The story of the vanished bridge builder, the Algoma Steel Bridge Company, is an all but forgotten piece of the history of Calgary during the early years of the Twentieth Century.
Calgary’s Age of Optimism (1905 to 1912), the first of the city’s many economic booms, brought many businesses like the Algoma Steel Bridge Company to provide the needed infrastructure for an exploding population. The Company was founded by Alexander Y. Bayne (see Article #1), a member of the Minnesota Family of Bridge Builders from the turn of the century.
For the City of Calgary, the Company would be the only bridge builder it would turn to time and time again to build steel bridges during this period.
The story of this Company also links one of the City’s early visionaries to a historically significant builder of bridges from the American Midwest: John Hextall, the visionary property developer of Bowness Estates and Melvin B. Stone, the Company’s Calgary based agent.
The Bowness Dream
John Hextall was born in the London Bourough of Islington, England in 1861 and came to Calgary during the last years of his life.
He was the fourth child of a silk merchant and was educated as a solicitor in England before marrying his wife, Alice Delphine Dunn in 1884, with whom he would have three children.
John Hextall came to the area in 1908 and purchased the Bowness Ranche, which was 9.5 kilometres west of Calgary along the Bow River.
1908 was the midst of Calgary’s first economic boom, the Age of Optimism, and land speculation and development was the primary driver of the boom. Hextall was one of many who bet upon a prolonged economic boom.
Drawing on urban planning ideas from the United Kingdom’s Garden City movement, his ambition was to build an English style ‘Garden Suburb’ of Calgary for the wealthy, with large country homes close, yet still close to a soon-to-be major city.
However, in order to fulfill his vision, Hextall needed improved access to the City, which was then a 2 hour journey away from Bowness.
In 1910, he contracted with the Algoma Steel Bridge Company to build a steel bridge across the Bow River. In keeping with his plan to make Bowness Estates an exclusive subdivision for the wealthy, Hextall required that bridge users have a license issued by him, although notably he lacked a license from the Federal Government to occupy the river bed.
The end of the city’s boom in 1912 would destroy John Hextall’s plans for his property. Bowness Estates would be forced into bankruptcy and the dream of Hextall’s Garden Suburb was over.
Hextall died in April of 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.
John Hextall’s mansion built for him and his family, at the time one of the most lavish homes in the region, was taken over by the Seventh Day Adventists as a sanitarium and later became Wood’s Christian Home for Orphaned Children.
The John Hextall Bridge stands apart from the other Algoma Steel Bridges in Calgary in its origins and intent.
When it was initially constructed it was several kilometres northwest of the city’s limits, far from where Calgary was expected to grow for decades. Crossing the Bow River, it connects the neighbourhoods of Montgomery and Bowness, both of which were independent towns prior to being annexed to the City of Calgary.
Like all of the Algoma Steel Bridges built in the Greater Calgary region, this bridge was designed to carry the weight of crossing streetcars.
Construction began on November 16, 1910 by the Algoma Steel Bridge Company as a private project for John Hextall’s Bowness Estates.
Construction was scheduled to be finished by March 31, 1911, however, a strike by structural steel workers in Winnipeg delayed the completion of this project and others in the Calgary area (Note 1). The bridge was completed in late spring of 1911.
The Hextall Bridge is a Pratt Truss Bridge, one of the oldest and most common type of truss found in bridges of this type.
The bridge is composed of three spans, connecting via two piers in the river. Its length is 118m (388 ft) and its width is 5.5m (18 ft).
Of the 8 projects in total that the Company completed within the borders of what is now modern Calgary, this bridge is the only one that is west of Centre Street (Note 2).
Unlike the other projects which were commissioned by the City of Calgary, copies of the original construction contracts and documents are not held in the City’s Archives. The earliest information in the City Archives is the contract for the transfer of the bridge from Bowness Estates to the City in 1911.
A Dream Delayed
The transfer of ownership of the bridge was a significant accomplishment en route to creating Bowness, despite the fact that public ownership of the bridge ended Hextall’s license to use it and opened it to any person wishing to cross.
Along with the bridge, the City also took possession of what is now Bowness Park in exchange for constructing a streetcar line, first to the south end of the bridge. Extensions in later years would take the streetcar all the way to Bowness Park.
Initially it appeared that the City got the worst of the deal. The end of the economic boom, followed by the First World War, ended development in Bowness Estates, sending the company into receivership.
