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The Rivers that Shaped Calgary

by Christine Hayes - 0 Comment(s)

PC 1308

At the Junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, Calgary

Postcards from the Past, PC1308

I’ve written before, I think, on the rivers of Calgary, or more specifically, on the floods in Calgary. But the theme of this week’s Heritage Roundtable got me thinking about the importance of the rivers in Calgary’s history. After all, we are a city with a district called Bridgeland – obviously, there is some importance attached to the rivers and the crossing of them. The earliest settlement of Calgary was established at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers. Fort Calgary was built in 1875 in what is now the east side of the city but at the time, and until the CPR decided to situate further west, it was the hub of settlement in this area. There is a reason that City Hall is in the east end of Calgary, that was, in the early years, where the action was.

It is possible that the decision to establish the settlement where the Bow and the Elbow meet was in keeping with the encampment of the First Nations people who would settle there for the winter. The bluffs around the city, carved by those very rivers, were suitable for use a buffalo jumps and the water was clear and clean and necessary for life. The Elbow River still serves as the source of our drinking water, which is some of the best in the world. This was not always the case. Before the construction of the Glenmore Dam, the city’s water was delivered via a gravity feed system from somewhere near Twin Bridges to a reservoir in what is now the Richmond Green golf course. Reports of small fish and other things coming through the taps prompted the building of a proper dam and water treatment system that still serves part of the city.

The history of the library was also affected by the river running through our centre. Alexander Calhoun felt it was necessary to establish Calgary’s first branch library on the north side of the Bow because the inhabitants of that side of the city were cut off from the “city proper”.

I can’t imagine what life would be like without those marvelous rivers. I remember lazy summer afternoons drifting down the Elbow, skipping school to swing on the rope in what is now Lindsay Park, but was, then, just scrub land. I love the summer walks in the Weaselhead area, watching the swallows building their nests on the bridges and visits to the pelicans at the weir in the Bow. The Bow and Elbow rivers have played an important role in many aspects of the growth and development of Calgary and they have provided the inhabitants of Calgary with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

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Bow River and Irrigation Canal, Calgary

Postcards from the Past PC143

In addition to the historic images of the rivers in and around Calgary available in our Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library (link is on our homepage and to the left of this entry), we have a number of different books that have interesting information on the history of water in Calgary. Max Foran's Calgary: an illustrated history has a very good account of the founding of the city, as well as information about Calgary's water supply. From Prairie to Park by Morris Barraclough, which is available in the collection At Your Service: part 1 includes a very detailed history of Calgary's parks including the attempts by early horticultural pioneers such as William Pearce to bring irrigation, and therefore the ability to grow trees, into the city. We also have two books by John Gilpin on order for the collection: Elbow Valley: a People Place and Builders and Benefactors: the Story of Calgary's Parks and Open Spaces. both are listed in the library catalogue and, so, you can place a hold on either or both. We are looking forward to reading them ourselves.


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