school was established. An elevator was built in 1911 and three years later the small school was replaced with a larger one.
It was thank to the irrigation that in April 1911 it was announced that a large nursery farm would be established by the federal government. Under the direction of Archie Mitchell, a leading authority on trees, flowers and grain, the nursery had been moved from its proposed location in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Mitchell had also been the chief weed inspector for Alberta.
Thousands of dollars was being spent to create a nursery stock that would be able to accommodate the needs of Alberta and Saskatchewan, while also testing the soil to see what could be grown in the area. The nursery would be ready the following year and was a beautiful sight on the open prairie as passengers on the trains travelled through.
In 1916, Coaldale had 35 children of school age and decided to spend $20,000 to build a two-storey brick building with four classes, an auditorium and modern conveniences. Many thought this was ridiculous given the low population of the area but by 1919 150 students were attending the school, coming from as far away as 20 kilometres.
After the First World War, many returning soldiers were able to get land on what was called Soldier Colonies. These colonies, which were vast tracts of land, were reserved for veterans and one was located near Coaldale. The Lethbridge Herald wrote quote:
“Last year, on each farm they built a comfortable house and a small barn and stable, ran ditches and raised crops under irrigation so that when the armistice was signed in the fall of 1918, each farm was ready for its future soldier owner to take possession as a going concern.”
Most of the men on the colony were privates, but Captain A. Orr was the highest ranking individual, who had enlisted in 1915 as a private and soon found himself rising through the ranks. At the colony, he was known for being an exceptionally good cook, whose home was always open. Around the area, he was called The Cap.
On July 20, 1920, a terrible fire struck Coaldale when the barn and alfalfa mill of J.B. Shimek burned to the ground. Damages were put at $30,000, with $5,000 of that being the loss of the machinery in the mill. While everything was mostly covered by insurance, the building was valued at $10,000 and was a major employer within Coaldale. The fire was first noticed at 1 a.m. and an alarm was signaled with the Lethbridge fire department racing to the scene to help deal with the fire and keep it from spreading. A nearby pond provided water to fight the fire, but it was impossible to save the building despite the efforts of the Lethbridge fire brigade. It was believed that the fire started because of heated hay. The mill would be replaced, but this time it was replaced with a brick structure to save it from fire.
Many settlers came to the area of Coaldale to take advantage of the irrigation that had been built through the area. One group that arrived were Russian-German families, including two who settled on the land owned by one of the original settlers to the area George Heighes. The settlers raised beets and became quite successful at it. They were also highly respected for their work effort. The Calgary Herald wrote quote:
“They have nearly all rented land on a crop share plan, and men, women and children may be seen at work early and late in the fields.”
Originally, the arrival of the settlers was viewed by locals in Coaldale with concern. Many questioned how they would manage not being able to speak the language. Those issues proved to be a non-concern due to the efforts of the new settlers to help their new home. The people of Coaldale would soon come around to the new arrivals. The Calgary Herald wrote quote:
“Most people in the district are trying in spite of difficulty to give them a welcome and make them feel at home.”
In 1927, a man named B.B. Janz settled in the area of Coaldale. Janz had been born in present-day Ukraine, and after becoming a Mennonite minister in what was then the Russian Empire, he began to raise his profile within the Mennonite Church. He would use his profile to help Mennonites in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. In 1922, he negotiated with the Soviet government to allow 3,000 Mennonites to emigrate to Canada in 1923. In 1924, he was able to negotiate another 5,048 Mennonites to come to Canada. He would finally come to Canada himself in 1926 when he found out that the Soviet government was now targeting him for arrest and even assassination. At first, he settled in Winnipeg but then purchased land near Coaldale. It was in Coaldale that he became a Mennonite minister and a member of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. He would continue to help Mennonites leave the Soviet Union for the rest of his life. He would also found the Coaldale Bible School and the Coaldale Mennonite High School. Janz would pass away on Oct. 16, 1964 and is buried in Coaldale.
On Aug. 14, 1928, a brazen robbery occurred in Coaldale when a man was hit over the head while standing at the railway station early in the morning. He was then robbed of the $250 he had on him. That may not seem like a lot but with inflation that would be about $4,100 today. The man was on his way from Medicine Hat to Taber but he overslept and had to get off the train at Coaldale and wait for a train to Lethbridge to take him to Taber. He would be found laying on the platform when the eastbound train arrived. Thankfully, while lost of a lot of money, he would recover from the attack.
One year after that robbery, on Oct. 26, 1929, Coaldale was hit by another robbery. It was on that day that one ton of flour was stolen from the Southern Alberta Co-operative warehouse. This came only one day after a family was robbed by gunpoint when a man entered their rural home. There was a great deal of concern that this was a growing epidemic of crime in the area, but as it turned out this would be one of the rare cases of violent crime in Coaldale. One reason for the increased crime was that the coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass were idle and many of the men were out of work. This led some to desperate measures, which included robbing people and businesses when they had a chance.
In 1937, Coaldale entered the cheese-making game and became known for its high quality cheese. It was in that year when the price of grain and feed was low, and pasture was abundant, and a group of Mennonite farmers decided that Coaldale would be the right place for a cheese factory. This would allow local farmers to sell their milk so they could keep their farms. John Mader was hired as the first cheesemaker for the cheese factory in 1938. The cheese from the factory would win several awards and was considered by some to be the best cheese in the province. The cheese factory continued to operate until 1972 when it was sold.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Coaldale, the Gem of the West Museum is a great place to check out. Within the museum, there are several exhibits to explore including a First Nations exhibit, which contains the clovis point arrowhead I mentioned earlier. The museum also has a Discover Main Street exhibit that reconstructs a grocery store, a one-room school and the CPR station. You can see the typewriter used by B.B. Janz, and a butcher shop exhibit that showcases the equipment used by a butcher shop in Coaldale for 95 years. There is an on-site operational blacksmith shop, and much more. The entire museum is housed in the Mennonite Brethren Church, which was built in 1939 and today is a historic property.