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The McKay House

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

AJ 1434

McKay House, circa 1960s

Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1434

When Point McKay was developed, I was still young enough to mourn the loss of the Cinema Park Drive- In rather than contemplate the origin of the name or the heritage that it represented. At the time it looked like a great expanse of empty land – I had no idea what it was. And then I forgot about it.

And that is what is so great about my job. A customer came in looking for information about the old house in Point McKay. “What old house,” I asked in my ignorance. Well, there is an old sandstone house in amongst all the new development, which is being used as a community centre. So, of course, I had to remedy my ignorance and do some digging (I know – it’s unforgivable that I didn’t know about this, but hey, I was diverted by the drive-in!)

What I uncovered was a fascinating story of a real pioneer family. Alfred McKay originally came to this area on the original CPR survey in 1880. In 1886 he returned to Calgary and squatted on a beautiful plot of land on the Bow, across the river from the CPR line and the sandstone bluffs above it. He built a log cabin and by 1891 he had clear title to his homestead. To build his house, he would quarry sandstone across the river and, when the river had frozen, he would move the stone across to his plot. It took him several years to quarry the stone and build the house, but, according to his son Gordon, all was completed by 1904 and the family moved in. In an article, written at the time of the naming of Point McKay, Gordon and his sister, Mrs. G.S. Lord (yes, that was how women were addressed then), remembered that the house was quite modern for its time; it had a bathtub and running water and a pump run by a windmill (or by the kids, depending on the weather). The children remembered their father’s mustache, which he had sworn never to shave off as a reminder of the friends he had made on the survey. Alfred’s wife died in 1908, leaving him with seven children to raise. The house was added to over the years, making more room for the growing family.

Alfred lived in the home he had built until his death in 1940. He had donated 50 acres of his homestead to the city, land that became Shouldice Park. The house stayed in the family’s hands until 1953. That was when the land became Calgary’s largest drive-in, the Cinema Park. In the late 70s land in the city, especially on the river, was becoming a bit too pricey for something like a drive-in (and residents of Parkdale were likely never happy that it was there in the first place) so by 1978 show units were being built by Campeau. The house was nearly lost, as vandals set fire to it in 1977, but it was saved and turned into the community centre by the developer.

So, one of the wonderful old homes in the city still lives on its original site, thanks to the developer and early exponents of heritage preservation. I like learning about success stories.

If you have a home with a great story behind it, or would like to find out if your homes has a hidden past, or if you’re just curious about the history of houses in Calgary, join us on March 9 for “Research the History of your House.” Librarians, archivists and researchers from the three members of our “Heritage Triangle” (City Archives, Glenbow Museum, Library and Archives, and Calgary Public Library) will be on hand to introduce you to the wonderful world of house history. It takes place at 10:30 in the morning in Meeting Room 1, Lower Level, Central Library. Register online, in person or by telephone at 403-260-2620.

ARticle from Sep 28 1940 Calgary Herald

Photograph of Alfred S. McKay on the occasion of his 80th Birthday

Calgary Herald, September 28, 1940, p10

'88 Winter Olympics

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

Pam File


Come together in Calgary, Host city for the XV Olympic Winter Games, 1988

Promotional publication from the CHFH Collection

It is hard to believe (and even harder for me to admit) but it has been 25 years since the winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. I was working at the Central Library at the time and it was the most wonderful and weird experience I have ever had. People from all over the world speaking languages I didn’t even know existed, were here in our little town. The place was really hoppin’ and we were here in the middle of it. For ten days we were a cosmopolitan city. And I think that once we had the taste of this worldliness, we were hooked. The city changed forever after 1988. We had been given the example of what we could be and we wanted it. We were Cowtown no more.

