History of Swift Current

Swift Current Creek

Swift Current has a long and fascinating history which begins with a creek, and in turn, a railroad. The creek winds its way across a hundred miles of wind-swept prairie until it empties into the mighty South Saskatchewan River. First Nations people knew it well and camped alongside the creek banks for centuries.

The name of the creek has its own history, and over time has evolved into what we know today as Swift Current. The first known name is believed to have come from the Cree, who referred to it as “kisisk√Ęciwan.” The word means “it flows swiftly,” and is the same word used to describe the Saskatchewan River.

When early fur traders found the creek on their westward treks in the 1800s, they named it “Riviere Au Courant,” which means “Swift Current”. Henri Julien, who was an artist with the North West Mounted Police expedition that arrived in 1874, referred to it as “Du Courant,” while Commissioner French noted “Strong Current Creek” in his diary during the same period. It would be another decade before it was officially recorded, but it appears the area was and always has been known as Swift Current.

Railroad Beginnings

Surveyors for the Canadian Pacific Railroad soon followed the fur traders, and by the 1880s the line was staked out as far as Swift Current Creek. In 1882, the townsite of Swift Current was reserved, and development began with the arrival of the grader and track layers in the fall. Swift Current was born in the North West Territories on December 10, 1882, when a CPR crew threw off a box car beside the track and attached the name Swift Current.

For quite some time, Swift Current was the freight terminus for Western Canada. Goods that arrived by rail to the area were hauled great distances on overland trails. It was a common sight to see long trains of teams coming over the north hill, dust obscuring the sky as the slow moving oxen strained to pull their heavily loaded Red River Carts to the crest of the hill. The Battleford Trail from Swift Current cut deep wagon ruts which may be seen to this day.

Swift Current’s designation as a CPR divisional point required a reliable water supply to steam railway engines. A stone and plank dam that was nearly 400 feet in length was soon built. With a steady water supply in place, the settlement of Swift Current had begun. A lot of things have changed since that rail crew detached a box car and called it Swift Current, but what hasn’t is its long and prosperous history with the railroad, a relationship that continues to exist today.

City Settlement

Fraser Tims followed the railroad builders and opened the very first business in Swift Current in 1882. It was a general merchandise store. The first homestead in Swift Current was filed on August 24, 1885 by William G. Knight. Charles Powell and Alfred Fenton were the next to arrive and file claims. It would take almost a decade, but by the early 1890s, the settlement was beginning to take shape.

In 1895, the North West Territorial Government passed the Village Ordinance act which laid out the requirements to be considered a village. A petition was prepared by Swift Current in 1899 to become a village, but was ruled to be too small because the act required there be a minimum of 15 dwellings. The goal to become a village did not take long to achieve, and it took even less time to become a town. On September 21, 1903, Swift Current became a village under the Village Ordinance Act.

Swift Current became a town four years later, on March 15, 1907, following a census which indicated the population had now grown to a total of 550 persons. Swift Current and the surrounding district were growing, and in 1907 began a seven year period where the growth surpassed everything that had gone before. With the influx of settlers into the large farming community, Swift Current became a City on January 15, 1914. This was the beginning of the boom years and it resulted in numerous buildings, landmarks and industry that continue to serve the city today.

The Boom Years

As a city, Swift Current has experienced many periods of growth, but none have matched that first boom of 100 years ago. During this time, there were long lines waiting in front of the Land Titles Office, and local land developers were listing properties on the far end of the city’s boundaries. This was a remarkable period, and is unrivalled in the history of the city.

Businesses in the downtown area soon included 8 major banks, 5 hotels, 4 theatres and 3 newspapers. The rapid growth and buoyant optimism led to the building of many of the landmarks that exist today. These included the Professional Building, the Court House, and Central School. These buildings symbolized the emergence of Swift Current as a city in its own right and they have served the community since their inception.

Along with the growth of Swift Current, the surrounding area progressed as well. Thousands of settlers arriving from Europe saw the west as a new home where they could live and prosper through ranching and farming. One of the biggest and most notable ranches of the time was the ten thousand acre “76,” which included 35,000 sheep. Many of the “ranch hands” from the 76 went on to form their own family ranches, some of which continue to operate today.

The Thirties

Along with the boom years, Swift Current has dealt with its share of hardships. Perhaps none were greater than the Great Depression of the 1930s. This drought lasted almost a decade and turned the prairies into a dust bowl. Ranches, farms and businesses suffered huge losses. Many people were forced to leave, but as always, there were those who stayed and refused to quit.

