Remembering the brutal winter of 1919-1920

Alberta is well known for having some very severe winters. One of the most brutal winters ever experienced occurred almost a century ago in 1919-1920.

Central Alberta was already facing a number of significant challenges. The terrible First World War finally came to an end in November 1918.

Many local young men had lost their lives in the Great War and many more had come back with shattered health, both physically and mentally. The old Alberta Ladies College building on the East Hill had been turned into a special veterans’ hospital for those men suffering from what was then known as shell-shock.

The economy was not in very good shape either. The end of the War brought the worst inflation in Canadian history, followed by a sharp recession. The inflation wiped out many peoples’ savings, making it much harder to manage when hard times and rising unemployment hit.

The years 1918 and 1919 were also dry years. As a result, crop yields were generally poor. Central Alberta was still better off than other parts of the province.

Consequently, livestock feed was shipped to the drought-stricken areas of southeastern Alberta. Conversely, cattle were shipped north to the relatively green pastures east of Red Deer and around Pine Lake.

The fall was generally cool and dry.

Killing frosts became common by the end of September. The first permanent snowfalls hit towards the end of October. Many farmers got caught with unthreshed grain. In several cases, the farmers were far from finished the cutting and stacking of their crops.

Cold weather and snow hit with a vengeance during November.

By the middle of the month, there was nearly a metre of snow on the ground. By the end of the November, temperatures plunged to -37C.

The early onset of winter caught many people without adequate supplies of coal on hand. The local coal and firewood suppliers scrambled to bring in enough fuel to meet the sudden demand.

The cold and snow continued through Christmastime and on into the New Year. By the middle of January, the local thermometers were recording temperatures as low as -46C.

Most public meetings had to be cancelled due to the extreme weather.

The harsh conditions meant that farmers found it difficult to ship their livestock and grain to market. The weather also took a terrible toll on the local cattle and hogs. The quality of the animals plunged. Many perished from the cold. Feed supplies became short. Prices for hay soared.

March and April failed to bring the usual relief of spring. There were several days when the temperatures fell as low as -30 to -35C.

Most herds of cattle were literally starving.

One farmer reported that when he tried to transport some oat straw to feed his own animals, several frantic cattle began chasing his sleigh in hopes of grabbing a few bites of food off the end of the sleigh box.

The cold and miserable weather did not lift until the end of April. Then a new disaster hit. As large amounts of snow began to melt, the local rivers and creeks suddenly went into flood. One of the worst instances involved Waskasoo Creek.

The floodwaters swept westwards towards the downtown core. Only strenuous efforts by the City’s public works department and a large number of volunteers kept the flood away from the businesses along Gaetz Avenue.

People fervently hoped that the late spring and coming summer would finally provide some relief from the terrible weather experienced over the preceding months.