June 12th, 2024

Heritage in the Hat: Pleasure cruise to Galt Island

By MALCOLM SISSONS on February 28, 2023.

All aboard for Galt Island! -- SUBMITTED PHOTO THE ESPLANADE

For one summer season 116 years ago, an island three kilometres upriver from Echo Dale was a featured destination for afternoon pleasure cruises on the “City of Medicine Hat” paddle wheel steam boat.

Galt Island first appeared on maps in 1883, named for one of southern Alberta’s pioneer industrialists, Sir Alexander Galt (1817-1893). A Father of Confederation, Galt was well connected with Canada’s political and financial elite. He established the North-Western Coal and Navigation Company in 1883 to exploit the coal resources of Coalbanks, renamed for Galt’s business partner, William Lethbridge.

Rev. William Morrow’s “Early History of Medicine Hat Country” relates that Galt hired Hat resident James Norquay to take him to Coalbanks in a buckboard. Stopping overnight on the trail, Norquay prepared a supper for them but upon bringing it over, Galt told him that “he didn’t eat with servants.” Norquay decided he didn’t need to share his supper after all…

The nearest market for the coal was the CPR at Medicine Hat and “navigation” was Plan A to get it there. Coal was loaded on barges in Lethbridge and towed downstream by the paddle wheel “Baroness.” In 1884, 3,000 tons of coal were delivered. However, each delivery took almost as much coal to get back upriver to Lethbridge, so on to Plan B — a narrow gauge rail line from Lethbridge to Dunmore. The Alberta Railway and Coal Company line (known informally as the “Turkey Track”), opened on Sept. 24, 1885. Galt opened a second rail line in 1890 from Lethbridge to Great Falls. In 1912, all the Galt companies were acquired by the CPR.

River boat days weren’t over yet! In June 1907, Captain Horatio Ross and the Southern Alberta Navigation Company launched the “City of Medicine Hat” for pleasure and freight. The company leased Galt Island from the Dominion Government for a dollar a year and built concession booths, a cookhouse and a dance pavilion. A zoo with antelope, bears and bison was also established by James Fleming. An orchestra entertained the passengers on their Sunday afternoon excursions to the island for food and dancing but it was not a financial success and there was pressure to halt the activity, being on the Sabbath. Ross refocussed his business on freight but a trip to Saskatoon ended in the wreck of his boat. Fleming closed his zoo and bear steaks were on the menu at the American Hotel.

The federal government offered to rent Galt Island to the city for recreational purposes in 1938 but council declined. In 1951, Redcliff resident Bob Sherry built an 18-foot boat and took a 10-year lease on the island for a market garden. However, this venture ended in 1953 when he ploughed too close to a bank and was injured in what the News termed a landslide.

In 1979, the island was briefly considered for inclusion in a river valley park system. Today, Galt Island is a Crown Land Reservation for wildlife… but not the dancing kind.

Malcolm Sissons is a former member of the City’s Heritage Resources Committee

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