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Memories of Eau Claire
Preserve district's historical flavour, says writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Eau Claire developers missed the boat when they failed to capitalize on the district's historical flavour, says a man who grew up there.
But it's not too late, says William McLennan, a retired Calgary schoolteacher who has published eight books on local history. The books include 711 Eau Claire Avenue, named after the address where he lived as a boy in the community along the Bow River.
He would like to see heritage components included in the city's plans to redesign the area. Ald. Druh Farrell, whose ward includes Eau Claire, said that has come up in discussions with the architects and planners working on a redesign.
"It's a lovely idea," she said. "Eau Claire is so rich in history. It would be a good fit."
McLennan writes and speaks of a working-class community, many residents of which were employed by the factories, mills and laundries of the district.
"It was You Claire until I was 18 or 20," said. "That's how most of the people pronounced it."
"We had nothing or very little" in terms of material wealth "but I had a very rich childhood."
The neighbourhood of his youth is no more; the humble workers' homes, the factories, the mill and the laundries were razed through the years, and have been replaced by upscale condos and the mall called the Eau Claire Festival Market.
The mall, opened in the early 1990s, has declined in recent years as stores have closed and public interest has waned.
City council has agreed to form a concept plan for the district, and is working with Harvard Developments, owners of the market, to prepare a redevelopment plan for the area by the end of 2006.
Little is left of the Eau Claire that McLennan knew, and even less of the community that sprang up when Peter Prince built the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co. mill next to the river in 1886.
The Eau Claire sawmill was among Calgary's first major industries, employing hundreds, including many people of Norwegian descent who came from Eau Claire, Wis., with Kerr.
They built Trinity Lutheran Church in 1910, which still stands on 3rd Avenue S.W., one of the few historical buildings left in the district.
The company carved a channel in the Bow River to power the sawmill's waterwheel, which gave birth to Prince's Island.
In 1889, Prince and Kerr built the city's first power plant and supplied the city with electricity. The company evolved into Calgary Power, now known as TransAlta Utilities.
The Eau Claire Lumber Co. became the biggest producer of lumber in the Northwest Territories, processing logs floated down the Bow River from the mountains.
By the time McLennan was born in 1931, Eau Claire was an established working-class community, Depression-weary and a little down-at-the-heels, but vibrant nonetheless.
McLennan ticks off some of the businesses that operated in Eau Claire: the sawmill, several laundries and dairies, a printing company, a beverage bottling plant, a puffed wheat factory, a tire retreading plant . . .
"I can still hear the noon whistles," he said. "From one side, you'd hear the dairy whistle, from the other, the sawmill."
Other sounds included the clop-clop in the street as horse-drawn wagons and carts delivered bread, produce, milk, laundry and ice.
On winter nights, the single pane of glass in his bedroom window could not keep out the sounds of music playing for skaters on the three rinks of the nearby Buffalo Stadium.
Buffalo Stadium was built by the Calgary Brewery on land between Fifth and Sixth Streets, north of First Avenue. Earlier, the area had been the sawmill's log pond, but had been filled in.
"Buffalo Stadium was an absolute country club for those of us who grew up with nothing or very little," said McLennan.
Wartime baseball games would attract 3,000 to 4,000 spectators, he said.
The Buffalo Athletic Association Hockey League attracted young athletes, including McLennan.
"I'm grateful," said McLennan. "Hockey kept me out of reform school and helped me get my education." He went to Michigan State University on a hockey scholarship.
He listed other Buffalo Stadium alumni who went on to even greater heights: Frank McCool, Hank Bassen and Ron Stewart all had respectable NHL careers.
Young McLennan's neighbourhood was a kingdom of adventure and opportunity. He and his friends played games in the street, pickup ball games in vacant lots or at the diamond adjacent to the nearby McDougall School.
They would tentatively explore the silent structure that had been the power plant, creep nervously past the Alberta Casket Company, or watch the presses run at Western Printers.
They went almost every day to the river, exploring the trails, climbing the trees, catching minnows and suckers in the shallows, even riding logs in their journey down the Bow to the sawmill.
Sometimes there were errands to be run, groceries to be fetched for mothers on limited budgets.
"We could get a pitcher of skim milk from the dairy for two cents, a pillow case or flour sack full of puffed wheat for 25 cents and day-old bread from McGavin's for five cents a loaf," he said.
Today's Eau Claire bears little resemblance to McLennan's childhood community, but a few elements have been preserved. The handsome Peter Prince home and the Thorpe home grace Heritage Park; the sawmill's office building lives on today as the 1886 Cafe.
Had more heritage been preserved, it might have been a different place today, said McLennan.
"They went the wrong way with the Eau Claire Market. It should have been more like False Creek in Vancouver," he said, referring to the Granville Island district, once an industrial area, now a trendy region of shops and markets. Other cities have successfully developed attractive markets and neighbourhoods while preserving history, he said.
As the city ponders redevelopment for the area, he said he hopes heritage is not forgotten.
"They could commemorate the history more," he said. "They should give credit to the businesses that were there. Something should be done to recognize the sawmill, the race track that was there, Buffalo Stadium . . . ."
He said he's pleased to see how the green spaces and natural areas have been developed. "We have to give the city and (former mayor) Jack Leslie credit that the railroad tracks don't run along there," he said.
Leslie helped derail a proposal in the 1960s that would have seen the riverbank become a transportation corridor.
Farrell said ideas such as McLennan's will be welcomed as planning begins for redesigning the area.
"We have a great team," she said, referring to the engineering firm Landplan which has partnered with architects Marc Boutine of Calgary and Andreu Arriola of Barcelona to come up with concepts for the redesign.
She said she has a personal interest in seeing that heritage is part of the design.
"My dad lived in Eau Claire when he first moved to Calgary in the late 1940s," she said. "It was a little rough around the edges, but it was a charming community."
© The Calgary Herald 2006
Newsposter adds: One remaining piece of Eau Claire history is the Greyhound bus barns and its moderne facade. Redevelopment is planned. Go to this thread for more: