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"Saving Factories is as Important as Saving Churches": Scott Jolliffe's Fight to Preserve Calgary’s Industrial Past
April 12, 2017
by: Geoff Ellwand
Scott Jolliffe believes that Calgary is almost absent-mindedly erasing its irreplaceable industrial heritage. In his view the city’s industrial past it is just as important as the magnificent old residences and churches and public places which are being preserved.
Until last year Jolliffe was Chair of the Calgary Heritage Authority. Since his childhood he has had an abiding interest in the past, especially old bits and pieces of our industrial history. He remembers as a ten-year-old collecting worn out telegraph insulators and other industrial debris. These “treasures” were invariably thrown out by his mother. He remembers both his parents saying, “when something gets old you just throw it out.”
Well, that is one old-time value the family didn’t pass on to Jolliffe.
Just the opposite. As an adult Jolliffe has never stopped collecting things, especially industrial things. Among his treasures are about two dozen old gas pumps as well as railway memorabilia and other fascinating pieces of the past. On top of that, he has some 40 shipping containers and semi-trailers filled with things gathered from old factories and other industrial facilities.
He admits he has no idea what he will do with it all. “It’s mostly industrial artifacts, railway items, grain elevators stuff, and other castoffs,” he says. He insists that not all of his items have monetary value. “I think they’re just cool, neat things. If I don’t save it, it’s gone.”
But Jolliffe is not just a hoarder (a phrase he doesn’t especially like), he is an eloquent advocate for the recognition and preservation of old industrial sites. He passionately articulates the importance of the industrial past as part of the broader heritage picture. “It’s the grittier side of our heritage. Without factories and refineries and the jobs they created we didn’t need schools, and churches and elegant houses.”
He talks about the need to find new uses for old industrial sites but acknowledges it is difficult. “How do you come up with an adaptive re-use of the old Imperial Oil refinery (1923- 1976) or the British American (later Gulf Canada Resources) refinery (decommissioned 1985)? These facilities have disappeared because there was no economic reason to keep them.” But Jolliffe sees bright spots out there. “We’re getting better at it” he says of adaptive reuse. “Look at the Simmons Building (a former mattress manufacturing warehouse on the edge of Calgary’s downtown now creatively re-purposed into an upscale bakery, coffee shop and steak house).
A few months ago, Jolliffe was at his most eloquent and persuasive when he visited the ramshackle remains of the Western Irrigation District Headworks with City of Calgary heritage officials. It is an early 20th century remnant of where water from the Bow River was once diverted into an extensive irrigation system that made the semi-arid southeastern part of Alberta into a rich and productive farmland.
Now the headworks is abandoned and largely forgotten. Wedged between the river’s edge and Calgary’s busy Deerfoot Trail. Thousands of Calgarians drive past it every day, although few even know it exists. Jolliffe pointed out how the headworks was a reminder that the now pleasant Bow River that winds along the edge of Calgary’s downtown was once a commercial and industrial highway. The headworks, he argued recalls the industry and ingenuity of turn-of-the-century engineers and agriculturists and it should not be forgotten. “Remove it,” he says “and you lose a part of our collective story. It is a monument to the dreams and accomplishments of another generation.”
Despite setbacks and the loss of much of Calgary’s industrial past, Jolliffe remains optimistic. He keeps advocating for industrial heritage and points to success in re-purposing commercial sites in other cities in Canada and elsewhere. “Industrial archeology” Jolliffe says optimistically “is a burgeoning field”. But advocates are needed and there is no stronger advocate for preserving the industrial past than Jolliffe himself.
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