In early 1880, the Transcontinental Pacific Railway reached Medicine Hat. The newly opened Alberta Territory created unique economic needs which would inevitably develop a number of equally unique settlements. Stirling was one of these.
By 1890 the increasing need for coal to fuel the locomotives led to the building of a rail line from Medicine Hat to Lethbridge, and another from Lethbridge south to Great Falls. Galt’s Alberta Railway and Coal Company built the needed lines in exchange for over a million acres of land valued at $2.50 an acre, however the anticipated wealth to the Railway failed to materialize.
The new spur lines went through some of the most arid and forbidding land in western Canada. The vast wind-swept plains were considered unsuitable for anything but ranching, even by offering the land for $1.00 an acre if the developer buyers were found. The offer did however attract the attention of a high official of the Mormon church. John Taylor from Utah had a first-hand knowledge of the financial benefits of an efficient irrigation system.
However Taylor viewed the disjointed distribution of the CPR lands as a limiting factor on efficient development. Rather than numerous self-contained systems as encouraged by the land owners, Mormon officials along with Magrath and Galt, pressed Ottawa to solidify the individual holdings into one block. This was finally achieved in 1896 when the holdings were consolidated under the name of the Alberta Irrigation Company.
In the autumn of 1897, a delegation from the Alberta Irrigation Company met with officials of the Mormon church. Both parties agreed that the project would be mutually beneficial. The irrigation company needed labourers and permanent settlers who could sustain the irrigation system; and the Church was in need of new opportunities to assist their poorer members in providing for themselves.
By April 1898 the contract between the Mormon Church and the Alberta Irrigation Company was signed. It called for the construction of a 50 mile long canal between the two settlements of at least 250 persons each. The two town-sites, one at each end of the canal, were surveyed on land the Church was to earn. $100,000 in wages for the contractors were to be paid 1/2 in cash and 1/2 in land valued at $3.00 per acre. Work was to commence within the year and was to be completed by December 1899.
Even though the subsequent advertising was intensive and benefits were described in glowing terms, the Mormon contractors were unable to attract voluntary workers or immigrants. The Church, fearing the possibility of defaulting on its commitment of contract began “calling” men to serve missions in Alberta. Some were “called” for the duration of the construction, others were to form a permanent settlement. For a member of the Mormon Church to receive a “call” of this magnitude was an extremely serious matter.
For them it was not an economic decision; they had already refused to move on economic grounds. This was a call to “do the Lord’s work.” The faithful did not hesitate!
The small group of 30 settlers arrived at Stirling on May 5, 1899. This vanguard was to prepare for those who were to follow. Houses were built, wells dug, feed for livestock provided, fuel supplies secured, and over all the work on the canal had to be completed.
Wave after wave of immigrants came and by November 14, 1899 the canal was completed and the water gates were opened at Magrath . . . two weeks ahead of schedule. The contract was fulfilled!
Completion of the contract presented a whole new set of problems for those who had been called to establish a permanent settlement. The Church officials in Utah had been informed that the two new settlements were stable and able to stand alone. But with the canal contract completed there was no money being earned and it was causing real hardship. In order to alleviate the problem, Theodore Brandley again contracted the townsmen to build 12 miles of the rail track between Stirling and Cardston.
Economic stability being restored, the little settlement now numbering 400 souls, was declared a Village on September 8, 1901. The village has remained, its population expanding or contracting depending on the economy of the time.
Vagaries of economics, while certainly influencing the physical development and growth of the village, did not undermine the social values of the tightly-knit and like-minded inhabitants. Often the demands of the external economy were ignored if the demands conflicted with their ideals that were felt to violate “the Lord’s work.”
The villagers, going quietly about their business, supporting their families and doing the Lord’s work as they saw it produced the sturdy, understated Village we see today; beautiful in its simplicity.