Bow City: The Village Born Unlucky

By Koch, Jonathan | Alberta History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Bow City: The Village Born Unlucky


Koch, Jonathan, Alberta History


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Bow City is an unlikely spot for a metropolis.

Situated about 20 miles southwest of the city of Brooks, this curiously named community is comprised of a well-maintained park anda scattering of acreages perched atop the north bank of the Bow River. Once a bustling coal mine camp during the '40s and '50s, today's hamlet no longer even merits a dot on the provincial road map.

Bow City owes its continued existence to the bridge that traverses the Bow River at this location. It owes its origins, however, to a rich deposit of coal, situated west of the hamlet, embedded deep within the towering south bank of the Bow.

The discovery and promotion of this abundant reserve fuelled a sub-bituminous bonanza in the decade prior to World War I. In just a few short years, a village materialized on the barren, treeless prairie south of the Bow, the offspring of rampant speculation and frenzied boosterism. At its peak, many predicted Bow City would become a "Pittsburg" on the prairie. (1) Isolated and exposed, the village born unlucky was cursed by drought, world conflict, bad timing, and just plain bad luck.

The suitability of much of southeastern Alberta for European settlement was questioned by a number of the first explorers who passed through the region during the mid-to-late 18th century. Perhaps most famously, Captain John Palliser, whose expedition crisscrossed present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan between 1857 and 1859, described the southeast as being a "desert, or semi-desert in character, which can never be expected to become occupied by settlers." (2) His companion, Dr. James Hector, remarked after enduring a journey across the parched prairie south of the Bow in August 1859: "[T]here seemed to be no water anywhere in this part of the country." (3)

While the prospects for agriculture seemed dubious at best, the great plains of southeastern Alberta would prove ideal for one thing: grazing cattle. With the decline of the buffalo, cattlemen, big and small, moved their herds onto the open range along the Bow, where grass was plentiful and ready for the taking.

Among the first ranchers to settle in the Bow Valley about 60 km downstream from Bassano was a small group of Ontarians: the Moores, William Sr. and Jr., and their friend, Jack (W.T.P.) Eyres. Their home would become known as 'Eyremore' after Eyres. The area's first postmaster, named the local post office after himself and his neighbours (and future in-laws), the Moores. (4)

While numerous small cattle operations dotted the vast plains straddling the Bow at the turn of the 20th century, the Bow Valley south of Bassano would soon come to be dominated by George Lane's legendary Bar U ranch. In 1905, the Bar U established itself on a massive tract of land reserved by the Canadian Pacific Railway, situated between the Bow and the CPR main line. (5) For over a decade, several thousand steers were driven from their home ranch in the foothills to the massive lease along the Bow. Here they fattened up on prairie wool for up to two years before being shipped off to market. (6)

While grazing cattle on the open range offered an ample supply of forage over endless miles of grassland, it also meant livestock were left to fend for themselves against the elements on the wide-open prairie. This practice of open grazing contributed to the aptly named "killing winter" of 1906-07, when prolonged periods of extreme cold and heavy snowfall froze and starved thousands of southern Alberta cattle. Lane's loss alone north of the Bow was pegged at around 2,000 head. (7)

Survival was no less challenging for those individuals who homesteaded at Eyremore. Without local access to timber, settlers began harvesting an exposed coal seam that ran deep into the river's towering south bank. Here they found ample coal for heating and cooking, and once land south of the river opened for settlement after 1906, some of the locals developed a profitable sideline, selling coal to homesteaders for up to $1 per tonne. …

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