Calgary appeared to be stuck with a streetcar to a bridge used by only a few people each day, and with a park 15 km outside the city limits.
After the War, as the city began to recover, interest in the area was renewed. As the city’s population began growing again, many seeking to move away from the growing city started to settle further along the streetcar line.
Bowness Park, despite its distance from the City, also proved to be extremely popular with Calgarians and despite limited growth on the north side of Hextall Bridge, the City opted to extend the streetcar line all the way to park.
At the peak of the streetcar network, the bridge carried streetcars bound for Bowness Park every 15 minutes, moving 25,000 people every day.
It was not until after the end of the Second World War that Bowness itself would begin to see significant growth. It was a belated fulfillment (and much less exclusive version) of Hextall’s dream.
As the main connection between Bowness and Montgomery, it was initially dubbed the Bowness Bridge, however for most of its existence it was known as the Shouldice Bridge.
James Shouldice had owned a farm on 190 hectares (470 acres) of land on that stretch of the Bow River’s south shore, the site of what is now Shouldice Park. The land was donated to the City by James Shouldice on the condition that it become a park, which the City fulfilled in the 1960s.
The streetcar tracks were removed in 1950, making way for a growing volume of automobile traffic across the bridge. A bus route continued to provide transit service to Bowness.
In the 1980s it had become apparent to the City that the aging structure was no longer up to the job of connecting Bowness to Montgomery.
For many years it was not unusual to find broken bits of plastic and mirrored glass strewn across the roadway.
Automobiles were considerably larger and wider, which combined with the old bridge’s very narrow lanes led to the destruction of many side-mirrors on vehicles crossing the bridge.
Large trucks could not access Bowness at all via this route due to height and weight restrictions. A new structure was required.
In 1985 a new cement bridge, parallel to the existing structure was opened, taking the Shouldice Bridge name. The old bridge, after some repair and beautification work, was re-opened for cyclist and pedestrian use. It was formally renamed the John Hextall Bridge, in recognition of the bridge’s role in the history of Bowness and Calgary.
1989 would see the construction of a second pedestrian and cyclist crossing of the Bow River, styled to resemble the Hextall Bridge, linking the neighbourhood to the Bowmont Natural Area on the Bow River Pathway.
The John Hextall Bridge was formally added to Calgary’s Historic Inventory in 2014.
- According to reports, the strike delayed work on this bridge, as well as work being done between Kenora, ON and the BC border. Work by the Hamilton Bridge Company in Calgary and the Canadian Bridge Company in Red Deer was also reported as delayed.
- As of this writing, the seven Calgary projects along with the Hextall Bridge, are all of the Algoma Steel Bridge structures in the Province of Alberta. Evidence has been found showing the Company bidding for projects in Edmonton and other locations in Alberta, however, to date I have not found any signs that the Company won contracts anywhere else in the Province. However, it is possible there may still be some structures unaccounted for and the question is still not yet closed.
Barge, Judith. 2005. “John Hextall and Bowness Estates.” Bowness: Our Village in the Valley. Calgary, AB: Bowness Historical Society.
Barge, Judith. 2012. Bowness: Past and Present 1911–2011. Calgary, AB: Bowness Historical Society.
Castle, Henry A. 1915. Minnesota: Its Story and Biography Vol. 3. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing.
Gardner, Denis P. 2008. Wood, Concrete, Stone and Steel: Minnesota’s Historic Bridges. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Holth, Nathan. 2013. “Black Hawk Bridge.” Bridge Browser. Accessed February 23, 2016. Lansing, MI. HistoricBridges.org. http://historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=iowa/lansing/
Leslie, Jean. 1994. “House of Two Dreams.” Glimpses of Calgary Past. Calgary, AB: Detailing Enterprises Ltd.
McLennan, William. 2005. Where the Elbow Meets the Bow. Calgary, AB: Fort Brisebois Publishing.
Quivik, Frederic L. 1984. “Montana’s Minneapolis Bridge Builders.” IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Vol. 10, No. 1: 35–54. Houghton, MI: Society for Industrial Archeology.
Welin, R. A. 1977. The Bridges of Calgary 1882–1977. Calgary, AB: The City of Calgary.
Image 4: Darwent, Darryl: Just a Prairie Boy. 2010. Red clay path in Bowness Park. Calgary, AB. Photograph accessed via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence. Image edits: cropped to Medium.com size and aspect ratio.
All other photographs by Jack Hope ©2016. All rights reserved.