History of Calgary in Canada, with historical attractions and things to do

Calgary, a vibrant city nestled in the picturesque province of Alberta, Canada, is not only renowned for its modern skyline and bustling energy but also for its rich history that dates back centuries. Steeped in the heritage of Indigenous peoples, pioneers, and cowboys, Calgary offers a fascinating glimpse into the past.

This article explores the captivating history of Calgary and highlights its main historical attractions that are a must-visit for any history enthusiast or curious traveler. From the iconic Fort Calgary, a North-West Mounted Police outpost, to the awe-inspiring National Music Centre, which showcases the country’s musical legacy, Calgary has a plethora of sites that tell captivating stories.

Discover the significance of the Hangar Flight Museum, formerly known as the Aero Space Museum of Calgary, housing a remarkable collection of aircraft and artifacts. Explore the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell, where you can delve into Canada’s musical heritage and witness rare instruments and memorabilia.

Immerse yourself in the intriguing past of Calgary as you visit the Heritage Park Historical Village, home to reconstructed buildings that once stood at the original fort. And don’t forget to explore the city’s vibrant downtown, where architectural gems intertwine with Calgary’s historical fabric.

Embark on a journey through time and delve into the captivating history of Calgary, uncovering its significant landmarks and hidden treasures along the way.

A brief history of Calgary, Alberta

The Calgary area has a long history of human habitation, dating back at least 11,000 years. It has been home to various First Nations, including the Niitsitapi, îyârhe Nakoda, Tsuutʼina peoples, and Métis Nation.

In 1873, John Glenn became the first documented European settler in the Calgary area. The North-West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary in 1875 to maintain order and protect the fur trade. The fort was officially named “Calgary” in 1876.

The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1883 spurred growth in the area. The CPR constructed a railway station on Section 15, leading to the relocation of the Calgary townsite. In 1884, Calgary’s residents sought to form a local government, and on November 27, Lieutenant Governor Dewdney proclaimed the incorporation of The Town of Calgary. George Murdoch became the first mayor, and the council met for the first time on December 3.

Education also developed rapidly, with the first school opening in February 1884 and the formation of the Calgary Protestant Public School District No. 19 in 1885. The town was keen on maintaining law and order, appointing constables and establishing the position of Chief Constable in 1885.

1885 and 1886 were two complicated years for Calgary. Councillor Clarke’s arrest sparked controversy, leading to clashes with the Stipendiary Magistrate, Jeremiah Travis. Murdoch and council members were disqualified and fined for corruption allegations. Despite this, Murdoch was re-elected as mayor. A fire in 1886 further destabilized the town, but the new Town Council took action, implementing a sandstone building bylaw. Calgary’s growth was evident when Donald Watson Davis won the MP position, surpassing Edmonton’s prominence.

Calgary expanded through real estate speculation in 1889, with development moving westward. Property owners on both sides of Centre Street competed for growth, resulting in the purchase of land on the east side for stockyard purposes. By 1892, Calgary reached Seventeenth Avenue, and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway shortened travel time.

Smallpox and a riot occurred in 1892. On January 1, 1894, Calgary received its charter, becoming the first city in the North-West Territories. The Hudson’s Bay Company established a sales shop in 1884, and in 1913, Calgary became home to one of the grand department stores.

Alberta became a province on September 1, 1905, with Edmonton chosen as the capital. Efforts by Calgarians to secure the capital and a university were unsuccessful. However, Calgary saw progress with power and water services, paving, streetcars, and population growth. Ambitious projects emerged, marking the transition from the “Sandstone City” era to new architectural styles.

In 1908, Calgary invested in the Dominion Exhibition, spending CA$145,000 to build pavilions and a racetrack. The event drew 100,000 people despite an economic recession.

Inspired by the city’s enthusiasm, Guy Weadick an American trick roper organized the first Calgary Stampede in 1912 with support from local businessmen. The Stampede became a tradition, attracting cowboys and generating revenue.

In 1914, the Turner Valley Discovery Well marked the beginning of Calgary’s oil and gas era. The city experienced booms and became an oil and gas hub by 1947, leading to economic prosperity.

