Fort Calgary: Our sacred ground

While everyone’s attention in the East Village mega makeover is focused on the new library ($245M), the National Music Centre ($135M) and the St Patrick’s Island revitalization and bridge ($70M), Fort Calgary’s makeover has been “flying under the radar.”  

Perhaps you’ve noticed the red cubes along the River Walk or the red glass sentinels recently installed at the corner of 9th Ave and 6th St SE wondering what these are.  Maybe you noticed Buffy the buffalo on a little manmade hill on 9th Ave just west of the Elbow River and wondered how it got there.  It is all part of a devious $36.3 million master plan that started with the Spring Creek wetlands at the northwest edge of the site back in 2009.

With the help of Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the City, Province, Federal Government and the community, Fort Calgary has been quietly raising funds to enhance the site of Calgary’s birthplace, respecting the past but preparing it for the future when 40,000 people will be living in the communities surrounding it (currently about 15,000).

What we have been seeing lately is the Edges, project, which marks the edges of the original Fort Calgary site, west of the Elbow River. Note: The land east of the Elbow River (Deane House and Hunt House) wasn’t added until 1976.  The red cubes along the Bow River mark the north edge, of the original site, the long red benches along 6th Street mark the western edge and along with the sentinels at the corner of 9th Avenue, they demarcate the entrance to the site from its southwest. They all have a very distinctive bright red colour – “RCMP red” in fact. The red markers are all equipped with LED lighting, creating an eerie site at night which I am told can be seen from airplanes preparing to land at the Calgary International Airport. I love the horizontal ones along 6th Street - at night they have a surreal glow like a campfire. 

Story board columns

The Fort Calgary site is also sacred to the First Nations people as it was a summer gathering place.

Fly fisherman at the confluence of the Elbow and Bow Rivers near the northeast edge of Fort Calgary.

Fort Calgary site with log buildings and replica Barracks in the distance.

New entrance to Fort Calgary from the southwest with LED sentinels and benches.

The Barracks building.

Fort Calgary 101

Did you know that Fort Calgary is a National Historic District? I didn’t! In fact it was one of the first National Historic Districts created by the Federal Government in 1925. It received this designation for two reasons - the important role the site played in the evolution of the RCMP and the fact it is the birthplace of a city. Not many Canadian cities can lay claim to knowing exactly where its birthplace is.

Fort Calgary is unique in that it was never a defence fort; the walls were not created for protection (there was never a battle here), but to define the settlement acting as a landmark so new settlers and First Nation people could see it from a distance.  

In 1914 the site was decommissioned as a Fort and sold to Grand Trunk Pacific Railway who had plans to build a railway line to Prince Rupert that followed the route of the proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline.  After, Grand Trunk went bankrupt, the site became Calgary’s first industrial warehouse district, home to businesses like MacCosham’s huge warehouse, Calgary Scrap Metal, a battery factory and a slaughterhouse.

After 10 years of lobbying by Calgarian John Ayre, and on the Centennial of the arrival of the RCMP in 1875, the site was purchased by the City for $1.8 million in 1975. All the buildings were removed and the contaminated site was cleaned up.

Then started the slow process of deciding what to do with the site.  It wasn’t until 2000 when Sara-Jane Gruetzner was hired as the President & CEO of Fort Calgary that a Master Plan was finalized.  She has stayed on to make sure that it gets implemented. Though the master plan didn’t call of an exact historical recreation of the buildings on the site, it does call for a mix of new buildings and monuments that will tell the story of Calgary’s birthplace.

  Monument to Colonel Macleod.

Monument to Colonel Macleod.

Colonel Macleod historical plaque.

Current Work

Work is currently being completed on the land on the east side of the Elbow River with the restoration of the Deane House, built in1914 for Captain Deane, whose wife wouldn’t live in the Fort and demanded he build her a house next to the Fort.   Also under restoration is the Hunt House (built sometime between 1876 and 1881), the only original Hudson Bay post in its original location. A replica of the original Deane House garden is also to be created as Deane was good friends with William Reader (Calgary’s first Parks Superintendent) who believed you could garden on the prairie. It is believe that the Dean/Reader garden is where the Calgary Horticultural Society was established.

Recently completed is the Elbow River Traverse ($3M), which crosses the Elbow River just before it empties into the Bow River.  It creates an important link in the City’s Elbow and Bow River pathways, which are only going to get busier with more people living in the surrounding area and the new ENMAX Park just south of 9th Avenue along the Elbow River.

Future work includes a major glass gallery addition to the second floor of the current Fort Calgary Interpretive center. The gallery will be designed by Calgary architect Lorne Simpson (who specializes in historical restorations) and DIALOG (Calgary architectural firm working on new Central Library) will offer a spectacular 360 degree view of downtown, CPR rail yards, Stampede Park and the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

There are also plans for a carved wood interpretive feature on the site of the old fort by Vancouver artist Jill Anholt. The piece will allude to the structure of the old fort, while also referencing the layers of cultural memories of people and place in a clever and creative manner.

Elbow River Traverse aka bridge for cyclists and pedestrians.

Bow River promenade at Fort Calgary with the new St. Patrick's Island bridge in the background.  This will become a very busy area with the densification of the surrounding residential neighbourhoods.

The area around the Traverse is already becoming a popular meeting place.

Major Event Venue

While for most of the year, Fort Calgary perceived by many as a rather sleepy place it has evolved into a major concert venue. Annual events included the two Rotarian concerts during Stampede, while Chasing Summer and X Fest; each of these events attract over 15,000+ attendees. 

There are also a number of free events like WinterFest, Family Day, Heritage Day, Mountie Day (May long weekend to celebrate the anniversary of the formation of the RCMP in May 23, 1873) and of course Canada Day when 20,000 Calgarians invade the site for family fun activities.

Fort Calgary is also where the Calgary Stampede marshals the horses for the Stampede Parade.  I am told it is an amazing spectacle with 300 horses and floats calling Fort Calgary home for a night.  The public is invited to come down on the Thursday night and join in the fun with a free BBQ. Who knew there was a second “Sneak A Peak” event!

As far as hosting major events in our city, Fort Calgary is on par with Prince’s Island, Olympic Plaza and Shaw Millennium Park.

Last Word

In the words, of CEO President Sara-Jane Gruetzner “Fort Calgary is an old story with a new beginning; this is Calgary’s hallowed ground.”

 

By Richard White, October 25, 2014

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, titled "Fort Calgary makeover, respects the past, prepares for East Village's future," October, 24, 2014. 

Artist Jill Anholt's modern interpretation of Fort Calgary's original walls.