You can capture some of the optimism that gripped the city by checking out the documentary history of the Olympics. I’d forgotten what a treasure trove we have here in the Local History room until one of my colleagues from our Virtual Services popped down to see if we had anything cool she could photograph for our Facebook page. Well, that set me off on a tangent – sometimes we get carried away and return way too much information, just like Google. I uncovered endless shelves of material that we had collected from the time of the original idea, through the bid process and on through the development and then the games themselves. My colleague was entranced by the volunteer handbook - a major document handed out to all the Olympic volunteers along with their teal blue jackets. This was an appropriate item for her to feature, as it embodied, more than any other item, the spirit of those volunteers and the pride Calgary can take in the fact that this voluntarism continues to be a distinguishing characteristic of our city.

The Olympics made us feel special, and we’ve managed to hold on to that feeling. If you’d like to relive that magical moment, visit us at the Central Library on the 4th floor and check out some of the really cool items we have in the collection. We’d love to see you.

from news releases

Artist's rendering of the proposed Canada Olympic Park at Paskapoo, 1983

From a collection of press releases in the Local History collection

Eau Claire

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

 

AJ 1288

Former Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Mill Offices, converted to Centre Cafe

Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, ca1964

What is it about January that makes me all sentimental? I don’t know, but I do start to look at things that were familiar in my youth and think, “Ah, yes, I remember.” One of those moments was sparked by an article in the September 30, 1919 issue of the Calgary Daily Herald that I encountered while I was (supposed to be) transcribing birth, marriage and death announcements. It was an article about the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company and the improvements it had made, which made it one of the most modern mills in Western Canada. My memories of Eau Claire were different. Of course, while I was growing up, I’d known of Peter Prince and Eau Claire, but the district itself was not a place where nice people went. My memories of Eau Claire looked like the Alison Jackson photo above; run down, a little bit scary and certainly not a worthy development on the banks of our beautiful Bow.

It was hard, then, to imagine the mill, but not hard to imagine that this was once a large, industrial site. It had a look of neglect. It wasn’t until I started to pursue the history of Peter Prince and the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company that I discovered what a massive operation it was and how important it was in the development of Western Canada. It provided the materials that would be needed to build the new houses and farms and shops and other buildings that would grow up around the CPR line. The name of the company and the district that would grow up around it came from a place in Wisconsin. When the government was looking to sell off the lumber rights to the timber stands in the Bow Valley, a Winnipeg lawyer named MacFee got the news and saw that there was money to be made. He had inside information from a friend, David MacDougall, son of the Reverend George, who ran a trading post next door to the church on the Nakoda nation. MacFee needed the expertise of industry insiders and since Eau Claire, Wisconsin was the centre of the US logging industry (and had lured many Canadians south to work for them) he headed there. The lumbermen saw the potential and formed the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co, and two expat Canadians came north to Fort Calgary. President Isaac Kerr was born in Ontario and manager Peter Prince, whose magnificent home was moved to Heritage Park, was born in Quebec. As part of the agreement with the government, the leases were surveyed in 1884 and these documents now live at the Glenbow Archives, along with lots of other records about the company. The surveys can be viewed online through the Archives Society of Alberta database. Here is the link for the Bow River limits survey.

By 1886 Prince had a small mill operating on the land the company had purchased just north of the Calgary townsite. Logging crews were dispatched and by 1887 there were log drivers on the Bow. The company grew as the demand for their product grew. To better access the mill, a channel was dug through a small isthmus, giving us what is known today as Prince’s Island. Kerr and Prince would also be instrumental in harnessing the power of the Bow River to provide electricity. The picture below shows the power generating plant. Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber would remain in business until 1945.

So, from the industrial to the residential, Eau Claire has had a varied history. I still like to wander around down there (now that I can do so safely) and think, “Ah yes, I remember.”

If you are interested in the history of the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company, there is an excellent chapter in an excellent book about the Bow River, The River Returns by Armstrong, Evenden and Nelles.

