Head Gates and Irrigation Canal, Calgary, ca. 1907
Postcards from the Past, PC 229
I seem to be obsessed with water these days. Or maybe it’s a normal reaction to betrayal by your rivers. Possibly not a healthy obsession, but I am going to write one more water-related post and then I will stop, promise. What caught my attention this week was the closure of the Harvie Passage, the man-made rapids designed to make the area around the weir safer for experienced paddlers (although they still strongly recommend that novices and folks in rubber rafts portage around the rapids) Harvie Passage is closed because the mighty Bow has rearranged the area and repairs need to be made before it is safe for use.
I remember going to a meeting where the plans for Harvie Passage were explained. It seemed like such an innovative way to deal with the “drowning machine” as the weir was known at the time. The building of two channels, designed to enhance the experience of the Bow, opened up that area of the river and allowed for enthusiasts to paddle without portage.
Growing up on the Bow, I knew the weir was there, but it wasn’t until much later in my life that I knew, first what a weir was exactly and second, why it was built. It may not seem like it this year, but the area in which we sit was considered by the early explorer John Palliser to be essentially a desert and not suitable for settlement unless irrigation could be provided. That section, still known as the Palliser Triangle, wasn’t even considered good enough to give away to homesteaders so it was taken out of the homestead scheme.
When the CPR came to claim their alternate sections of arable land as payment for building the railway, they also looked at the Palliser Triangle. They had just built a railway from coast to coast. Irrigating the prairie “desert” (the largest irrigation project in North America) would be a piece of cake by comparison and could increase their profits enormously. It was to this end that the weir was built, starting in 1904. This diversion would send water into a canal to send it on its way to the arid lands to the north and east. The Main Canal carried Bow River water to the Reservoir #1, or, as we call it today, Chestermere Lake (that was news to me too).
The weir was always a dangerous spot. A brief search through the old newspapers turns up many accounts of people drowning at that spot. Warning signs and buoys didn’t stop people from attempting to “shoot the rapids.” The idea of turning such a deadly, but necessary, area of the Bow into an attraction, was an inspired one, and I hope all will be well with Harvie Passage in the future.
We have some fascinating material on the history of the Western Irrigation District including Flow Beyond the Weir , which is the history of the Western Irrigation District, and some of the original reports and conference proceedings of the Western Canada Irrigation Association. Drop in to the Local History room at the Central Library and have a look.
Canadian Pacific Irrigation Department Building, Calgary, 1907
Postcards from the Past, PC 668