I had the opportunity to write about Medicine Hat’s iconic landmarks for Tourism Medicine Hat as part of their Historical Walking Tour. The decision was made to highlight specific moments and people as often as we could in an effort to humanize each location.
The rationale was that stories about people and specific moments make stronger connections than dates and architectural details can.
As with many historic buildings there are ghost stories, characters like Slippery Annie, reclusive businessmen like Medicine Hat’s favourite architect, and battles between competing factions. Not everything made the cut, but here’s what did …
In the early twentieth century, as US journalists made Medicine Hat the butt of jokes about supplying bad weather, a vote was set to take place regarding a city name change. Those in favour of the name gathered at the Cypress Club and drafted a letter to English author Rudyard Kipling, asking him to weigh in. His impassioned response arrived in Medicine Hat weeks later, urging the city to “proudly and go forward as Medicine Hat – the only city officially recognized as capable of freezing out the united states and giving the continent cold feet.”
Thanks to that letter, Medicine Hat was here to stay.
Canadian Pacific Railway Station
Thanks to early reports that Southern Alberta was unsuitable for agriculture, engineer Sir Sandford Fleming originally proposed the CPR avoid Southern Alberta altogether (he also designed Canada’s first postage stamp and advocated for worldwide standard time). If it wasn’t for a CPR decision to overturn Sandford’s decision, this Chateau-style station (one of the finest in Canada) would never have been built.
St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Women were seldom heard from in early twentieth century church meetings. But at a 1901 meeting, Mrs. Blatchford proposed the building of a new church that could be a better representation of a growing congregation. The motion was carried, and the church standing today was officially opened in September 1902.
Fifth Avenue Memorial United Church
Talk about irony … in the same month the Fifth Avenue church celebrated paying their mortgage with a ceremonial mortgage burning, there was a fire that burned so hot, the stain glass windows had to be replaced.
At seventeen years old, William Roper Hull moved to Canada from England to work on a relative’s farm. Ever ambitious, he and his brother grew a small Calgary butcher shop business into Western Canada’s first systematic beef processing operation. He built buildings across Alberta, including downtown Medicine Hat’s largest and most significant building, the Hull Block.
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
If you look at the orientation of St Barnabas Anglican Church, you will notice it does not directly line up with True North. Instead, it is laid out exactly East and West in relation to the sunrise on St Barnabas Day (a few degrees different). Go ahead, come back on June 11 and see for yourself.
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
During World War 1, this bank branch took great pride in their members’ effort on the battlefield. Sgt JC Matheson was a member of the 10th Battalion, and left a heartfelt letter detailing his battalion’s role in the second battle of Ypres. With bullet holes in his helmet, no food or water and dying soldiers all around, he pondered “how I ever came through is a mystery to me.”
“Can’t we figure out some scheme to make a bunch of coin this year?” asked WB Finlay, one of Medicine Hat’s early businessmen. When the answer to this question was to farm, he exclaimed “well dammit then, lets grow wheat!”
WB Finlay would eventually build Medicine Hat’s Monarch Theatre, which stands today as the oldest in Alberta, predating the Fort MacLeod theatre by months.
It is believed that James Hargrave and Daniel Sisson ran a store along the North Saskatchewan River in the 1880s. Knowing that horses were cheaper in the south, Hargrave would bring horses from Medicine Hat north to Carlton and sell them.
Hargrave eventually moved to Medicine Hat (presumably to take advantage of warmer weather and chinooks) with his family in 1885 and soon after, established the Hargrave Sissons Block.
Another example of building in optimistic times can be found in the Turpin Block, which was built in 1905. It is considered to be one of the first buildings designed by architect William T. Williams after his arrival from the United States.
What you see of the Turpin Block today is approximately one third of the full building, which was damaged by fire in 1999.
It is little known outside Medicine Hat, but during both World Wars, the city was home to Canada’s largest Prisoner of War camp, which held 12,000 prisoners. Camp life was hard, and murders and violence were common. Medicine Hat’s courthouse had a role to play in justice for some of those murders, sentencing five POW to death in 1946.
In the early twentieth century, Hatters were optimistic about their future, thanks to a manufacturing boom centred on natural gas and clay deposits. That optimism lead to the construction of a number of large, remarkable buildings like the Beveridge Building. Furniture was sold here from 1911-1984, and has recently been brought back to life as an events space.