 

The Flood Gates, Bow River, Calgary

Postcards from the Past, PC 797

 

PC 797

A Bookless Library...and Other Wonders

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

Microphotography

 

Professor Fessenden's Photographic Dictionary

Daily Herald, December 29, 1896, p3

Viewed on Our Future Our Past

With the New Year approaching, I was at loose ends as to what my first blog entry of 2013 was going to be. In effect, I rung out the old year in the last post and I wanted to find something, well…weird…to start off a year that seems to portend some bad karma (not that I’m suspicious, or anything, but there are two Friday the 13ths in 2013 and I feel maybe we just jumped the shark with that Mayan calendar thing).

So, I reverted to form and started reading the newspapers to see what I could find that was weird and wonderful. The first article that caught my eye was an article written in December of 1896 that referred to a ‘bookless library’. Publishing houses were churning out huge amounts of literature and libraries were bursting at the seams (some things don’t change). An inventor was offering a solution – a device that would record information on photographic plates and then project them on a wall. Reginald A. Fessenden, a Canadian-born scientist, had developed form of microphotography which would allow large volumes of material to be stored in a small space. With the invention of such technology, what would become of the libraries? Books as we know them would cease to exist and libraries would be stocked with microform. Sound familiar?

Interestingly, I read about this on Our Future Our Past, in a digitized version of the microfilm copy of the Daily Herald. It is interesting that with the arrival of e-books and digital formats we are facing the same questions in the 21st century as did in the 19th. It is also, perhaps ironic, that we are still talking about preserving collections of microfilm, which, for many, remains the most durable of the storage formats. Anyone who has attended my genealogy presentations knows my old joke – if 2013 proves to be the end of the world as we know it, the cockroaches will read about us on microfilm.

Bicycle buggy

 

 

I couldn’t end this post on such a glum note, so I included this invention, the Bicycle Buggy, said to be sure to scare any self-respecting horse which encounters it. (Calgary Daily Herald January 5, 1891 p 2 viewed on Our Future Our Past)

Merry Christmas, 1912 Style

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC 152

Merry Christmas from the Carnegie Library, Calgary, Alberta

Postcards from the Past, PC 152 ca 1912

Whew, we’ve made it. It has been a year packed with lots of great events. This was the year of our 100th birthday, as well as the 100 year celebrations for many of the structures that were built during our 1912 boom. We were the City of culture for 2012 and we hosted a special edition of the Bob Edwards awards. The Mayan calendar came to an end and we are all still here, so all in all, the year was a great success. This will be my last chance to talk about the heady days of 1912 – and since 1913 marked the end of the boom, I am going to close out the year talking about what people were doing for Christmas in that year.

The weather was a bit chilly. The temperature was expected to go up to -1C after an overnight low of -13C.

Charity was a great part of Christmas in Calgary. The Morning Albertan’s Santa fund was over a thousand dollars and The Salvation Army was distributing over 100 food hampers (flour bags filled with necessities for a Christmas celebration) to needy families and providing pastries to people in jail. They also held a Christmas dinner for needy single men.

But giving was also on the agenda, as always. The Calgary post office was overwhelmed with letters and parcels from the Old Country (England). Three special trains were sent west with parcels from the Empress of Ireland.

Pryce Jones stayed open until 11 o’clock on the 23rd and 24th to accommodate those last minute shoppers. The store was offering a new and chic accoutrement for the autoists (i.e people who had cars) – foot muffs. These intriguing little goodies would fit both tender feet of the “fair autoists” (i.e. girls in cars) and would swathe them in fur, to keep them from freezing in the unheated and mostly open automobiles. These little luxuries ran from $3.00 to $12.50 depending on the amount and quality of the furs used. You could have these gifts delivered to your door on Christmas Eve.

Hudson’s Bay was even more modern, offering gift certificates for those who just couldn’t decide on what gift to give.

Senator Lougheed announced that “Miss Calgary”, our dear city, was getting some great presents including a new million dollar post office, a customs warehouse, immigration building and an armory.

As a reaction to this frenetic holiday season a group was formed in New York calling itself, SPUG, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. The idea spread like wildfire among the young, fashionable club men and women who believed that society had moved away from the fun and good times spent with family and friends and focused too much on the money one spends.

