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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Fort Calgary and the Canadian Pacific Railway (1874-1894)

I.G. Baker

While settlement in northern Alberta had its roots largely in the fur trade, the south was passed over by the Hudson's Bay Company due to its sparse population of beaver. Instead, the whisky trade and general lawlessness were pervasive. Not until the Cypress Hills Massacre of 1873 at Battle Creek, Saskatchewan, did the Dominion Government of Canada establish the North West Mounted Police. After building Fort Walsh near Cypress Hills and Fort Macleod west of the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, federal troops arrived in the Calgary area in 1875. They built a fort where the Bow and the Elbow Rivers crossed, an area where whiskey traders had been operating illegally. The North West Mounted Police contracted the Montana based company I.G. Baker to build the fort. By the end of the year, Calgary had a police fort, an I.G. Baker store, a Hudson's Bay Company trading post, and a Methodist church founded by Reverend John McDougall.

Police Barracks

It was the West's open prairies that attracted settlers to southern Alberta. In 1881 the federal government began offering leases in the area at one cent per acre per year to encourage cattle ranching. Fort Calgary was chosen as the site of the new CPR rail line linking the Northwest Territories to eastern Canada. The line was completed in 1883.

Elbow Park Ranch

Optimistic ranchers arrived in scores, erecting tents, log cabins, and thus converting Calgary into a successful ranching community. By 1883, Calgary had its first hotel, the Royal Hotel, a furniture store, harness-maker, architect/building superintendent and sawmill. In 1884, the CPR built a depot west of the Elbow River. In response, Calgarians opted to be closer to the depot for out of convenience and relocated the townsite. The CPR began leasing lots that were quickly bought up by developers. Due to the success of the ranching industry, Calgary's growth outpaced that of Edmonton's. By 1884, Calgary was incorporated as a town with a population of approximately 500. Calgary continued to grow steadily with its commercial district centered along Stephen Avenue, and residential housing surrounding the commercial core. An industrial area began to grow along the CPR line to the east, with lumber mills and agricultural-related industries.

Freight Sheds CPR

On November 4th, 1886, a fire engulfed a flour and feed store before spreading through an entire block on the southwest corner of McTavish (Centre) Street and Atlantic Avenue. The fire then burnt down the Union Hotel and the Grand Hotel before it reached the main business section on Stephen Avenue. In a desperate attempt to save the prestigious Royal Hotel, Calgarians tamed the fire and eventually extinguished the blaze. The Royal Hotel was saved but 16 other commercial buildings were destroyed, comprising half of the town's commercial district while damages were estimated at over $100,000. One positive result of the fire was the passing of an ordinance stipulating that large commercial buildings could no longer be built out of wood. Sandstone quarries quickly shot up prompting builders to erect sandstone monoliths like the Alberta Hotel, the Bank of Montreal and the Alexander Block. By 1889, downtown Calgary was almost entirely rebuilt featuring bigger, taller and more progressive looking buildings.

Alberta Hotel

The reconstruction of the downtown core was actually a boost to the local economy. Despite the decimation of its commercial sector, Calgary's major industries - the railway, meatpacking, sawmills, and agriculture - were unharmed by the fire. The fire actually prompted the growth of the industrial sector with new sandstone and brick quarries. With the construction industry on the rise, Calgary began attracting entrepreneurs, architects and engineers to the city.

8th Avenue SE

Between 1888 and 1895, the population tripled and construction averaged $300,000 a year. The town also began improving its infrastructure by establishing a telephone system, electric streetlamps, waterworks, sewage, 50 acres of parkland, and, unsurprisingly, a well equipped fire department. By 1894, Calgary was large enough to be incorporated as a city.


Byfield, Virginia. “So much, in just 25 years, what could stop Calgary now?” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.1: The Great West Before 1900. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Edmonton Public Schools. The Ride West: In celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the North West Mounted Police. Edmonton: 1999.

Johnson, Terry. “The Fight for Fur Creates the First North-South vs. East-West Struggle.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.1: The Great West Before 1900. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Klassen, Henry C. Eye on the Future: Business People in Calgary and the Bow Valley, 1870-1900. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2002.

MacEwan, Grant. “The Town-Country Background at Calgary.” Rasporich, A.W. and Henry Klassen. Frontier Calgary. Calgary: University of Calgary, 1975.

McGinnis, J.P. Dickin. “Birth to Boom to Bust: Building in Calgary”. In A.W. Rasporich and Henry Klassen, eds. Frontier Calgary: 1875-1914. Calgary: University of Calgary, 1975.

Peach, Jack. The First Fifty Years: A Chronicle of Half a Century in the life of the Calgary Real Estate Board 1943 - 1993. The Calgary Real Estate Board.

Sandalack, Beverly A. and Andrei Nicolai. The Calgary Project: Urban Form/Urban Life. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006.

Stenson, Fred. The Story of Calgary. Fifth House Publishers, 1994.

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