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The Story of the Big Ditch

by Christine Hayes - 0 Comment(s)

The Story of the Big Ditch

The Story of the Big Ditch by E. Cora Hind

From the Community Heritage and Family History Collection, Calgary Public Library

We here in the Community Heritage and Family History department are extremely lucky in that we get to work with a really cool collection and we also get to meet many very interesting people, both in the library and at outreach events. We always learn something from our customers and sometimes the researchers we meet know more about our collection that we do. This is true of a small piece of memorabilia that we have in our collection – The Story of the Big Ditch by E. Cora Hind. It was pointed out that we are possibly the only repository of this beautiful little suede covered booklet that was issued for a very special event….but first, some background.

Anyone who has driven south of Calgary for any distance is aware of the fact that we are drylanders. The southern part of Alberta, beautiful as it is, was once suitable only for grazing cattle. One can only imagine the dream of a man who looked at this prairie and thought what a wonder it would be if only water could be brought to it. Thankfully, there were men who could see at least what irrigating land would bring in terms of profit. Irrigated lands in Southern Alberta could be sold for nearly twice what non-irrigated lands could bring. As a result, many companies got into the irrigation business in Southern Alberta as an adjunct to their land business. The government was amenable to these businessmen, as it meant that their goal of settling the west could be met, while the expense of improving the land on which settlers would live would be borne by other organizations.

This is, in essence, the reason for the existence of the Southern Alberta Land Company in the early part of the 20th century. They had land, they wanted to sell it for more than they paid for it, and so they developed a scheme to irrigate a large tract (several large tracts, in fact) of land west of Medicine Hat.

The official opening of the irrigated tract of the Southern Alberta Land Company was to take place on September 12, 1912. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught and the Governor General were scheduled to be in attendance. This lovely brochure was produced but the event never took place. (You can see it online at the Internet Archive - The intake at the headworks of the project had collapsed in a flood in May. In spite of that, the brochure states that “the intake dam has added greatly to the beauty of the river” and “this gigantic undertaking is all but completed” when in fact the intake had been quite seriously damaged (contrary to what was told to the Financial Post in November of 1912) that the damage was not extensive and “has only delayed the turning on of the water a little”) and repairs would only be started a year later. Building was delayed by the war and many other trials and tribulations hit the company. The story is a long and interesting one and is well documented in the book Prairie Promises: History of the Bow River Irrigation District by John Gilpin (who I must also thank for the heads up on The Story of the Big Ditch)

Calgary in 1962

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Locomotive 5934 in Mewata Park, 1962

Alison Jackson Photography Collection, AJ 0197

I have been in Calgary all of my life. When I was born my parents lived in Killarney and we moved to Glendale when I was 2. For all of my adult life, I have lived within one mile of where I started. I have seen a lot of change in my community. When we first moved to Glendale, the community hall where I would later attend kindergarten had just been built in a ravine which had once been a slough and an active breeding ground for mosquitoes. Now there is a gorgeous community centre and the drainage problem has mostly been taken care of.

It is still a lovely community, though where horses used to graze is now houses and the pile of dirt from the West LRT construction. I am waxing nostalgic for a reason, though. At the Annual General Meeting of the Calgary Heritage Initiative on Wednesday night, we saw a very interesting video. It was “The Living West” a 1962 production of the Calgary Tourist and Convention Association. It shows Calgary as I remember it as a child (for better or for worse, I guess). It was a very young boom town back in ’62. If you’re feeling nostalgic, or are just curious about our city’s roots, check out the video on YouTube:

(The rope swing was out behind St. Mary’s School, in the waste ground that later housed the Talisman Centre – it provided many afternoons of entertainment back in the day.)

And if you are truly in a mood to punish yourself with history, try out Calgary’s official song from the 80s (which admittedly is my least favourite decade). Neighbours of the World was released in 1986 following a national competition. The City of Calgary has recently digitized and made available this interesting piece of our history:

If you remember the old Calgary (or even Calgary in the 80s), keep in mind that the Federation of Calgary Communities is collecting stories of community associations for its 50th Anniversary Magazine. See my earlier posting at for more information about how to get involved.