In early 20th-century Calgary, there was political activity with support for conservative parties. Calgarians also sympathized with workers and supported labor organizations. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) formed as a lobbying group, and in 1921, the UFA formed the province’s first non-Liberal government. R.B. Bennett, a Calgary resident, became Canada’s 11th prime minister in 1930.

Over time, Calgary continued to grow, and in 1996, the CPR headquarters relocated from Montreal to Calgary. The city’s rich history is a testament to the resilience and determination of its inhabitants, who have built a vibrant community over the years.

Calgary City Council explored rapid transit in the 1960s, leading to the development of a light rail transit system, known as the CTrain, which opened in 1981. The University of Calgary gained autonomy in 1966, and the 1970s oil boom fueled significant investment and population growth.

However, the 1980s oil glut caused a decline in Calgary’s economy, and the city experienced a decrease in population. In 1980, the Calgary Flames hockey team relocated from Atlanta and achieved success, including winning the Stanley Cup in 1989.

The Calgary Olympic Development Association secured funding and support from the city’s residents to host the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. The Games resulted in the construction of purpose-built venues, such as the Olympic Saddledome and the Olympic Oval. Despite Canada’s lack of gold medals, the Games provided an economic boost to Calgary.

Calgary’s economy boomed until 2009, driven by oil prices. It has since diversified into tourism, high-tech manufacturing, and other industries. The city attracts over 3.1 million visitors annually, including those drawn to nearby mountain resort towns. Other modern industries thrive, including manufacturing, film, e-commerce, transportation, and services.

The Heritage Park Historical Village

Heritage Park Historical Village is a popular historical park located on the outskirts of Calgary. Spanning 127 acres of parkland along the Glenmore Reservoir, it is the city’s second largest living history museum and draws numerous tourists. The park is open from late May to Thanksgiving, while Heritage Town Square remains accessible year-round.

The exhibits at Heritage Park cover Western Canadian history from the 1860s to the 1950s. Many of the buildings on display are authentic historical structures that were transported to the park, while others are meticulous recreations. Furnished with genuine artifacts, the buildings offer a glimpse into the past.

Staff members dress in historic costumes, and visitors can explore the park using antique automobiles and horse-drawn vehicles. Regular shuttle service is provided by Calgary Transit from Heritage C-Train station. The park first opened its doors on July 1, 1964.

Divided into four distinct areas, Heritage Park showcases different time periods in Western Canadian history: the Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Trading Fort (c. 1864), the Pre-Railway Settlement Village (c. 1880), the Railway Prairie Town (c. 1910), and the newly opened Heritage Town Square (depicting the 1920s to 1950s), which debuted in 2009.

The park boasts over 100 exhibits, including a steam locomotive-pulled passenger train that offers rides, a roundhouse with a functioning turntable and various railway equipment, a restored Calgary streetcar, a paddle steamer named S.S. Moyie that cruises the Glenmore Reservoir, historical amusement park rides, an aboriginal encampment, and operational shops and restaurants like a smithy, bakery, and hotel.

The park also features a Hudson’s Bay Company trading fort, the 1913 Little Synagogue on the Prairie, and the Town Square with its Haskayne Mercantile Block, Selkirk Grille, and Big Rock Interpretive Brewery.

In 2009, Heritage Park unveiled the Heritage Town Square expansion, showcasing a larger western Canadian town from the 1930s and 1940s. Notable additions include the Famous 5 Center of Canadian Women, a replica of Nellie McClung’s Calgary home highlighting influential women in Canadian history, the year-round Gasoline Alley Museum displaying antique cars and memorabilia, an orientation/visitor’s center housed in a replica railway station, and a 1930s town square with shops and food services. Additionally, a CPR railway station restaurant has been recreated for visitors to enjoy.

The Glenbow Museum

The Glenbow Museum, located in downtown Calgary, is a regional museum that showcases art and history. Established in 1955 by Eric Lafferty Harvie, a lawyer, businessman, and philanthropist, the museum focuses on Western Canadian history and culture, with a special emphasis on Indigenous perspectives. It houses a diverse collection of artifacts, artworks, and archival materials.

