Calgary's Great Fire of 1886 sparks 'Sandstone City'

Nobody was killed or injured in Calgary's first major fire 125 years ago, but it started a sandstone building boom that can still be seen today.

The first major fire in Calgary 125 years ago started a sandstone building boom

A big fire on Ninth Avenue S.E. in Calgary on Nov. 7, 1886, brought big changes to the city. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

It was 125 years ago when Calgary's first major fire roared to life on what is now known as Ninth Avenue and Centre Street.

Flames were spotted in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1886, at the rear wall of the Parish and Son flour and feed store.

This sandstone home belonged to Senator James Alexander Lougheed, which is now a historical site located on 13th Avenue S.W. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Church bells, which awakened the entire community, alerted the youthful volunteers of the Calgary "bucket brigade."

Reports from the Glenbow Museum said despite efforts to tear down nearby buildings and mount fireguards, the wood-fuelled inferno fanned by a strong southwest wind swept through the streets leaving piles of rubble.

Nobody was killed or injured, but when the smoke cleared at noon 18 buildings were destroyed and losses were estimated at more than $100,000.

While the Hudson Block building no longer houses The Bay, which moved to 200 Eighth Ave., the many sandstone buildings on Eighth Avenue and Centre Street are still intact and used today. Rachel Maclean/CBC

"Calgary was pretty new, just a couple years old as a town," local historian Harry Sanders told CBC reporter Karen Moxley. "(It was a) small population, so 18 buildings is a large proportion of the building stock."

Calgary bought a Ronald Steam Engine after the fire to better fight off future flames.

Because the fire was so devastating, town officials recommended that major civic and religious buildings be constructed out of Paskapoo sandstone rather than wood.

The 'Sandstone City'

So many buildings were built from sandstone that Calgary gained the nickname the "Sandstone City."

In a history tour of the structures, Sanders pointed out that some buildings were constructed of sandstone before the fire to help keep down expensive fire insurance costs at the time.

A Ronald Steam Engine like this one was bought in 1886 after the fire to better fight off future flames. (Firefighters Museum of Calgary )

One located at 131 Eighth Avenue S.W., which now houses Catch Seafood Restaurant, survived the fire because it was made out of sandstone.Sanders said sandstone was sedimentary rock heavily located in the Bow Valley.

Sixteen quarries operated around Calgary supplying sandstone to construction projects. By 1890, over half of the city's skilled trades were stonecutters or masons.

Sanders said the first two charter banks in Calgary were made out of sandstone. Out of the roughly 250 sandstone buildings constructed in the boom, many are still used today — such as the Grain Exchange Building, Hudson Block and Palliser Hotel.

Pointing to an undated poster titled "Sandstone City" that the City of Calgary published in the 1980s, Sanders said rising costs for stone carving, the failure of the quarries to supply desirable stone and competition from other building materials led to the abandonment of the quarries.

The Sandstone Era came to an end with the onset of the First World War, leaving the city with a host of buildings renowned for their beauty.