Highlander Hotel, ca. 1961

Postcards from the Past, PC 1580

Calgary's "Kate" Connection

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PC 187

Normal School (home to No. 2 Wireless School during World War II)
Postcards from the Past, PC 187

The new Duchess of Cambridge has ties to Calgary – tenuous though they may be. It seems her grandfather Peter was a flight instructor for the RAF during the Second World War. He was with the No. 37 Service Flying Training School, which was situated at McCall Field, which is now part of the Calgary International Airport. This school was part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which saw pilots from the RAF and RCAF train pilots at 107 schools across Canada.


Calgary was actually home to a number of training schools for the BCATP. No. 3 was an RCAF training school which operated at Currie Field. After the end of the war the airstrip was used to train NATO pilots until 1958. At that time it was decommissioned but kept open as an emergency landing strip. When I was young, we used to go to the old strip, which was by then on the grounds of Mount Royal College, and learn how to drive (actually, we learned how to drive fast as we used the area as a drag strip). Some of the hangars, which are on the Currie Barracks site, are still standing and until recently the Calgary Farmer’s Market occupied one of them.

The No. 4 Training Command was moved to Calgary from Regina to Calgary in 1941. They set up shop in the newly renovated sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay Building downtown. They stayed there until 1944 at which time they were amalgamated with the No. 2 in Winnipeg.

Another part of the BCATP was the No. 2 Wireless School. It occupied what is now Heritage Hall on the SAIT campus and an airfield near Shepard. Two BCATP students flying out of the Shepard substation were killed in an accident in a Tiger Moth and received the George Cross, the highest non-combat award for courage. In the years after the war, the air strips became drag strips, known as Shepard Raceway. The hutment, originally built to house the troops as they were training became emergency accommodation for returning veterans after the war but conditions became so unhealthy, they were demolished, amidst much controversy, in the 1950s.

There is a lot of information available about the training schools. We have newspaper clippings and books about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan at the library. Maybe you would like to brush up before the visit of the Duchess to her grandfather’s old stomping grounds.

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No. 2 Wireless School Float in the Stampede Parade, ca. 1941

Postcard from the Past, PC 87

Cars, cars, cars!

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PC 1270

A demonstration by the 100,000 Club, Calgary along Centre Street, ca. 1912

Postcards from the Past, PC 1270

Those who know me are aware of my little obsession with cars. I love them (which is a good thing because I am married to a serial collector of weird and wonderful vehicles). We live in a very good place for car addicts because Calgarians love their cars and have since their invention. I suppose it is an extension of the range mentality, the love of horses that still pervades the culture in Calgary.

We went to the first show and shine of the season last week at the Deerfoot Mall. Car aficionados and their vehicles were out in full force. I was reminded (because I am a history geek) of a photo we have in our collection of a very similar exhibition in the early part of the twentieth century. The picture above is of the motor cars of the 100,000 club, a group of city boosters who wanted to see the population of Calgary hit 100,000 by 1915. They put together a number of events to draw attention to the city. Cars, being the novelty they were, were always a good draw.

Tony Cashman, in his book A History of Motoring in Alberta states that Calgarians really embraced the automobile and its attendant clubs because of the lure of Banff. The mountains sat there seemingly at the edge of the city, calling to the intrepid to pack their lunches and head for the town just 85 miles distant. What we didn’t have, however, were the roads on which to travel. Cars need very different surfaces than carts with horses.

PC 1269

The cars in this picture are, I believe, 29 members of the Calgary Automobile Club preparing for their “motorcade” trip to Banff. The task had been achieved by Norman Lougheed, in his father’s touring car in the summer of 1909. He made it in seven hours with only one flat tire. The Calgary Automobile Club group left at 9:00 am and 25 of the 29 cars had arrived by 4:00 pm. The other four cars had to be left where they broke down.

