Calgary’s Great Fire

Big fire on 9th Avenue SE, Calgary, AB | Photo by Alexander J. Ross | November 7, 1886 | Glenbow Archives, NA 298-3

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Stephen Avenue, Calgary, AB | c. 1884-1885 | Glenbow Archives, NA-660-1


The November 6, 1886 edition of the Calgary Weekly Herald called for “an effective system of fire suppression […] required without delay”. The writer mused that due to neglected backlots and piles of refuse, it was “an open question which of the two evils, a fire or a plague, our citizens are most anxious should befall them first.” As it turned out, fire would strike first. Early the next morning, a fire started in a local feed store and quickly spread through the fledgling town, which at the time consisted primarily of wooden structures and was very susceptible to fire. A volunteer fire department had recently been formed following a large house fire in 1885 and an initial fire engine had been ordered, although it stood locked away in a CPR freight shed due to political gridlock in town council while the Great Fire burned,. The volunteer firefighters and other locals took to creating a firebreak themselves, tearing down former mayor George Murdoch’s harness shop in an attempt to stop the spread of the flames. The effort was successful, and the fire was eventually contained, although 18 structures were lost. The Great Fire of 1886 led to two major outcomes – a bylaw being put in place that all major structures within the fire limit must be built of fire-resistant material, such as brick or stone, and the construction of our first fire hall.

Senator Lougheed’s Residence, Calgary | c. 1912 | LHCS Photo Collection


Sandstone became the building material of choice due to it being a plentiful local resource. The extraction of sandstone served as one of Calgary’s earliest major industries. Calgarians cut sandstone from the riverbanks and cliff sides to build up their schools, libraries, hospitals, and civic buildings. It was the pale, golden colour of the stone, and the large rough-hewn blocks that differentiated Calgary visually and architecturally from neighbouring prairie towns. Sandstone became so integral to Calgary’s early identity that it would earn the moniker ‘Sandstone City’.

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  1. M Newsom on December 1, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Alexander Ross Photographer

    My understanding that the photo on the lead page to this article on the Calgary fire was taken by Alexander Ross a local photographer from Pictou County Nova Scotia and It is the only surviving picture of the Calgary fire. According to an article from the Saltwire network, Alexander Ross was known as the “cities first professional photographer” and had documented many of the men, women and families of the Blackfoot – mainly of the Siksiká Nation – and the Tsuu T’ina  Nations. He is also the photographer credited for capturing the famous picture of the “Last Spike” of the transcontinental railway. Ross was married to Mary McArthur who after his death married Thomas Edworthy. Ross died in 1894 at the age of 43 and is buried in the Union cemetery in Calgary. Unfortunately is headstone made of sandstone has deteriorated beyond recognition and does not credit his contributions to the early photographic history of Calgary or of Canada.

    • BlogAdmin on December 1, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Yes you are correct! The photographer is Alexander Ross. Thank you for that background information on him.

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