February 20th, 2019

Heritage in the Hat: The hole story

By Medicine Hat News on February 9, 2019.

There’s a hole in the oldest commercial street block in the city. South Railway, between Main Street and Toronto Street, opposite the original CPR depot, was the place to be in 1883. Today, the city is looking for gas but the site has a much older story.

South of the hole was where Mike Leonard established a bakery in 1883, long since replaced. On the north side was James Hargrave’s and Dan Sissons’ original 1883 wood frame store.

An imposing presence between these retailers was the American Hotel, also built in 1883, one of the first hotels in town. Next door was City Drug Store opened by Dr. Olver and J.A. McDonald in 1887. A small shoe repair, later bread shop, also existed between the original Hargrave & Sissons store and the drug store.The bread shop likely disappeared when the new Hargrave Sissons Block was built in 1901.None of these buildings from the 1880s is still standing.

The American Hotel was popular with ranchers and cowboys. Some rambunctious lads were known to ride their horses right into the bar room. A skilled roper would lasso a passerby and drag him in to buy drinks. About 1885, a cowboy rode up to a group of people in front of the hotel. He got off his horse, walked up to the group and deliberately shot and killed one of them, then got on his horse and fled out of town. It was rumoured that they been gambling the previous evening and cheating was suspected of the gambler killed, one of the Casey brothers, who had opened the very first hotel.

After a succession of owners, H. C. Yuill bought the American Hotel in 1899 and in 1901 replaced it with a brick structure, moving the old building to the rear of the lot. Around this time, a shallow gas well was punched down behind the building to supply the kitchen. Yuill sold the hotel in 1903 and by 1910, John Howson owned both hotel and drug store as well as the Royal Hotel. Howson had come to the Hat in 1902 from Regina where he and his brother operated a livery and liquor store. He was an alderman in 1911-12.

The American Hotel was expanded into the drug store building and carried on until about 1932, after which it became the American (briefly the Victory) Café. In 1949, local businessman Jack Conn purchased the two vacant buildings and demolished both. He built a new building for three businesses: the Esquire Shop (men’s clothing), Shop-Easy Grocery and Shop-Easy Meat store. In 1955, Canada Café moved in and joined the Esquire Shop, Burt’s Billiards and the Alberta Credit Jewellers. Its most recent incarnations were as the Ming Tree (1975-87) then a karate studio and finally the Hitch’n Post (1992-97) before falling vacant and being demolished in 2018, leaving today’s hole.

Remember that early gas well located behind the building? What a novelty then, no more dirty coal, just drill a hole wherever and presto! natural gas. No longer an asset, the City has inherited this early gas well and is dealing with it in conjunction with the Alberta Energy Regulator and the hole story goes on!

Malcolm Sissons is a member of the Heritage Resources Committee and composed this column from research by Committee Member Sally Sehn.

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