A trip to Edmonton, which was a very daring proposition, could take several days by car. Add into the mix the lack of service stations (the first garage in Calgary was Calgary Novelty Works who specialized in typewriter and automobile repairs – in the ‘teens it was located just about under where I am sitting right now at the Central Library.)

The car has had a very interesting history in this province. The Community Heritage and Family History Digital library includes many photographs and postcards in which the automobile features prominently. We also have a good collection of books that document our love of motoring. Among them are the Tony Cashman book mentioned above, Roaring Lizzies: a history of Model T Ford racing in Alberta by Kelly Jane Buziak and an official tour book produced by the Alberta Automobile Clubs in the early part of the 20th century.

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Calgary Auto Club Clubhouse, Bowness (formerly the Hextall House)

Postcards from the Past, PC 941

Old City Hall turns 100

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Artist's rendition of proposed Calgary City Hall, 1909

Postcards from the Past, PC 221

The early part of the 20th century was a time of great optimism, not just here, but all over the world. In Calgary, that optimism was expressed in a population boom and the resulting building boom. As a result, for us here in the 21st century, there are a lot of anniversaries to celebrate. As everyone knows (;-) the Calgary Public Library is turning 100 years old on the 1st of January 2012. But another icon of the city, our beautiful sandstone City Hall turned 100 this year. It was officially opened on June 26, 1911 by the leader of the opposition, then the Conservatives, Robert Borden. That night he gave a speech at Sherman’s auditorium, where “questions of interest to Canadians” would be discussed. “Ladies,” the advertisement read, “are cordially invited.”

In order to build the sandstone building, the old city hall had to be torn down. A lament for the old building was published in the Herald in Wee Willie’s column. “They’re tearing down the old brown barn, which many people call, the poorest thing that ever held, the name of city hall. No more the filthy daily drunk, will call the place his home; no more cockroaches, beetles, rats will through its limits roam,” he wrote, concluding with “but though they may tear down the walls, destroy an earthly hell, there is a thing they cannot do—They can’t destroy the smell.” (Calgary Daily Herald, February 8, 1911, p.8) Must have been some place!

Anyway, back on track, the new city hall was built at a cost of around $300,000 which was double the original estimate. (You can imagine the political fallout from that-probably akin to the current issue in parliament surrounding the cost of fighter jets.) The sandstone came from the Bone and Oliver quarry up on what is now 17th Avenue SW. The clock in the tower was ordered through D.E. Black Jewellers and cost nearly $4000. The building has weathered the years well. It was given an exterior restoration when the municipal building was built in the 1980s and an extensive interior restoration from 1995-1997.

If you haven’t been inside this building, you should go have a look. It is quite beautiful and one of only seven original city halls still standing in Canada. We should be proud that we have kept the old girl.

Here is the link to a video, in which Heritage Planner, Clint Robertson, talks about the history of the building and the opportunities for Calgarians to take a tour of the building and the City Archives (housed in the 1962 addition next door)

We also have a large number of photographs and postcards of City Hall in our Community Heritage and Family History Collection. We also have all kinds of information in the Local History room on the 4th floor of the Central Library. Come by, maybe after your tour of Old City Hall. We’re right next door.

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Entrance to City Hall, 1966

Alison Jackson Photography Collection, AJ 1060

Old St. Patrick's Church

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St. Patrick's Church

Alison Jackson Photography Collection, AJ 0014

At the Heritage Roundtable on March 17, here at the Central Library in the Dutton theatre, we will be hearing an update on the fate of the old St. Patrick’s Church that stands so near its Anglican neighbor, St. Paul’s , out along Macleod Trail in what used to be the town of Midnapore. There couldn’t be a more stark contrast than the fates of the two nearly identical churches. St. Paul’s is in beautiful condition, with its cemetery intact and well maintained. It has been revived and tended for many years by the Midnapore Church of England Society. St. Patrick’s on the other hand, has been allowed to fall into disrepair, a kind of demolition by neglect. Recently scorch marks were seen on the building suggesting that someone had lit a fire that may have gotten out of control. This is heart breaking as St. Patrick’s has great historical significance to the city. Ironically, the situation was once reversed. In the early part of the 20th century, Patrick Burns used to send a crew out to maintain and paint St. Patrick’s Church. The story goes that he didn’t want St. Pat’s to outshine its near neighbour, which was looking a mite shabby, so he would have St. Paul’s painted by the same crew.

