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Historic stories and images

The great fire of 1886 and its effect on future building

In 1886, just two years after Calgary became an official town, disaster struck. A fire broke out on the main commercial strip, Atlantic Avenue, destroying some eighteen buildings. At this time, the dominant building material was wood, but the abundance of local sandstone had already led to the establishment of stone quarries and a nascent sandstone construction industry. The fire contributed to expanded use of fire-resistant sandstone in building construction, a trend that ultimately informed the design and construction of City Hall.

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Sandstone quarries

After the great fire of 1886, locally-quarried Paskapoo sandstone largely replaced timber-frame construction in Calgary’s business district. Well over a dozen quarries operated in and around the present city limits between the mid-1880s and 1915. The sense of confidence and dignity expressed in the stone transformed Calgary and earned it recognition across Canada as the “Sandstone City.” Further, the widespread use of sandstone in Calgary’s public, commercial and residential buildings had helped to attract first class architects, contractors, and stone workers, from which City Hall later benefited.


Typical wages when Historic City Hall was built

Calgary’s construction boom between 1906 and 1913 provided a wealth of employment opportunities for craftsmen, including the construction of City Hall from 1907 to 1911. Although work was seasonal, wages were decent for stone workers and carpenters, who were also protected by labour agreements. Unskilled workers earned less and had little employment security.

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Where did they find craftsmen?

The widespread use of sandstone in Calgary between 1886 and 1914, and a major construction boom before the First World War, helped attract a pool of skilled craftsmen to the city. Many carpenters, stone workers, and other craftsmen found work on Calgary’s new City Hall, completed in 1911.

 

The City Hall clock tower- a landmark in downtown Calgary

One of City Hall’s most defining features is its five-story sandstone clock tower. The Seth Thomas clock has kept a steady time since it was installed in January 1911, with few repairs beyond regular maintenance and a weekly winding. The tower clock today remains a beloved public timepiece and a symbol of Calgary’s municipal administration.

 

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