The Story of the Big Ditch by E. Cora Hind
From the Community Heritage and Family History Collection, Calgary Public Library
We here in the Community Heritage and Family History department are extremely lucky in that we get to work with a really cool collection and we also get to meet many very interesting people, both in the library and at outreach events. We always learn something from our customers and sometimes the researchers we meet know more about our collection that we do. This is true of a small piece of memorabilia that we have in our collection – The Story of the Big Ditch by E. Cora Hind. It was pointed out that we are possibly the only repository of this beautiful little suede covered booklet that was issued for a very special event….but first, some background.
Anyone who has driven south of Calgary for any distance is aware of the fact that we are drylanders. The southern part of Alberta, beautiful as it is, was once suitable only for grazing cattle. One can only imagine the dream of a man who looked at this prairie and thought what a wonder it would be if only water could be brought to it. Thankfully, there were men who could see at least what irrigating land would bring in terms of profit. Irrigated lands in Southern Alberta could be sold for nearly twice what non-irrigated lands could bring. As a result, many companies got into the irrigation business in Southern Alberta as an adjunct to their land business. The government was amenable to these businessmen, as it meant that their goal of settling the west could be met, while the expense of improving the land on which settlers would live would be borne by other organizations.
This is, in essence, the reason for the existence of the Southern Alberta Land Company in the early part of the 20th century. They had land, they wanted to sell it for more than they paid for it, and so they developed a scheme to irrigate a large tract (several large tracts, in fact) of land west of Medicine Hat.
The official opening of the irrigated tract of the Southern Alberta Land Company was to take place on September 12, 1912. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught and the Governor General were scheduled to be in attendance. This lovely brochure was produced but the event never took place. (You can see it online at the Internet Archive - http://www.archive.org/details/storyofbigditch00hind) The intake at the headworks of the project had collapsed in a flood in May. In spite of that, the brochure states that “the intake dam has added greatly to the beauty of the river” and “this gigantic undertaking is all but completed” when in fact the intake had been quite seriously damaged (contrary to what was told to the Financial Post in November of 1912) that the damage was not extensive and “has only delayed the turning on of the water a little”) and repairs would only be started a year later. Building was delayed by the war and many other trials and tribulations hit the company. The story is a long and interesting one and is well documented in the book Prairie Promises: History of the Bow River Irrigation District by John Gilpin (who I must also thank for the heads up on The Story of the Big Ditch)