Why Memorial Drive has three names and other baffling quirks of Calgary’s roads

Like many Calgarians, Doug Coats had often wondered why the city’s roads are named the way they are, with some names changing multiple times along the same stretch of roadway and others simply dwindling out.

So the historian decided to take a look at some old city maps.

“I love maps, and I started looking at old maps and I had a lot of ‘aha’ moments,” Coats told the Calgary Eyeopener.

He is now offering a virtual presentation called When Avenues Collide, as part of Historic Calgary Week.

“They had really good reasons in those days for making our road system the way they did,” Coats said. 

“In the old days, of course, we had the grid system in the inner part of the city and all of a sudden something doesn’t fit the grid and it becomes a mystery — but that’s the fun of it.”

Coats said there are streets that seem to randomly disappear.

“Third Street, for example, goes from Prince’s Island down to the railroad tracks — and it just ends,” he said. “And there’s a whole lot of mysteries that are caused by the same thing.”

That thing was the railway coming through.

Crooked Calgary

When the city was first laid out, Coats said it was in a basic grid of streets that ran north-south and east-west.

“And then the railway came through — and Calgary was a railway town. The railway hired the surveyor, and the surveyor of course made his avenues parallel to the railway tracks rather than to the survey grid lines,” Coats said. 

“They were three degrees out. And the result was that we have places where the avenues he created intersect the straight north-south, east-west lines and create funny little triangles and angles and shapes, and eventually they get so small that the road just peters out.”

Ever noticed that all of Calgary’s downtown avenues slant slightly to the southeast? The maps prove it and history tells us that the Canadian Pacific Railway is to blame. 1:20

Coats as looked into other mysteries, such as, why there is no college on College Lane, and why some southwest addresses area located north of the Bow River. 

He will delve further into these quirks in his virtual presentation When Avenues Collide, which runs Friday evening at 7 p.m. as part of Historic Calgary Week.

There’s also the mysterious name-changing route we call, at various points, Memorial Drive, Parkdale Boulevard, Third Avenue and Bowness Road.

Coats said Memorial Drive originally ran all the way across the city and had six names along the route, such as Sunnyside Boulevard, Riverside Boulevard and so on.

This section of the Calgary map shows how Bowness Road N.W. turns into Parkdale Blvd. N.W., and then Memorial Drive N.W. within a single stretch. According to historian Doug Coats, this tells a story about Calgary’s history. (Google Maps)

After the First World War, two of those were combined and renamed Memorial Drive in honour of the Calgary soldiers who died in the war.

“In 1963, to end the confusion of all these separate sections of boulevard, the city combined them all and made Memorial Drive all the way across until they hit Parkdale Boulevard, which to me is still a mystery,” Coats said. “I don’t know why they didn’t make that part of Memorial Drive.”

He pointed out that if anyone has followed Parkdale Boulevard to its end, it turns into a back lane and a parking lot near Edworthy Park.

Five things you might not have known about Alberta’s roads. 1:40

At one time, the city limit was at 37th Street N.W., and the streetcar was a viable way to get around. This is part of the explanation surrounding the area near Parkdale Boulevard, Third Avenue and Bowness Road.

Third Avenue was the start of a streetcar route in the northwest.

“[The streetcar] took Memorial Drive, but then it went up to Third Avenue because that was the road toward Bowness, and 37th Street was the city limit,” Coats said. 

“So the streetcar starts off at Third Avenue. Once you cross the city limit, it’s not Third Avenue anymore. It’s the road to Bowness, which everybody just called Bowness Road. And it stayed that way.”

The ‘Beltline’ streetcar in 1918. Starting in 1909, the #5 streetcar line ran through this neighbourhood like a conveyor belt, from Eighth Avenue downtown, west on 12th Avenue to 14th Street, and returning on 17th Avenue to First Street East. The line gave the community its name. (Glenbow Archives )

Coats also issued a challenge to CBC listeners: Do you know where in Calgary is there a Market Street and a Main Street?

If you think you know the answers, send a tweet to @cbceyeopener, call our talkback line at 403-521-6209 or email eyeopener@cbc.ca.

  • Listen to the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener below.

Calgary Eyeopener5:50Where Avenues Collide

Ever wondered why Calgary’s streets and avenues are the way they are? We hear about a virtual presentation with some of those answers. 5:50

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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