When you ease your car or camper onto the road, how closely do you pay attention to road signs along the way? Are you transfixed by our province’s smorgasbord of odd and unusual place names, such as Hairy Hill, Ma-Me-O Beach, and Dead Man’s Flats? As if the names are strange enough, how about this puzzle: Why are so many main streets in Alberta called 50th Street (or Avenue)?
Not First Street. Not Main Street. Not even King or Queen Street, as so many towns in Saskatchewan are. We here at AMA were determined to find out.
Listen to the audio version on Alberta Morning, on CBC Radio.
New Gas Line a 50-50 Split
Believe it or not, a remarkable 41% of Alberta’s urban municipalities follow the 50th Street, 50th Avenue pattern: from major centres like Red Deer, Leduc, Lloydminster, Camrose, Stony Plain, and Cold Lake, to villages like Irma, Holden, Andrew, and Waskatenau.
But why? Did planners just figure, “We’ll never grow bigger than 50 blocks?”
The real answer is a little more complex, but says a lot about our loyalty to either Edmonton or Calgary. And Red Deer — right smack dab in the middle those rivals — had to choose between the two.
Michael Dawe, a Red Deer historian says his city used to follow Calgary’s numbering system, which starts at one, followed by a quadrant — northwest, southwest and so on. But all that changed in 1946 when Northwestern Utilities planned to hook up Red Deer to its expanding natural-gas network. Northwestern started operating in Edmonton in 1923 and liked its rather unusual numbering system, which placed the city’s midpoint at 101st Street and 101st Avenue, also known as Jasper Avenue. The gas company wanted Red Deer to switch teams before it switched on the gas.
Pipe Dreams and Number Schemes
Northwestern kept branching out its network well into the 1950s, bringing the Edmonton model with it — make each community’s midpoint 50th Street and 50th Avenue. Like Red Deer, central and northern Alberta communities were happy to buy in because it meant the clean-burning, big-city convenience of the “modern economic fuel.”
However, Southern Alberta communities were serviced by a different gas company — Canadian Western Natural Gas. Even as gas stoves and fireplaces roared to life, towns and villages in the south stuck mostly with Calgary’s numbers-and-quadrant approach. Although a handful, like Taber, fancied the Edmonton-inspired 50-50 approach and bucked the trend.
Back up north, community groups like the Royal Canadian Legion and Lion’s Clubs loved the simplicity of the 50-50 model and lobbied for more communities to change. The gasman, the postman, the out-of-towner — everyone would have an easier time getting around, they argued.
But there was pushback. In Red Deer, the Central Alberta Pioneers and Old Timers’ Association “strongly opposed” 50th Avenue taking the place of Gaetz Avenue, named after the city’s most beloved pioneer, Leonard Gaetz. In St. Albert, council was set to make the 50-50 switch in 1951, but mysteriously backed away from it. While in Leduc, which renamed Main Street as 50th Avenue in 1957, city council recently switched back to the old name after pressure from local businesses.
Teamwork Wins the Day
So there you have it. To this day, we Southern Albertans and Central/Northern Albertans mostly differ on how to number our streets, just as we do on which NHL or CFL team colours to wear. But like that family reunion at the lake or cabin, we sometimes come together.
Those two gas companies — Northwestern Utilities and Canadian Western Natural Gas — eventually merged to form the province-wide ATCO. While in Edmonton, as the city expanded and numbers ran down to zero, planners brought in the Calgary-style quadrant system in order to add new streets.