The Story of Calgary's Centre Street Bridge Lions

These iconic animals have quite the tale to tell.

A photo of the lion that rested on the south east kiosk of the Centre Street Bridge, now in storage.

Photos Courtesy of the City of Calgary.

Built in 1916 and installed in 1917, the four lion sculptures standing guard over the Centre Street Bridge have done so, in one way or another, for nearly 100 years, though for creatures as stationary as they are, they’ve certainly hit a few bumps along the way to their centennial celebration.

In the early stages of planning for the Centre Street Bridge, the monumental cost of $375,000 (equivalent to roughly $8.5 million today) for building the structure meant that the city was to forego any sort of decoration in order to keep costs low.

Fortunately for Calgary, one of the city’s alderman recalled seeing a handsome stone lion resting on the front porch of a home in Calgary’s north west. Some research into the matter found that the artist behind the statue was one James L. Thompson, a Scottish stonemason who was working as a city labourer and who still sculpted in his spare time.

As he was already on the their payroll, the city temporarily assigned him to the task of sculpting the ornaments, and he spent the winter of 1916 in a shed just east of the bridge completing the task. Thompson chose to model the 12,600 kilogram sculptures after the bronze lions found at the base of Nelson's Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, yielding the four concrete felines that rested atop the kiosks at either side of the bridge.

In addition to the lions, Thompson also sculpted the symbolic ornamentation surrounding the kiosks which represent the city’s background, with roses for England, shamrocks for Ireland, thistles for Scotland, buffalo heads for Western Canada and maple leaves for Canada. (Incidentally, Thompson was also the man behind the sculptures found on the Bow Bridge in Banff.)

In 1992, both the bridge and it’s lions were designated a municipal historic resource, and their restoration became a priority, since previous repairs in the 1970s and 1980s had merely patched over their deterioration rather than mended it.

Photo Courtesy of the City of Calgary.

Close up of the damage sustained by the north west lion.

In 1999, after 84 years of standing guard over Centre Street Bridge, damage caused by Calgary’s weather and vibrations from the traffic below meant the lions had to be removed if they were to survive the bridge's latest renovations. The least damaged of the foursome, which had rested on the southwest tower, was restored by local artist Ilyas Pagonis and used to form the mold for the second generation of lions which now guard the bridge.

Though the restored lion eventually, found a home by the front doors of Municipal Plaza in 2003, the three remaining statues have been kept in storage in a southeast city maintenance yard, covered in heavy duty, UV resistant tarps to provide protection against weather damage and moisture buildup. Though tentative plans to incorporate the lions into the West LRT in 2014 were initially scrapped, the city  says they are still exploring the West LRT, as well as a few other possible sites, as a permanent home to be decided on leading up to the statues centennial celebrations in 2016.

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