Source: courtesy Wikimedia Commons
ORR, WESLEY FLETCHER, businessman, office holder, militia officer, journalist, and politician; b. 3 March 1831 in Lachute, Lower Canada, second son of Samuel G. P. Orr, shoemaker, and Jane Hicks; m. c. 1863 Priscilla Victoria Miller, and they had two daughters and one son; d. 16 Feb. 1898 in Calgary.
After a comfortable childhood and good education, Wesley Fletcher Orr joined his father’s wholesale business for a short time before leaving home in 1854 to seek his fortune. Settling first in Hamilton, Upper Canada, where he had relatives, Orr tried his hand at many different occupations both in Upper Canada and in the United States, notably as cattle-dealer, salesman, manufacturer, teacher, storekeeper, and lumber agent. In 1875 he was engaged as inspector for Ontario by the North of Scotland Mortgage Company. During the 1870s he also held the position of coroner for Wentworth County and he served as a captain in the militia. Orr was a frequent contributor to newspapers across Ontario, including the Northern Gazette in Barrie and the Hamilton Spectator, on a variety of topics usually related to prospective economic opportunities.
An active Conservative well known in Ontario political circles, Orr was advised by D’Alton McCarthy in 1883 to buy land at Fort Calgary (Calgary) in advance of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Later that year, with an associate, Mary S. Schreiber, Orr purchased a quarter section south of the Bow River and east of the Elbow River for $10,000. Confident that the speculation would net a profit of $100,000, Orr sank virtually all of his financial resources into the venture. The CPR station and town-site, however, were located farther west and the patent for Orr’s claim was delayed for two years, which prevented subdivision and the sale of lots. In 1886 Orr settled in Calgary with his seven-year-old son to attempt to salvage his threatened investment; his wife refused to follow him west.
Orr became involved with the Calgary Herald and in 1888 served as editor. That year he entered civic politics, and he sat on the town council as alderman for 1888–90 and 1892–93. Orr chaired the committee of public works and was influential in the early establishment of electric light, water, and sewage services, the building of the General Hospital, the acquisition of the Bow River islands for park land, and the incorporation of the city of Calgary in 1893. He was elected the city’s first mayor in 1894, was re-elected in 1895, and after a narrow defeat in 1896 was returned by acclamation for a third term in 1897.
During his decade of civic service Orr was instrumental in widening the scope of local government from its traditional role of providing essential services to that of an imaginative promotional agency for urban development. He gave Calgary its first taste of civic leadership and inspired every move in council to enhance Calgary’s position as a commercial centre. Civic funds were deployed to drill for natural gas within city limits in 1892, to support the Calgary Irrigation Company in 1893, and to print a pamphlet in 1895, entitled Calgary, the Denver of Canada, in the city’s bid to obtain a federal sanatorium. Orr’s boosterism also included efforts in favour of a non-sectarian university, a federal experimental farm, and a British remount for cavalry horses: none of these efforts, however, bore fruit during his lifetime.
Orr had entered civic politics in 1888 to protect his business interests in east Calgary. At that time residential and commercial growth was to the west. Orr initiated a municipal program of bonuses to attract industries to east Calgary. In 1890 he participated in the negotiations with the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company that resulted in its junction with the CPR being located there. During the 1890s Orr’s efforts to improve his personal fortunes and those of east Calgary focused on the encouragement of railway development. He was involved in the unsuccessful Alberta Southern Railway Company (1894), the Rocky Mountain Railway and Coal Company (1891), an attempt to salvage the Great North-West Central Railway Company, and a proposed line from Calgary to Hudson Bay. He also operated a stone quarry, sold real estate, traded in buffalo bones, and acted as financial agent. None the less, his dream of wealth, like most of his promotional schemes, never materialized, and he died in modest circumstances on 16 Feb. 1898.
Yet Orr’s vision of a prosperous Calgary had never wavered and he had worked tirelessly in the civic interest. Alone among Calgary’s municipal officials during the late 19th century, Orr had been prepared to use the powers of local government imaginatively and aggressively to encourage growth. His death occurred just a few short years before many of his expectations were realized.
ANQ-M, CE6-34, 6 août 1828. City of Calgary Arch., RG 1 (City Council), minutes, 1884–97; RG 26 (City clerk), 1891–97. Glenbow Arch. (Calgary), M927, M928, M1883. Calgary, the Denver of Canada (Calgary, 1895). Calgary Herald, 25 Jan. 1894, 17 Feb. 1898. Calgary Tribune, 1890. M. L. Foran, “The civic corporation and urban growth: Calgary, 1884–1912” (phd thesis, Univ. of Calgary, 1981); “Land speculation and urban development: Calgary, 1884–1912,” Frontier Calgary: town, city and region, 1875–1914, ed. A. W. Rasporich and H. C. Klassen (Calgary, 1975), 203–20; “The making of a booster: Wesley Fletcher Orr and nineteenth century Calgary,” Town and city: aspects of western Canadian urban development, ed. A. F. J. Artibise (Regina, 1981), 289–307. D. E. Watson, “Wesley Orr, mayor, 1894–1895 & 1897,” Past and present: people, places and events in Calgary (Calgary, 1975), 106–8. Calgary Herald, 12 Aug. 1908, 18 Sept. 1953, 27 May 1961. William Pearce, “Reservation of land at Calgary,” Alta. Hist. Rev., 27 (1979), no.2: 22–28.