St. Paul’s is actually the older building. It was built in 1885 on land that was donated by John Glenn, who, although a Catholic himself, felt compelled to give to his community. Twenty years later, his son donated the land on which St. Patrick’s was built. Money was raised for the church by the community and both Catholics and Anglicans worked to build it. There is no delineation between the cemeteries, even in death the two communities are as one. When a fire damaged St. Patrick’s, services were held in St. Paul’s until the church could be repaired. The communities, Anglican and Catholic, met and mingled and cooperated over the generations and for that reason alone, the two churches, in their cozy proximity, have heritage value.

Another aspect of the historic value of St. Patrick’s church is Father Lacombe was the parish priest at St. Patrick’s from 1906 (or 1909) until his death in 1916. Father Lacombe is a very important figure in the history of the province. In addition to his work with First Nations people, he also established the Lacombe Home for orphans, the elderly and the handicapped near to the church on land donated by Patrick Burns.

Little St. Pat’s has been declared a Provincial Historic Resource, after the land was sold to a memorial company with the proviso that the Catholic Diocese, which owns the building, either demolish it or move it. Little has been done to maintain the building, although the statue of St. Patrick has been removed and preserved as has the bell that was given to Father Lacombe for the bell tower by Archbishop Legal. There have been developments, though, and we will hear what is in store for the old church at the Heritage Roundtable on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, – quite apropos, I think. If you would like to register for this event, you can do so by calling 403-244-4111 or online at

Three New Heritage Sites

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PC 1377

Suburban Calgary, Riverside ca. 1913

Postcards from the Past, PC 933

At a well attended ceremony in Council Chambers on Monday January 24, three new heritage sites were ‘plaqued’ by the Calgary Heritage Authority. Plaques are given every two years to sites that are of historical significance to Calgary’s development based on criteria of architecture, history and context. Some of the sites that have been awarded plaques in the past are the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, St. Mary’s Parish Hall, Sunalta School, Alyth Lodge (Ogden Hotel) and the North West Travellers Building (to see pictures of any of these sites, you can visit our Community Heritage and Family History Digital Library from the link on the left side of the page)

The three new sites named Monday are the Bridgeland-Riverside Vacant Lot Garden which is between 6 and 7A Streets NE; the Old North Trail (Spiller Road SE) and the Mission Bridge. Each site holds historical significance and each represents a different aspect of how we define heritage.

The Bridgeland-Riverside Vacant Lot Garden is the last of a number of similar gardens that were created by members of the Vacant Lot Garden Club as a way to beautify the city and put unused land to productive use. It was originally suggested by the aptly named Town Planning commissioner, James H. Garden and was started in 1914. Membership was $1.00 annually which entitled the holder to use one lot. Land owners such as Colonel Walker and J.C. Cockburn donated lots for use by the club. Calgarians were able to grow their own produce and reduce their reliance on “imported” food. Just as an aside, and a library tie-in, Alexander Calhoun, the first head librarian of the Calgary Public Library, was active in forming the club, as part of his role on the Town Planning Commission.

Spiller Road was a part of the Old North Trail that ran from the Yukon to New Mexico and was used by First Nations for thousands of years. According to Blackfoot Chief Brings-Down-the-Sun, the trail forked where Calgary now stands. “The right fork ran north into the Barren Lands as far as people live. The main trail ran south along the eastern side of the Rockies, at a uniform distance from the mountains, keeping clear of the forest and outside of the foothills. It ran close to where the city of Helena now stands and extended south into the country inhabited by a people with dark skins and long hair falling over their faces." (The Old North Trail by Walter McClintock, p434) When the NWMP built Fort Calgary, part of the trail became Macleod Trail, the main route to forts in the south such as Fort Macleod and Fort Benton in Montana.