Food, as much a part of Christmas celebrations as Useless Giving, was very much on the minds of our Calgarians, albeit with a bit of a different twist. Restaurants were getting ready for the rush of Christmas diners. Some didn’t change their menus much, except to add turkey, but the Club Café had an unexpected delicacy to offer, a black bear cub. Many homemakers were planning to roast a fat capon, in lieu of the expected turkey as the capons were less expensive and tastier and the leftovers could be used to prepare various chicken dishes and dainties. The secret to a good capon was the use of fatty bacon as a wrapping as well the liberal application of butter (I think you could probably roast a cardboard box with fatty bacon and butter and make a passable meal!) Stuff that with bread crumbs and a half pound of truffles which have been soaked in Madeira, a goose liver and, of course, bacon and you will have a feast fit for a king.

So, it seems that nothing has really changed, eh? We are still rushing about in the cold, desperate to get that last minute gift and falling back on the gift certificate when we just can’t make up our minds. Young people are still objecting to the commercialization of Christmas, while homemakers are still trying to find the best way to cook a peculiar and rather unpleasant bird to make it palatable. We are still faced with the fact that not everyone will be able to have a happy Christmas, but we are still showing what a great city we are by giving to charities that try to ensure a decent Christmas for the less fortunate. So, my wish for you is that you enjoy the holidays, however you may spend them.

Christmas Picture

Matters of Money

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

 

1913 Muncipal Manual

City of Calgary Municipal Manual

Currently on display on the 4th floor of the Central Library

 

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing.” Jean Baptiste Colbert, 1619-1683

City Council is meeting this week to discuss the next budget and it looks like our taxes may be going up again. Governments have to get their money somewhere, and taxation and fees are generally the way they go about it. This topic came up when I was talking to the students at King George School. They will be doing a project to celebrate their school’s centennial and I wanted to tell them what life was like in Calgary in 1913. I consulted the Municipal Manual for that year (we have a complete collection of the manuals in the Local History Room at the Central Library) to find out general facts about the city and found some of the fees and taxes charged in 1913. Things were not much different then, we paid taxes based on a mill rate which was based on the assessed value of the house. Citizens could challenge their assessments if they felt they were out of line. We were charged for water, fees for taxis were set out as were fees that chimney sweeps could charge. What is a little different was how these fees were calculated. For example, annual water rates were calculated first by the number of rooms in the dwelling starting at $5.00 for five rooms and going up $10.00 for 15 rooms with 50 cents charged for each additional room. Added to the base rate were charges for each “additional convenience” such as a sink, toilet or bathtub ($1.00 for each of these). You were also charged $1.00 for a lawn and $1.00 for the first horse or cow and 50 cents for each additional animal. There were separate rates for commercial customers, hotels, churches and other concerns ($40.00 for a public skating rink for example)

The city government also raised money by charging for licenses. To hold a circus on a public holiday or during exhibition week, the license cost $500. At other times of the year it w as $200 unless the daily entrance fee was under 25 cents, for which the license was only $100. It was $4 to register your female dog, $2 for a male. Junk stores (remember those?) had to pay a license fee of $50 while a rag and bottle man paid only $5.

These fees are only meaningful if we have a look at what other things cost at the time. A lot in Capitol Hill was listed at $400 while a lot on 13th Avenue W (a much tonier neighbourhood) was $2200. A seven room bungalow-style house in Mount Royal, on a 53 foot lot, was listed at $8500 (and even then the lot was advertised as being very good site for an apartment block) while homes in the Ogden district were selling for $1600 to $2000. The going rate for a general, all-round servant was about $30 a month and employment in the new field of movie projectionist would net you about $25 a week. A good man’s suit could be had for $15 and a pair of ladies Radium brand stockings sold for 50 cents. Twenty pounds of sugar cost $1.10 while a pound of English coffee (don’t know, I’ve had coffee in England and that isn’t a recommendation but…) was 24 cents.

