The skyscrapers of downtown Calgary seem out of place, rising unexpectedly from the shallow Bow River Valley, contrasting sharply with the dry, flat prairie stretching off to the east and south, and dwarfed by the jagged ramparts of the Rocky Mountains lo oming to the west. Pinched between the slopes of one of the world’s most rugged mountain ranges and the soft, fertile undulations of the grasslands, Calgary is a city constantly on the move, rarely pausing to catch its collective breath before the next boom sweeps it off its feet.
Less than a century old, the city hasn’t had time to develop a rich heritage, but instead has built a rough and ready character full of youth which thrives on spectacle and excess. From the noise and bravado of the Calgary Stampede, billed as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” to the more subdued opulence of the Palliser Hotel’s famous galas, the city vibrates with a barely-controlled energy straining to rush after the next trend.
Known as a hotbed for young entrepreneurs, the city has embraced the information age, while still clinging to the pioneer roots forged by the ranchers, railroad workers and oilmen who laid Calgary’s foundations.
The city sprawls from the foothills of the Rockies in the northwest to the rolling hills and farm country of the southeast. It is divided into four quadrants instersecting at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, which meet at right angles in the city center. Cente r Street runs north to south, and Center Avenue east to west, with all streets laid out in a grid expanding outwards from the center.
The Southwest extends from the boreal forests of Kananaskis Country to the office towers of downtown, and is a mix of re sidential and business districts. It includes the natural beauty of North Glenmore Reservoir and the haute couture and fashion of the 17th Avenue shopping section. The Southwest is also home to the Fourth Street Restaurant district and the Elbow River, which winds its way from
Glenomore Reservoir down through the city center until its rendezvous with the Bow River near Inglewo od. The Eau Clair Market and riverfront trails around Prince’s Island Park provide a clean and refreshing break from downtown, and are popular lunch spots with downtown office workers.
The Southeast is home to vast oil refineries, fabrication plants and heavy industry, as well as trendy new housing developments and the world famous Spruce Meadows equestrian facilities. Its western boundary is defined by the Macleod Trail Strip, 10 miles of flashing neon, huge nightclubs, malls, hotels and luxury car dealerships. In the north end is the Saddle Dome and Stampede Grounds, as well as the historic district of Inglewood and the old town-site of Fort Calgary.
The Northeast is separated from the rest of the city by the Deerfoot Trail, a freeway which carries most of Calgary’s commuter traffic and is one of the most dangerous roads in Canada. Comprised mostly of older working-class neighborhoods interspersed with industrial areas, the Northeast is the place to find factory-outlet shopping, as well as the Calgary Zoo and International Airport. The area around the air port is currently undergoing heavy development, whose goal is the transformation of a rather seedy district into a comfortable village where air travelers can find all types of accommodation, dining and shopping without ever leaving the area.
In the Northwest you can find many of the city’s academic institutions and athletic facilities, as well as its upscale residential districts. Both the University of Calgary and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology are located here, as well as the Cana da Olympic Park and McMahon Football Stadium. On the banks of the Bow River and close to downtown is Kensington Village, a collection of shops, galleries and restaurants catering to the more artistic crowd.
Calgary is the gateway to the eastern Rocky Mountains, which rear up in a sheer wall of snow-capped black granite seventy kilometers to the west of the city. Only an hour’s drive west along the Trans Canada Highway from the city center is Banff National Park, the pride of Parks Canada and a showpiece of Canadian wilderness. The Banff town site and resort is renowned for its luxurious accommodations, including the historic Banff Springs Hotel, as well as its bustling nightlife. With almost 30 feet of natural snow a year and lifts running up to 10,000 feet, the ski hills of Sunshine Valley, Mount Norquay and Lake Louise are ranked among the best in the world.
History of Calgary
The city of Calgary has only been incorporated since 1904, but it is estimated that the Bow River Valley has been inhabited for the last 10,000 years. At the end of the last Ice Age, the ancestors of the present-day native tribes made their way across the Bering Sea from Siberia, traveling down through Alaska before settling in the Rocky Mountain foothills. There they formed the Blackfoot, Sarcee, Blood, Stoney and Shagganapi nations, and subsisted on the seasonal migrations of American buffalo herds. The ir way of life remained relatively unchanged until the late 1870s, when Europeans hunted the buffalo to near-extinction.
With the buffalo gone, the natives began trapping beaver and other fur-bearing mammals for the Hudson’s Bay and North-West Trading companies, who set up trading posts in the Bow Valley and at Rocky Mountain House to the northwest. The local furs were especially prized by designers in Paris and New York for their richness and quality, and commanded high prices from the traders.
This lucrative market lured opportunists from the United States, who began selling cheap bootleg whiskey to the traders and native trappers. The resulting anarchy became so bad that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dispatched officers in 1894 to build Fort Calgary and restore order.
Meanwhile, farmers were beginning to move onto the fertile Alberta prairies. The first settler in the area of what is now Calagary was a cattle rancher who started a small farm near the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, in an area now known as Inglewood. His ranch was the first of hundreds built by the flood of immigrants that would soon pour into the region.
In the late 1800s, Western Canada was still mostly wilderness and the Canadian government was afraid that the Unite d States might try to annex the as yet undefined provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. To unite the nation, a railroad was proposed stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic. This railroad, which began construction in 1881, was to drastically change the nature of Calgary, and transform it from a remote frontier outpost into a bustling jumping-off point for the settling of the Western Prairies.
The Calgary townsite had the good fortune to be built at the entrance to the Kicking-Horse Pass, one of the few passages through the sheer eastern wall of the Rocky Mountains. The 10,000-12,000 foot-high peaks denied access to a railway all along their thousand-mile length, except for a narrow valley which led from Calgary into the heart of British Columbi a. This meant that the railroad had to be routed through Calgary, which became a major supply station during the construction process. Hotels, saloons and shops sprang up to serve the construction workers, and the first trainloads of immigrant farmers and ranchers began pouring in. The fertile plains to the west of Calgary made ideal grain farming territory, while the rich and abundant natural grasses also produced a grade of beef unequaled in North America.
In 1904 the City of Calgary was incorporat ed with a population of 6,000. It grew slowly until the event occurred that would determine the city’s direction for the rest of the century. In 1914, just before the start of the First World War, huge reserves of oil were discovered in the surrounding hi llsides. Half the local ranchers became instantly wealthy, and a boom rocked the city. When the demand for oil dried up after the war, recession set in and many residents set off to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
In 1930, seeking to revive the flounderi ng local economy, an American promoter and four local ranchers set out to create the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Calgary Stampede. This celebration of the cowboy culture and the ranching lifestyle became the most celebrated festival in Western C anada, and the rodeo competitions are still a showcase of the best and toughest cowboys and cowgirls in the world.
With its inception in 1924, Banff National Park became an international tourist attraction, drawing mountaineers, skiers and wealthy Europe ans to savor the savage beauty of the mountains while relaxing in the luxurious suites of the Banff Springs Hotel. The townsite of Banff was soon developed, setting a standard for resort communities and attracting tourists from all over the world. Calgary became the staging point for people destined for the park a tourist destination in its own right. Today Calgary is host to hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
As the Second World War was winding down, a vast oilfield was discovered to the north, n ear Edmonton, ushering in a new boom. While most of the actual drilling and processing of the oil was centered around Edmonton, most company headquarters, refineries and related industries chose locations closer to the railroad in Calgary.
In the 1990s, many of Canada’s largest corporations moved their head offices from the more traditional business centers of Montreal and Toronto, and have set up shop in downtown Calgary. The electronics and e-commerce industries have found the community appealing, and are now a driving force behind the city’s development.