The Mission Bridge was built at the place where travellers forded the Elbow River. Father Lacombe suggested that farmers coming into town from areas to the south would benefit from the building of a bridge to allow them easier access to markets. The first bridge was built in 1886 but soon became rotted and worn. In 1897 a new steel bridge was erected (see photo). In 1915 a concrete bridge (the first in Alberta) was erected. During construction, however, one of the worst floods to hit Calgary nearly destroyed the unfinished bridge and took the life of Quinton Campbell, a city worker. (This was the same flood that destroyed the original Centre Street Bridge, with the above mentioned Commissioner Garden, and the City Engineer, who planned and oversaw the construction of the Mission Bridge, G.W. Craig, aboard. They both survived the disaster.) Though this bridge has been renovated and rebuilt many times, elements of the 1915 bridge still remain.

PC 1377

Mission Bridge during flood, ca. 1923?

Postcards from the Past, PC 1377

Heritage Round Table - Heritage Trades

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Entrance to Reader Rock Garden, ca 1960s

Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1256

That we are very keen on the preservation of Calgary’s heritage sites goes without saying (this is the Community Heritage blog, after all). We have a deep admiration for people who work on behalf of these goals, groups like Calgary Heritage Initiative, the Heritage Planning Department at the City, the historical societies, and the legions of volunteers who work tirelessly inventorying, advocating, lobbying, writing, touring, to get heritage resources recognized and protected.

What we often overlook is what happens to heritage sites once they are legally protected. The conservation and restoration of heritage buildings requires different skills than building a new building or even renovating an older building. Work on heritage sites and artifacts require that the craftsman have an understanding of traditional materials and methods of construction.

We have the opportunity to hear from some of the trades people who work on heritage buildings, landscapes and artifacts at the next Heritage Roundtable on Thursday January 27 at 7:00 PM at Beaulieu, the historic Lougheed House. Speakers from various heritage trades will be there to give us insight into their work. Ken Armstrong, a mason and stone carver, will talk about tradition versus modern stone carving techniques; Janet Jones, a horticulturalist, will give us insight into the rehabilitation of the Reader Rock Garden; Steve Ramsey, the Manager of Facilities and Maintenance for heritage Park will give us a general overview of the park’s processes of heritage preservation and maintenance, while discussing the restoration of the 1885 Morrisey, Fernie & Michel passenger cars. There will also be time for questions and discussion and, of course, the all important networking with others interested in Calgary’s Heritage. You can register for this event online at or by telephone at 403-244-4111. These roundtable events are always interesting and you get to meet some of the neatest people. I hope to see you there.

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Crest on the wall of Beaulieu

Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 44-09

Congratulations on 100 Years, Mount Royal University

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AJ 0196

Mount Royal College, 1962

Alison Jackson Photography Collection, AJ 0196

The early part of the 20th century was heady times for the city of Calgary. As you will notice over the next few years, a lot of our important institutions will be celebrating important anniversaries. The library will be 100 years old in 2012 as will the Calgary Stampede, Calgary Transit celebrated 100 years in 2009, Old City Hall, itself, will celebrate its centenary this year and Mount Royal College (now University) just turned 100.

The Methodist Church received a charter in 1910 to run a co-ed boarding school. It chose as the first president of the college, Dr. George W. Kerby, the very popular minister of Central Methodist church. His goal was to provide a good education to both boys and girls. In 1911 a two storey brick building was built at 11 Street and 6th Avenue SW.

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Dr. G.W. Kerby's Residence, 1125 7th Avenue SW

Alison Jackson Photography Collection, AJ 0436

A list of the Board of Governors from the 1915 calendar is a veritable who’s who of Calgary business and society. It included W.H. Cushing, A. Judson Sayre, A. Melville Scott, Pat Burns, E.H. Crandell, Dr. T.H. Blow, and O. Devenish, many of whom had children in attendance at the college. The school was described as a “high class and residential college for boys and young men, for girls and young women” in the Merchants and manufacturers record of 1911. The college had “122 registered, and more coming daily.” Courses were offered in academic subjects, commercial and shorthand, expression and physical culture and the conservatory of music.

