Boyle Street’s Penitentiary and Garment Factory
The northernmost road in eastern Boyle Street, 106A Avenue, is now lined with numerous multi-family dwellings and a few small businesses. This area was not densely populated until quite recently. But it was once the site of two notable Edmonton landmarks: a federal penitentiary in the early 20th century and a large blue jean factory after World War II. All traces of both have vanished completely.
From 1906 to 1920, people from Alberta and Saskatchewan convicted of serious crimes served their sentences in a federal penitentiary at 90 Street on 106A Avenue. A two-storey building housed close to 100 prisoners. They grew vegetables on federal land between the prison and the riverbank, mined coal underground in the riverbank area and did various other kinds of work, including bread baking.
Matthew McCauley, the namesake of the McCauley neighbourhood, was the prison warden from 1906 to 1911. McCauley lived in a warden’s residence, a large three-storey brick building located at 92 Street and 106A Avenue.
In the early 1920s Big 4 Moving and Storage took over the penitentiary building, and in the 1930s the warden’s residence became a children’s home/orphanage that continued to operate until the late 1960s.
The Great Western Garment Company (GWG), a clothing company best known for making blue jeans, was founded in 1911 by Charles A. Graham and Alexander Cameron Rutherford (the first Premier of Alberta). It began operations on 97 Street but in 1953 Edmonton’s rapidly growing post-war economy allowed the company to build a large new factory at 85 Street and 106A Avenue (where the Edgewater II four-storey apartment buildings are now). A further major addition to the plant was built in 1957.
At its height, GWG employed 1,600 people and produced 13,000 units per day. The employees were primarily immigrant women, with many living nearby in Boyle Street and McCauley. The plant closed in 2004 – designer jeans had overtaken the market, and many factory jobs were moving offshore.
Edmonton historian Catherine Cole has written a book about this remarkable local story, Piece by Piece (Goose Lane Editions, 2012). One of the many interesting photos in the book is of a teenager modelling a pair of GWG jeans for The Bay. The model was a hockey player by who had just recently arrived in the city – by the name of Wayne Gretzky. The new downtown Royal Alberta Museum has a “GWG room,” where many Edmontonians will probably learn for the first time about this major contributor to the city’s economy.
If you are walking on 106A Avenue today, you might well sense some ghosts. On this spot, prisoners worked, orphans were sheltered and immigrant women laboured every day at sewing machines in a large factory.
Note: Much of the information in this article is from McCauley Then & Now by Gary Garrison and Sara Coumantarakis (McCauley Revitalization & City of Edmonton, 2013), available in PDF format at bmcnews.org/pamphlets.
Anita Jenkins is a retired writer and editor who lives in Boyle Street.