Colt & Alison in North America:
Bowness Golf Club 1913

by
Anthony Gholz
May 2020

(Background: When Colt & Alison in North America was published in 2018 [blurb.com], I had reached several dead ends following leads, even some given by Colt himself.  For instance, his 1924 list of C&A courses included Calgary as “visited” with no other information.  Most sources listed the Golden Age courses in Calgary as designed by Willie Park, but often the dates didn’t correspond to when he was even in the country.  This past winter I followed up on the Bowness GC, no longer existing, and discovered the Bowness Historical Society.  With their help I discovered what their archive knew all along: Harry Shapland Colt designed not one, but two courses for the Bowness Golf Club in 1913.)

Calgary was founded in 1875 along the south bank of the Bow River at its confluence with the Elbow River in south central Alberta, Canada.  The Bow comes down out of the Rockies from the west and flows east out onto the great plains where it heads directly toward Calgary.  By 1908 a combination of ranching, farming, early oil development, and the railroad created something of a boomtown with a thriving real estate market.

In that year British lawyer and wealthy heir of a silk merchant family, John Hextall, came to western Canada seeking a location to move his family and improve his health. He was immediately taken by the open ranch land six miles west of Calgary, especially the river bottom land along the south shore of the Bow and the treeless bluffs overlooking it. The bluff land had views of the river to the north with the prairie stretching beyond and the front range of the Rocky Mountains to the west. The rough skyline of the boomtown of Calgary was southeast.

John Hextall 1900 University of Calgary Glenbow Archives

The Bowness Map of 1915 above shows the Bow River flowing from west to east (l to r) out of the Rocky Mountains. Hextall purchased the Bowness Ranch combining sections 33 and 34 and much of the Bonview Ranch below, sections 27 and 28. His purchase included the two islands in the river just below numeral 4 which today form Bowness Park. The Hextall estate was directly on the River below the islands. The Canadian Pacific Railway is shown coming out of Calgary at the lower right corner on the south side of the river and crossing Hextall’s land and the islands before continuing west to Banff. The streetcar line from Calgary follows the north side of the river from Calgary and crosses the Bow at the right middle of the map.

Late in 1908 Hextall formed the Bowness Estates Limited and began purchasing the ranch and river bottom land that would amount to 2,481 acres by 1911 at an expenditure of over $300,000. Hextall and his two brothers were the majority shareholders. 5% was held by William Clarke, Hextall’s banker, and a roughly 15% was owned by various local investors. Hextall was on his way to constructing his dream subdivision for the only the best (and wealthiest) of the Calgary elite. He envisioned a subdivision of mansions, parks, schools, shopping, and an aeroport, all with its own power and water system.

There was just one problem. You could see Calgary from the Bowness bluff and you see the Bowness bluff from Calgary, but you couldn’t get to either from the other, except by the tortuous dirt track Banff Road. Hextall’s solution was to build a bridge over the Bow River and donate both the bridge and the two islands in the river for use as a public park in trade for the City’s extending the street car line out to the base of the bluff at Bowness. Bowness Park still exists today. The streetcar line conveniently ended at the front gate of Hextall’s Tudor mansion that he located along the south bank of the Bow River at the far west end of the development.

Hextall’s Country House along the Bow c.1913 University of Calgary Glenbow Archives

Although the town already had two rudimentary golf courses, the Calgary CC and the St. Andrew’s Club, Hextall decided that it needed a high end third. With the land purchased, a streetcar deal made with the Mayor, the bridge and the new power plant in place, a proper golf club was only thing missing from a London gentlemen’s country housing estate. Hextall envisioned not just any golf course, but the best in Canada by the best golf course architect in the world, Harry Shapland Colt of Sunningdale, England.

Colt was most likely retained by Hextall through his many London and Surrey golfing friends. In late April of 1913, as part of Colt’s second visit to North America, Hextall brought him out to Calgary via a lengthy railroad trip from his work in Chicago on Old Elm. By August, Hextall was advertising his Colt design in the Calgary Herald: “H.S. Colt, the best-known Golf Architect in the United Kingdom, has been engaged to lay out the Golf Course and the 150 acres chosen for the course are especially suited for this purpose.”

Additional advertisements detailed the costs and further amenities: “The course will cost in the neighborhood of $25,000.00, [with] tennis courts, bowling greens, etc. The contract for the clubhouse will amount to $28,000.00. All improvements, with the exception of the golf course, will be complete and in running order by December 31, 1913 and will entail gross expenditures, including the land acquisition costs, of approximately $450,000.00 which amount of money has been appropriated for the purposes outlined above.” Calgary Herald 8/19/1913

Bowness map 1930 Bowness Historical Society

This 1915 map shows the streetcar line following the yellow road, the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing the Bowness Park islands at Hextall’s new riverside power plant, and the Bowness Golf and Country Club with a dual track paved road leading up the ridge to the bluff site clubhouse.

