The Mayors of Calgary’s First 25 Years

Play episode
Hosted by

Support the history page for as little as $1 a month:
Join the Canadian history chat on Discord:

For my next installment on mayors of Canadian cities, I have decided to follow up the piece on the mayors of Regina with the city of my birth; Calgary.
Calgary is one of the leading cities in Canada today, and it is a place where over 1 million people call home.
It is a fascinating and thriving place to be, but what about the mayors who helped to shape its destiny and make it what it is today.
Let’s dive in to the mayors of Calgary during its first 25 years!

George Murdoch (1884 to 1886)

George Murdoch with two friends at his log cabin at Fort Calgary in 1883.

There is always a first, and the first mayor of Calgary is a man by the name of George Murdoch. Born in Scotland in 1850, he came to Canada at the young age of four with his family. They settled in New Brunswick, and he would spend most of his early years in that province. He would even meet his wife Margaret there, and have two children with her.
In 1883, he decided that the time was right to move the family and he chose to move to the small community of Calgary. During the trip west, he would travel with Buffalo Bill and several of his First Nations performers.
Travelling part of the way by train, Murdoch reached the community after three months and Murdoch began operating a harness shop that proved to be very successful. His family would join him in 1885.
With most of his clientele either the Blackfoot First Nations, or the North-West Mounted Police, he developed good relations with both and taught himself to speak Blackfoot.
Heavily involved in the early community of Calgary, he was a member of both the Masonic Lodge and the Orange Order of Canada, as well as the fire brigade.
He was heavily involved in the incorporation of Calgary in 1884, and as a result, became the first mayor of the Town of Calgary on Dec. 4, 1884. After he was elected, he stated that the office of the mayor was to preside, preserve order and enforce the rules. The first council meeting would be held at Boynton Hall on Stephen Avenue on Dec. 4, 1884. At the time of his election, Calgary had 500 people living in it.
During his time as mayor, writing in his journal, there is the clear indication that things were not always easy. On Sept. 23, he said that Grant threatened to horsewhip him, and when wells were dug, many found fault with the wells beacuse they did not want them on account of the water men. Some also accused him of being a Mason, helping the Masons run the town, and that he was in deep with the whiskey men.
Nonetheless, he did get a lot done including swearing in the first school trustees, hiring the first postmaster and organizing a volunteer fire brigade. Of course, he also had some run-ins with the law, including being arrested for reckless driving with buggies after drinking too much.
He would hold the post until Oct. 21, 1886. He was not allowed to run in the following election because of charges he had tampered with votes.

It was alleged by his opponent, who he had defeated in the election, that Murdoch had added non-property owner names to the voter list. It was petitioned that Murdoch should not take his seat as mayor, and that John Reilly would instead be mayor. Reilly had been the individual Murdoch had defeated in the election. Magistrate Travis, upon hearing the evidence, decided that this was the case and Murdoch was removed from his post and he was given a fine of $200. He was disqualified from holding office for five years. Murdoch defaulted on the fine, and his goods were seized by the sheriff at his harness shop. The situation was very serious, with every alderman removed from council, one put in jail and the editor of the Calgary Herald also in jail. A mass protest was held and the editor was released from jail. In the end, Murdoch could not run for reelection.
It was also a tough year for the former mayor when on Nov. 7, 1886, Calgary’s Great Fire erupted. The fire would destroy 14 buildings, including three hotels. It would have been worse, but several buildings were saved by volunteers destroying Murdoch’s harness shop.
He remained involved with the community though, and from 1889 to 1890 and from 1895 to 1896, he served as a councillor.
He would pass away on Feb. 2, 1910 in Calgary.
Grant McEwan, in his book “Calgary Calvacade” would say that Murdoch was Leather Man to the First Nations, George to Calgarians, and Father of the City to historians.
Murdoch loved Calgary so much that he named his son Calgary Murdoch.

