I was born in this city sixty-eight years ago. My parents are buried in a cemetery on the south side of the city, beside my Uncle Art and Aunt Katherine, my father’s brother who married my mother’s sister. My wife’s parents are buried in another cemetery on the west side.
Moose Jaw is built at the confluence of three water courses. Spring Creek comes from the west, passes north of downtown, turns south, then east, makes a horseshoe bend and turns south again. Thunder Creek flows straight from west to east. The Moose Jaw River comes from the south, with many turns. When the three water courses meet, the Moose Jaw River turns and exits the city to the east. The wide spot in the river where the three meet is known as Plaxton’s Lake. There is a boardwalk here and farther along the river there are walking trails and picnic spots. This area is known as Wakamow Valley.
On the east side of the city, Spring Creek has mostly disappeared below street level. Eighty years ago the horseshoe bend downtown was developed into Crescent Park, a beautiful and peaceful spot covering more than six blocks that begins just a block away from Main Street.
In the 1880’s, Chinese workers were brought to Canada to build the CPR. It was expected that they would leave when the railroad was finished, but they showed no inclination to return to China. Laws were enacted to prevent the immigration of Chinese women — having all these Chinese men was bad enough, heaven help us if they bring wives over and start to multiply! More men kept coming. The government enacted a law requiring each Chinese man to pay a $500.00 head tax in order to stay in Canada legally.
This was an enormous sum of money. The men dug tunnels to live under the downtown area, bringing the dirt up at night and adding it to the piles of dirt at construction sites. The tunnels had secret entrances in the railway station, the hotels and the Chinese cafés. The men who scraped together enough money to pay the head tax were given a card with their photograph on it. The police cannot tell one Chinese man from another. A cook or waiter in a café could work his shift, disappear underground and hand the card to another worker.
The Chinese men discovered that the dusty and dirty cowboys bringing cattle to the meat packing plants are in need of a cheap place to sleep, a bath and a laundry and they provide these services in the tunnels.
Then came the Prohibition Era in the U.S. It was legal to produce whiskey in Canada, but not to sell it to the U.S. The Bronfman family was happy to look after the production part. The Soo Line Rail Road, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific, runs directly from Moose Jaw to Chicago. There was this wonderful maze of tunnels underneath the city, connected to the railroad station, just what Al Capone needed to look after the transportation end of things.
Moose Jaw shook off its stagnation by becoming a tourist destination. Two guided tours of the tunnels are offered, one tells about the Chinese history, the other about the Capone era. The Chinese tour has an off-colour reference or two, but it is a piece of our history that we should know. The Capone tour is pure glamorization of sleaze. I haven’t seen it and don’t intend to.
The Harwood Hotel was another grand old hotel fallen on hard times. Some enterprising citizens drilled a well to hot underground mineral springs, piped the water to the Harwood, refurbished the hotel and renamed it the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa. It features an outdoor swimming pool filled with hot mineral water on the second floor of an addition. There is now a casino across the street.
There are 46 murals and sculptures around the city. A double-decker bus gives tours, with commentary. The commentary is a problem. I once took a young lady on this tour and had to apologize to her after. I hadn’t anticipated that the commentary would focus so much on glorifying the sleaziest aspects of Moose Jaw’s past. The murals are worth seeing; now we do it on foot.
(written in 2010)