Thursday 19 March 2015

Edmonton and Calgary in 1914

by Rev. John Pollock


Ten years ago there was no Edmonton to speak of, and rather less Calgary. Neither of them has much of a past, and, alas! the present is not exhilarating; but each of them believes it has a big future. Each of them button-holes the visitor, and assures him, in an inconsequential way, that it is shaping to be the greatest city on this Continent, sir. Of course, the forecast is not necessarily discredited by the fact that every tenth shack-town in Canada holds the same modest estimate of its own ultimate destiny.

Jasper Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta, between 1903 and 1914
(Library and Archives Canada/PA-021244)


The province of Alberta, stretching west to the watershed of the Rockies, and from the frontier to the great North-West Territory, has an area of over 253,000 square miles, or nearly 5,000 more than double that of the United Kingdom. A large proportion of British soil is mountainous and otherwise barren; Alberta is fertile, besides being rich in coal, oil, and natural gas. But, while the population of the British Isles shows 470 to the square mile, Alberta has less than two. Thirty years ago she had 20,000 inhabitants, at the beginning of the century a little over 70,000, to-day 500,000. During the decade 1901-11 Alberta's population advanced 413 per cent., probably the largest provincial expansion on the planet. In a recent year 20,000 acres were taken up by settlers every day! Yet only three per cent, of farm land has been appropriated, leaving nearly 100,000 acres still available. The Albertan is naturally proud of his province. One could hardly be astonished if in Alberta measles were less common than megalocephalus; which, I am told, is the correct word to use when you don't want to say swelled-head.


Now, Edmonton is the capital of Alberta. It magnifies its office, and is doing its best to live up to its Metropolitan dignity. The Parliament House is a fine building; for beauty of architecture it is Canada's nearest approach to Belfast City Hall. The population of Edmonton is increasing so rapidly that were I to set down the correct figure, which nobody knows, the comp. would do well to add a thousand or two. Edmonton's own estimate is no more trustworthy than Calgary's estimate of Edmonton. Probably it is somewhere in the vicinity of 55,000. Already the city has about forty miles of paving, one hundred miles of water-mains, and twenty miles of boulevards. Its eye is ever on the future, and all its plans are cast in the interests of the million-peopled city of next generation. Its street numbers run up to figures that make you catch your breath. At present an effort is being made, so far with but moderate success, to introduce the modern American numerical system of street nomenclature. Street and avenues lie at right angles to each other, and are numbered in regular sequence. The system has undoubted advantages, the most important being simplicity. Between each street or avenue and the next there are one hundred numbers; or rather, after each street or avenue a new hundred begins. If you want 253 on 17th Avenue, you look for it after 25th Street, about half-way to 26th. Till quite recently the streets were named, and the numbers stood in no relation to the "blocks." The transition means temporary chaos. Here, for example, is 568; and you want 371. Yon walk back a block or two and find yourself among the ten thousands. Nobody can tell you whether 34th is the old Problem Street, or whether Puzzle Boulevard is now 49th Avenue. On one such perplexing hunt I stood and pinched myself. Was I in the throes of that ghastly nightmare, usually induced by a cheese supper, in which I make vain attempts to reach a constantly receding destination, arriving in time to see an angry congregation dispersing? I almost expected to find myself, in a cold sweat, staring at my bedroom wallpaper.


Really, the making of a city is no joke, especially when the raw material comes tumbling in upon you in such profusion; and some of the material is very raw. While in Edmonton I sojourned with an old St. Enoch's family, whose house cannot now be described as being on the outskirts; not three years ago, when they arrived, they could shoot game from their front windows. There was not even a board side-walk. Street lights there were none. Now, that house is within a stonecast of a well-patronised tramline, with frequent service, on a thoroughfare as busy as Antrim Road. Alongside of handsome stone buildings, with pillared facades, those still stand most primitive erections not yet old, run up when what is now a busy commercial area was nothing but a trackless bush. One of the leading physicians, whose parents I had met on a visit to Belfast some years ago, ran me all over and around in his auto, and gave me such a comprehensive view of Edmonton as I could not otherwise have had. We visited the old British fort, built of rough logs, which was the nucleus of the present city. He showed me the famous Death Trail, along the course of which so many dropped and died in that tragic rush to the Klondike. My friend drove me through the principal streets, avenues, and boulevards of the "twin cities" of Edmonton and Strathcona, which are now one. The impression made upon me was that this will one day be a most beautiful Metropolis. In the making of it space has not been spared; indeed, many of the streets are much too wide. On the Strathcona side there is in course of erection for the University of Alberta what will be one of the finest educational suites of buildings in the Dominion. Affiliated to the University is a Presbyterian college, with over forty students in residence, whom I had the pleasure of addressing.


