The heart of Calgary is red …
… the scarlet red of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) tunic. In 1875, the NWMP built a small wooden fort at the spot where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet (confluence), and laid the foundation for the city that would become Calgary.
The Canadian government created the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873 as a paramilitary police force that would establish Canadian sovereignty, put a stop to the devastating whiskey trade, and befriend the First Nations people in preparation for the treaties that would open the land for settlement. The Force marched west across the prairie from Dufferin, Manitoba, in the summer of 1874 and established Fort Macleod, south near the U.S. border between Montana and Alberta. The following year they built Fort Calgary (then known as Fort Brisebois; Captain Brisebois attempted to rename the fort after himself, but due to his unpopularity, it was renamed Fort Calgary in 1876).
Between 1875 and 1914, the fort grew into Calgary Barracks and became the center of a flourishing community. Fort Calgary was a police administration center; a community symbol of law, order, and prosperity; a hospital; a refuge; a social center; and a focal point for settlers, ranchers, and business.
In 1914, Fort Calgary was sold to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which later sold the site to the Canadian National Railway. For the next 61 years, Calgary’s origins were hidden under a railway yard and storage area.
In 1974, the City of Calgary bought the site and returned the city’s birthplace to the public domain. Work started on an Interpretive Center in 1975, the site was cleaned up and capped, and the palisade of the original Fort was outlined with short logs.
The current fort consists primarily of an Interpretive Center, but changes are a-comin’.
Contrary to the typical image of impregnable walls the term fort stirs up, the original Fort Calgary stood for only six years before falling down, a fate the fort’s newest structuring (written about in the Avenue Calgary magazine) is hoping to avoid.
Titled “Marking,” the 2.7 meter tall, 71 by 72 meter structure (the dimensions of the original fort) literally builds on the site’s history. The original palisades of the fort are still there, and had been capped, but excavators ensured that the new fort outline is literally on top of the original fort. The backdrop of current-day Calgary puts the size of the original fort into perspective.
“Marking” is more of an interpretive exhibit than public art. It represents people past, present ,and future coming together at the intersection of both the city’s main rivers as well as its multitude of ideas.
For Jill Anholt, the artist behind the work, inspiration came from both the permanence of the prairie landscape and the ever-shifting prairie grasses transformed by the wind. Anholt says every detail of the structure carries a particular meaning. The red, self-adjusting lights that illuminate the outline of “Marking” at night are meant to create a link with the other red-lit structure in the East Village as well as evoke the Mounties’ red uniforms. The dozen graded profiles carved into the wooden panels are meant to cover a gamut of characters who might meet at the fort, from North West Mounted Police in full regalia to young girls and boys and people of all creeds and ethnicities.
Why this symbol rather than a straightforward recreation of the fort? The original location of the fort made it a fire hazard, as seen when its latest incarnation burned down in 2003. In addition, it was a difficult structure to keep secure. People would sneak inside and perform “non-conforming activities” there, far from public scrutiny.
Mainly, says Anholt, the structure is meant to be very open and fragile, almost a remnant. What was, and what is.