The battle of Hill 60

Janus takes a final look at Cranbrook's historic Red Light District

An 1897 photo of Westport

An 1897 photo of Westport

Jim Cameron

The Lemon Patch, The Waterfront, The Tenderloin, The Row, The 400, The Restricted District, The Red Light District — the area went by many a moniker, all veiled references to what it actually was: a home to Cranbrook’s painted ladies, fallen women, harlots, soiled doves, strumpets, sporting girls, ladies of the night, all veiled references to what they actually were: prostitutes.

The names may have been disguised but the area itself was pretty much out in the open. It formed one of the earliest sections of the Cranbrook Townsite on the east side of Clark (6th) Avenue between what is now 1st and 2nd Streets, a series of nearly identical one-story houses with a small veranda as the only decoration. Within a short time the restricted district sat practically side by side with churches, residences and businesses.

The first movement to rid the city of its red light district had its roots in the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1904, although it wasn’t until March 1906 that they felt disposed to send a formal delegation to city council asking for both the closure of city hotel barrooms on Sundays and the removal from town of the houses of prostitution.

Five ladies delivered two statements at the council meeting and “received the most respectful attention from the all-male council.” Mayor Geo T.Rogers went so far as to state that the ladies had a perfect right to come before council at any time to ask anything, as they were citizens of the town. Alderman James Greer was the only councillor to respond, assuring the delegation that the hotels would be asked to close on Sunday and perhaps even Saturday night. Additionally, he would favour any movement that would bring about the removal of the houses of prostitution.

The following week — at that time council meetings were held on a weekly basis — the subject of the hotels and brothels came up for discussion. Well, the subjects of the hotels did, anyway. The general drift seemed to be that Alderman Greer was short a few marbles if he thought the town could afford to lose the revenue generated by the Saturday night drinking crowd. In fact, the idea of closing on Sundays seemed to be somewhat extreme. The discussion, becoming heated at times, went on apace; so much so that any talk of the brothels appears to have been completely forgotten for the next three years.

In May 1909, a group of citizens gathered to form a local chapter of the provincial chapter of the national chapter of the Moral and Social Reform Council. The resultant mission statement touched on “temperance, gambling, immoral literature and obscene pictures, social vice, law enforcement, education and sensitizing public opinion, oversight of voter’s lists and other ways to advance the moral and social welfare of the community.” An all-encompassing mandate if ever there was one.

First move: get rid of the red light district. So-saying, a petition was circulated within the community garnering 224 signatures, a large percentage of the voting ratepayers. Said petition was duly presented to the local police commission in July 1909. This time the matter was taken more seriously. In October, Mayor J.P. Fink declared that the “red light district would be removed and none of the “inmates” allowed to settle in the vicinity except in the block next to the nuisance grounds [garbage dump] about a mile from town.” In fact, the area designated for the new red light district, conveniently out of city limits, was Block 131 of the original Cranbrook Townsite survey.

The locals seemed satisfied (one way or another) and the new area served its purpose until the advent of World War One, when a provincial mandate required the closing of all red light districts in the province. Following the war the area once again opened up and was soon sardonically nicknamed “Hill 60”. The original Hill 60, it may be noted, was a small prominence in the Ypres salient, the site of ferocious fighting during World War I. The Hill, deemed an important military position, changed hands more than once and was finally blown to smithereens in 1917, when the 1st Australian Tunneling Co. detonated 450,000 lbs of underground explosives creating one of the largest explosions in recorded history and killing an estimated 10,000 German soldiers.

Cranbrook’s namesake remained in ever-decreasing use throughout the next three decades. The Depression of the 1930s, WWII and increasing public pressure finally put paid to the concept. Today the former “Hill 60” is the site of Mountain View Village, a retirement community.

Endnotes: In his book “Red Lights on the Prairies” (Macmillan 1971) author James Gray states in his preface; “…there were no red lights used on the prairies to identify ‘red-light districts.’ research has turned up only a single reference to red lights actually being used, and that in Cranbrook, British Columbia.” He does not give his source.

Though none of the original houses of prostitution remain on 6th Avenue it is worth noting that, in 1910, Mr. R. Stewart applied for permission from the city to move two of the houses from 6th Avenue to a new location on 8th Avenue. The city, unable to find a legal way to block the application, was forced to grant the request. The present day location of the buildings is unknown but if you live on 8th Avenue and are wondering why your house has so many bedrooms you may have your answer.

A special thank you to the knowledgeable and helpful staff of the City of Cranbrook  Engineering Dept.