George Clift King (1884 to 1886)

Born in England in 1848, George King would spend the first three decades of his life living in England before coming over to Canada at the age of 26, and arriving in Toronto in 1874. Soon after arriving, he chose to join the North West Mounted Police and would become a constable in the first contingent to come west and establish Fort Calgary. As he was the first officer to cross the Bow River and set foot on the future site of Calgary, he is often referred to as the first citizen of the future city.
In 1877, he would leave the North West Mounted Police and managed the first store in Calgary. Two years later, he married Louise Munro and together they would have four children together. At the time of their marriage, they were the only married couple in the city.
In 1882, he opened his first store and that store also had the local post office. In 1885, he became postmaster and he would remain as postmaster for 36 years. His post office would be located on the corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street East.
On Nov. 4, 1886, he became the second mayor in Calgary’s history and would remain in the post until Jan. 16, 1888. He would also serve as town councillor for four years. Following the great Calgary Fire of 1886, he helped to get legislation put through for a $30,000 bond that was used to allocate heavily for fire protection. He also helped to get Calgary its first electric lighting plant in 1887.
In 1921, after retiring as postmaster, he opened up a tobacco store and ran that business until 1935, the year he died. The year before he died, he was inducted into the Order of the British Empire by King George V.

Arthur Edwin Shelton (1888 to 1889)
Born in England on Aug. 15, 1853, Arthur Shelton made his way to Calgary around 1884 and began running a furniture business out of a location on Stephen Avenue. While his predecessor, George Clift King, was mayor, Shelton served as a councillor. On Jan. 16, 1888, he was elected as the third mayor of the city and would serve until Jan. 21, 1889.
As mayor of the city, Shelton would help ensure that the Langevin Bridge was built, and he oversaw the beginnings of the city’s waterworks construction.
Once he ended his term as mayor, he went back to his furniture business and left Calgary in 1890.
He would appear again in Vancouver, where he lived from 1892 to 1936. He would pass away on Feb. 1, 1937.

Daniel Webster Marsh (1889 to 1890)

Born in New Hampshire in 1838, Daniel Marsh spent most of his youth in his hometown of Nashua before enlisting in the US Army and serving with the 30th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Dakota Territory Indian campaigns.
In 1876, Marsh was operating a store in Fort Benton, Montana and also working as a fur trader. That same year, he moved to Fort Walsh to begin managing another store. He would remain at Fort Walsh until 1883 when he followed the CPR west and opened up another store in Maple Creek.
In 1884, he opened up his Calgary store and remained as manager of the store until 1893.
Upon arriving in Calgary, Marsh became a well-known money lender. In 1887, he would marry Julia Shurtliff and have one daughter. His wife was the widow of a North West Mounted Police officer, and had been one of the signers of Treaty #7 at the Blackfoot Crossing in 1877.
In 1888, Marsh bought TC Power and Bro and operated the company under his own name.
On Jan. 21, 1889, he would be elected as mayor of Calgary and would serve until Jan. 20, 1890. In 1889, mayors were chosen by the business community, not by voters, so it is no surprise why a noted merchant like Marsh was chosen. During this time, he was listed as living at the Royal Hotel.
In 1896, Marsh was the first pr
By 1912, he was the director of the Calgary Gas Company and an advisory board member of the Trust and Guarantee Company.
He would pass away at the age of 77 on June 27, 1916 in Calgary. At the time of his death, he was worth almost $10 million in 2017 dollars.

James Delarme Lafferty (1890 to 1891)

Born in Perth, Ont. in 1849, James Lafferty attended school in that area and would go on to work as a deputy registrar of titles in Kingston so he could finance his continued education. Through that work, he was able to graduate from Queen’s University medical school in 1871. Working as a doctor in Perth for one year, Lafferty would take on the role as a senior resident at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
Following this, he would travel to London, England and work on his post-graduate course at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
In 1873, he came back to Ontario and set up a practice. That same year, he would marry Jessie Grant.
In 1881, he became the chief surgeon of the eastern division of the Canadian Pacific Railway and he would move his family to Winnipeg that same year. In 1885, he had moved to Regina and by the end of that year, he was living in Calgary with his family.
It was there that he began working for the CPR mainline and helping out as a doctor on the local First Nations reserve.
In 1889, he became a founding member of the North West Territories Medical Association, and would be elected to the medical council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons for the North West Territories the following year.
In 1889, he formed the Lafferty and Moore Bank, which would be bought by the Bank of Montreal in 1893.
From Jan. 20, 1890 to Jan. 19, 1891, he also served as mayor of Calgary.
Over the next two decades, he would serve on a number of medical boards and with several organizations including helping to organize the first meeting of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.
He would pass away in Calgary on July 29, 1920 at the age of 71.
His son, Geoffrey, worked in Calgary for many years as a successful lawyer.

