Historic Calgary Week 2016
The 100-year anniversary of the Centre Street Bridge will be celebrated during Historic Calgary Week 2016. Celebrate the rich history of Calgary and region at over 60 walks, talks, concerts, family events, museum and community visits. Plan your participation in our 11 day history festival with:
History festival brochure
Week At A Glance
- The first crossing of the Bow River at the Centre Street location was a bridge called Foggs Ferry, built in 1882.
- It was replaced with a wood and steel truss bridge built by a private developer who had the Crescent Heights property on the north side of the river. This was named the MacArthur Bridge.
- The MacArthur Bridge was destroyed in a flood on June 25, 1915.
- A two deck bridge plan was approved at a cost of $375,000.
- The lower deck of the bridge was originally only designed for pedestrians.
- The original 14 ton lions were designed by a City of Calgary employee who was a sculptor. They were modeled after the lions in Trafalgar Square.
- The bridge underwent extensive rehabilitation in the 1970’s and 2000.
- Copies of the deteriorating lions were cast and reinstalled as part of the bridge rehabilitation in 2000.
2016 marks the 100-year anniversary of one of The City of Calgary’s most iconic landmarks – The Centre Street Bridge.
The Centre Street Bridge, which crosses the Bow River along Centre Street, has been a part of the city skyline since 1916 with its four arches, upper and lower traffic decks and lion sculptures.
It was built by The City of Calgary 100 years ago for $375,000. It replaced the MacArthur Bridge, a steel truss bridge built in 1907 by land developer A.J. MacArthur who had acquired the land that would become Crescent Heights and wanted people to have easy access to it.
Local historian and author Harry Sanders says the original bridge was built without any consideration for alignment with the roads. “(MacArthur) gets some investors and forms a stock company and they build a little bridge. They have no permission to build this bridge. All they did was acquire the land at either end and built a bridge across it. He hopes people will now live in Crescent Heights, which they do.”
Once the bridge was in use, they offered to sell it to The City for $17,000, which The City turned down. Then they offered it for $5,000 but taxpayers voted against purchasing it. Eventually, The City agrees to pay $1,300 for it.
“But now The City is thinking about a beautiful new bridge as Calgary is undergoing an enormous period of growth and wealth,” explains Sanders.
Town Planner Thomas Mawson proposed two alternate designs for a new low-level bridge and for a bridge built on a rise. Mawson presented his plans in 1914, but Calgary's economic slump in late 1913, followed by the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, ended any chance Mawson’s plan would be implemented.
Instead, in 1914 ratepayers approve a plan to build a more modest bridge, says Sanders. “They didn’t have a lot of money for artistic frills but they did have one advantage – one of the aldermen happened to see a stone lion... on someone’s lawn and, it turns out, the artist, James L. Thomson, also worked at The City.”
At the time, during the First World War, there was real patriotic sentiment going on and a lot of the artistic elements of the bridge reflect that. “They refer to the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland… and the lions were considered to be representative of the permanence of the British Empire,” explains Sanders.
“It’s kind of funny that this war that is going on at the time the bridge in constructed is kind of the beginning of the end of the British Empire as a dominant thing in the lives of Canadians.”
Flood destroys MacArthur Bridge as new Centre Street Bridge is being constructed
The Centre Street Bridge, which was designed to be resilient and stand the test of time, was built just in time.
Sanders says the MacArthur Bridge collapsed during the flood in June 1915, not even two months into construction of the Centre Street Bridge.
City Engineer George W. Craig and City Commissioner James Garden were inspecting the old bridge when a former City worker, Edwin Tambling, stepped onto it.
“They said ‘No. No. No. Get off the bridge. It’s not safe,’ but as it turns out he was deaf and couldn’t hear them,” says Sanders. “And then suddenly the bridge collapsed. Craig was able to hold on to one of the timbers and was rescued but Tambling and Garden were hurled into the river.
“A couple of City employees dove into the river and rescued the City Commissioner but Edwin Tambling was drowned in the episode.”
Sanders says when the Centre Street Bridge was informally opened to traffic on Dec. 18, 1916, it was appropriate that Craig, who survived the bridge collapse, was in the first car to drive a car across the span.
A symbol of strength
For decades, The City of Calgary Roads’ Business Unit has been maintaining the Centre Street Bridge.
Roads Director Troy McLeod says the bridge, which was constructed to be resilient against floods, is now seen as a symbol of the strength in our city. “What has been consistent in Calgary over the past 100 years is the resilience of our people and the Centre Street Bridge is a perfect reminder of this strength in our community,” he says.
The Centre Street Bridge was protected as a Municipal Historic Resource in 1992. It is historically significant as the second oldest bridge to span the Bow River and has long-served as one of the main links between downtown Calgary and areas north of the Bow River. As such, it was instrumental in the early development of neighbourhoods north of the Bow River, especially Crescent Heights, Mount Pleasant, Tuxedo Park, Winston Heights and Renfrew.
“The Centre Street Bridge has so many aspects of significance, beginning with the access to and from the heart of our downtown, the artistic design and architecture that has been prominent for so long, the innovation of its lower deck connectivity and its spectacular view for pedestrians crossing the Bow River,” says McLeod.
“All of these are important but I believe the most important aspect of the bridge is the men and women who originally built and maintained this landmark through hard work and determination.”
The story of the lions
On an ordinary spring day in Calgary in 1917, four massive concrete lions took their place atop the four corner kiosks of the newly constructed Centre Street Bridge. There, they would guard the bridge’s north and south entrances for the next 82 years.
Originally designed in likeness of the bronze lions at the base of the Nelson monument in London’s Trafalgar Square, the sculptures paid homage to Canada’s ties to the British Empire. Over the course of the lions’ reign, they became well-known symbols of Calgary’s strength, integrity and independent character.
Created by James L. Thomson, a stonemason and employee of The City, one sculpture measures 12 feet in length, 5 feet wide, 8 feet high, and weighs 13 tons. Appropriate for artisans of the day, each lion was composed of several individual pieces, cast separately using a cement-type mortar, and then spliced together over a metal frame.
In 1992 both the Centre Street Bridge and the lion sculptures were designated Municipal Historic Resources, and in 1993, the lions were designated to the inventory of The City’s Public Art Collection.
In 1999, the Centre Street Bridge was closed for major renovations, and the lions were removed to accommodate the work.
After 82 years of withstanding Calgary’s freeze-thaw cycles and vibrations from traffic on the bridge deck, and because of the advanced state of deterioration of the lions, it was deemed that the lions were not suitable for reinstallation on the bridge. As recommended by the Calgary Heritage Authority, one lion was fully restored and used to create a cast and mould to make four new replacement lions that were installed on the renovated bridge when it reopened in 2000. The restored original can be seen perched at the entrance of the Municipal Building, where it has proudly greeted thousands of visitors every year since 2003.
The remaining three were kept in storage. In April 2016, The City announced that one of the original lion sculptures, identified as the lion in the best condition of the remaining three, will be repaired and conserved, then re-located to Rotary Park in 2017, overlooking the Centre Street Bridge.
“Displaying one of the historic Centre Street Bridge lion sculptures in a public setting is a poignant tribute to our city’s past,” says Sarah Iley, manager Arts & Culture, The City of Calgary. “The location in Rotary Park allows citizens an opportunity to appreciate the century-old lion sculpture in a new and accessible space where it can be viewed from the Centre Street Bridge, Memorial Drive and in Rotary Park itself.”
For more information on the project, visit The City Newsroom.