From Edmonton I went South to Calgary. Seven years ago, on my way to the Christian Endeavour Convention at Seattle, I stepped out of the train, and, while most of my fellow-travellers were lunching, spent ten minutes in what was then a very small town. Turning the corner of the little wooden waiting-room, I found myself in a street of frame houses, with one or two unimpressive buildings of brick. There were, if my recollection is correct, nothing but plank side-walks. Of course, there were no tramways, for there was no place for street cars to go to. Ten minutes was quite sufficient for viewing the little town. I expected to see a great change on my second visit; but what I expected wasn't in it with what I saw. Leaving the large and well-appointed station, I stood in amazement in a handsome thoroughfare, adorned with massive electric candelabra of the very newest pattern. Beautiful Corporation tramcars whirred past at brief intervals, crowded with passengers. One of them was the most artistic thing in tramcars I ever saw, built a la charabanc, enamelled in bright colours, and sparkling with silver mounted fittings. It was the "observation car," in which I afterwards made a delightful tour of the city for twenty-five cents. Around me towered some of Canada's most aspiring skyscrapers. Led by a friend, I ascended one of them – by elevator, of course: the beautiful "department store" of the Hudson's Bay Company, perhaps the richest corporation in the Dominion, whose shares cannot now be bought at any price. From the roof I saw one of the sights of my life, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains on the far horizon. It did not look far; twenty miles or so. The atmosphere was so clear that the distance was deceptive, for the nearest peak is almost one hundred miles off. The Rockies were not again visible during my visit.

Calgary c1914 (Glenbow Archives nb-16-357)


According to "police estimate," Calgary has a population of 63,000. It baa seventy miles of tramlines. Measured by its bank-clearings, it is already the sixth in importance among the cities of the Dominion. For beauty of situation it is surpassed by few, if any. Just when I was there a scheme for the beautifying of the city was being submitted to the Corporation, and has now probably been adopted. It means the gradual expenditure of an enormous amount of money; but if carried out in its entirety, as doubtless it will ultimately be, it will make Calgary a rival of Washington, if not of Paris. The scheme is the work of an eminent architect, and includes a spacious and beautiful "civic centre," broad tree-lined boulevards, the utilising of severe gradients by the erection of terraces and parterres, with marble facings and stairways, embellished with statuary, leading down to the finest of public parks. Would that I might be there to see! But it was pointed out by the architect in his "exposition" that the Napoleonic scheme for the beautifying of Paris is only now nearing completion. As it is, Calgary has already done well, and made considerable progress towards the goal of its ambition, a foremost place among the beautiful cities of the world, and first place on the American Continent. And, as the proverb hath it, "Aim at a silk gown, and you're sure of the sleeve."


Calgary is a more famous town to-day than it was when I was there a fortnight ago. Then it was "as flat as flat." No poor hunter for dollars ever felt more out of it than I did. You couldn't get salt on their tails. Since then the city has become the centre of a terrific oil boom. The boring has been going on for years, and hope deferred had made many hearts sick; but one day the piercer struck tile subterranean reservoir, and the precious fluid spurted the height of the Albert Memorial. It has now settled down to steady work, and is yielding over two hundred barrels a day. The touts were at me when I was there, beseeching me, in their oiliest manner, to have financial mercy on myself; but, with that consummate prudence for which I have always been distinguished, I declined to speculate. Wish I had known! One man had bought a thousand shares in that particular bore, at half a dollar. When the oil spurted he sold fifty for his money; so that now he has nine hundred and fifty which have cost him nothing. My! I might have come home a dollar millionaire, and cleared the debt not only of St. Enoch's, but of the Church House an well. I never felt so generous in my life.

Reprinted from the The Witness, 12th June 1914, this article was part of a series called 'Cities of the West' by the Rev. John Pollock of St. Enoch's Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

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