The museum relocated to its current downtown facility in 1976 and is supported by funding from the governments of Calgary, Alberta, and Canada, as well as private donors and an endowment provided by Harvie.

Thanks to a generous $25 million donation from the Shaw Family Foundation in February 2022, admission to the museum is now free. $15 million of the donation has been allocated to an endowment fund for admissions, while $10 million will support the establishment of the JR Shaw Institute for Canadian Art.

The Glenbow Museum’s art collection consists of 33,000 works primarily dating from the 19th century to the present. It encompasses historical, modern, and contemporary pieces related to the northwestern region of North America. The collection features landscape paintings, Canadian prints by artists like Walter J. Phillips and Sybil Andrews, First Nations and Inuit Art, American illustration, and wildlife art.

Additionally, the museum has a library with over 100,000 books, periodicals, maps, and other materials focused on Western Canada.

The museum’s collection includes artifacts from Western Canada as well as various cultures worldwide. It also houses a remarkable assortment of gems, minerals, and precious stones. The Community History collection offers insights into the lives of southern Albertans from 1880 to 1970, featuring items related to pottery, folk studies, numismatics, and more.

One of the museum’s notable permanent exhibits is “Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta,” which tells the story of Alberta through the experiences of 48 individuals. The Military and Mounted Police collection showcases Canadian military history, including European and Japanese armor and weapons. The Warriors exhibition explores cultural approaches to war throughout history, drawing on items from the Military and Mounted Police collection.

The Glenbow Museum’s Minerals collection features minerals and precious stones from around the world, with a particular focus on Western Canada. Visitors can marvel at minerals that glow in the dark, fool’s gold, the Earth’s oldest rock, and an array of rock crystals.

The Native North America collection contains a wealth of artifacts from various indigenous peoples, particularly the Plains Indians. It is divided into sections representing Inuit, Métis, Northwest Coast, Plains, and Other First Peoples. The museum’s ethnology collection encompasses approximately 48,000 items and includes a permanent exhibit called “Niitsitapiisinni: Our Way of Life,” which highlights the Niitsitapi culture.

The Glenbow Museum also boasts a collection of artifacts from around the world, organized into categories such as Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Notable exhibits include the “Many Faces, Many Paths: Art of Asia” gallery, which showcases Buddhist and Hindu relics dating back centuries, and “Where Symbols Meet: A Celebration of West African Achievement,” which features items from the museum’s West African collection.

Finally, the Glenbow archives serve as one of Canada’s largest non-governmental repositories, housing an extensive collection of archival records, photographs, film footage, and sound recordings. The archives cover the period from the 1870s to the 1990s and provide valuable resources for researchers interested in the social, political, and economic history of Western Canada.

The Military Museums, Calgary

The Military Museums in Calgary, is a comprehensive institution that combines the former Museum of the Regiments, the Naval Museum of Alberta, and an Air Force Wing. The museum, officially opened in 1990 by Queen Elizabeth II, focuses on preserving and documenting the history of the Canadian Forces’ Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force, with a particular emphasis on Alberta’s military history.

The Museum of the Regiments, in partnership with the Calgary Military Museums Society, showcased the histories of four Calgary-based regiments. The Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) Museum presented the regiment’s history through records, photographs, art, uniforms, artifacts, and vehicles.

The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Gallery highlighted the military and social development of the regiment, featuring medals, weapons, maps, and a memorial to fallen members. The King’s Own Calgary Regiment (KOCR) Gallery covered the 103rd Regiment “Calgary Rifles,” Calgary Regiment, Calgary Tanks, and 50th (Calgary) Battalion, CEF. The Calgary Highlanders Gallery depicted the regiment’s heritage through exhibits on World War I, World War II, United Nations Operations, peacetime service, recent deployments, and ceremonies.

The Military Museums’ mandate includes providing a physical link to the regiments’ history, preserving historical items, aiding recruitment and training, and educating the public about military campaigns and strategies. The museum houses a vast collection of artifacts, including tanks, armoured cars, anti-tank guns, and aircraft such as the Canadair CF-5, CF-104 Starfighter, Canadair Sabre, and McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet.

