Red Lights on the Prairies

red lights book photo

While perusing an assortment of used books at a Victoria book sale, the one above, Red Lights on the Prairies’[1] caught my eye – proving once again that covers do sell books. Flipping to the table of contents, my long held belief about my hometown being a quiet, unexciting, and frankly somewhat boring place was shattered. There it was, in black, white – and red.

James H. Gray is the author of several best selling books on the social history of western Canada. In this book, he reveals that from about 1880 to 1940, Lethbridge, and other emerging centres across the western Canadian prairies had thriving red light districts that persisted despite pressure from the temperance and moral reform societies. Gray’s well-documented book illustrates the frequent conflicts and often-fiery rhetoric between the reformers, town councils and police, who were caught in the middle. Town councils and police believed that prostitution couldn’t be eliminated, and so the next best thing was to contain it in segregated areas where it could be policed and monitored.

Mainstream history, Gray points out, has downplayed the existence of prostitution. The dearth of written material on the subject illustrates Gray’s point. Gray goes where other historian have seldom trod. His well researched treatise chronicles the role of prostitution in the development of western Canada, demonstrating that it was an integral part of the social and economic fabric of society.

“The generosity of the whores of the West was more than just legend; it was a well documented fact. A pioneer CPR company doctor recalled that in times of disaster it was always the local prostitutes to succour the sufferers or survivors.”[2]

Gray’s work gives insightful glimpses into the gritty reality of the lives of miners, cowboys, homesteaders and entrepreneurs, and into important issues of the day, from haphazard development, lack of planning, rancorous political battles. The author supplements his research with personal interviews that breathe life into the history.

Demographics explain the large assortment of bordellos that thrived in Lethbridge. The coalmines, on which Lethbridge was founded, attracted large numbers of young, single miners from Europe and the British Isles. Lethbridge became a major cattle-shipping point, attracting a second group of young men – cowboys. Between the two groups, they provided a very comfortable living for the madams and their girls. Gray writes,

“What other community, for example, could claim that its gaggle of whorehouses doubled as cultural centres, as Lethbridge’s did, during the expiring years of Victoria’s reign.

“By 1890 there were six brothels and the coal company dormitory within the triangle which was famous throughout southern Alberta as “The Point”. It’s gaudily painted two and three story houses became the town’s most prominent landmark. They could be spotted miles away from almost any direction, day or night.” [3]

In the photo below, “The Point” is the strip of land in the foreground, with the high-level bridge in the background.

The Point lethbridge Albeerta

 

In my next post, the life and times of Dolly Arthur– the last legal madam in Ketchikan, Alaska.

[1] Red Lights on the Prairies (Gray, 1971)

[2] Ibid. p. 197

[3] Ibid. p. 181

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