Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.

Stephen Avenue, looking west from McTavish (Centre) Street, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1884-1885. The large building is Boynton Hall, located between 2nd and 3rd Streets SE on the north side, with Bannerman's feed store on the right. (Glenbow Archives NA-1075-14)

"The People's Choice!":
An Overview of the First Purchasers of the CPR Calgary Town Site Lots

By John Nash

Readers of the Calgary Herald edition of 16 January 1884 were greeted with a large front page notice under the heading "The People's Choice!" announcing that "Nearly Two Hundred Lots Were Sold Within Two Hours after the Plan had been thrown open to the public." The notice had been placed by the partner of the Canadian Pacific Railway ("CPR") in the development of their Calgary town site, to publicize both the successful sale and the availability of lots in what is now the downtown area. This article provides an overview of these pioneer purchasers. How many were there? Were they all men or were there some women buyers? How many lots did they purchase? What were their occupations? What was their age? What were their national origins and religion? How many of the purchasers actually received the deeds to their lots and how many seemingly "flipped" them?

As recounted on several occasions, the CPR, as it laid track inexorably westward in August 1883, bypassed the ramshackle collection of shacks and tents that passed for the community of Calgary on the east side of the Elbow River, and elected to develop a town site on the west side of the Elbow on a block of land to which it could claim title as part of the Main Line land grant from the Dominion government [1]. The CPR developed the Calgary town site in partnership with the Canada Northwest Land Company (Limited) ("CNWLC"), which was an English company incorporated in 1882 to acquire five million acres of the CPR's land grant and a one-half interest in the railway's town and village sites in the North West Territory.


Register of Town Lot Deeds Executed by Canadian Pacific Railway Town Site Trustees, Calgary, Alberta, 1886, p.13. (Glenbow Archives M-2274-v.31)

A legal survey was prepared and the first lots were offered for sale in early January 1884. The terms of the initial sales were straightforward: regular lots were priced at $300 and corner lots were marketed at $450; a 50 per cent price rebate was granted if a building were erected on the lot and occupied by 1 April 1884; and a one-third cash payment was required within six months with the balance due in two equal annual installments on 15 January 1885 and 15 January 1886 at an annual interest rate of six per cent.

The archives of the Glenbow Museum include a CNWLC register entitled Canadian Pacific Railway Town Sites - Sales Book that records information for each Calgary town lot sale: the sale number (each of the lots sold was usually assigned a different sale number); the date of the sale; the name and frequently the occupation of the purchaser; the lot and block number; the terms and conditions of the sale; and the amounts and dates of the lot payments (which were not necessarily made by the original purchaser of the lot). A companion CNWLC document is the Register of Town Lot Deeds and Transfers Executed by Canadian Pacific Railway Town Site Trustees (C.P.R. & C.N.W.L. Co. Town Sites) that records the number and date of the deed for each town lot sale, the lot and block number(s), and the name and often the occupation of the recipient of the deed [2]. These documents, supplemented by the Calgary Herald, Henderson's directory (1884), Burns & Elliott's Calgary, Alberta: Her Industries & Resources (1885) and the population censuses and other records available from were the main sources of information for this article [3].


Canadian Pacific Railway Town Sites Sales Book, Calgary, Alberta, 1884, p. 106. (Glenbow Archives M-2274-v.24)

The Calgary lots were enthusiastically received when they were made available to the general public, and the first transactions in the Sales Book consist of 187 sales, all dated 15 January 1884 [4]. Lots along Stephen Ave. were the most popular accounting for 120 sales (64 per cent), followed by Atlantic Ave. (9th Ave.) with 54 sales (29 per cent), while McIntyre Ave. (7th Ave.) and Pacific Ave. (10th Ave.) were the least popular with nine and four sales respectively. Since several purchasers bought more than one lot, there were fewer purchasers than the number of lots sold. There were a total of 98 purchasers of the 187 lots consisting of 85 individual purchasers (including five women), 11 different sets of joint purchasers, and two corporate entities. The women purchasers were all married, and included both Elizabeth Costello who was the wife of Calgary's first salaried schoolteacher (John William Costello) and her sister-in-law, Sarah Costello [5]. The more noteworthy corporate entity was the I.G. Baker Company, the traders and merchants based at Fort Benton, MT whose operations extended into the southern part of the North West Territory (the first sales to the Hudson Bay Company ("HBC") were dated 29 January 1884) [6].


