Alberta’s first large-scale hydroelectric plant, Horseshoe Falls, came about through the intersection of two powerful and complementary forces that defined early twentieth-century southern Alberta. The first was demographic: the population of southern Alberta was surging with the immigration boom of the early twentieth century. The population of Calgary exploded, and by 1905, demand for electricity was placing an enormous strain on the city’s supply; in short, the city desperately needed new sources of electricity. This fused perfectly with the second force—the momentum of capitalist investment and economic growth. In the early 1900s, Alberta experienced one of the greatest economic booms in its history, and businessmen from across Canada eagerly sought out investment opportunities to capitalize on the province’s extraordinary prosperity. Given the tremendous demand for electricity, the development of hydropower seemed to offer entrepreneurs an outstanding investment opportunity.
In 1907, two Calgary businessmen
(W. M. Alexander and W. J. Budd) formed the Calgary Power and Transmission Company and negotiated the right to build a hydroelectric plant at Horseshoe
Falls. Despite the site’s ideal location, the two men had severely underestimated the engineering challenges and huge expense of the project. The pair had signed a contract to provide Calgary with electricity by 1909, an obligation they were unable to meet. In that year, wealthy financier Max Aitken stepped in and purchased the company (and its associated rights), which he renamed Calgary Power (now TransAlta). Construction on the Horseshoe Dam project began in 1909, but faced a variety of serious challenges, including floods, accidents and, in 1911, an outbreak of smallpox. While construction had been slow and plagued with challenges, the plant was finally finished on May 21, 1911—not a moment too soon, given the city’s power shortage.
The Horseshoe Hydroelectric Dam’s four horizontal Francis turbines gave the facility a peak capability of 14,000 kilowatts and provided the city’s budding industry, its growing population and the new CPR repair facilities a plentiful and cheap source of power. The plant would later be joined by four others on the Bow River watershed and would continue to provide reliable power for a century (and still counting).