Moose Jaw was originally settled as a traditional Indian fur traders camp at “the turn” (known as Kingsway Park today). A narrow crossing of the river, plenty of water and game for food, made this an ideal place for settlement. It was a winter encampment for both Cree and Assiniboine nations, and there are burial grounds in the vicinity. The natural protection of the Coteau Range provided the valley with many warm breezes. The name Moose Jaw comes from a Cree name for the place, moscâstani-sîpiy, meaning “a warm place by the river”. The first two syllables, moscâ-, sound remarkably like “moose jaw”.
During the fur trade era, Métis buffalo hunters had wintering cabins in the River Valley at “the turn” where the fur trail from Fort Garry forged Moose Jaw Creek.
Post-Settlement History (1881 to 1900)
In July of 1881, James Ross and Hector Sutherland were exploring for land that they felt sure would be the choice of the Canadian Pacific Railway for a divisional point. The juncture of Moose Jaw and Thunder Creek was the best place to cross the river valley and there was an abundant water supply for steam locomotives. They registered the town site with the Dominion Government and organized a permanent settlement. Permanent settlement began in 1882 when James Ross and his party of four arrived from Winnipeg on January 2nd. A third group from Ontario, led by Henry Battell, joined Ross’ settlement in the spring of 1882, on May 24th.
The construction of the CPR, with 7,600 men and 1,700 teams of horses, proceeded west from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba on Monday, May 2, 1881. The following construction season started at Oak Lake, Manitoba. They reached the settlement site of Moose Jaw in July of 1882. The first small work train arrived in Moose Jaw on September 6, 1882. The first combined work/passenger train arrived December 10, 1882. It was April 1, 1883 before the first scheduled passenger train arrived in Moose Jaw. By 1885, the CPR construction crews had all passed through Moose Jaw. In fact, the CPR was completed nationally on November 7, 1885.
At the end of 1882, Moose Jaw’s business centre consisted of five ragged tents. Growth slowed during the winter but in the spring of 1883, the population increased rapidly. By March, Moose Jaw had four stores and 30 other buildings, those being mostly tents. By the end of March, there were six stores, five saloons, one drugstore, two blacksmiths, three hotels and 40 houses.
The town, after the first 1882-83 population boom, experienced a dwindling population due to three years of crop failures. From 1885 to 1889, Moose Jaw’s population remained stagnant. It wasn’t until 1890 that the town started to grow again.
By 1885, Moose Jaw was a major settlement. In addition to the homestead population and railway workers, there was an adjacent Sioux village located in Kingsway Park, now known as Connor’s Park. The village was small, about 115 people living in 28 lodges. These Sioux had retreated with Sitting Bull from Montana and the battle with General Custer. There was concern among white settlers that the Sioux might join the rebellion in support of the Metis, but this did not happen.
In the summer of 1885, Moose Jaw was a provisional home for a supply battalion of 390 soldiers from Halifax. They were sent west by the Dominion Government to guard supplies and communication routes. This aided in quelling the Northwest Rebellion, led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.
Sisters of the Anglican Order of St. John the Divine established a base hospital during the rebellion. They cared for sick and wounded from the battles of Batoche and Fish Creek in a crude 40-bed facility on Main Street. Many of the younger male homesteaders found work hauling supplies north to the battlefront.
Fire of 1891
A major fire in 1891 wiped out 17 businesses and a church on Main Street. This incident, coupled with earlier fires, caused the town to make brick or stone construction mandatory. A small local brick kiln, established in 1890 by Jimmy Brass, flourished. He sold his brickyard and went to the United States in the autumn of 1896. In 1898, Wellington White owned what is now River Park Campground and his home was located at what later became known as Aldersgate College, Dean’s Residence. He also began his brickyard in this same year and it ran until approximately 1916. His office was located at what is currently John’s Music. WWMJ was stamped into his bricks. This is part of the reason there are so many early red brick heritage properties today in downtown Moose Jaw.
The Boom Era (1900 to 1920)
The rapid settlement after the turn of the century brought Moose Jaw to prominence in Western Canada and ushered in a commercial and industrial boom period. The Town Council sought and gained City status in November, 1903. As the homesteads spread south and west, Moose Jaw became the wholesale distribution centre for a large trading area, and began processing of agricultural products. The railway connections east, west and south drew numerous manufacturing industries and identified Moose Jaw as the leading industrial centre of the province.