With the City of Prince Albert poised to become Saskatchewan’s economic powerhouse, everything was full steam ahead in the early 20th century.
© Photo courtesy of the Prince Albert Historical Society
The La Colle Falls hydroelectric project is seen being constructed, between 1911 and 1913.
By 1913, the dream, at least in part, was dead, with the city reporting a debt load of almost $4 million by 1915 — a load they carried for 50 years until it was fully paid off.
As writer Doug Brunton put it in the August 30, 1979 issue of Western People, “The ‘white coal city’ turned into a debt-ridden humbled little town and the great northern vision evaporated into the recession that preceded the First World War.”
Although many factors play into the economic hard times, a keystone figure of the city’s downfall has been cemented in history — the La Colle Falls hydroelectric project.
The economic boom
With many prominent buildings within the City of Prince Albert celebrating their centennial this year, the years 1910 to 1913 signalled a construction boom.
At this time, the Prince Albert Board of Trade put together a pamphlet directed at perspective investors, highlighting the community’s optimism.
“If you changed the dates, it looks like something they’d release in 2012,” Mayor Jim Scarrow said, citing an economic prosperous province that touts the “Saskatchewan advantage.”
The pamphlet is titled “Prince Albert: The White Coal City,” recognizing the area’s strong logging industry of the time.
An experienced traveller quoted in the pamphlet perhaps best summarizes the anticipated prosperity:
“The country which the Hudson Bay line will open is one of natural riches which have hitherto lain undeveloped. It has agricultural lands equal if not superior to any yet thrown open for settlement in Saskatchewan.
“It has exhaustible supplies of timber, pulpwood and fuel. It has lakes teeming with whitefish that the enterprise of the white man has never yet exploited. It has furs and game and minerals and its climate is made the same as that encountered anywhere in the habitable parts of northern Canada.
“When then will doubt the certainty of the future of Prince Albert, the already prosperous and rapidly growing city on the southern fringe of this belt of territory which will be opened for exploration by the advent of this pioneer railway?”
Hydroelectric dam proposed
Riding the economic boom of the time, the City of Prince Albert first began looking into the possibility of a hydroelectric dam along the North Saskatchewan River in 1906.
The city commissioned Toronto engineer Charles H. Mitchell to produce a report on the area’s hydroelectric potential.
In his report, Mitchell wrote that La Colle Falls could produce 10,000 horsepower yearly for a cost saving of $1 million. The initial estimated cost of the project was about $1 million.
At the time, City of Prince Albert residents consumed only 600 horsepower of electricity, with the project proposing the city sell electricity back to the grid.
Throughout the course of the next three years, excitement in Prince Albert grew. In 1909, the city decided to go ahead with project, even though Mitchell updated his initial report in 1909, reducing its estimated annual horsepower production to 9,200.
La Colle Falls failure predicted
The first negative chord was struck in 1910 — a year before construction of the La Colle Falls hydroelectric project began.
According to a City of Prince Albert document covering the events of the time, Board of Trade secretary and Prince Albert Herald publisher H.C. Beatty was the first to begin publically questioning Mitchell’s calculations.
“Beatty pushed for more detailed studies of the fluctuating river levels and flow rates, especially during low level winter months,” the city report reads. “Beatty also believed Mitchell did not have the necessary experience or qualifications to handle a project of this size.”
Later labelling Mitchell a “crackpot,” Beatty became discredited in the eyes of the public, his protests falling on deaf ears.
As it turns out, Beatty was right.
Construction comes to a halt
Construction came to a screeching halt after the Imperial Bank’s July 29, 1913, decision to refuse an additional $200,000 loan to the City of Prince Albert.
“The city was already well into an enormous overdraft and had no choice but to halt construction of the dam,” a 1989 paper by City of Prince Albert Tourism Marketing Department’s Shirley Mannweller reads.
About 200 concerned taxpayers showed up for a city council meeting to learn what the next step would be, according to the Aug. 13, 1913 edition of the Daily Herald.
We sing a Prince Albert Processional. Nature was in her happiest mood when she created the imperial Prince Albert district. What a mighty heritage — a country surpassing rich in sunshine, soil and seasons. We who have fallen heirs to great responsibilities are alive, awake, active in appreciation. Processional! Confident of our country, strong in our moral fibre, we march on to the hymn of a grand prosperity. Prince Albert Board of Trade in the early 20th Century
At this time, Mitchell told the public that the estimated cost of power would be $35 per horsepower instead of the initially estimated $25.
The initially expected water flow of 5,600 cubic feet per second proved too optimistic, with much lower levels reported in the winter months.
January of 1912, for example boasted flows of only 1,430 cubic feet per second.
The Prince Albert Daily Herald followed up this meeting of council with another article on Aug. 19, 1913, which included financials and the following preface indicative of the newspaper’s findings:
“A most disquieting feature of the report is the fact that expenditures in almost every instance have exceeded the original estimates and in some cases the discrepancies are startlingly unreasonable.”
Although citizens demanded Mitchell to explain the discrepancy between the initially proposed figures and actual ones, a subsequent explanation “turned out to be little more than an apology,” Mannwell’s report reads.
Although a few attempts were made in the subsequent couple years to breath new life into the project, it was ultimately abandoned.
A debt-ridden city
By 1915, the City of Prince Albert’s debt load was $3.33 million and a bank overdraft of $410,000, with further borrowing power denied.
The $2.72 million total cost to the failed La Colle Falls projects made up a large majority of this debt, with other developments undergone in anticipation of ongoing times of prosperity making up the balance.
Using a Bank of Canada inflation calculator, the combined debt load and bank overdraft figure sits at more than $74 million by 2012 standards.
Although it took the city until 1965 to pay off this debt, the city never had to declare bankruptcy.
“That debt, the city honoured,” Mayor Jim Scarrow said with pride. “As a result of that, we have this commendable community spirit.”
With the city under severe financial constraints for half a century, the community had to fundraise for things they wanted.
Hockey rinks, parks and community buildings — everything was fundraised for.
“”We’ve got to be the volunteer capital of the province,” Scarrow said, noting that this community-minded spirit extended well past the loan’s final payment in 1965.
The Art Hauser Centre, the E. A. Rawlinson Centre, the Alfred Jenkins Field House, and more recently the Friday Night Lights project, just about everything built in Prince Albert is possible as a result of a strong community effort.
La Colle Falls today
The La Colle Falls property, located about 45 kilometres east of the city, is still owned by the City of Prince Albert.
“It’s pretty cryptic,” City of Prince Albert capital projects manager Scott Golding said.
Although he’s visited the site in the past, he had to turn around mid-way there during his latest trip out, due to the roughness of the road.
“It’s an unfinished construction site,” he said, noting that it’s dangerous to be around.
The current hope is for it to be made into a designated historic site, Prince Albert Historical Society Deb Honch said.
“It has a very cool story, of that’s a big part of it,” she said. “As well, it’s a magnificent structure, sitting there in the middle of the river and it hasn’t even deteriorated that much.”
Next summer, the Prince Albert Historical Museum will celebrate the La Colle Fall’s centennial with a display showcasing its history.
Current plans to have the La Colle Falls site made hospitable to the public are in limbo, dependent on provincial or federal funding. This, Honch said, is still being looked into.
Although clear mistakes were made in the construction of the La Colle Falls project, Scarrow said that the community’s heart was in the right place for supporting it.
“In hindsight, it’s always easy to criticize,” Scarrow said. “I can’t fault them for trying to put Prince Albert on the map.”
But, he noted, clear lessons were learned, with the project remaining on the minds of the city’s present day elected officials.
“You’d better do the paperwork before the building!”