Former Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Mill Offices, converted to Centre Cafe
Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, ca1964
What is it about January that makes me all sentimental? I don’t know, but I do start to look at things that were familiar in my youth and think, “Ah, yes, I remember.” One of those moments was sparked by an article in the September 30, 1919 issue of the Calgary Daily Herald that I encountered while I was (supposed to be) transcribing birth, marriage and death announcements. It was an article about the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company and the improvements it had made, which made it one of the most modern mills in Western Canada. My memories of Eau Claire were different. Of course, while I was growing up, I’d known of Peter Prince and Eau Claire, but the district itself was not a place where nice people went. My memories of Eau Claire looked like the Alison Jackson photo above; run down, a little bit scary and certainly not a worthy development on the banks of our beautiful Bow.
It was hard, then, to imagine the mill, but not hard to imagine that this was once a large, industrial site. It had a look of neglect. It wasn’t until I started to pursue the history of Peter Prince and the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company that I discovered what a massive operation it was and how important it was in the development of Western Canada. It provided the materials that would be needed to build the new houses and farms and shops and other buildings that would grow up around the CPR line. The name of the company and the district that would grow up around it came from a place in Wisconsin. When the government was looking to sell off the lumber rights to the timber stands in the Bow Valley, a Winnipeg lawyer named MacFee got the news and saw that there was money to be made. He had inside information from a friend, David MacDougall, son of the Reverend George, who ran a trading post next door to the church on the Nakoda nation. MacFee needed the expertise of industry insiders and since Eau Claire, Wisconsin was the centre of the US logging industry (and had lured many Canadians south to work for them) he headed there. The lumbermen saw the potential and formed the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co, and two expat Canadians came north to Fort Calgary. President Isaac Kerr was born in Ontario and manager Peter Prince, whose magnificent home was moved to Heritage Park, was born in Quebec. As part of the agreement with the government, the leases were surveyed in 1884 and these documents now live at the Glenbow Archives, along with lots of other records about the company. The surveys can be viewed online through the Archives Society of Alberta database. Here is the link for the Bow River limits survey.
By 1886 Prince had a small mill operating on the land the company had purchased just north of the Calgary townsite. Logging crews were dispatched and by 1887 there were log drivers on the Bow. The company grew as the demand for their product grew. To better access the mill, a channel was dug through a small isthmus, giving us what is known today as Prince’s Island. Kerr and Prince would also be instrumental in harnessing the power of the Bow River to provide electricity. The picture below shows the power generating plant. Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber would remain in business until 1945.
So, from the industrial to the residential, Eau Claire has had a varied history. I still like to wander around down there (now that I can do so safely) and think, “Ah yes, I remember.”
If you are interested in the history of the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company, there is an excellent chapter in an excellent book about the Bow River, The River Returns by Armstrong, Evenden and Nelles.
The Flood Gates, Bow River, Calgary
Postcards from the Past, PC 797