A Brief History of the Bow River Islands

With the recent reopening of St. Patrick’s Island, I have been getting a lot of questions about the history of Calgary’s urban islands. So with the help of a few historian friends, history books and Google searches here are the Coles Notes of the Bow River Islands.

In the late 19th Century, when Calgary was first being developed along the banks of the Bow River, there were several large islands between what is now Deerfoot Trail and Crowchild Trail.  In 1890, Calgary’s Town Council named the lower (east) island St. George’s and the upper (west) island St. Patrick’s. In 1908, at the suggestion of William Pearce, the federal government donated three islands in the Bow River to the City of Calgary - St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick - on the condition they be used for recreational purposes.  Nobody seems to know where the names came from other than their strong link to British history and hence, Calgary’s history. The islands were little oasis on the otherwise treeless prairie, with their towering poplars nearly a meter in diameter as well as being full of raspberry and saskatoon bushes and strawberry patches.

St. George's Island

St. George’s Island was the first to be developed with the establishment of a bandstand and dancing platform in 1909. At the same time, Calgary Alderman Fred Curry started the fledgling Calgary Zoo.  

The next development was the Firth of Fourth, a small, narrow waterway between St. George’s and St. Andrew’s Island into a lagoon, swimming pool and large children’s playground with a rustic bridge connecting the two islands.  It became the place for Calgarians to enjoy a family outing on a weekend.  Following a drowning in 1920, the lagoon and swimming pool were closed, the strait filled in and the Island of St. Andrew’s became part of a larger St. George’s Island.

St. George's Island's bandshell.

St. George's Island's bandshell.

St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic. 

St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic. 

St. Patrick’s Island

St. Patrick’s Island (just west of the Zoo) and until recently had been left in a natural state with just a few pathways and a disc golf field in the middle.  In the late 20th century, it became a haven for many of Calgary’s homeless. 

With the early 21st century development of the new East Village to the south and the revitalization of the Bridgeland/Riverside community to the north, St. Patrick’s Island became an ideal location for a 21st century urban playground. A redeveloped St. Patrick’s Island was seen, as critical to the revitalization of these communities as was a redeveloped Prince’s Island to the communities of Eau Claire, Chinatown, West End, Hillhurst and Sunnyside in the ‘90s.

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach is popular on a warm summer day. 

The redeveloped St. Patrick's Island includes "Bloom" a piece of public art created from street lamp-posts that resembles a blooming flower. 

St. Patrick's Island's new pedestrian bridge is quickly becoming a tourist attraction.  The downtown Segway Tour includes a stop on the bridge.  

Man-made Island

Today, the most famous of the Bow River islands is arguably Prince’s Island, named after Peter Prince Manager of the Eau Claire Lumber Mill that operated on the island from 1886 to 1944. Some accounts have the Island as being no more than a shifting gravel bar while others suggest it was in fact not an island, but a peninsula in the river until the company dug a channel (now the lagoon) to get logs from Kananaskis closer to the sawmill on the banks of the river, thereby creating an island. Yes, Prince’s Island is a man-made island.  However, a late 19th century map of Calgary shows Prince’s Island as a smaller, but distinct island.

In 1889, Prince formed the Calgary Water Power Company to supply electricity to the town for streetlights.  At first, steam-generated by burning sawdust powered the Mill, until in 1893 the first hydroelectric plant was built near the east end of the lagoon. 

It wasn’t until 1947 that the City of Calgary purchased the land from the Prince family and created a park.  Today, Prince’s Island is one of the premier urban parks in North America.  It is home to one of Calgary’s signature festivals, Calgary International Folk Festival, as well as one of our best restaurants, River Café.  In addition, there is skating on the lagoon in the winter, a small sculpture garden, a popular children’s playground and numerous other festival and events.

As well, the entire east end of the island is the Chevron Learning Pathway where visitors learn how wetlands serve as natural habitat for wildlife and act as a filtration system to clean storm water from the city before it enters the river.

This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill. 

This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill. 

This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown. 

This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown. 

The Peace Bridge just west of Prince's Island is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists. 

The Unknown Island

There was also a substantial island just west of Crowchild Trail (24th Street) called William’s Island, that was the location of the City’s water works infiltration plant in the early 20th century.  Damaged in the flood of 1929, the plant was replaced by the Glenmore Reservoir in 1933.

The Island was then transferred to Calgary’s Parks Department and the old reservoir on the island used by the infiltration plant became a local swimming hole, and the Calgary Archery Club also called the island home (hence, the nickname Archer’s Island).  In the mid-20th century, the island and surrounding Bow River at Crowchild Trail was used for gravel operations for various construction projects, resulting in the destruction of the swimming hole and some of the island.

Today, the island is a popular breeding site for ducks and geese as well as a popular fishing hole for West Hillhurst’s family of osprey.

Pieces of Wiliam's Island just west of Crowchild Trail can be seen in this Google Earth image. 

Last Word

Though, the Bow River Islands enhance the quality of urban living for Calgarians from all parts of the city, it is especially so for those moving into the many condos being built along or near the river.  They are also quickly becoming an urban tourist attraction with their iconic pedestrian bridges, signature festivals/events, great restaurant, public art and fun people watching.

NB. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on September 19, 2005. 

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Historic Calgary Postcards: St. George's & St. Patrick's Island 

Calgary: The History Capital of Canada

Calgary's secret heritage trail?

Aerial view of St. Patrick's and St. George's Islands along the Bow River (photo credit: Peak Aerials)