James Reilly (1891 to 1892, 1899 to 1900)

Born in Quebec in 1835 to Irish parents, James Reilly would become an architect in Quebec before making the trip out to Winnipeg in 1882, and Calgary in 1883. It was in Calgary that he quickly became involved in the community and was the owner of the Royal Hotel. It was there he organized the first civic committee meeting on Jan. 4, 1884 and this was the first step in the incorporation of Calgary.
In 1885, he would lose to George Murdoch for the title of mayor, but would be successful in 1891 when he was elected on Jan. 19. Serving one term, he would return to the mayor’s chair once again in 1899. As was mentioned previously, Reilly had put forward a claim that non-property owners had been on the voters list for Murdoch. With Murdoch out and Reilly in as mayor, sort of, the two men got into a fist fight. With two mayors, the city was at a standstill for three months as neither men had enough councillors to make up a council.
Reilly was not always a popular person in Calgary, despite the fact that he often promoted the community as much as he could. When running in the 1888 territorial election, 38 Calgary citizens petitioned town council and complained about the numerous pigs he had around his home. He would lose that election.
During his time as mayor, he was not exactly popular either. His council and him could never reach decisions and several members resigned. Things got bad enough with council interfering with police work that it was not uncommon to see vagrants and drunkards roaming the street under Reilly’s tenure as mayor.
When Reilly lost his 1891 re-election bid for mayor, one citizen wrote the following poem:

The Mission Bridge is full of holes, yet no one cares a speck/That some poor horse may break its leg, or some poor man his neck/Which is the best course to pursue, it we must consider/ cheaper to mend the bridge at once, or compensate the widder. 

In 1895, he pushed for Alberta to become its own province. In March of that year, he held a meeting and gave a speech in favour of provincial autonomy for Alberta and he moved a resolution to have Alberta become its own province.
Also in 1895, James Reilly served as the president of the Calgary Agricultural Society.
In late-1899, Reilly made the decision to leave Calgary suddenly despite being mayor and travel the world, which he did for the next several years before retiring to Victoria. It was there he passed away from influenza at the age of 74 in 1909.

Alexander Lucas (1892 to 1894)

Born in Ontario in 1852, Alexander Lucas would earn a law degree and move to British Columbia with his wife Jane and their two sons, both of whom would go into the law field and one (Fred) would become a member of the Supreme Court of BC.
Back to Alexander though, he moved to Calgary in 1886 and became not only a partner in a land company, but also the publisher of the Calgary Herald. He did not stay long as the publisher as it was not a successful venture at the time.
The first year for the family in Calgary was a hard one, with one of the most worst winters on record. Coming to the city with seventeen carloads of cattle, many of the cattle died and Lucas with his partners quickly left the cattle business.
The first house for the family was a small cabin that was located where the city hall lawn is now found.
Serving one term on town council in 1891, he became mayor the following year. During his time as mayor, he helped to found the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
More importantly, during his time as mayor, Calgary officially became a city. Happening in 1894, this makes Lucas the first mayor of the City of Calgary, although W.F. Orr is often cited as the first mayor of the city.
He would go back into council, this time city council, when he was elected later as an alderman.
In 1897, he moved to the Kootenay district of British Columbia, before moving to Vancouver. He would be elected to the British Columbia Legislature in 1909, serving two terms.
He passed away in Vancouver in 1942.

Wesley Fletcher Orr (1894 to 1896, 1897 to 1898)

Born in Quebec in 1831, Wesley Fletcher Orr spent several years working in a variety industries in Quebec including as a cattle dealer, a coroner, salesperson and a teacher. He also wrote for several newspapers including the Hamilton Spectator.
In 1883, on the advice from a friend, he bought land at Fort Calgary as it was anticipated the railway would go through the location. Taking $10,000 and going with an associate named Mary Schreiber, he purchased land south of the Bow River and east of the Elbow River.
Spending all his money on this venture, he came to Calgary in 1886 to protect his investment.
While the railway station was not located near his property, he got involved in local politics so he could encourage development closer to the land that he owned.
His wife did not join him, but he did take along his seven-year-old son.
In Calgary, he once again became involved in several industries including buffalo bone trading, operating a stone quarry, and working in finance and real estate.
In 1888, he served as the editor of the Calgary Herald.
From 1888 to 1894, with the exception of one year, he served on council and was the chairman of the committee of public works. In that capacity, he helped to get much of the early infrastructure of Calgary built.
Known to be a tireless promoter of Calgary, he would support a civic experiment to drill for natural gas in 1892 and he organized the first irrigation convention in Western Canada in 1894. He also opened the first sandstone quarry in the city in 1886. The stone from that quarry would build the Alberta Legislature two decades later.

Wesley Orr, seated in the front and on the left.