Calgary Herald August 22, 1913

Multiple advertisements and glowing “reports” in the Herald recorded the progress of the development. The golf course was especially touted by Hextall in the local paper: “Laid Out By Expert” and “H.S. Colt, the well-known golf course architect, is laying out the course.” Much was made of the greens construction. “Special care is to be taken with the greens. They will all be laid on a foundation of gravel, then soil, and then the grass seed.” The Calgary Herald had weekly articles extolling the development and the general virtues Calgary real estate. “The large development work now taking place in Bowness Park is a tribute to the confidence of British investors in the future of Calgary and to the progressive spirit of a well-known Calgary citizen. The extensive improvements now being carried out will undoubtedly contribute to the enjoyment of Calgarians.” CH 8/27/1913

Calgary Herald August 30, 1913

By November of 1913 work on the power house, the bridge over the Bow, and the clubhouse was well under way as evidenced by the weekly, and often daily, pictures placed by Hextall in the Herald. It appeared that Hextall’s dream subdivision was well on its way.

Calgary Herald November 1, 1913.

And then it all fell apart. The land boom, begun in 1908 started to fade in late 1913, and then over the winter Hextall’s health, never very good, failed and he died on April 19, 1914. Suddenly bills carried by local businesses on credit came due and loans given easily to the rich London gentleman in good times, were called in by creditors worried about the land bust and the future of the Bowness Estate without its main benefactor. There was also a war on the horizon. Hextall’s brother, George, came from London for the funeral and to meet with the Calgary Mayor. For a couple of months the political status quo held, but when the streetcar deal worked out with Hextall in prior years came up for renewal, the mayor folded under pressure. He was forced to renegotiate terms by inner city council members who saw no benefit to them from this suburban deal. Streetcar service to Bowness was cut. Additional political problems included the “free” park in the river which needed repairs and improvements and was only usable in the summer.

Despite these problems, the founding golf club members soldiered on with building the course. “A meeting of the Bowness Golf Club was held … to make arrangements for the laying out of the new golf course, plans for which have already been completed by the famous golf course architect, Russell [sic] Colt. The clubhouse is now practically completed.”

Calgary Herald April 28, 1914

 

Calgary Herald April 20, 1914

The Colt design included two courses for the Bowness property: a 9-hole Ladies course and a full 18-hole championship course. The Ladies course was a figure 8 loop with five holes playing along the bluff ridge overlooking the Bow River valley nearest the residential development. The 18-hole course, south of the Ladies’ course, was back and forth along the bluff with forays up and down the drainage valleys lying both perpendicular and parallel to the ridge line. It was a big course with big views for miles in all directions. Unfortunately, with the immediate loss of their wealthiest and most influential member several amenities were cut from the program, including the promised “special construction” of the greens. All 27 holes of the Bowness Golf Club had sand greens from the start and all the way through the Great Depression and WWII. The 18-hole course was finally opened on May 5, 1917 just as the war, fully supported by the Canadians from the beginning and now by the United States, was in full flight. Spurred on by that war, Bowness did get a “flying field” by 1918.

The Calgary Herald of April 25th noted “The plans for this course were prepared by H.S. Scott [sic] and they provide an 18-hole course for the gentlemen and a nine-hole course for the ladies. The Ladies’ course will not be completed for this summer, but in the meantime the ladies will have the same privileges as the gentlemen.” It should be noted that ladies were admitted in their own name from the beginning and had places on the board. The first year of operation in 1917 there were 150 men and 100 women as members. This equality of membership, though at a reduced cost for wives and sisters of the male members, is well documented in the board minutes of the club.

Calgary Herald April 25, 1917

The course was supervised in the laying out and construction by S.H. McCullogh. McCullogh was a fine golfer who was also a member of the Calgary CC and the St Andrew’s Club, and had supervised various revisions to those courses. He was Captain of the St Andrew’s Club in 1913. In 1917, the first year of the Bowness Club’s operation, his title was “Honorary Secretary.” The President of the club, at least until Hextall’s death, was always a London gentleman and one of Hextall’s English friends. A figurehead president in absentia. This gave an air of old school propriety to the endeavor and probably also helped access to British funds.

Calgary Herald July 22, 1921

In the aerial below the 9-hole Ladies course is at the upper left along the ridge next to the dark tree covered hillside. The Ladies’ course starts and finishes parallel to the ridge with five holes playing off and along the ridge. The wooded ridge leading up to the bluff is visible as a dark diagonal in the photo. All nine fairways and sand greens are clearly visible. Note the open land separating the Ladies’ course and the championship course to the south. It suggests that Colt had his choice of where to place the holes. Note also the sand greens which show up as black dots. Another land mark of the site is the dual road coming up from the streetcar line in the valley to the clubhouse on the bluff. It is visible in the right center of the photo and splits the dark hillside at right angles to the ridge.

1926 Aerial University of Calgary Archive (partial of photo titled SE003 by the Royal Canadian Air Force). Although abandoned early in 1926, Colt’s 12th, 13th, and 14th are still visible along the bottom right of the photo.

This aerial is unique to any golf course aerials I’ve seen previously. Note the 1926 date. This is long before the typical aerials flown by and for various utility companies, typically starting in North America in the mid-1930s. The clarity is also exceptional especially when compared with the aerials of a decade later. Why? The wide open prairie northwest of the growing city of Calgary was the perfect location for an early branch of what was to become the Royal Canadian Air Force. This photo is part of a trial flyover to test camera lenses for use in aerial photography in war time. Four (4) photographs still exist in the University of Calgary Archives, each of which covers all or part of the Bowness Golf Club. Sometimes historians do get lucky.

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