The Horton Water Spheriod under construction in Mountview 1958. (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

DAWE: New Year’s Eve 1958

The world had experienced some very tumultuous times in the past three years. There is also a great deal of uncertainty about the coming year. It is interesting to reflect back to a very different time nearly 65 years ago as 1958 ended and 1959 commenced.

There had been a mild recession in Canada and the United States, but there were many signs that the economy was on the upswing again. During 1958, the Toronto Stock Exchange hit record levels.

If there was still some softness in the Canadian economy, Red Deer and Central Alberta were having a very different experience. The community was enjoying one of the greatest booms in its history. New businesses and new homes were springing up everywhere. The City issued $4.7 million in building permits, up an amazing 48% from the numbers recorded in 1957.

New subdivisions, particularly in Eastview, Hillsboro (Joseph Welsh), West Park and North Red Deer continued to expand. With so many young families moving to Red Deer, new schools were built, or else had major additions constructed onto them.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of the strength of the boom came in the population statistics. Red Deer’s population soared by an incredible 21% to 16,500 residents. This massive increase in population earned Red Deer the designation of being the fastest growing city in Canada.

The physical size of Red Deer increased exponentially as well. Large new areas were annexed, tripling the area covered by the City. The addition of those living in these annexed areas helped to boost the City’s official population numbers.

All this growth put a great strain on the City’s services. There was an immense and continuous program of building roads and sidewalks, installing water lines and sewers and creating new parks and playgrounds. Red Deer’s skyline dramatically changed with the construction of the Horton Spheroid, the new water tower in the Mountview subdivision that was deemed to be the largest water tower in North America.

There was great concern about paying for all these new municipal utilities and services. Red Deer’s municipal debt did soar to more than $6 million, a large sum for a community that had long prided itself on being a debt-free municipality.

Nevertheless, City Council was able to hold the tax rate constant. The

City relied on the increase in assessments to cover the increased need for revenues. Moreover, because of concern about the possible impact on future growth, prices charged by the City for land in the new industrial area west of the C.P.R. tracks were actually lowered.

As to be expected, the 1958 Christmas season brought record sales for local merchants. Very mild weather, often well above freezing, furthered the sense of good times and optimism.

The weather got somewhat colder on Boxing Day. However, few were prepared for storm which hit on New Year’s Eve. Temperatures plunged by 30° C in a few hours. There was rain, followed by sleet, followed by heavy snow. There was a terrific windstorm with gusts exceeding 100 k.p.h. There was also a great deal of lightening which created an eerie green glow over the City.

Road conditions became very treacherous with the snow falling on top of sheets of ice. Public works crews did their best to keep the roads open, but it was a constant struggle. Fortunately, almost everyone decided that it was best to stay home and there were no fatal accidents reported.

The City’s electric crews had some of the worst struggles, as they tried to keep the power on, despite heavy wind and ice damage to the power lines. The City’s Electric Light and Power Superintendent, Ozzie Mills, called the conditions the worst and most dangerous that he had seen in 22 years.

As it was, some parts of the City faced power outages for as long as three hours. There were some repeat outages as the storm continued to rage.

Fortunately, the dramatic storm was not a harbinger of challenging economic times ahead. Red Deer’s growth slowed somewhat from the incredible pace recorded in 1958, but the boom continued. Red Deer was well on its way to becoming one of the major urban centres of Alberta.

Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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