In 1894, he became mayor of Calgary, becoming the first recognized mayor of the City of Calgary. He would lose in a narrow defeat in 1897, but come back in 1897 as mayor.
As mayor, he personally drew the city’s crest with the motto “Onward Calgary”.
His home life was a lonely one as he lived only with his son after the falling apart of his marriage.
He passed away in 1898, a few short years before the land boom that skyrocketed the value of the land he had originally bought.
By 1900, Calgary would have streets, bridges, public buildings and more, all originally promoted by Orr during his time in the community.

Arthur Leslie Cameron (1898 to 1899, 1907 to 1909)

Born in 1856 in Ontario, and earning his builders apprenticeship in Toronto, Arthur Cameron would make the decision to move west in 1878, arriving in Manitoba and working in the lumber business. It was there he married Elizabeth Parrish in 1882. Four years later, he was living in Medicine Hat.The entire family traveled to the Alberta area sitting in a Red River cart.
In 1888, he decided to move to Calgary, and quickly established himself in the community. He began serving on council in the 1890s, and became mayor in 1898.
He would return as mayor and hold the position for two years from 1907 to 1909.
During his time in Calgary, he also served with the Calgary Board of Trade, and with the University of Alberta Board of Governors. Elizabeth was also very well-known in the area for her amazing garden, which she always welcomed people to visit.
In 1913, Arthur and his wife moved to Victoria.
He passed way in Victoria in 1940 at the age of 83. Elizabeth would pass away two years later.
In describing Cameron, Archibald McRae said that “he is a man of distinctive ability and his character is one which is above a shadow of reproach.”

William Henry Cushing (1900 to 1901)

Born in Ontario in 1852, William Henry Cushing came to the west as a young man and he promptly started a lumber company that proved to be highly successful. Settling in the Calgary area in 1883, he continued to work in lumber and carpentry and helped to build several buildings in the city. The same year he moved to Calgary, he married Mary Jane Waters. They would have two children. This was his second marriage after his first wife passed away only three years into their marriage.
Working had in Calgary, he served as a town councillor for the community from 1890 to 1893, and then as a city councillor from 1895 to 1897, 1899 to 1900 and 1902 to 1905.
By 1900, he had 42 city lots and was employing over 100 people in the community. By 1911, he had 200 employees.
As an active member on city council, he served as mayor from Jan. 2, 1900 to Jan. 7, 1901. In 1906, he also served as the president of Calgary’s Board of Trade.
By 1903, his lumber business had become one of the largest businesses in Canada’s West.
When Alberta became a province, Alexander Rutherford appointed Cushing to be the first Minister of Public Works in the province’s history. In the 1905 election, he was able to defeat R.B. Bennett in a hard-fought campaign.
As a member of the provincial government now, he worked hard to have Calgary declared to be the capital of the province. He was unsuccessful as Edmonton was eventually chosen. He then attempted to get the University of Alberta in Calgary, but once again was denied this when it was located near Edmonton in the community of Strathcona.

Cushing (far right) at the opening of a memorial cairn in 1927.

He would run for re-election in 1909 and win, but would resign as Minister of Public Works in 1910 over a disagreement with Rutherford over the policy of providing loan guarantees to private railway builders. Claiming he had been kept unaware of the government’s railway policy and he would vote against his own government through a series of debates. Asked to rejoin the cabinet in March of 1910, he once again refused. As a result of this, the provincial government would fall and Arthur Sifton would take over as premier.
Cushing would go on to become the first chairman of the Mount Royal College Board of Governors, a role he would hold for 16 years from 1910 to 1926.
He would pass away in 1934 from heart failure.

James Stuart Mackie (1901 to 1902)

As a young man born in 1860 in England, he came to Canada at the age of 22 to find his fortune and opportunities. Settling in Winnipeg, James Mackie began working as a gunsmith and in 1885 he returned to England to convince his parents to come back with him. Instead of coming to Canada, they chose to move to the United States and settled in San Francisco.
All was not lost on that journey for Mackie though. He would meet Grace Forgan on his journey back and they would eventually marry in 1892.
In 1886, Mackie moved to Calgary and opened up a gun store. By partnering with others, he expanded on what he knew in business and would also work with taxidermy, fishing tackle and fur.
In 1891, he became a charter member of the Calgary Board of Trade, and would spend six years on city council. He would be the last surviving charter member of the Board of Trade.
In 1899, he bought a book store and in 1901, he owned a stationary company. That same year, he was elected as mayor and would serve from Jan. 7, 1901 to Jan. 6, 1902.
As a staunch supporter of Calgary, he also pushed hard to make sure that Calgary would be the capital city of the province, albeit unsuccessfully.
He would pass away in Calgary at the age of 88 in 1949. His wife Grace would live until 1971, to the ripe old age of 103.