1913 was the beginning of the end of one of Calgary’s famous booms. Land speculators who had pinned their hopes on the expansion of the city to the north of the Bow would sell their land at bargain basement prices and growth would be stalled. Fees didn’t go down, though, and new ones were added ($25 a year for a gumball machine license in 1916). Then, in 1917 a temporary measure was introduced to help finance Canada’s part in the First World War – the income tax – and we are still waiting for that one to be revoked.

PC 50

 

Eighth Avenue Looking East, ca 1913

Postcards from the Past, PC 50

Calgary's Chequered Past: Auto Racing in the Stampede City

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC 1270

Demonstration by the 100,000 Club

Postcards from the Past, PC 1270

I had the immense joy of being at Phoenix International Raceway for the infamous Sprint car race that saw a huge brawl in the pits after one driver deliberately forced another into the wall. It was a melee worthy of the sport. The race was only a part of the experience, however. NASCAR in the south is a cultural event and there were food vendors, beer gardens, souvenir shops, you name it and you could probably buy it at the track, for a wildly inflated price. You can visit the paddock and see the cars in their stalls and talk with the folks who make the cars go. What it really reminded me of was the Calgary Stampede without the barn smell.

That got me to thinking – the Calgary Stampede should think about having car racing as part of their events. What a novel idea, except, it has already been done. Back when cars were a novelty, the events at the Calgary Exhibition included a race on the half mile oval at Victoria Park, where horse racing normally took place. The first race was at the Exhibition of 1917 and included at least one driver who had competed in the Indianapolis 500. Also scheduled was a race between an “aviatrix” in her airplane and George Clark, the Indy 500 racer. This was cancelled due to high winds but would be on the minds of organizers into the next decade, when they scheduled Freddy McCall to race his plane against an automobile. This event was also cancelled, as Capt. McCall had been forced to land his airplane on top of the merry-go-round on the midway during a demonstration flight the day before.

Auto racing brought in hundreds of excited spectators and would be a large part of the Exhibition for several years. When the Exhibition merged with the Stampede in 1923, the track and infield area were given over to rodeo events and the car races put off to the end of the fair. But by then the novelty of car racing had worn off. Victoria Park would be used for car racing again, in the 1940s and 50s but as cars became more powerful, dirt tracks, especially those used for horse racing as well, could not accommodate them. A number of purpose-built tracks and tracks adapted for motor racing (such as the Chinook Jockey Club track which became Springbank Speedway) would be opened and closed in Calgary over the years. For more information about racing in Calgary, have a look at The Speediest Land Traveller by Richard McDonell

CDH July 1919

Panoramic view of the auto races at the 1919 Calgary Exhibition

Calgary Daily Herald, July 7, 1919 p12-13

Give Me Shelter: Civil Defense in Calgary

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

Calgary Herald photograph

Civil Defense Headquarters bunker

Calgary Herald, March 29, 1955

I had the privilege of hearing some of this city’s great historians at the Heritage Weekend. Max Foran, Hugh Dempsey, Nancy Townsend and Harry Sanders all spoke about great Calgary characters and events. The highlight of the afternoon had to be Brian Brennan talking about Paddy Nolan and finishing up with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, a song that Paddy may have enjoyed himself. All the presentations were excellent, capping off a really great weekend of heritage programs.

Dr. Foran spoke on an event which is somewhat amusing, but also speaks to the fears faced by many during the Cold War years. I had originally done some research on this story when I was looking for information about the fate of the air-raid sirens that were scattered throughout the city. There had been one in the yard of my kindergarten (which was held in the community hall) and I always wondered what they were for. Digging into the clippings files in the local history room, I found a wealth of information about civil defense and, particularly, about Operation Lifesaver, the topic of Dr. Foran’s talk.

