A perfect garden suburb. That was what John Hextall wanted to create when he moved his family from London, England to Northwest Calgary in the early 1900s.
After purchasing a 2,481-acre ranch, Hextall began towards his vision of a community “where the wealthy could enjoy the pleasures of a large country home on the banks of Bow River.”
He named this place Bowness but becoming the bustling community that it now is took some time, according to the book Bowness: Our Village. Hextall’s homestead and the other farms near it were too far away from the city and required a-two-and-a-half hour walk to reach Calgary.
Hextall decided that the best way of cutting that travel time was to finance the construction of a steel bridge to cross the Bow River, known today as “Hextall (Shouldice) Bridge.” His next step was to convince the City of Calgary to extend their streetcar line across his new bridge and onto his land. Once 20 families moved and built houses on Hextall’s land, the streetcar ran continuously from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Hextall’s perseverance and determination to have his ranch land become something more than empty countryside is what accelerated the growth of the neighbourhood. After becoming the fourth division of the Springbank Municipality in 1925, the post-war settlement became a village, then a town and now is known to Calgarians as the community of Bowness.
The community is continuing Hextall’s legacy and is striving to become a more modern community. In order to fit in with the big city, development and construction are underway. These changes have some of those who live in the community worried about the importance of preserving some of its historic small-town qualities.
The developments and construction have included multiple renovations on Main Street. Upgrading the buildings gave it a new contemporary or simplistic feel with white siding coating the exterior of the long-established Bowness Hotel.
There have also been additional businesses added to Main Street, like The White Rose Vegetarian Kitchen. The restaurant opened in July 2016 and brought an ultramodern twist to the traditional White Rose oil company from which the restaurant got its namesake.
Until now there has never been a major chain business present on Main Street, but this summer Bowness is inviting a Tim Horton’s to join the community. This addition may establish some competition for the cherished Bowness coffee shop, Cadence.
At the same time, a large portion of the Paskapoo slopes (neighbour to Canada Olympic Park) which border Bowness, are being transformed to become Trinity Hills, an urban neighbourhood and tourist destination. The “Save the Slopes” petition circled around Calgary in the summer of 2015, demanded the construction to stop and to preserve the historic land. This petition was ultimately unsuccessful, and the shops are set to open in the fall of 2018.
A few locals have expressed their concern in regards to the fast-paced changes happening in the community. Jacqui Esler, a previous Bowness business owner and executive director of Bowness’ Business Improvement Area (BIA), says it’s all about compromise. “We want to keep it the way it is, and you know what, we can’t always keep it the way it is. Progress has to happen, but if we can slow progress or be more aware of what progress means, then that’s beneficial for everybody,” explains Esler.
Large numbers of secondary suites in Bowness may cause problems for the community as well. By renovating their homes to make room for another family to live, usually on the bottom level, homeowners are able to greatly increase their investment. More importantly, it opens up affordable housing for those who do not make enough money to own their own home or simply do not need the space of an entire house to themselves.
Executive director of the Bowness Community Association (BCA), Michelle Dice, is worried.
“Although I believe in secondary suites, attracting homeownership that’s purely for investment purposes can be a challenge when there is no pride in the properties or investment in the community as a person.”
Anne Campbell, a member of the Bowness Historical Society and a board member of the BCA, agrees. “Things that people want to put in here aren’t always appropriate as far as we’re concerned. We’re going to have to face higher density... We are facing it.” That’s a dramatic change from the community she moved to in 1964, which has no apartments or infills and few businesses. She recalls Bowness as being “a little more spread out then.”
Despite the development and new additions, the community is defending its roots. In 2016, the Bowness Park mini train was restored and presented to the community by Mayor Naheed Nenshi. The train has been an important piece to the framework of the park since the 1950s. After the 2013 flood took a toll on both the park and the train, the revival of the historic locomotive started up almost immediately.
Another local trademark, Mary’s Corner Store, was bulldozed due to damage from the 2013 flood. The community rallied together to support the family-owned business and it reopened in September 2016.
The streetcar from Hextall’s time in Bowness was also renovated and is parked outside of The White Rose Vegetarian Kitchen on Main Street.
The welcome sign placed at the end of Hextall Bridge to the entrance of Bowness was unveiled by the Bowness Historical Society in June 2015. The sign reads “Welcome to the historic community of Bowness.”
To further preserve the history in the community there is an ongoing project called Remembering Main Street Bowness. Esler describes the project to be “bringing in street planters that have lovely flowers in the summer and arrangements throughout the winter months. On these planters we want to screen and wrap old photographs from Main Street Bowness.” She says it is important to remind people of what the community used to look like.
Another part of the project is making historic plaques with a photo and a text to place on the renovated buildings showcasing what that building used to look like or what used to be in its place.
“Bowness is one of the few places I think in this city where you’d still get recognized by your family name,” says Dice. She thinks preserving the history serves as “a reminder of what came before us and why it is a small town. Recognizing what makes a community feel like home and what makes it have that [small-town] feel is recognizing what came before.”
“I think people voicing their opinions about what they want to see in the community and knowing their neighbours and caring about what their neighbours think is important,” says Dice. “It makes sure that when somebody builds or comes into the community they’re aware of the people around them and how that affects their lives.”
- By Kaeliegh Allan