First Canadian Pacific Railway station, Calgary, Alberta, 1884. L-R: R.G.C. Marsh, Canadian Pacific Railway station agent; W.T. Ramsay, land agent; T.B. Braden, Calgary Herald; G.E. Jacques, watchmaker; Special Constable Fay of the Canadian Pacific Railway. (Glenbow Archives NA-659-18)

Of the 98 purchasers, 45 bought one lot and 36 bought two lots. In other words, 83 per cent of the purchasers bought 63 per cent of the lots. The remaining lots were sold to those who could be called the large-scale buyers. This group was dominated by the 10 purchasers who each bought four lots. The I.G. Baker Company, Richard Hardisty (the HBC chief factor) and Gilbert Murdoch in Saint John, NB (the uncle of George Murdoch, Calgary's first mayor) were among those who bought four lots. A further 20 lots were sold to four purchasers who each acquired five lots (including James Lougheed), while John Glenn was the single largest purchaser through his acquisition of seven lots [7].

Setting aside the five wives, the occupations of 90 of the remaining 93 purchasers at some point over the 1884 to 1891 period can be identified [8]. The most buyers in a single occupational group were those described as "farmers" or "ranchers" (the terms were used interchangeably) who accounted for 20 purchasers and 49 of the sold lots. A noticeable feature of these purchasers is that they tended to acquire a relatively large number of lots. Apart from John Glenn's seven lots, Griffith Boynton, Lafayette French, James D. Geddes and Samuel Shaw each acquired either four or five lots [9], [10]. Taken collectively, purchasers with "urban" occupations acquired the largest number of lots, but they were not in the majority in terms of either number of purchasers or lots sold. These purchasers included merchants and general storekeepers; tradesmen, clerks and labourers; managers and professionals; and hotel and saloon keepers. There were 43 purchasers within this broad group and they acquired a total of 83 lots. Several of them had advertised their services in the Calgary Herald while the Calgary community was still located east of the Elbow, and their early acquisition of the CPR/CNWLC town lots reflected how quickly the centre of Calgary crossed the Elbow in the wake of the CPR's decision to develop Section 15 [11].


Stephen Avenue, looking east from McTavish (Centre) Street, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1884-1885. Sparrow's Meat Market is in the right foreground and the North-West Mounted Police barracks in the background at end of street. (Glenbow Archives NA-660-1)

An interesting feature of the initial purchasers was the relatively high number that consisted of CPR employees or members of the North West Mounted Police: 12 CPR employees bought a total of 17 lots and six members of the Mounted Police acquired 12 lots.

The connections among the purchasers and their motives for acquiring Calgary town site lots are frequently intriguing. For example, the adjoining lots 24, 25 and 26 of Block 49 were purchased by Francis "Frank" White, described as a "rancher" in the Sales Book, Henry A. White, described as an employee of the Grand Trunk Railway ("GTR") in Montreal, and George B. Reeve, described as a Chicago railway director, respectively. This geographically disparate trio was bound together by family and GTR ties. Francis White was born in Birmingham, England in 1844 and emigrated to Canada in 1860/61. He worked for the GTR in Quebec before he moved West in 1882 to become treasurer and then manager of the Cochrane Ranche at Cochrane and Fort Macleod until he resigned at the end of 1884 (it was during this period that White purchased his Calgary lot). He subsequently established his own sheep ranch at Morley, AB before joining the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company at Fernie, BC in 1901. Henry A. White was Francis White's younger brother by five years, and apart from the GTR connection identified in the Sales Book, was reported in the 1911 census as a "Chief Clerk" in a Montreal railway office, which was undoubtedly the GTR. George Bell Reeve was born in Surrey, England in 1840, and emigrated to Canada in 1860. Reeve was a long-time employee of the GTR; he was reported in the 1871 census as an "agent" for the "G.T.R.R." in West Williams, ON (northwest of London) and as a GTR manager in Montreal in the 1901 census. Chicago was served by the GTR and it was in a GTR capacity that he was no doubt located in the Windy City. Francis White and Reeve knew each other because, as recorded in his dairies, White either met or had dinner with Reeve in Chicago on his train trips between Calgary and Montreal. More significantly, the entry for 13 January 1884 contains the information that the "CPR advertise lots to be sold tomorrow" and that White went "to see Ramsay [W.T. Ramsay, the CNWLC agent in Calgary] about lots for G.B. Reeve." [12] Although White's dairies are silent on the acquisition of the Calgary lots by the trio except for this reference, it is evident that Francis White acted as the catalyst for the purchases by virtue of his migration to the West and his capitalization of family and work ties to either induce or facilitate the acquisition of lots by his brother and Reeve living many hundreds of miles away.


Arthur White Colpman, factor at Fort Ostell, Alberta, ca. early 1900s. (Glenbow Archives NA-3449-1)

The population censuses provide information on 52 of the purchasers. Their average age was around 34.5 years old in January 1884, and 21 of them were 30 years or younger. William McCardell ("prospector") was only c. 21 years old, while Frederick Topp ("butcher") and Isaac Potter ("farmer") were 22 and c. 23, respectively [13]. The acquisition of lots at a net cost of $150 plus the cost of a building would have represented bold decisions by purchasers in their relative youth earning modest incomes. At the other end of the age scale, two of the purchasers were in their fifties, and Gilbert Murdoch ("gentleman") was the oldest purchaser at 61 years old.

Protestant immigrants or first generation Canadians from the United Kingdom (which included Ireland) dominated the population of English Canada in 1884, and, not surprisingly, this was reflected in the national and religious background of the first purchasers of the CPR town lots. Of the 52 purchasers identified in the population censuses, 26 had been born in Canada (including Newfoundland although it was still a British colony at the time), but only four had been born in Canada and whose parents had both been born in Canada [14]. Of the remainder, 20 had been born in the United Kingdom, while five had been born in the United States. Other than Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, no other country was recorded as the birth place of the purchasers or their parents [15]. In terms of religion, the large majority of the purchasers were mainstream Protestants (36 of the 52 were Anglicans, Presbyterians or Methodists) plus there were seven Catholics, of which the two Costello families from Ireland were the most prominent.


Mrs. Annie White and Frank White, at Fernie, British Columbia, ca. 1920. (Glenbow Archives NA-4365-9)

The stability of the Calgary downtown area in its earliest days can be gauged by the extent to which lots changed hands during the payment period (the deeds were issued only after the lots had been fully paid). The Sales Book suggests that only one lot was forfeited for default of payment, and that 14 lots were denied the construction rebate presumably for failure to place a building on the lot by 1 April 1884 (most notably on the lots purchased by the I.G. Baker Company). The Deeds Register contains information on 182 of the 187 lots recorded in the Sales Book. The deed recipients for 117 of these lots (64 per cent) were the purchasers of the lots as recorded in the Sales Book, one or both of the partners in the case of joint purchasers, or spouses and relatives of the purchasers. Put another way, around one-third of the lots changed hands between the purchase date and the date when the deeds were issued. For example, the deed to a lot purchased by the "CPR employees" Cornelius Shields and Elmer Fowler was issued to Samuel Trott, a "druggist" [16]. In a more complicated arrangement, the Deeds Register indicates that James Fitzgerald ("Dep. Sheriff") took a half-interest and Howard Douglas ("CPR employee") and James Lougheed ("lawyer") each took a quarter-interest in two lots that had been purchased by Samuel Ray ("engineer") [17].


Calgary's first town council, Calgary, Alberta, 1886. Photograph by Alexander J. Ross. L-R, back row: Councillor S.J. Hogg; Assessor J. Campbell; Solicitor H. Bleeker; Councillor Dr. N.J. Lindsay; Councillor J.H. Millward; Councillor S.J. Clarke; Chief J.S. Ingram; Collector J.S. Douglas; Councillor J.S. Freeze. L-R, front row: Mayor George Murdoch; Treasurer Charles Sparrow; Clerk T.T.A. Boys. (Glenbow Archives ND-8-366)

Although several of the initial purchasers of the Calgary lots achieved greater or lesser degrees of fame and fortune such as James Lougheed, there were others for whom the purchase of a lot was only a short stop in a peripatetic and largely obscure existence, particularly for those who had purchased a lot but did not receive the deed. A case in point is Arthur Colpman whose life contained tantalizingly mysterious passages, even though his name appears several times in civil and census records. Arthur White Colpman had been born in Leicestershire, England in 1859. He emigrated to Canada in 1879 in the service of the HBC and enumerated as a "clerk" at Selkirk, MB in the 1881 census. In early 1884, he was in Calgary, probably still as an HBC servant, where, at the age of 24 years old, he purchased a town site lot on his own account, for which he was recorded in the Sales Book as a "clerk", and a second lot in partnership with Frank M. Crosby, for which they were described as "merchants" [18]. The deed for his wholly-owned lot was subsequently issued to Joseph E. Jacques, who operated a furniture store, and the evidence suggests that both Colpman and Crosby had assigned their interest in the jointly-purchased lot to another party (or parties) by October 1884. Colpman subsequently left Calgary and in the 1891 census he was reported as a "clerk, Hudson Bay Co." at Rat Portage (Kenora), ON. He married an English woman also from Leicestershire at Rat Portage in 1892. Between the time of his marriage and the 1911 census, the anecdotal information about Colpman and the civil records do not readily integrate into a coherent narrative. There is a photograph of Colpman in the Glenbow archives donated with the information that it was taken "in the early 1900s" when Colpman was "factor at Fort Ostell" (Ponoka, AB) [19]. It was also indicated that he joined his brothers' wholesale commissary business, based at Lethbridge, AB [20]. However, Colpman spent time in England because the name "Arthur White Colpman" appears on a London electoral list in 1903. He was also enumerated in the 1906 Prairie census as living as a boarder at Exshaw, AB. Unfortunately this census did not record occupation, and therefore provides little insight on why he was in this area.

For unknown reasons, Colpman's life seems to have taken a turn for the worse by the time of the 1911 census. He was enumerated living in a North Vancouver quasi-boarding house with 12 single men, who, including Colpman, were all employed as "labourers" working "on the road". Colpman was reported to have worked only 40 weeks in 1910 for which his total earnings amounted to a meagre $350; in comparison, the average yearly earnings for wage earners in Vancouver at the time were around $785 [21]. Moreover, other dwelling units listed on the same page in the census book as Colpman's were occupied by Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Given the virulent prejudice against Asian immigrants and the efforts to limit their number, it appears that Colpman was on the economic and social edge of society [22]. After the 1911 census there is no further record of him until his death in Saanich, BC in 1935.

What heightens the mystery about Colpman's life is the nature of his marital arrangements because although he was reported as married in the 1906 and 1911 censuses, he was not co-habiting with his wife. Rather Mabel Mary Colpman (née Pollard) was enumerated in the 1911 English census as a married "housewife" living alone in the city of Leicester. She was also listed in the 1925 edition of the Leicester telephone directory. However, she lived in Canada at some point after 1911 because she was recorded as a passenger on the CPR's "Empress of Britain" when it docked at Southampton from Quebec City in July 1935, and Canada was cited as her country of last permanent residence on the manifest. The manifest also indicated that she intended to live in England (at the same address where she was enumerated in 1911), and she died in Leicester in 1955 at the age of 90 years old [23]. Mabel Colpman was a woman who throughout her life never severed her connections with the Leicester district where she was born. There is no record that the Colpmans had any children.

The comparison between the Sales Book and the Deeds Register offers the possibility for intriguing investigations in other ways. For example, Griffith Henry Boynton was an English army officer from an ancient family who was reported in the Sales Book as a Calgary "rancher" [24]. He purchased five lots, and funded the construction of both Boynton Hall as the community's meeting centre and the Calgary Theatre Hall [25]. There are some curious features about Boynton's purchases. First, it was one of the very few purchases in the Sales Book that did not contain a complete record of the payments for the lot. Second, the deeds to Boynton's lots were issued to Alfred Newdigate of Leamington Spa in England. Newdigate was an Anglican vicar, and Boynton's brother-in-law by virtue of his marriage to Boynton's sister. In addition, Newdigate was named as the recipient of the deed of a lot purchased by George Leathers - described as a "farm labourer" in the 1891 census - on 15 January 1884 (Boynton had probably acquired Leathers' interest in this lot because it adjoined one of Boynton's). The deeds to the Boynton and Leathers lots were not issued until 20 November 1888 which was three years after Boynton had returned to England (he eventually succeeded to the Boynton Baronetcy as the 12th Baronet in 1899). Third, Newdigate's name was crossed out in the Deeds Register with the notation "Cancelled 16 Dec. 1889", or more than a year after the deed had been issued. These entries raise the issues of whether there is any significance to the absence of a payment record, why did Newdigate rather than Boynton receive the deeds and the meaning of the cancellation notation.

Several early purchasers of the CPR's Calgary town site lots, such as John Glenn, James Lougheed and George Murdoch, achieved significant degrees of fame. However, there were other purchasers such as Arthur W. Colpman and George Leathers whose lives were spent in obscurity. Regardless of their fame or otherwise, each purchaser in their own way has a story to tell about the early development of the West in general and about Calgary in particular. This brief overview of the initial town site purchasers provides some insight into both their commonality and their diversity, and hopefully will encourage researchers to explore more deeply the lives and motives of these pioneers.

View the PDF of the Location of CPR Calgary Town Lot Sales Dated 15 January 1884


The block of land was Section 15, Township 24, Range 1, West of the 5th Meridian. For a more complete account of the CPR's decision to develop Section 15 as a town site, see Max Foran, Calgary: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1978), 16-22.
CNWLC, Canadian Pacific Railway Town Sites - Sales Book (M-2274-vol. 24) and Register of Town Lot Deeds and Transfers Executed by Canadian Pacific Railway Town Site Trustees (C.P.R. & C.N.W.L. Co. Town Sites) (M-2274-vol. 31), Canada Northwest Land Ltd. fonds, Glenbow Library & Archives, Calgary.
Henderson Directories Ltd., Henderson's North-West gazetteer and directory, Winnipeg, 1884; Burns & Elliott, Calgary, Alberta: Her Industries & Resources, Calgary, Alberta, 1885 (Thomas Burns, a co-author, was an auctioneer and one of the initial purchasers of a Calgary town site lot).
For a description of the CNWLC's Calgary activities, see Burns & Elliott, 31.
For more information on John Costello, see John Costello Catholic School, History of John W. Costello and Early Calgary,
For information on I.G. Baker Company, see Burns & Elliott, 25.
For information on Hardisty, see Shirlee Ann Smith, Hardisty, Richard Charles, Dictionary of Canadian Biography ("DCB"), vol. XI; Burns & Elliott, 47; for George Murdoch, see Max Foran, Murdoch, George, DCB, vol. XIII; Burns & Elliott, 47; for Lougheed, see David J. Hall & Donald B. Smith, Lougheed, Sir James Alexander, DCB, vol. XV; Burns & Elliott,53; for Glenn, see Sheilagh S. Jameson, Glenn, John, DCB, vol. XI; Burns & Elliott, 77.
Although Henderson's 1884 directory lists "Costello E., clothing, Stephen Av." and "Costello S., general store, Stephen Av.", this likely means that the Costello brothers (John William and William Nolan) were trading in the names of their wives, Elizabeth Costello and Sarah Costello, respectively. The Costello brothers had been in the dry goods business in Renfrew, ON before they migrated to Calgary in 1883. The move to the West and the acquisition of lots and the conduct of business in the names of their wives may have been influenced by the failure of their Renfrew business with debts of $17,000. John Costello Catholic School, History of John W. Costello and Early Calgary; Pádraig Óg de Bhaldraithe, The Costellos, Nolans and Quilters in Kerry and Canada: A case study of chain migration, 10 February 1999, 3-4, (10 March 2014).
For information on French, see Burns & Elliott, 42; on Geddes, see Burns &Elliott, 45; on Shaw, see Burns & Elliott, 70.
Among the purchasers described as "ranchers" and who bought two lots was General Thomas Bland Strange. Strange had been a British army officer and commander of the Alberta Field Force in the North West Rebellion (1885). For more information on Strange, see Roderick C. Macleod, Strange, Thomas Bland, DCB, vol. XV.
The occupation of an individual often varied. William Shearwood, for example, was originally recorded as a "clerk" from Fort McLeod in the Sales Book (probably for the Cochrane Ranche Company), but this had been subsequently crossed out and replaced, in different coloured ink, by the description, "Calgary gentleman".
Francis "Frank" White, Dairies (1881-1890), Frank White fonds ( M-1302), Glenbow Library & Archives, Calgary.
William Henry McCardell was one of the three CPR employees who were the first non-natives to discover the hot springs at Banff in 1883. He was recorded as a prospector at Silver City (Castle Mountain) in the Sales Book.
There were three purchasers born in Canada for whom the birthplaces of both parents could not be identified.
There was one special exception to this statement, and that was General Thomas Strange who had been born in India to a British army officer and his wife stationed in the country.
For information on Trott, see Burns & Elliot, 72.
Howard Douglas subsequently became second superintendent (1896-1908) of Rocky Mountains Park (now Banff National Park) and Commissioner for Dominion Parks (1908-1912).
Frank Melvin Crosby, a native of Massachusetts, had been an employee of the I.G. Baker Company in Calgary, but established his own lumber and building supply business in February 1884. He purchased one lot jointly with Arthur Colpman and a second lot in partnership with a person called "Thompson", according to the Sales Book, who was probably F.J. Thomson, a business associate. Crosby suffered financial reverses in the summer of 1884 and left Calgary a disillusioned man on 18 September 1884. In a letter dated 14 October 1884, Charles Peterson (barrister) wrote a letter from Calgary to Crosby's brother in Boston asking him to pass it on to Frank Crosby because "In consequence of the obscure writing in the agreement to him and Colpman, a mistake was made in the description of the two subsequent assignments" and that Crosby should contact Peterson's agent in Boston for the amended papers (italicization added). Colpman would have no doubt received a similar letter, but there is no current record of it. See letters and other material in the Frank Melvin Crosby fonds (M-288), Glenbow Library & Archives, Calgary.
Fort Ostell was built during the North West Rebellion (1885) near Ponoka, AB.
The brothers were William and Frank Colpman. They arrived in Lethbridge in 1885 and established drayage, lumber and wholesale commissary businesses. William Colpman was Mayor of Lethbridge in 1895.
Statistics Canada, Canada Yearbook Historical Collection,
The head tax on Chinese immigrants was increased from $100 to $500 in 1903, and the Japanese government at the insistence of the Canadian government secretly agreed in 1907 to limit the number of males emigrating to Canada to 400 per year. An order-in-council in 1908 curtailed Indian immigration by requiring Indians to make a "continuous journey" from India to Canada without a stopover en-route, which was the standard practice.
The information about Colpman and wife was obtained from the various birth, death and marriage records, censuses, electoral lists, ship manifests and telephone directories available from
Henderson's directory (1884) listed Boynton as a "speculator".
For information on Calgary Theatre Hall and Boynton's involvement, see Burns & Elliott, 29.

About the author

I retired in 2006 after 36 years with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal and Calgary. Since I always had a keen interest in history, I gave the golf course a pass in my retirement and enrolled at the University of Calgary to earn a BA and MA in History. Given this background, the opportunity to participate in the Glenbow's Stories from the Archives project was too good to miss. The specific topic of my article in many ways picked itself after I stumbled across the archival records of the initial sales of the CPR lots in what is now downtown Calgary. Although I had long been familiar with the story of how the CPR had simply by-passed the community of Calgary as it then existed on the east side of the Elbow to "set up shop" on the west side of the river, I had not seen an account of who actually bought the CPR town site lots when they first went on sale except for the well-known names such as John Glenn and James Lougheed.

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