Historical records show city’s early beginnings

If you are anything like me, the phrase “early Calgary” invokes visions of cowboys riding through dusty streets of a makeshift town, or a ruggedly handsome farmhand lassoing a rogue calf.

What you probably won’t envision are railroad workers and police officers staggering drunkenly down Ninth Avenue – then named Atlantic Avenue – with entrepreneurial “ladies of ill-repute” beckoning them at every hotel entranceway.

But with a little digging, a born-and-bred Calgarian gal like myself quickly learned that the latter vision is closer to the truth than the mythical cowboy past.

Calgary had a reputation as quite the party town at the turn of the 20th century, noted the late historian James Henry Gray in his 1971 book “Red Lights on the Prairies.”

Reminiscent of our recent boom, the onslaught of new railroad jobs brought in a plethora of men from the east and the south. With the bursting new economy came new business that turned the old tent town into a bustling downtown core.

The booming business did a lot for the world’s oldest profession too, with a “dozen or so brothels” operating near St. George’s Island, according to Gray. Ninth Avenue became known as “whisky row” where “everyone knew there were places where whisky and women were always on tap.”

The supply of women was up because of what appears to bean overwhelming demand. In 1907, a group of disgruntled Calgarians living near the Riverside brothels appeared before city council, pleading for help due to the fact that “respectable citizens were frequently annoyed by men forcing their way into their homes looking for ‘women of ill-fame,’” Gray notes.

In his 1974 historical book to commemorate Calgary’s centennial, Bob Shiels writes that “the impression (of early Calgary) is that of a wide open town where everybody constantly staggered around in a state of advanced inebriation.”

And “everybody” included the local Mounties. Shiels quotes an early newspaper’s editorial page that said: “It is bad enough for a civilian to get drunk and whoop about the streets, but it is much worse for a policeman…really, this blazing away with a pistol whenever a man gets drunk, whether it is in the hands of a policeman or citizen, is getting monotonous.”

Calgary’s early history is storied and filled with brothels and booze. Harry Longabaugh, better known as Butch Cassidy’s accomplice “the Sundance Kid” worked at the Grand Central hotel and the Bar U ranch.

Photo courtesy of Calgary Public Library Community Heritage and Family Histories CollectionRampant alcoholism among the police as well as many others, however, was made more problematic by the empty prairie surroundings.

Shiels notes historian, Ronald Atkin’s observation that “Drinking was regarded by the men themselves as one of their few escapes from the tedium of life in an empty, undeveloped country.” Boredom created a town that the Calgary Herald once noted as being “quartered into three halves: East Calgary, West Calgary and the brewery. To some minds the greatest of these is the brewery, but that is a matter of taste entirely.”

Eventually the town forced the red-light district from St. George’s Island further north, where the Nose Creek brothels were constructed. In “Pioneering Policing in Southern Alberta,” Deane Burton writes: “The large utilitarian buildings (that were the Nose Creek brothels) suggest both the magnitude and the lack of elegance of the sex trade in pre-1914 Calgary.”

Calgary’s new red-light district brought with it “concerns about illicit liquor, disorder, violence, venereal and other diseases,” writes Burton. And just like the booze, the cops were occasionally up to more than a “bust” in brothel town.

A 1914 article from the Calgary Daily News describes how “as the entire Calgary force numbered but 15 men,” 10 constables thought that they would “escape punishment if they maintained an organized protest,” and so they all pulled an all-nighter of heavy drinking and visits to the ladies of the Nose Creek brothels.

Not long after, the gang of officers became “imbued with a spirit of independence, bordering on the rebellious” and an officer from the barracks was called to “inveigle, cajole, persuade, threaten or otherwise induce them to return home.”

Their hopes of evading justice were dashed, and all 10 officers were sentenced to two months each in “the guard room.” And as the Calgary Daily News mentioned, it should probably be noted that most of these bad apples were “recruited but a few months ago in Toronto.” Go figure.

The burgeoning prostitution business in Calgary even had its own legendary personality in the town’s “leading madam” – the much-referenced Diamond Dolly, who Gray calls “Calgary’s queen of fleshpots.” A pioneer merchant once said Dolly was a “dead ringer for Mae West” aside from Dolly’s brunette tresses, and that the two vixens “had the same style, the same clothes (and) the same grand manner.”

Dolly made flamboyant appearances on the streets of Calgary. Gray writes that she was known for wearing “the damndest big hats with ostrich plumes” as she rode Eight Avenue with her buggy’s top pulled down. Dolly “never went out without 10 pounds of jewelry,” which apparently is how she came by her name. The town jewelers said that they knew when things “were booming” at the brothels because Dolly “would be in for a new diamond ring.”

Walking through Inglewood’s Ninth Avenue today, it’s hard to imagine Diamond Dolly in her convertible buggy or the 10 wild constables, horses and all, conspiring another night of debauchery over at the Nose Creek brothels.

What with all the hipsters roaming from Starbucks to Recordland, and the looming downtown skyscrapers just up ahead, it’s hard to imagine Calgary as anything other than what she is today: a big-little city, always on the up and up.

But there you have it. We may not have been the Wild West with cowboys and saloons, but apparently, we’ve always known how to have a real party.