By 1929 the college had outgrown its building and was seeking 20 acres of land near the Technical School grounds. This never came to pass and in 1931 ground was broken on an addition to the college. In the 1930s, the college gained affiliation with the University of Alberta and university courses were offered. In the 1940s the college experienced an influx of servicemen seeking to further their education and was forced, by a shortage of space, to offer classes in army huts on the grounds of Mewata Park. The article mentions that this will be only until “the proposed new college building is constructed.” (Calgary Herald June 28, 1946) In 1948, a start was made on building a gym, named after Dr. Stanley, who had sat on the board since 1910, and a memorial building in honour of Dr. Kerby. The memorial building was opened in June of 1949, the gym in November 1949. The Kerby building was enlarged in 1961 to keep up with the continuing success of the college, but by 1964 enrollment was once again at capacity and the school was bursting at the seams.

This pushed the drive for the new campus and in the 1966 land in Lincoln Park was acquired as a new site for the college. The Lincoln Park campus opened for classes in the fall of 1972. By 1981 the school had established satellite campuses. Growth continued and by 2000, 10,000 students were enrolled. In 2009 the Mount Royal College officially became Mount Royal University.

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Corridor at Mount Royal College, ca. 1920s?

Postcards from the Past, PC 1782a

The Virginian, an Alberta Resident?

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PC 928

Dispatch from Calgary

Postcards from the Past, PC 928

Traditionally, the time around Christmas is the time when we at the library undertake some of our longer term projects. This year we are looking at our clippings files and sorting through some of the biographical information we have found there. We found a very interesting clipping in the ”J” file about a man who claimed to be the inspiration for the Owen Wister novel The Virginian.

Now, I may be dating myself, but I remember the television show that was loosely based on this novel. It starred Doug McClure (remember him?) and James Drury and ran from 1962 to 1971. I was too young to actually remember the novel in its heyday, but according to Alex Calhoun as he is quoted in the article from 1932, in the first twenty years of Calgary Public Library’s existence, it was the most consistently popular work of fiction in the library.

The journalist uncovered the interesting detail that the man on whom Wister based his novel was none other than Everett “Dad” Johnson, a resident of the Cochrane district. Mister Johnson had lived in southern Alberta for more than 40 years when the article was written. Born in Virginia, he followed the cowboy life through Texas and the American west until he ended up in Alberta as manager of the Bar U Ranch, a role which he had taken over from George Lane.. Sure enough, a quick check of the 1891 census shows him as foreman of a cattle company, listed alongside Fred Stimson and his wife Mary.

Johnson, known as Ebb, had been a foreman in the Powder River Cattle Co. in Wyoming, It was here that he acted as guide and hunting companion to Owen Wister. It was his job as foreman that led him up to Alberta, seeking grazing land for the 76 Ranch. Johnson was recommended to Stimson for the Bar U as the “best all round cowman in the country.” While on the Bar U he met Mary Bigland, who is shown in the 1891 census as a domestic at the ranch but was in fact a nurse, there to help Mary Stimson overcome a bout of scarlet fever. Mary and Ebb left the Bar U shortly after 1891 and moved on.

Johnson, in the 1932 interview, admitted he sometimes felt a bit contemptuous of the changes made to his story by Wister, but conceded that it did make a “right good story.”

The photo below is of Johnson in 1882. I found it on the Glenbow Archives website, after seeing it in the book The Bar U by Simon M. Evans. There are more pictures at the Glenbow of Mr. Johnson. You can check their photo archives at and search for "everett johnson. If you would like to read more about Johnson, we have the clipping in a file in the local history room and the book mentioned. If you’re interested in looking at census records for Alberta, we have them on microfilm in the genealogy collection here at the Central Library and they can be viewed on Ancestry LE, which is available at every Calgary Public Library branch through our E-Library.

Everett Cyril Johnson in 1882

Glenbow Archives, NA 2924-12

Glenbow NA 2924-12

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