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Charles Magrath: A Pioneer of Western Canada

For the week of Monday April 21, 2008

On April 22, 1860, Charles Alexander Magrath was born in what is now North Augusta, Ontario. Magrath’s life took him all over Canada where he worked as a surveyor, a politician and an irrigation expert. From Ontario he moved to Alberta and he also did some work in Saskatchewan. Later in life he returned to Ontario before living in Newfoundland for a brief period and then, in 1937, he made his final move to British Columbia.

Charles Alexander Magrath
© Library and Archives Canada. C-002440
In 1878, at the age of 18, Magrath’s work with the Dominion Land Surveyors brought him west to Alberta where he participated in foundation surveys of the West for the next seven years. He then became Land Commissioner of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company and directed irrigation projects that helped to transform southern Alberta from a dry and arid region to an area suitable for farming. In particular, Magrath was a very important figure in the construction of the Galt Canal. Built between 1898 and 1900, the Galt Canal stretched from the St. Mary River near Kimball to Lethbridge and Stirling. It was the first large-scale irrigation project in Canada. To construct this canal he recruited Mormon workers from Utah and Iowa to dig. In lieu of half their payment, he provided them with land to settle on. In 1899, these settlers awarded him the honour of naming their city in southern Alberta, Magrath.

Group of Dominion Land Surveyors at Winnipeg (May 1882)
© Glenbow Archives. NA-878-7
Not only was Magrath involved in land development projects, but he was also very active on committees and in politics throughout his life. He served as a member of the Northwest Territories’ legislature from 1891 to 1898. At the same time he was the first president of the Lethbridge Board of Trade in 1889 and then went on to become Lethbridge’s first mayor in 1891. Three years after Alberta entered Confederation, Magrath became the Member of Parliament for Medicine Hat, a position he held until 1911. In that year he was appointed to the International Joint Waterways Commission, where he served for 25 years. In 1920 he used his knowledge of surveying and irrigation to serve as a chairman of a committee on drought conditions in southern Alberta.

Charles Alexander Magrath died on October 30, 1949 in Victoria, British Columbia. He was designated a National Historic Person for his many achievements in the engineering and surveying of the Canadian Prairies.

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