The idea behind Operation Lifesaver was to practice an evacuation of a portion of Calgary, to simulate what might happen in the event of an enemy attack. So, the Civil Defense Authority planned the evacuation of a quadrant of the city, requiring the population to pack up and move to designated safe spots outside of Calgary. This was planned for September 21, 1955 and the quadrant chosen was the northeast. The population of that area was about 40,000 people at that time. Most were expected to participate. The populace was asked to fill out cards (such as the one below) to indicate whether they had a car, how many people the car could hold, whether they were physically capable of participating, ages of any children etc. Calgary Herald

Calgary Herald, May 5, 1955

The headquarters of the Civil Defense Authority were in a specially built bunker in the Municipal Golf Course (now Shaganappi Point). The photo above isof the interior of the bunker taken from the Calgary Herald of May 29, 1955.

In the end, Operation Lifesaver was postponed due to bad weather (it snowed quite heavily on September 21). When it took place, a week later, smoke bombs were detonated and the air-raid sirens wailed. Only 10,000 (as reported in the papers, but some estimates put it at only 3000) of the 40,000 population participated, but it was still hailed as a great success. It was the first of its kind, where citizens were directed out of the city, and cities across North America took note.

This would not be the last civil defense drill Calgarians would be subjected to. By the 1960s the focus had changed from preparing for an enemy invasion to surviving a nuclear detonation. To that end, the government released the pamphlet “Your basement fallout shelter”. This booklet, pictured here, includes a message from our PM, John Diefenbaker and complete plans for the building of a fallout shelter and instructions on how to live in it after the nuclear disaster. It is made clear in the instructions that this is not a bomb shelter, so it wasn’t advisable to hide in the shelter to escape explosions; it was designed to protect the homeowner from nuclear fallout, assuming they survived the initial blast.

Pam file

So in the next exercise, in November of 1961, the sirens sounded to alert the population to a mock nuclear attack. Most of downtown was unaffected. The people, having not heard the sirens, continued on about their business. Some sirens didn’t sound at all. An investigation blamed dirt for the malfunction.

If you would like to find out more about Canada’s civil defense policy, Andrew Burtch has just published Give Me Shelter which examines the effectiveness (or lack thereof) Canada’s policies during the Cold War. (This title is on our NextReads History and Current Events newsletter. You can sign up for it here.) CBC was on hand to film the exercise. The video is available through their archives. You can see the clippings and the booklet on building a fallout shelter in the Community Heritage and Family History Room on the fourth floor of the Central Library.

Aviation History

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC 1122


The Airport, Calgary, Alberta Canada

Postcards from the Past, PC 1122

We had a wonderful Heritage Weekend despite the snowy weather and the inevitable fear of failure (mostly of the technology) it all went off without a hitch. And, boy did we have some speakers! We heard about the Barron building, the Century Homes project, the plans for Calgary that never happened, stories of interesting people and events from Calgary’s past, information about the heritage in our midst and about the great Calgary aviator, Freddie McCall. Pages Books was there selling the works of many of our speakers (thanks Richard) and the meet and greet included lots of people from many organizations, all chatting about heritage in this city. It was a real buzz! I don’t know how we will top it next year, but we’ll try!

I am almost, but not quite,” heritaged” out so I was madly casting about for a blog idea. As usual, the newspapers provided my topic. As I was doing some BMD transcription for the Alberta Family Histories Society (a great project, if any of you are interested in it) I found an article that fit quite nicely in with the subject of our Friday night speaker. On September 17, 1919 a flight was made by two airmen, Lieuts. Lobb and Rowe, from Saskatoon to Winnipeg, and it only took 5 hours! They had to make 3 stops for gasoline.

They announced that they would try a non-stop flight the next week so I went searching for the newspaper report of their success. I found a small article on page seven of the September 23 edition of the Calgary Daily Herald. It seems that, sadly, the weather did not cooperate and they had heavy rainfall for 2 hours and a strong head wind. They had to make three stops, again, but this time it took them 14 hours to complete the flight. The plane belonged to the Keng Wah aviation school and was “driven” by Lieut. Harry Lobb. The Keng Wah school was an interesting one. Set up by Stan McClelland, a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, it was developed to train young Chinese men from the China, the US and Canada to fly for Sun-Yat Sen’s airforce. It's base was just outside of Saskatoon.