Thomas Underwood (1902 to 1904)

Born in England and coming to Canada at the age of 20, Thomas Underwood was a carpenter who initially settled in Winnipeg. Working first as a farmhand, and then helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, he was at the site of Cragellachie when the Last Spike was driven into the ground to complete the entire railway. Once the railroad was completed, he traveled east and settled in Calgary.
Interestingly, his wife Catherine would be the first person baptized in the first church on Sixth Avenue in 1890.
Working for Cushing, who we talked about before, at his lumber company, he would go into business for himself soon after. He helped to build several important buildings in Calgary with his company including the Bank of Montreal building and Burns Manor, which is where Senator Pat Burns lived.
The Underwood Block, built in 1905, was named for Thomas as well. The neighbourhood block would be owned by Thomas and his family until 1976, when it was sold by his son Clifford upon his retirement.
In 1894, he was elected to city council and would remain on council for eight years.
In 1902, he was elected as mayor and would serve until 1904.
He would serve as deacon of the First Baptist Church for 30 years and director of the YMCA for 25 years. He was called Mr. First Baptist in the community because of his long association with the church. He also donated an organ to the church, which was sadly destroyed by a fire in 1905.

The Thomas Underwood family in front of their home located at 536 13th Avenue

His wife would also be heavily involved in the community. She helped to raise $1,500 to rent a house on 15th Avenue West to set up the Young Women’s Christian Association residence in Calgary. She also served as the chairman of the first YWCA board. She would raise $80,000 to build the YWCA’s building, and would help to get it expanded n 1911.
He would pass away in 1948, 14 years after his wife. At the time of his death, he was one of the oldest continuous residents in the city’s history. He was also remembered as the man who made First Street West because of the many building projects he completed in that area. The first Chinatown in Calgary’s history was located on land owned by Underwood and he was known as a benefactor of the Chinese people in the city.

Silas Alexander Ramsay (1904 to 1905)

Born in Quebec in 1850, Silas Ramsay would take part in many historical parts of Canadian history. As a boy he would see the Prince of Wales lay the cornerstone for the Parliament buildings in 1860, and he would come west with the Wolseley Expedition to help put down the Red River Rebellion in 1870. Deciding to see the West before returning home, he stopped in the Calgary area and hunted some buffalo. Greatly liking the area, he would return 13 years later in 1883 and established several businesses. He would discover a love of ranching while living in the area, and would also get into the agricultural product business.
In 1876, he met and married Jessie Wilson, and would have four children with her.
During the North-West Rebellion, he worked as the government’s dispatch rider and as a scout. During the Rebellion, he was apparently attacked by First Nations people and he was forced to fire on them.
With a keen interest in civic politics, he would serve on city council from 1895 to 1899 and from 1902 to 1904.
In 1904, he was acclaimed as the new mayor of Calgary and would remain as mayor until 1905. He was highly active during his time as mayor, helping to establish the street numbering system, initiating an irrigation project that would become Chestermere Lake and helping to get several utilities set up in the community.
He would be elected to council one more time, serving from 1905 to 1907.
In 1921, he retired from business and moved to Vancouver.
His brother would also serve as a mayor of Prince Albert.
In 1939, and at the age of 90, he travelled to Winnipeg to visit the Fort Garry Gate, which he saw for the first time 70 years previous. He was the last remaining survivor of the Wolseley Expedition at the time.
He passed away in 1942 at the home of his daughter, at the age of 92.

John Emerson (1905 to 1907)

Born in England and coming over to Calgary in 1885, he began to farm outside the city limits and was able to establish a very successful grocery business along Stephen Avenue.
He would serve on city council for three years prior to becoming mayor on Jan. 2, 1905. He would serve as mayor until Jan. 14, 1907.
During his time as mayor, several important visitors would come to Calgary including The Prince of Wales and future King George V, Prince Arthur and the Governor General.
In addition, he was friends with Lord Beaverbrook and would drink tea with Chief Bull Head.
He would also help to set up the committee that would build the Calgary Public Library, which was completed after he was finished as mayor.
Also during his time as mayor, Alberta would become its own province on Sept. 1, 1905.
Eventually, Emerson retired and moved back to England in 1912, where he passed away at the age of 73 in 1932.


Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts