Calgary's Trans Canada Highway Motel History

This week I received a second “everyday tourist” care package from my third cousin Sally in Los Angeles. In it were more historical Calgary postcards she hunted down at the Vintage Paper Fair, in Glendale, California. This time (last time it was a vintage CANADA Vacations Unlimited magazine from 1951), her big find was a bunch of postcards of Calgary’s mid-century motels, which coincidentally were mostly along the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Avenue N) near 19th Street – just blocks from where I live.

It was 1962 when the Trans Canada Highway opened and in Calgary, it went right through the City’s northern inner-city communities.   While today the urban planning buzz term is “urban village,” back in the ‘50s and ‘60s Calgary was famous for its “motel villages” both along the Trans Canada Highway (between 19th and 24th Streets NW, aka Crowchild Trail) long before the University of Calgary existed and the other in Montgomery (between 43rd to 46th St. NW) which didn’t amalgamate with the City of Calgary until 1963. 

After 50+ years, a few of the modest old motels from the middle of the 20th century still exist, although most have had a facelift or two.  Names like Red Carpet Inn, Thriftlodge, Days Inn, and Traveller’s Inn dot the streetscape along the Trans Canada highway in Montgomery. While the Motel Village next to McMahon Stadium includes names like Super 8, Travelodge, Thriftlodge and EconoLodge, as well as hotel brands like Best Western, Hamptons and Ramada.  There is even a funky boutique hotel – Aloft.  However, the classic mid-century modern motels like the Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, the Highlander Motor Hotel and the Cavalier Motel are gone - survived only by these postcards.

The Highlander Motor Hotel located on the Trans Canada Highway at 17th St NW provides ideal connections to Downtown, a multi-million dollar Shopping Centre, Jubilee Auditorium, McMahon Stadium and The University.  Today it is the site of the Home Depot. 

Calgary North, Travel Lodge, 2304 16th Ave NW. Bus at the door.Your Hosts: Ed and Carol Sandor (A member of the world's largest network of hotel). 

The Cavalier Motel, 2304 - 16th Ave NW. The essence of luxury - 50 modern units, equipped with televisions and telephones. Large heated swimming pool, adjoining restaurants, close to the largest shopping centre on the Trans Canada Highway i.e. North Hill Shopping Centre. Yes, the North Hill Shopping Center opened in 1958 and it was not only Calgary's first shopping center, but the largest along the entire Trans Canada Highway. 

Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, 2227 Banff Trail, 20 new units, modern AMA & AAA approved.

Importance of 16th Avenue North

If you drive or even a walk along the Trans Canada Highway today, you still see bits of evidence of how this was once Calgary’s most important vehicular street, long before the Deerfoot, Glenmore and Crowchild Trails or Memorial Drive.  It was, and still is, the gateway to Calgary’s first post-secondary campus – Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

At one point, it was also the gateway to the Calgary Airport located in Renfrew.  The historic Rutledge Hangar (731 – 13th Ave NE), built in 1929, is the only building remaining from Calgary’s first publicly operated airport, commonly known as the Stanley Jones Airport.  It was the first airport in Canada to install runway lights to facilitate twilight landings. It was also home to a short-lived airmail service for the Prairies and served as a training site for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War Two.  

In addition, to small retail shops and restaurants all along 16th Avenue North, it was the gateway to Calgary's first shopping center - North Hill Shopping Centre in 1958. Calgary’s iconic Peters’ Drive-In (219-16th Ave NE) located on the Trans Canada Highway is another testimonial to 16th Avenue’s mid-century, automobile-oriented history.  Today you will still find numerous Tire, car parts and oil change shops along 16th Avenue. 

Banff Trail Motel is typical of the many modest motels that use to exist all along 16th Avenue North in the mid-20th century. 

Trans Canada Highway at Motel Village looking east with the SAIT residence in the background.

Calgary's Motel Village today is a hub of low-rise motels, an office building and 10+ restaurants. It is walking distance to the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology campus.  It is adjacent to a LRT Station that is just 5 minutes from downtown. 

Other Mid-century Motels

In downtown, while the Palliser Hotel adjacent to Canadian Pacific Railway Station was the City’s signature hotel, the Caravan Motor Hotel with its Steak and Rib House (4th Ave and 4th Street SW) touted itself as Calgary’s finest downtown motor hotel, only three minutes from the city centre. Another reminder of just how much our city has changed over the past five decades.

But for me, the best postcard was of the Bow River Motel (103, 24th Street NW aka Crowchild Trail).  On the back was their motto “It is quiet by the river” and the phone # AT 3-0777.  It was a reminder that not that long ago Crowchild Trail was a tranquil dirt road with no sidewalks and lined with small businesses and homes… a far cry from the speedway with bland, concrete sound barriers that it is today.

Caravan Motor Hotel and Steak and Rib House, 89 ultra modern units, completely air-conditioned, each room thermostatically controlled. TV, Hi Fi, Radio. Complete room service. 

 Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s. 

Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s. 

Last Word

I couldn’t help but wonder if 16th Avenue North hadn’t become the Trans Canada Highway in the ‘60s, would have it evolved into a more pedestrian-oriented, retail street like 17th Avenue South. Just wondering.

If you like this blog, you might like these:

Flaneuring the Trans Canada Highway

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 1)

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2)

Calgary: History Capital of Canada