At the same time this was happening, Fred McCall was flying at fairs around Alberta. He was overwhelmed by the response from the people he met and was taking many of them on their first "flip". This was pretty brave of them considering that only two months earlier, McCall had "landed" his plane on top of a carousel at the Exhibition Grounds in Calgary. The history of aviation is a strange and interesting study, is it not?

You can find the story of the aviation school in Aviation in Canada: the Formative Years by Larry Milberry This title can be signed out. You can also sign out the biography of Fred McCall by Shirlee Smith Matheson, Maverick in the sky An interesting item you might want to have a look it is a 1919 publication called Aviation in Canada by Alan Sullivan. This book is in the Local History collection, so doesn’t go out, but it can be consulted at any time.

Article CDH Sep 18 1919

Headline of article on Fred McCall's efforts to establish a passenger flight service

Calgary Daily Herald, September 18, 1919, p. 8

From Our Future Our Past

Smoke, Sweat and Tears: The Calgary Fire Department

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

PC1068

Aerial Ladder, Calgary Fire Department (1906 or after)

Postcards from the Past, PC 1068

I have seen a lot of firefighters in the last few days, what with the news of grass fires and arson and house fires (and, possibly because of the fire we had on the third floor of our library) so while I was casting about for an idea for this blog, I started thinking about the history of our Fire Department. I have had a deep and abiding affection for firefighters, not just because they run into burning buildings while we run out, but because of an event when I was a wee girl. My mom was newly widowed with four kids. One night we smelled smoke and called the Fire Department. They arrived with their lights blazing, in their fire gear and quickly found the source of the smoke – a component in our TV cabinet that was melting. The TV was hauled into the back yard and we were safe. But the firemen didn’t just go away. When they found out my mom was on her own, they checked her insurance policy and informed her that she needed to up her coverage, they searched the back yard for my new kitten who had escaped during the fracas (it was something to see this small ball of fur settled into the enormous glove of the fireman who found him) and they checked to make sure everything was in order. They didn’t have to do that, but they did it anyway. So, for this, and all the other reasons, firemen have always been my heroes. (Police and EMS, too, but that’s for a later blog.)

We haven’t always had a Fire Department, although in a place where buildings were mostly of wood and were heated with fires and lit with candles and gas lamps, the need for a volunteer fire department was quickly recognized. When the great fire of 1886 broke out on the morning of November 7, church bells were rung, to call the volunteers and other citizens, men, women and children, to form a bucket-brigade. The fire, believed to be started by an “incendiary” would eventually consume at least 18 of the city’s wooden buildings. It also prompted the mayor to throw the doors open to a vigilante group which could deal with the culprit “as you like.” It was this fire that encouraged people to build with the local sandstone, earning Calgary the nickname “The Sandstone City”. It was also the impetus for the reorganization of the Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps into two divisions, a ladder division and a hose division, each with 30 men, the purchase of a steam engine and the building of a fire hall. “Cappy” Smart (then just James or Jack) volunteered for the fire brigade in 1885 (before that he was the town’s first funeral director). In 1898 he became the first paid fire chief for the city. The firefighters were still volunteers, however, and had to pay $18 of their own money for their uniforms. It wasn’t until 1909 that the fire fighters were paid. They were given $70 a month with 10 hours off each week. Men lined up to join what was touted as the most advanced fire department in the country. The Calgary Fire Department is still recognized as a world leader in firefighting.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of firefighting in the city, we have a wonderful collection of photos, like the one above, in the Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library. We also have a good collection of books in the Local History room (and on the third floor, once the fire damage is cleaned up.) Notable are Yours for Life , 100 Years of Smoke, Sweat and Tears by Grant MacEwan, and Milestones and Mementoes, 1885-1985.

PC 936

The Webb Car, CFDs First Piece of Motorized Equipment, Cappy Smart is at the Wheel

Postcards from the Past, PC 936

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