Southern Alberta’s likeable and booming main city, CALGARY is only an easy hour’s drive east of where the prairies buckle into the Rockies to form some of the continent’s most magnificent scenery. So it takes some self-restraint to give this city at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers the day or two it deserves. It’s probably best known as the home of the Calgary Stampede, a veritable cowboy carnival dubbed “the greatest outdoor show on earth”, which takes place over ten days every July. It inspires most of the city and plenty of tourists to indulge in the boots-and-Stetson image that’s still a way of life in the region. As such, Calgary’s “Cowtown” nickname still has resonance – but not nearly as much relevance, given the wealth the oil and gas industry has brought to the city in the last decades. These riches have seen the city’s population grow to over one million, many of whom live in an ever-expanding cookie-cutter suburban sprawl – albeit with the occasional superb view of the Rockies. Despite this Calgary is still an energetic place, harbouring a burgeoning arts scene, excellent restaurants and cafés, splendid parks and some lively, trendy neighbourhoods that are good for strolling.
Compact, high-rise downtown Calgary, loosely centred on the largely pedestrianized Stephen Avenue Mall (8th Avenue between 1st Street SE and 3rd Street SW), is a cluster of mirrored glass and polished granite. A monument to oil money, the area is about as sleek as an urban centre can be, but short on sights, other than the prestigious and worthwhile Glenbow Museum, where any city tour should start. A jaunt up the Calgary Tower, across the street, will help you get your bearings. Much of the rest of the central city lends itself to wandering on foot, whether around Prince’s Island, the nearest of many parks; gentrified Kensington, a busy shopping and café district north of the Bow River, and 17th Avenue SW, which is packed with more shops, restaurants and cafés. The appeal of attractions further afield – Fort Calgary, Heritage Park and the Calgary Zoo – will depend on your inclinations. These sights, and other special interest museums that recall something of the city’s frontier origins, can be easily reached by bus or light railway (C-Train). The city is also a great hub for day-trips to the dinosaur remains in the strange Badlands around Drumheller to the east and to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, an aboriginal site deep in cowboy country to the south.
A brief history of Calgary
Modern Calgary is one of Canada’s largest and youngest cities. It was once the domain of the Blackfoot, who ranged over the whole area for several thousand years. About three hundred years ago, they were joined by the Sarcee, forced south by war from their northern heartlands, and the Stoney, who migrated north with Sitting Bull into southern Saskatchewan and then Alberta.
Europeans first began to gather here in the late 1700s; explorer David Thompson wintered here during his travels, while the Palliser expedition spent time nearby en route to the Rockies. Settlers started arriving from around 1870, when hunters moved into the region from the United States, where they had hunted buffalo to the edge of extinction. In 1875, soon after the creation of the first North West Mounted Police stockade at Fort Macleod, a second fort was built further north. A year later it was christened Fort Calgary, named after the Scottish birthplace of its assistant commissioner. The word calgary is Gaelic for “clear running water”; it was felt the ice-clear waters of the Bow and Elbow rivers were reminiscent of the “old country”.
By 1883 a station had been built close to the fort, part of the new trans-Canadian railway. The township laid out nearby quickly attracted ranchers and British gentlemen farmers, cementing an enduring Anglo-Saxon cultural bias. By 1886, fires had wiped out most of the town’s temporary wooden buildings and tents, leading to an edict declaring all new buildings should be constructed in sandstone and, for a while, Calgary was nicknamed “Sandstone City”. It achieved official city status in 1894, something it had taken rival Edmonton over a hundred years to achieve.
Cattle and the railway generated exceptional growth, though the city’s rise was nothing compared with the prosperity that followed the discovery of oil. The first strike took place in 1914 in nearby Turner Valley. An oil refinery opened in 1923 and since then Calgary has rarely looked back. When prices soared during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the city exploded, becoming a world energy and financial centre – headquarters for some four hundred oil-related businesses.
Today, only Toronto has the headquarters of more major Canadian corporations. Crucially though, Calgary has diversified into light manufacturing, high-tech, film, transportation and tourism, with 3.1 million visitors to the city every year.