It didn’t make any sense.
One critic called the site “one of the worst spots in the territories.” Another decried the choice as “lunacy.”
Still another could not resist poking fun at town life on the flat, windblown prairie: “It would be almost absurd to go out for a ride as it is never possible to get out of sight of one’s front door.”
What they were talking about was the 1882 selection of Regina as the capital of the North-West Territories.
Finding a new territorial capital became necessary when the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate decided to build across the southern prairies and not go through the North Saskatchewan country.
The rerouting of the national railroad meant that Battleford’s days as the seat of government were numbered. But where would the new capital be located along the main line?
Choosing a site fell to Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor for the territories, and William Van Horne, CPR general manager.
Somewhere in the scenic Qu’Appelle Valley would have provided a stunning setting for the new capital. But Dewdney and Van Horne were opposed to running the railway through the valley because of apparent engineering difficulties.
Instead, they selected a parcel of CPR land (part of the federal grant for building the railway) where the main line crossed Pile of Bones (Wascana) Creek.
Dewdney reserved the site in late June 1882. Less than two months later, when the first CPR train arrived on Aug. 23, Pile of Bones was officially re-christened Regina in honour of the queen.
Those with any familiarity with the region were dumbfounded by the capital’s placement by an “exaggerated ditch” on the “uninviting” prairie.
But then it was learned Lieutenant-governor Dewdney belonged to a group of land speculators that had been buying up HBC lands along the main line. They just happened to own 640 acres immediately next to the original Regina townsite.
Not wanting to benefit Dewdney’s group, the CPR placed the train station almost two miles away to the east.
Not to be outdone, Dewdney convinced the federal government to locate the new territorial government offices, including the lieutenant-governor’s official residence, closer to his section of land.
He also used his influence to get North-West Mounted Police headquarters transferred to Regina. The new barracks were erected along the west side of Wascana Creek, well away from the CPR station.
This jostling between Dewdney and the CPR initially led to two rival communities, and the longest board sidewalk in the territories between them.
And even though businesses soon gravitated to the Regina train station area and the town evolved from there, the CPR decided to locate the divisional point down the track at Moose Jaw.
Dewdney justified his selection of Regina by claiming that it lay at the heart of a great agricultural area. That was anything but certain at the time.
The more urgent matter for the railway, businesses, and settlers was the availability of water.
In a September 1882 interview with the Winnipeg Times, Dewdney crowed, “There is no better water in the country than at Regina.”
But in a confidential letter that same month, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald bluntly told Dewdney to get a civil engineer “at once” to determine the best means of providing water to the community. He even raised the possibility of an aqueduct system.
The problem was that Wascana Creek was an unreliable source. It froze to the bottom in winter and went dry in summer.
Not even a dam on the creek could provide a dependable water supply for CPR locomotives and the company had to ship water to the capital in flat cars.
Watermen, in the meantime, were kept busy hauling water in barrels to the community.
The CPR unsuccessfully drilled for water through the winter of 1882-83. These were “anxious” times, according to N.F. Davin, editor of the Regina Leader, prompting more questioning about the wisdom of the site.
Then, on April 25, 1883, water was struck at 98 feet at the CPR station. It was dumb luck. The well had hit the southeastern limit of the Regina aquifer.
A relieved Davin telegraphed the news to the prime minister.
But even though Regina secured its water supply and became, until recently, the largest urban centre in Saskatchewan, the city remains the only provincial capital not on a major body of water.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The successful drilling of a well in Regina merited a telegram to the prime minister.
Photo source: MACDONALD PAPERS, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA
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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.