Ice Jam Destroys Bridge

October 31, 1883

1881 Fort Calgary: Located at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, the six-year-old Northwest Mounted Police post was photographed by George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada.
Calgary Public Library PC_1325

On the afternoon of October 31, 1883, Calgary’s only pedestrian bridge over the Elbow River was carried away amid icy waters.

The debris from the destroyed bridge lodged against the recently built Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) trestle bridge downstream. The resulting ice jam endangered the trestle, which was a key connector in the continuation of Canada’s transcontinental railway to the Pacific. The trestle was saved, but residents lost their primary access point between East and West Calgary.

The bond of unity between Calgary East and Calgary West has been swept away by the Elbow’s ice torrent, much to the sorrow and lamentation of Calgary citizens. Calgary Herald, November 2, 1883


In 1883, Calgary was a small settlement of just over 500 people, not even yet incorporated as a town. The community was located in the District of Alberta in what was then known as the North-West Territories prior to the introduction of Alberta as a province in 1905.

Calgary was located along either side of the Elbow River with pedestrians, people on horses and horse-drawn wagons crossing using a bridge over the Elbow River. This bridge was originally constructed prior to the arrival of the CPR, and was later improved following the first train’s arrival in August 1883.


When the Elbow Bridge was carried away and lodged against the railway trestle, the debris caused an ice jam that endangered the trestle itself. Superintendent McIllree of the North West Mounted Police was notified but assistance from his men was not required. At the time, a CPR bridge crew was in town to replace the trestle with a permanent iron bridge. The pile-drivers with the help of their driver and a locomotive managed to remove enough of the ill-fated footbridge to ensure the safety of the trestle.


The flood of 1883 did not damage any homes, institutional or commercial structures. However, the loss of the Elbow Bridge was a major inconvenience for residents since the only way they could cross the Elbow River initially was on the ice or by using the CPR trestle.

The Calgary Herald reported The railway bridge is at present the only means of pedal transport presented to an afflicted public, and before the citizen crosses the raging torrent by this means for some previous moments he lingers shivering on the brink and fears to launch away.

In true Calgary fashion, entrepreneurialism was alive and well in 1883. Only days after the bridge was wiped out, the Herald recounted that one enterprising ship-owner appeared on Elbow’s stormy banks with a yawl boat and an ad valorem tariff for the transportation of Calgary’s precious freight. On this last enterprise the people of Calgary are at present busily expending their private fortunes.


For the future growth and prosperity of Calgary, it was important that a new bridge be constructed as soon as possible. An editorial-style article in The Calgary Herald on November 2, 1883 stated: The burning question of hour hurried on by this destructive policy of the elements is for the building of a traffic and passenger bridge across the Elbow.

The following week, the Herald proposed that a town meeting be called immediately to strike a committee that would devise a plan and request construction tenders for a new bridge. Let the citizens of the place at once take steps to deal with this bridge matter. The Calgary Herald, November 2, 1883.


The November 9, 1883 Calgary Herald brought attention to the pressing issue of building a new bridge. We notice a petition and subscription list in circulation, for the very commendable purpose of constructing a bridge across the Elbow. It is purposed to endeavor to obtain a grant from the Legislative Council, and to supplement the grant by an equal amount, raised through local subscriptions. A new highway bridge across the Elbow River was subsequently opened on May 7, 1884.

The destruction of the Elbow Bridge occurred at a time when the community was very anxious about the future of Calgary since the railway had not made a decision about the location of the town site. In December 1883, land section 15 located west of the Elbow River was designated as the CPR town site, which further reduced the impact of the loss of the bridge.


Certainly losing the community’s only bridge was a major inconvenience that every citizen would have been discussing. But as anyone who has lived in a small town knows, word of mouth is certainly the quickest form of communication but does not always provide reliable details.

Residents had another option for their news when a weekly newspaper was launched in Calgary. The Calgary Herald, Mining and Ranche Advocate and General Advertiser began publishing on August 31, 1883. As stated on the first page of the first issue: We always maintain the latest local and Provincial news, and will seek to advance the Mining, Ranching and Agricultural interests of this portion of the Province, and to further this object no expense will be spared to secure reliable information regarding these departments.

The fledgling Calgary Herald published several articles in the weeks following the flood of 1883 – click on the links below to read the original articles.