Calgary’s Montreal Suburb

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Stroll up the hill just south of downtown and take a look at the street signs: Frontenac Avenue. Montreal Avenue. Wolfe Street. Cabot Street. Montcalm Crescent. Talon Avenue. Laval Avenue. Dorchester Avenue. Where are we? In Mount Royal, of course, Calgary’s most prestigious neighbourhood.

I’ve always found it odd that the street names found in this hilltop district — hell, even the name of the neighbourhood itself — are meant to so deliberately to evoke Montreal and Quebec. In terms of architecture or design, Mount Royal is typical of pretty much any Garden City-inspired suburb developed in the early twentieth century. So why the references to a city and province so far removed from what was once bald prairie?

At the dawn of the twentieth century, American entrepreneurs, many from property speculators from the Dakotas, flocked to Calgary and settled on the hill just south of town. Very quickly, it came to be known as American Hill, and towards the end of the 1900s many of its residents expressed their desire to name the district’s streets after American presidents such as Washington, Cleveland and Grant.

“This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time,” write Elise Corbet and Lorne Simpson in their detailed history of Mount Royal. “The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire,” write Corbert and Simpson. “This did not go down well with the predominantly British-Canadian culture of Calgary at that time. The majority of the population came from eastern Canada or the British Isles, and they were proud of their connection with the British Empire. The initial reaction came with the 1907 plan, showing such names as Sydenham, Durham, Colborne, Carleton, Dorchester and Amherst, names resonant of British rule in Canada, which should have been enough to counter the concept of American Hill.”

But it wasn’t enough. In 1910, two Tory members of Calgary’s elite, R.B. Bennett and William Toole — Bennett would later become Prime Minister — convinced the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned most land around Calgary, to officially rename American Hill after Mount Royal, in honour of the CPR’s president, William Van Horne, who lived in Montreal.

Then, write Corbet and Simpson, “the full force of Canadian patriotism was brought to bear when the street names zeroed in on prominent French Canadians in our history: Frontenac, Montcalm, Talon, Laval, Joliet, Verchères (the only woman in the group), and early explorers such as Cabot and Champlain. Montreal, Quebec and Levis were thrown in for good measure. After this, there was no more talk of American Hill.”

Of course, most of these names, from Amherst to Talon, would be familiar to Montrealers. After all, they grace a number of our own streets. But, removed from local history as they are, the street names of Calgary’s Mount Royal never seem to have become grafted to the landscape. Nearly a century after their imposition, they seem somehow contrived.

(I should add that this isn’t true for the name of Mount Royal itself: it quickly entered Calgary’s collective imagination as a symbol of the city’s elite. In 1910, it was even reflected in the name of Calgary’s first college.)

Today, nearly a third of Mount Royal’s residents are American immigrants or expatriates. In a way, the legacy of American Hill lives on.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday September 24 2007at 11:09 am , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Calgary’s Montreal Suburb”

  • Liza says:

    As a former Calgary resident of lower Mount Royal, and now resident of Montreal, something I find interesting about both these cities is that the elite chose to build their lavish homes on a hill, looking down on the rest of the city. I find the land by the riverfront in both cities to be at least equally pleasant, but the psychology of looking down on others must’ve played a part in the decision of where to live.

  • You’ve moved back to Montreal? Congratulations!

    The literal aloofness must have played a part in why the wealthy chose to settle on hills, not just in Calgary and Montreal but in other cities as well.

    Until relatively recently, living by the water wasn’t a desirable option in either place. Calgary was prone to flooding (and the downtown riverfront, in Eau Claire, was taken up by lumberyards) and Montreal’s waterfront was smelly and industrial.

  • Liza says:

    Thanks so much for your good wishes. It’s great to be back. Reading urbanphoto helped during my exile :-)

    Yes, you’re right about the smelly waterfront and flooding in Calgary. I am wondering if the development of the Lachine Canal and the port made people decide to go up the hill, as pre-industrial Montreal was by the water, and it was less smelly uphill…

  • That was definitely a big reason. As the city grew its wealthier parts spread upwards and westwards, away from the pollution near the waterfront. The best example of this was Westmount, which was directly adjacent to dirty St. Henri but several hundred feet higher in elevation.

  • jimbo says:

    wrt the use of numbered streets being ahistorical; I suggest you look at almost ANY prairie settlement and you will observe that 50th St and 50th Ave pinpoints the dead centre of any “town”. I would further suggest that the use of a quadrant numbering sequence as being a bit of foresight to a LARGE prairie city…. perhaps the use of a grid is more of a insight into the lack of importance put on aesthetics and the “feel-good” factor…

    FYI, I was born/raised in Calgary to prarie “folk”, married a Montreal’er and have since moved out east. Now I’m developing a real interest in the Montreal historical city planning (or mis-planning in some cases…). Your website has some great chronology visuals. Thanks!