Outside the museum, visitors can explore displays like an eternal flame, larger-than-life statues, and tanks. The memorial stained glass windows commemorate members of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Branch.

The museum also houses a military history library, operated by the University of Calgary, and the regimental archives of the four regiments. The Military Museums serves as a tribute to the military heritage of Canada, honoring the sacrifices and contributions of its armed forces throughout history.

The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre

The Chinese Cultural Centre in Calgary was completed in 1992, and is located on the north-eastern side of the downtown. Its centerpiece is the Dr. Henry Fok Cultural Hall, designed after the Hall of Prayers in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. The hall features a 70-foot-high ceiling adorned with 561 dragons and 40 phoenixes, supported by four ornate columns representing the seasons. The dome’s outer surface is covered in blue tiles imported from China, arranged in traditional layered fashion.

The building houses classrooms, a library named the Orrin and Clara Christie Might Library, a traditional Chinese medicine facility, an auditorium, a restaurant, and the Chinese Artifacts Museum. The museum exhibits rare replicas of Chinese artifacts, including terra-cotta soldiers, a replica set of dining room furniture from the Qing Dynasty Imperial Palace, and sculptures depicting characters from Chinese legends and myths.

Visitors can also explore the award-winning exhibit hall, “Our Chosen Land,” which delves into the history of the Chinese community in Calgary and the evolution of Calgary’s Chinatown.

Throughout the year, the Chinese Cultural Centre hosts various events to celebrate Chinese holidays and traditions. These events feature performances like traditional lion dances and Chinese opera. The museum receives numerous students and tourists who come to learn about Chinese history and culture.

The exhibition “Our Chosen Land: 100 years of development of the Chinese community in Calgary” provides insight into the background and conditions of Chinese immigrants to Canada, as well as the growth of Calgary’s Chinatown.

The museum showcases a diverse range of artifacts, including a replica of the world’s first earthquake detector, a tapestry depicting China’s great inventions, ceramics and porcelain items, emperor and empress robes from the Qing Dynasty, and bronze wares spanning over 3,000 years of history.

The Chinese Cultural Centre and its museum offer visitors a captivating journey through Chinese heritage, providing a glimpse into the rich cultural contributions made by the Chinese community in Calgary.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame is a renowned hall of fame and museum dedicated to the history of sports in Canada, located in western Calgary. Established in 1955, it recognizes accomplished Canadian athletes, sports builders, and officials. Originally located in Toronto, the museum moved to a shared facility with the Hockey Hall of Fame until 1993 when it became the sole occupant. In 2011, a new 4,100 square meter facility was opened at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, housing the hall of fame and museum.

The building’s design by Stantec features a cantilevered structure resembling medal platforms, with red and white colors inspired by the Canadian flag. The interior consists of museum and exhibition halls, office space, and storage for collections. The upper level, designed to give the illusion of floating, holds twelve themed galleries, a theater, and interactive exhibits showcasing inductees and Canadian sport.

The museum’s collections include over 60,000 photographs and 100,000 artifacts. Nominations for inductees are accepted from the Canadian public, and athletes must have been retired for at least four years. The hall of fame introduces new inductees annually, chosen by a selection committee. In 2019, the Order of Sport award was introduced to honor inductees, and all previous hall of famers were retroactively included.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame celebrates the achievements of Canadian athletes and the impact of sports in the country. With its impressive exhibits and rich history, it stands as a testament to Canada’s sporting legacy.

The Lougheed House

Lougheed House, originally known as Beaulieu, is a renowned heritage site located in Calgary, Alberta. Constructed in 1891 as the residence of Senator James Alexander Lougheed and his spouse Isabella Clarke Hardisty, it has since become an iconic landmark.

Operated by the Lougheed House Conservation Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to its restoration and public enjoyment, the house holds historical significance.

Throughout its history, Lougheed House has served various purposes, including being a family home, a training center, a military barracks, and a blood donor clinic. After years of being unused, restoration work began in 2000 to revive the mansion.

Designed by James C. Bowes, the 1,300 square meter mansion combines High Victorian and Queen Anne Revival styles. Its distinctive features include rough-faced sandstone walls, asymmetrical massing, corner towers, steep roofs influenced by Romanesque Revival, and cone-shaped towers inspired by French Chateau architecture.

The interior boasts Spanish mahogany, Italian marble, stained glass windows and doors, and hand-painted images of Alberta’s flora and fauna. It was equipped with modern luxuries of the time, such as running hot water and electricity.

Following the Calgary Fire of 1886, the mansion was built with sandstone to comply with building codes. It comprised rooms for billiards, smoking, drawing, bedrooms, and other spacious areas. The Calgary Herald praised its design, solidity, accommodations, and furnishings upon its completion.

The Beaulieu Gardens, originally part of the mansion’s formal garden, now serve as a municipal park operated by the City of Calgary Parks Department.

In 1977, Lougheed House was designated the “Senator Lougheed Residence” as an Alberta Provincial Historic Resource, recognizing its association with James Lougheed and its representation of upper-class sandstone architecture.

In 1992, it received the designation of “Beaulieu National Historic Site of Canada” for being a rare example of an upper-middle-class eclectic mansion on the Canadian Prairies.

The Hangar Flight Museum

The Hangar Flight Museum, formerly known as the Aero Space Museum of Calgary, is located south of Calgary International Airport in Alberta, Canada. Established in 1975 by aviation enthusiasts and World War II pilots, the museum found its current home in a former British Commonwealth Air Training Plan hangar in 1985. It offers exhibits on Canadian space programs and houses an aeronautics archive.

The museum pays tribute to the Commonwealth air forces that trained in Calgary during World War II, with a central war memorial stone slab and four additional memorial slabs. The Aero Space Museum Association of Calgary also erected a list of honor memorial dedicated to the Alberta airmen who lost their lives in the war. The museum is affiliated with CMA, CHIN, and the Virtual Museum of Canada.

On display, visitors can explore a variety of aircraft, including replicas like the AEA Silver Dart and Sopwith Triplane. The collection also features notable planes such as the Avro Lancaster X FM136, McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo, and North American F-86A Sabre. Additionally, gliders like the Hall Cherokee II and helicopters like the Aérospatiale Alouette III and Bell 47G are showcased.

The Hangar Flight Museum offers a captivating experience for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs, providing insights into Canadian aerospace achievements and commemorating the sacrifices made during times of war.

The National Music Centre

The National Music Centre (NMC) is a non-profit museum and performance venue located in central Calgary. Its permanent building, Studio Bell, is situated in Downtown East Village. The centre’s origins can be traced back to the installation of the Carthy Organ in Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall in 1987, which led to the creation of the Chinook Keyboard Centre and later Cantos Music Museum. In 2003, Cantos Music Museum merged with TriumphEnt to form the Cantos Music Foundation, which eventually became the National Music Centre in 2012.

Due to its growth, the NMC began construction of a 60,000 square-foot facility in Calgary’s East Village. Designed by architect Brad Cloepfil, the Studio Bell opened on July 1, 2016.

The centre showcases a collection of over 2,000 rare instruments and artifacts, including the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, the TONTO synthesizer, and Elton John’s piano. It also houses the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame collections.

In addition to exhibitions and performances, the NMC offers interactive education programming, artist incubation, and an artist-in-residence program. It has broadcast facilities for the CKUA Radio Network and a 300-seat performance hall. The historic King Edward Hotel is also part of the centre, serving as a live music venue.

The National Music Centre is a vibrant hub for music enthusiasts, providing a platform for education, artistic development, and the celebration of Canadian musical heritage.

Fort Calgary

Fort Calgary, located at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers in Calgary, Alberta, served as a North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) outpost. Originally named Fort Brisebois, it was later renamed Fort Calgary in June 1876.

Built in 1875 to combat illegal liquor trade and establish relations with Indigenous peoples, the fort expanded in 1882 and remained in use by the NWMP until 1914 when it was sold to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and demolished.

