An essential ingredient to the success of settling the West was the construction of a rail line across the continent, replacing canoe and cart routes. This idea was met with scorn by those in the east, who saw it as unnecessary and uneconomical. In 1879, a line reached Winnipeg. After much debate was waged about creating a route through the Canadian Rockies, the Canadian Pacific Railway line reached Fort Calgary and what is now Banff in 1883. Workers pushed on across the mountains, and on November 7, 1885, the final spike was laid, linking the fledgling province of British Columbia to the rest of the country. A northern route, through Edmonton and Jasper, was completed by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1914.
With two expensive rail lines in place, the government set about putting them to use by settling the land and encouraging tourists to visit the thriving resort towns of Banff and Jasper. The prairies were surveyed, and homesteads were offered at $10 per quarter section (160 acres). People from diverse ethnic backgrounds flooded the western prairies, tending to settle in communities of their own people. Life was hard for the early settlers; those in the south found the land dry, whereas those in the north had to clear land.
The first to take advantage of the extensive grasslands that had once supported millions of bison was Senator Matthew Cochrane, who in 1881 secured a grazing lease on 189,000 acres west of Calgary. This homestead was the first of many ranches to be claimed in the foothills, and many herds of cattle were driven to their new homes by American cowboys.
Entering the Confederation
British Columbia had gained provincial status in 1871, four years after the Dominion of Canada was established, but the North-West Territories remained under federal control. This region had been divided into districts, of which Alberta—named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria—was one. On September 1, 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan were admitted as provinces of the Canadian Confederation, and Edmonton was named Alberta’s capital.
For the years preceding World War I, the new province of Alberta led the way in Canadian agricultural export, but strict controls on wheat prices left many farmers in debt. After the war, the Canadian Wheat Board, later to become the Alberta Wheat Pool, was established to give farmers a fairer price and an incentive to stay on the land. The early 1930s were a time of terrible drought and worldwide depression, both of which hit especially hard in a province that depended almost entirely on agriculture. For the second time in 30 years, however, war bolstered the economy and agricultural production increased. For 50 years, agriculture was Alberta’s primary industry and the main attraction for settlers, but this situation was to change dramatically.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition