Anthony Gholz – Colt & Alison in North America: Bowness Golf Club 1913 p. ii

A second of the 1926 aerial photos is shown below. John Hextall’s family compound is in the center of the photo at the corner of the triangle, south of the river. The buildings sit on the river bottom land below the wooded ridge and golf course. Two crossing runways of the “flying field” are visible to the right of his house.

1926 Aerial University of Calgary Archive (Full photo titled NW001 UC by the Royal Canadian Air Force)

An article in the Calgary Herald of June 4, 1921 neatly summed up the history of the Bowness development to that date:

“With the history of the Bowness course … there is involved the famous Hextall idea, which was to give Calgary its largest park. Mr. Hextall, as old timers will remember, is the gentleman who conceived the idea of making Bowness Park a residential suburb of Calgary, and one, moreover, which would attract some of its wealthiest citizens. The boom in real estate was the starting of this idea, and Hextall began to work … and soon had the results to show prospective investors. His idea was to make it so attractive that every man of means would desire to have his home located there. He conceived therefore the idea of a golf course, which people who lived on Bowness Estates would be free to play on, and in which outsiders could play for a fee of $50 a year. As most Calgary people know, Mr. Hextall’s idea was exploded with the pricking of the real estate boom. Mr. Hextall died … with the result that the Bowness Estates were wound up, and an offer was made to the management of St Andrew’s golf club to take over the golf course, which had been laid out by Mr. S.H. McCullough along the plans laid down by a well-known firm of English golf architects. A meeting was called and the offer approved and practically accepted, but later a split occurred and a number of members adhered to the original plan, while others preferred to stick to the original course. These members who approved taking over of the Bowness golf course formed the nucleus of the membership of the Bowness Club, and went to that club as a body. The first year (1916) was a very successful one … The course in its early stages was very rough, but the five years in which it has been subjected to continued changes the improvement has been great, and had worked a marvelous change in its appearance. The board realized the great facilities for a splendid course which lay in their hands, and have taken advantage of them to put it amongst the most attractive courses (both from a playing and scenic point of view) in Alberta.”

If you count the black dots in the 1926 aerial above you’ll get more greens than 9 and 18 combined. Why? Willie Park, twice winner of the British Open and budding architect, first came to Canada in the 1895 and ’96 to promote golf to the new world and lay out a few rudimentary courses. He returned in 1916 as a respected architect and eventually established offices in New York and Toronto. By 1919 he got as far west as Winnipeg, revising the Bird’s Hill course of the Winnipeg Golf Club. In 1922 he came to Calgary, ostensibly to re-plan the Calgary Country Club course. He did that as well as providing a new course for the St. Andrew’s Club. He also took the streetcar out to Bowness.

Enough work had been done in Calgary by Park in early 1922 that the May 4th Calgary Herald announced “Local courses are being improved this spring. Willie Park, prominent course architect, has been operating in Calgary for a couple months now, and he has laid out new links for The Country Club and St Andrew’s and now he is working on the Bowness holdings. It is the consensus of opinion among visiting golfers that the Bowness course here is one of the sportiest in the Dominion.”

During the winter of 1922-23 a plan of the “new” Willie Park course was on display in the show window of Ashdown’s, the biggest store in town. “Every golfer should take a look at this plan which will be left in the window for a few more days.” This plan included revisions to, or replacements of, over half the Colt holes. A year after his Calgary visit, in the fall of 1923, Park became ill and was taken back to Scotland to recuperate. He never returned.

Once again, cash flow and dropping membership got in the way of implementing any changes to the course. It would be 1926 before the first Park revisions occurred, eliminating the 12th, 13th, and 14th holes of Colt’s course. These holes were at the far east end of the course over the roughest terrain. Several articles in the Herald during the years from 1926 through 1934 indicated that the changeover to the Park course was imminent. Each time something came up, primary among them the Great Depression.

Calgary Herald 3/22/1923

Calgary Herald 3/31/1923

Although Park became ill in 1923 and was taken back to Scotland by his brother Mungo, he was expected to recover and return to North America to continue work on several projects. However, on May 27, 1925 the Calgary Herald announced the unexpected death of the 61 year old Park under the headline Park Modernized Golf Links Here: “Willie Park, the news of whose death in Edinburgh last Saturday has been received with regret in Calgary, came here in April 1922 to revamp the golf course for the Country Club, and it was under his direction that the course was modernized. He also laid out the nine-hole Ladies’ course there. Mr. Park also did much work on the Bowness course, and he laid out the present course at the St Andrew’s Club. He made many friends while in Calgary.”

Calgary Herald 4/24/1926

In 1926 a reporter for the Herald summarized Park’s work and took a shot at the course’s sand greens. “Willie Park was employed by Bowness some years ago to layout the course according to his ideas. He was very enthusiastic about it saying that the lay of the land there, with the extraordinarily fine turf, allowed for the construction of an exceptionally fine golf course. His plan has been partially put into effect this year, with excellent results, and the whole Willie Park’s course will be in use next year. The old twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth greens, over the gullies, have been abandoned. The first nine holes now end at the clubhouse, and next year the second nine will be brought into the clubhouse in a new direction, avoiding the present steep eighteenth hole … [the directors] ought to go boldly at the completion of the Willie Park plan and at providing grass greens. If small clubs like the Golf & Country Club of Saskatoon can have excellent grass greens, there is no reason why Bowness should not have them … with grass greens, Bowness will be one of the star courses in Canada.” (CH 8/20/1926) The reporter’s efforts to shame the club into grass in lieu of sand was for naught. The greens were to remain sand until nine grass greens were constructed in 1963.

c.1930 tee box & early comfort station

c.1930 looking north with the clubhouse in background

Above four photos c.1930 University of Calgary Glenbow Archives note the narrow fairway sitting on a plateau between two valleys, looking south away from the Bow River.

After the flurry of announcements from 1923 through 1926 that resulted in Colt’s three holes at the east end of the course replaced by three of Park’s at the west end, nothing further was done until 1934, deep into the Depression. At that stage it was admitted by the membership’s leaders that “It has been found impossible to follow the scheme laid out by Willie Park, but the M. Patrick plan … will be appreciated by the golfers of the city … The first five holes are to be kept the same, although the third will be changed later to give a hole of 340 yards long … The present 17th hole will be used as the new ninth and is well known to everyone.” (CH 4/10/1934) No reasons were given, but one can assume that money and a declining membership were once again the issues. For the record current research has not found anything regarding Mr. Patrick and his architectural bona fides.

At this point (1934) it’s clear that Colt’s original design for the 18-hole course had been greatly altered, first by Park and then by a committee to Mr. Patrick’s layout. The club went into receivership in 1936 and reorganizing was a continual issue right through the Depression and world war that followed. The booming post war era of the late 1950s was to bring even more drastic revisions to the Bowness Golf Club courses.

c.1950 Glenbow Archives University of Calgary. Clubhouse and fairways on the Alberta prairie. John Hextall would have still recognized his dream at this point. A decade later it was gone.

The 1957 aerial below shows the first of the major changes to the property. You can see the main road out of Calgary along the south side of the Bow River under construction and cutting right through the property. To maintain an 18-hole course a new nine was built, all on the north side of the road and adjacent to the south and west of the Ladies’ 9-hole course. The holes were renumbered and a contiguous 18-hole course was put in play. The Colt/Park course, with Mr. Patrick’s revisions, was no more.

A close inspection of the aerial shows John Hextall’s compound at the upper left corner of the triangular development of the town. This point along the south shore of the river is directly across from Bowness Park, still the largest public park in Calgary. Through WWII the streetcar ran right to the gates of his former home. A much revised version of the home exists today. The streetcar is long gone.

1957 Aerial UC Archives The majority of Colt’s 18-hole course lay south of the road

The straw that finally broke this camel’s back was the decision in 1958 to route the Trans Canada Highway along the same road shown above. This national road cobbled up land and by 1963 the Bowness GC was down to 9 holes (though finally with grass greens) and a trailer park. Eventually that nine was sold for more housing. In historical terms it was Colt’s Ladies’ course that lasted as an intact design, if not in playing sequence, from beginning to end.

Post Mortem

The final demise of Hextall’s dream came in 1997 when a fire broke out in the now abandoned clubhouse. “Fire Destroys Landmark Mansion, said the Herald headline earlier this week, and thus a small part of Calgary history is lost to us forever. The mansion was the hillside structure … known during the late 1970s and 1980s as the Romeo and Juliet Inn, and known decades before that as the palatial headquarters of the now defunct Bowness Golf Club. The mansion was built in 1912 by John Hextall, an English born lawyer and property speculator who came to Calgary in 1908, hoping the fresh air would Improve his failing health. He found in the natural beauty of the Bowness valley a place where he could build what he called a ‘suburb perfect.’ Hextall envisaged the Bowness of the future as nothing less than the Mayfair of western Canada. It would be an exclusive community of stately homes along the banks of the Bow. He spent more than $300,000 buying up all the land he could acquire, including two islands in the Bow River.” CH 3/13/1997

Bowness Golf Club site today GE 2020

Today the site is crossed by an even further expanded Trans Canada Highway complete with service roads and interchanges. Below the highway is the 1988 Calgary Olympic Park. Together they cover the bulk of what was Colt’s 18-hole course. Above the highway is new commercial development and a housing complex. The housing approximates the area of the Ladies’ 9-hole course. The wooded ridge, running diagonally through the photo, is still intact as public property. The former entry road to the course site crosses the ridge perpendicularly up to the bluff and site of the former clubhouse. Bowness Park stretches along the upper part of the photo in the Bow River. The park is the last of Hextall’s dream that remains.

THE END

Acknowledgements: Many thanks go to the Bowness Historical Society, especially to Inga Pollhaus, and their book Our Village in the Valley of 2005. Thanks to Doug Cass, the director of the Glenbow Archives, which are in the process of being absorbed into the University of Calgary Archives. Doug did yeoman’s work copying 500 plus pages of the Bowness Golf Minute Book from the early days. Thanks also to Kim Geraldi and Peter Peller of the University of Calgary Archives for digging out several photos and early maps of the Bowness area. The Calgary Herald online archives were a gold mine, as usual, for “at the time” information. My golf course architectural research always starts with Cornish and Whitten’s 1995 book The Architects of Golf. It got me to Calgary and Willie Park and I started digging from there. And finally, Colt & Alison in North America: golf course architects (available at Blurb.com) would not have been possible without the help of Mike and Chris Hurdzan. Their golf collection, and specifically their collection of Harry Colt’s papers, formed the map which I followed for the book and am still following as the research continues. Thanks to them both.

Anthony C. Gholz Jr.
Troy, Michigan 5/18/20