Ranchers and farmers have always faced challenges. This decade however, was the harshest on record and yet, they found ways to survive. It wasn’t easy, and in the end it came down to the people who lived and worked in the area. They maintained their long-held belief in the land and, in many ways, they represented the spirit of the west.

This belief and spirit endures today across the Southwest and is reflected in Frontier Days, Swift Current’s annual rodeo and exhibition. This celebration of agriculture began in 1938 and was created during a period of hard times. The event captured people’s attention, sparking an annual exhibition which continues to this day, and is a tribute to the City’s past, present and future.

The War Years

Swift Current’s past includes the First World War and Second World War. The First War lasted from 1914 to 1918 and the Second War from 1939 to 1945. Both of these World Wars saw young men enlist from the area. Most of these soldiers would return home to their families and Victory Parades. Many others, would never come back.

In the First World War, Swift Current was headquarters for the 14th Light Horse Regiment. During the Second World War, the 8th Recce Regiment was recruited here. This group of men landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. From 1940 to 1944, Swift Current served as a training base for pilots who served with the Royal Air Force.

During both of these World Wars, the community sold Victory Bonds to assist with the effort. Millions of dollars were raised and each year the City gained its Honour Flag for reaching its annual campaign targets. Swift Current’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch No 56 was formed in 1915 and its right arm, the Ladies Auxiliary, came into force in 1940. The present Legion building was opened in June 1967.

Fabulous Fifties

The fifties brought more than just large tail fins to car dealer showrooms in the city. The decade brought wildcatters and drillers to the area when both oil and gas were discovered. The first successful oil find was the Fosterton Well drilled in 1952. This discovery 30 miles northwest of the city led to another boom period and companies continue today to expand their drilling for oil and natural gas.

This decade saw other new developments in Swift Current and it was an exciting time for both listeners and viewers. CKSW was launched on June 1, 1956. It was the City’s first radio station and was owned by Frontier Broadcasting. The company was formed by Bill Forst, a broadcast entrepreneur, and a group of local shareholders.

Within two years however, Forst left to pursue another project. This time it involved bringing television to Swift Current. The station was CJFB-TV and it signed on the air on December 23rd, 1957. For the first time, people could see, in their homes, what before they could only listen to or read about. CJFB-TV would be operated by the Forst family for almost half a century.

Trans Canada

The 1960s brought large changes in transportation routes that would affect the location of business, and in upcoming decades, numerous plans and developments. Up until the 1950s, Highway One traveled directly through Swift Current on Chaplin Street. This route changed in 1968 when the newly built Trans Canada Highway was expanded to a four lane expressway and bypassed the City on the north side.

The Trans Canada provided new opportunities for business, and being adjacent to it would prove to be important to the long term growth of Swift Current, however the location of the highway re-shaped the City itself. Businesses now began building alongside the highway. They included motels and fast food franchises, all seeking to capture the attention of travellers who could now trek easily by automobile across the country.

The location of this highway would in time also bring new shopping malls, subdivisions and neighbourhoods. This includes the building of the Northeast and Trail subdivisions. It’s been almost 50 years since the building of the Trans Canada began, and today, Swift Current not only reaches the highway, but it now encircles the route through the City. One million vehicles pass through each year, and like the railroad that came before it, the Trans Canada Highway is a key link to Swift Current’s stability and future.

Medicare

Before the first doctor, hospital or clinic opened in Swift Current, settlers had to either fend for themselves, or they called on Hilliard Gregory, who used medicinal herbs to help his patients. Hilliard’s treatments were trusted and accepted by the pioneers in the area.

The first practicing doctor in the City was W.H. Field who arrived in Swift Current in 1903. He was followed by Dr. Louis Hopplin and by Dr. A.E. Kelly. Swift Current’s first hospital was built in 1912 and the first medical clinic opened on Central Ave in 1918. This clinic was the first of its kind in Saskatchewan, but it was an indication of things to follow in Health Services.

In 1946, a pilot project for province-wide health care began in Swift Current. The project received international attention and history was made when it became the first government funded medical plan in North America. Medicare was implemented across the province in 1962, and in time it would be introduced across the country.

The Cypress Regional Hospital opened in 2007. The building of this new regional hospital is a source of pride in the community and represents another health care accomplishment by the people of Southwest Saskatchewan.

Sources: Swift Current Museum, City of Swift Current