The municipal government of Calgary purchased the site in 1973 and opened it as a historic site and museum in 1978, initially focusing on the NWMP before shifting to Calgary’s local history in 1995.

Reconstructions of fort buildings were completed in the 1990s and 2000s, including stables, a wagon shed, and barracks modeled after the 1888 structure. The site covers 12 hectares (30 acres) and features an interpretive center with exhibits on Calgary’s history and the NWMP.

In 2016, an art installation called “Marking” by Jill Anholt was unveiled at the site, consisting of wooden slats outlining the original fort and illuminated with red lights at night. Fort Calgary is adjacent to the Deane House and Hunt House, which are connected to its history.

The Deane House

The Deane House, originally built in 1906 near Fort Calgary, served as the residence for Captain Richard Burton Deane, the fort’s superintendent. After being purchased by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1914, the house was relocated to a different area of the lot and used as an office and station master’s house. Later, it was moved across the Elbow River and renamed Jasper Lodge and then Gaspé Lodge under different owners.

In 1973, the city of Calgary acquired the building, initially transforming it into a cooperative studio space and exhibition venue called the Dandelion Gallery. The space also became home to Dandelion Magazine, an influential literary publication in Alberta. The city eventually closed the cooperative and planned to convert the house into a teahouse and restaurant.

Today, the Deane House, still owned by the city, has been extensively renovated as part of the MakeHistory upgrades to Fort Calgary. It currently operates as a restaurant under the same name, offering visitors a chance to experience the historic charm of the building while enjoying a meal.

The Hunt House

The Hunt House, Calgary’s oldest building on its original site, was constructed between 1876 and 1881 for Métis employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.). Located at 8th Street and 9th Avenue SE, it remains one of less than 25 surviving structures in Alberta predating 1882.

As one of only three H.B.C. buildings still standing in the province, it holds historical significance as a connection to the company’s role in shaping Alberta’s early economy, transportation network, and social life.

Designated as an Alberta Provincial Historic Resource in 1977, the Hunt House features a log frame concealed by shingles. Unlike typical H.B.C. buildings, it showcases the rare dovetail corner construction style, reflecting American cultural influences.

The house was last inhabited by William Hunt, a rail worker who passed away in the mid-1970s. Adjacent to the Hunt House, the Métis Cabin, believed to have been built around the same time, was relocated to the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company grounds in the 1930s but has recently been returned to its original location.

The Calgary Tower

The Calgary Tower is a 626-foot observation tower located in downtown Calgary. Initially known as the Husky Tower, it was constructed as a joint venture between Marathon Realty Company Limited and Husky Oil to commemorate Canada’s centennial in 1967 and as part of an urban renewal plan. The tower’s design is reminiscent of the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The tower, costing CA$3,500,000 and weighing approximately 10,884 tonnes, opened on June 30, 1968, becoming Calgary’s tallest structure and the tallest in Canada outside of Toronto. It was later renamed the Calgary Tower in 1971 and became a founding member of the World Federation of Great Towers.

The tower features the Sky 360 revolving restaurant, providing customers with panoramic views of downtown Calgary. The restaurant completes a full rotation every 45 minutes during the day and every 60 minutes in the evening.

Connected through the +15 skyway network, the tower’s base links to One Palliser Square, Fairmont Palliser Hotel, and EnCana Place. While the observation deck stairs are not open to the public, they have been used for special events and an annual charity stair-climbing race, consisting of 802 steps.

At the tower’s base, the Vertigo Theatre offers a full season of mystery plays for adult and youth audiences. The tower also houses a carillon, gifted by the local Dutch community in 1975, which has been refurbished and restored to operation.

In 2005, a glass floor extension was added to the observation deck, allowing visitors to look directly down on 9th Avenue South and Centre Street. Furthermore, an LED exterior lighting system was installed in 2014, offering over 16.5 million combinations of color and lighting effects.

The Calgary Tower has played a significant role in the city’s skyline, attracting over 500,000 visitors annually since its 25th anniversary in 1993.

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