A trolley good time: The birth of Bowness Park

If it wasn’t for a land baron’s ambitious plan to build a massive, luxurious, country community on the outskirts of the city, Bowness Park may have never happened.

In 1908, John Hextall bought the Bowness Ranche, a 2,482-acre piece of land west of the city. With his eye on the population boom in Calgary, Hextall intended to develop part of his land as a luxury country suburb. Three years later, he built a bridge across the Bow River and pushed The City to extend the new streetcar line into “Bowness Estates.” Streetcars were a relatively new, high-tech innovation for Calgary, having made their debut in 1909 with one dedicated line from downtown to the fairgrounds at Victoria Park.

The City agreed to extend the Calgary Municipal Railway to Bowness in exchange for a couple of things: Hextall’s bridge needed to be open for public use and he must donate two islands on the Bow River to the City in return for the service.

Hextall’s grand plan for the luxury country estates never caught on. But the two islands now owned by the Municipal Railway were a hit and the area became known as Bowness Park. The narrow channel along the south side of the islands was dammed to create the lagoon and canal.

Popularity of the new recreation area grew and by 1919, The City of Calgary Yearbook promoted Bowness park as “Calgary’s Coney Island.” Railway Superintendent Thomas H. McCauley called it the “finest amusement park between Montreal and Vancouver.”

By this time, the Park offered swimming pools, boat rentals, a ferry service, picnic grounds, a refreshment booth, a dance pavilion, midway games and a merry-go-round – since relocated to Heritage Park. Hot water for picnics was provided by the Municipal Railway for free.

Only a 40-minute ride from downtown, street car service ran every 30 minutes from Eighth Ave. and Centre St. starting at noon each day. In the 1920’s, the streetcars ran every 15 minutes on summer weekends and it was estimated that as many as 25,000 people would visit the park over the course of a weekend when the weather was good.

Over the years, other summer attractions were added such as camping, rental cabins, miniature golf, go carts, a miniature train ride, Ferris wheel and roller coaster. Today, Bowness Park is still the jewel of the proud community that bears its name boasting year-round recreation for Calgarians from every quadrant.

Photos courtesty of The City of Calgary Archives