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Engaging History

by Dave Yanko

MOOSE JAW -- The tale is told of a popular River Street madam named Rosie Dale who ran afoul of Moose Jaw Police Chief Walter Johnson, a colorful cad who for more than 20 years ruled the streets of the city with a baton in one hand and ill-begotten money in the other.
River Street was the scene of much of the action in Moose Jaw's early years.
Rosie, who perhaps forgot to pay her "protection" fees, was banished from the city by Johnson.

But the plucky procuress didn't give up.

She set up shop several blocks southeast of town, just outside of Johnson's jurisdiction, and her business began to boom once again.

However there was a problem. Rosie's clientelle now needed special transportation to reach her new location. And while the livery stable owner wanted the extra business, he was short on carriage drivers.

Uncomfortable with the notion of losing new revenue, the enterprising livery man trained his horses to find their way to the brothel and back all by themselves. Rosie's customers just hopped aboard the buggy and grabbed the reins; the horses did the rest. And so was born, according to the tale, Moose Jaw's original u-drive service.

Gangsters ruled.

"Where there's a will, there's a way'' could well be Moose Jaw's motto. The same ingenuity that kept Rosie's business afloat and that put extra dollars into the livery man's pocket today is rejuvenating what used to be Moose Jaw's moribund economy. And it's the city's colorful past that's providing much of the raw material.

"All this history, including the legends and myths, are good stories,'' says Jeff Grajczyk, who's with The Tunnels of Moose Jaw. "That's what we have here. That's the great thing.''

Indeed, Moose Jaw history and lore looms large in a plan that would see tens of millions of dollars spent over the next several years on a series of tourism and cultural projects aimed at revitalizing the city. The goal is to turn the Moose Jaw into a world-class tourist destination. Already, there's been a good start.

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw is a high quality, interactive attraction that uses actor/guides and state-of-the-art animatronics to recreate the tunnel-and-basement underworld Chicago mobster Al Capone is believed to have frequented in the 1920s. That's when Moose Jaw was a hub for booze delivered by rail to the United States during Prohibition. A second Tunnels tour focuses on the plight of Moose Jaw's Chinese community around the turn of the century and a third, in the planning stages, will mine a rich vein of bootlegger stories.

More than two dozen murals adorn downtown Moose Jaw.

One of the earliest bootleggers was Annie Hoberg, owner of the Railway Restaurant in the 1890s. At that time, hard liquor was banned in Moose Jaw, which was then part of the North West Territories. Banned, but not unavailable, according to a story told during the colorful Moose Jaw Trolley Company tour of the city.

Annie served meals 24 hours a day to accommodate passengers of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of those passengers, male and female, enjoyed a drink at meal time and Annie didn't let them down.

During her regular train trips to Winnipeg, she used her fashionably long skirts and petticoats to conceal specially fitted rubber bags filled with hooch she smuggled back to Moose Jaw. So emboldened was she by her success in this enterprise that she even dressed up kegs of whiskey to look like sleeping babies and disguised crates of booze to resemble commodities like flour or beans. Until one of those crates slipped off the station platform.

Halina Johnson works on a new mural near The Station Centre Liquor Store, formerly the train station.

After paying her fine in a Regina courtroom, Annie retired to Manitoba with a wealthy rancher.

The past, distant and more recent, is evoked just about everywhere you look in downtown Moose Jaw. The trolley tour uses as its main point of departure the renowned Temple Gardens Mineral Spa, named after a popular dance hall that was built in 1921 and stood in the vicinity for more than half a century.

The spa is the engine and symbol of the downtown rejuvenation. It's a four-and-a-half-star (Canada Select) resort hotel featuring geothermally-heated mineral water from sources almost a mile beneath the city. Its large indoor/outdoor hot pool, luxurious suites, refined eateries and an "oasis" featuring an expansive array of therapeutic and relaxation treatments has made it a hit with visitors from near and far.

The Moose Jaw Trolley Company tour, featuring an attractive replica of one of the electric streetcars that operated in the city from 1911 to 1932, is a good way to get a sense for the breadth of Moose Jaw's history. Highlights include the best of more than two dozen wall murals depicting mileposts from the city's past, and a drive down the once-notorious River Street.

-- courtesy Temple Gardens Mineral Spa.
Temple Gardens spa celebrates a dance hall popular to generations of people.

Though it now bears little resemblance to the way it looked in its glory years, River Street is the setting for many of Moose Jaw's most entertaining stories about gamblers, bootleggers, "tom-catters", painted ladies, crooked cops and gangsters -- the old Empress Hotel, which burned down in 1987, is said to be the place Capone stayed when he visited Moose Jaw.

Nobody can prove Capone was ever actually in Moose Jaw. His name has not turned up in old hotel registries and no one has come forward with photos of the crime boss posing with Chief Johnson, for instance, in front of the old fire station. But Grajczyk says there exist six first-hand accounts of people who claim to have met the Chicago hoodlum when he was in Moose Jaw, including one from a barber who claimed he used to cut Capone's hair.

Beautiful Crescent Park is the heart of downtown Moose Jaw.

Chicago had a rail connection to Moose Jaw in the Soo Line, which ran from Saskatchewan to Chicago via Minneapolis. There's no question the Soo was a prime conduit for Canadian booze entering the States during Prohibition, and there's every reason to believe organized crime was involved in its procurement and transport.

Fitting, then, is the fact Moose Jaw's old train station, built in 1922 and refurbished more than 70 years later, is now the most beautiful place in Canada to buy liquor. And it's all legal.

For more information on Moose Jaw and her attractions, please click here.

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