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Last Modified: June 21, 2024
An image of the official road map of Alberta [1964]. Beside the text is the title of the article: Storied Alberta Place Names. The background of the graphic has the faint outline of a mountain range.
Storied Alberta Place Names

On a recent road trip, I packed Harry Sanders’ 2003 book The Story Behind Alberta Names and felt the pull of what Sanders calls “the timeless appeal of toponymy.” I was especially intrigued by Alberta places that recognize writers, books and stories. More literary treasures turned up in other place name books produced over the years.

Let’s start with literary basics. Around 1905, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway started building its alphabet line westward from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba to Jasper, Alberta. The alphabet repeats two-and-a-half times across our province. Poe (after Edgar Allan Poe) appears on this line, as does Carvel, named for the 1899 novel Richard Carvel by American writer Winston Churchill. His British doppelganger, author and politician Winston Churchill, was recognized in 1947 in Calgary’s northeast neighbourhood Winston Heights.

A hamlet called Kinsella also appears on the alphabet line, named not for the novelist W. P. Kinsella but likely after a railway clerk. The novelist, born in Edmonton in 1935, grew up on a homestead northwest of Stony Plain near Darwell, a hamlet that may trace its name to the English hymn writer John Darwall.

Photograph: Old Women’s Buffalo Jump near Cayley, AB
Old Women’s Buffalo Jump near Cayley, AB. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Indigenous stories have deep connections to Alberta places. The word Kananaskis points to the tale of the Cree warrior Kin-e-ah-kis, who, when fighting for a woman’s attention, survived an axe blow to the head. Further south, Old Women’s Buffalo Jump (Aakíípisskan) near Cayley (named after Hugh St. Quentin Cayley, an early publisher of the Calgary Herald) is the site where the Blackfoot trickster/creator Náápi is said to have come up with the idea of marriage between men and women.

Early homesteaders were readers and on occasion named places after favourite novels. In 1905, a retired British army officer called his community near Sundre after Charles Kingsley’s 1855 historical novel Westward Ho! Early on, the exclamation mark appears to have been deleted by a copyeditor or perhaps, in keeping with the art of fiction, whisked away by a chinook.

According to John Robert Colombo’s Canadian Literary Landmarks, Sharrow, a locality north of Medicine Hat, recalls the title of a 1912 novel by the American writer Betsey Riddle. It’s not clear whether namers followed the writer’s storied personal life: marriage to a German baron, extramarital affairs, an arrest as an enemy alien during World War I, bankruptcy, and a late-life conversion to Catholicism.

Colombo also tells us that Heldar, a community near Mayerthorpe, is a nod to Rudyard Kipling’s first novel The Light that Failed and its protagonist, the artist Dick Heldar. Though the semi-autobiographical book was poorly received by critics when it came out in 1891, Kipling went on to achieve not only fame as a writer but as an Alberta placename hero. In 1910, he helped save the moniker Medicine Hat.

On occasion, early Albertans turned to poetry for toponymic inspiration. A community northeast of High River bears the title of Lord Byron’s 1819 narrative poem Mazeppa about a legendary Cossack prince. South of Mazeppa, an early rancher recalled English poet Thomas Gray’s 1751 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” While the rancher watched his herd of cattle, he was inspired by the line “The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,” and Cowley was born.

Writers’ names dot the province. Honoré de Balzac is remembered a few kilometres north of Calgary in the hamlet that bears his surname. The French novelist was a favourite of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Van Horne. A fan of the British writer Anthony Hope inspired Anthony Creek north of Jasper. Nearby Zenda Creek refers to Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda.

The name of a British travel writer, poet, and duke graces Marquis of Lorne Trail, a stretch of the ring road at the southern edge of Calgary. The Marquis of Lorne (aka John Douglas Sutherland Campbell) was the country’s fourth and youngest governor general. After naming what was then a district of the Northwest Territories for his wife Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria, he wrote a poem that begins: “In the token of the love which thou has shown . . . I have named / A province vast and for its beauty famed.” You can find the full poem in Harry Sanders’ book and read more about this storied couple a book by the late Alberta poet/historian Robert Stamp, Royal Rebels: Princess Louise & the Marquis of Lorne.

Portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland
Portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland, 1904, by John Singer Sargent. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The hamlet of Millicent recalls another high-society Briton: Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland. Her husband, the duke, invested in a large swath of land in Brooks and named the town after his wife and nearby Rosemary after his daughter. (The village of Duchess refers to another woman with royal connections.) An author, journalist, and editor, the Duchess of Sutherland also inspired the name of a bookbinding method used to create decorative endpapers.

Northwest of Lethbridge, Stavely honours Alexander Staveley Hill, a British MP and author who invested in a nearby ranch. Harry Sanders tells the story of the missing “e”: when Hill’s son requested a copyedit, the local board of trade suggested a donation to build a covered skating rink. No funds were forthcoming and no correction was made.

Alberta writers feature on the province’s map. Bestselling author and reformer Nellie McClung pops up in several places including the provincial electoral district Edmonton-McClung and Calgary’s Nellie McClung Avenue. Poet Derek Beaulieu is responsible for the street sign on the Beltline block where McClung once lived — one of his legacy projects as Calgary poet laureate. In Edmonton, McClung’s Famous Five comrade, the writer Emily Murphy (penname Janey Canuck) is remembered at a park that features a bronze statue of the author holding a book. Other Alberta authors have inspired local place names, including W. O. Mitchell (a Calgary elementary school), Grant MacEwan (an Edmonton university and a Calgary neighbourhood), Tony Cashman (an Edmonton neighbourhood), and Winnifred Eaton Reeve (a Calgary theatre).

Photograph of Nellie McClung Avenue Street Sign
Nellie McClung Avenue (in front of McClung’s home at 803 15th Avenue, SW) (Image credit : Shaun Hunter).

Edmonton’s Glastonbury neighbourhood offers both an homage to Arthurian lore and a park named after a more contemporary and less well-known literary legend, Alberta’s John Patrick Gillese. This prolific fiction and magazine writer headed up the province’s first creative writing branch at Alberta Culture from 1971 to 1984. His Search-for-a-New-Alberta Novelist competition put local writers like Jan Truss, Fred Stenson, and Pauline Gedge on Canada’s literary map.

Literary place-naming continues in Alberta. Walden, a new Calgary neighbourhood sprang up south of Fish Creek Park in 2008. Inspired by the title of Henry Thoreau’s classic 1854 book Walden, the community developer offers “urban living, in a place where nature reigns supreme” and features not one but several Walden ponds.


About the Author

Headshot of Shaun Hunter.Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene is part of the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at

Feature Image Credit: Official road map, Alberta [1964], 1964, (CU14089833) by Alberta Government Travel Bureau H. M. Gousha Company. Courtesy of Historical Maps Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Place name books by Alberta publishers:

Place Names of Alberta (four volumes)
University of Calgary Press, 1991–1996

Concise Place Names of Alberta
By Merrily K. Aubrey
University of Calgary Press, 2006

Storied Alberta Place Names Map

View the Google Map, and go on your own adventure!