Just over century old, the Horseshoe Dam (also called the Horseshoe Falls Dam) is located along the Bow River in the foothills west of Calgary. This massive concrete structure was the very first sizable hydroelectric facility in Alberta and to this day continues to supply power for the province’s needs. Seldom seen by the general public, the only way to view it, unless of course you work there, is to hike in a fair distance along the river’s north bank.
The Bow River flows east from the mountains on its way through Calgary and points beyond. To the west of the city are four dams on this watercourse, all of which are used generate electricity. The Horseshoe Dam is the second in that chain and the oldest, having been built in 1911. Just west of it is the Seebe Dam, and downstream, the Ghost and Bearspaw Dams.
The original owner of the complex was Calgary Power, who used the plant to supply the city’s growing needs along with those of some surrounding communities. Today Trans Alta Utilities runs the place and power simply goes into the grid to be sent wherever it’s needed.
The dam was built at the location of Horseshoe Falls, now under concrete and water. This author has seen photos showing the river and surrounding Horseshoe Canyon before then and it was a foaming bubbling and boiling violent stretch of water.
This dam does not require a reservoir in the traditional sense, although a small narrow lake-ish like body of water forms behind the structure. Instead, it just relies on the river’s natural flow to make power. I guess at times, usually in the winter I am told, the flow drops enough that sometimes electricity output is affected.
The Horseshoe Dam and the nearby Seebe operation are treated sort of as one big unit and for the most part are controlled remotely from far away. However, there are of course maintenance crews still on site should a problem arise.
Until about a decade ago there used to be a small town nearby, Seebe, on the south side of the river, which used to house the dam workers and their families. Now all those employed here commute in from elsewhere. Seebe was interesting in that it was the site of the last one room school in the province, which only closed in the 1990s. During World War Two, a prisoner of war camp was located not far from here.
Operationally wise, this dam like all others that produce energy, is pretty simple. Water is sent down some big pipes (called penstocks) into the generating plant where they power turbines before being ejected back into the river. Nice and easy. At times of high flow some water will bypass the turbines via control gates, one of which was open on our visit. The dam, interestingly, was partially built atop a very large rock outcropping, which was sort of incorporated into the structure.
At times of low demand both this and the Seebe Dam may not produce electricity. They have the ability to come online quickly however, should the network need more power. Even though it’s huge, by dam standards, it’s, well, rather modest in size. I am sure the structure and machinery are kept in good shape and so presumably they’ll provide power for some time to come.
I’ve often wondered how fish deal with a structure such as this. I know some dams have special fish passages, but I could not find any information is regards to that for this one.
There is no public road access to the dam and to view it requires a bit of hike in. There is a little used trail, starting at the Seebe Dam (which you can also view), off highway 1A, leading to it. We actually hiked past the dam, continuing further east all the way into the Morley First Nation’s Reserve (permission is required to do this – we had it) to take in some movie locations we wanted to explore. There is a picnic table at a nice vantage point above the dam, but it’s old and falling apart.
Once at the dam, it can be viewed from many angles. It’s a long and near straight drop down to the river from the top of the canyon however, so be careful and don’t get too close to the edge. A fall from this lofty position could prove fatal.
The Bow River along here are a stunning blue/green.
A good number of movies were shot just east of the dam over the years (on the off-limits Morley Reserve) including such noteworthy ones as Legends of the Fall, and the 1950s picture, starring everyone’s favourite bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, River of No Return. Most of these sites are not publicly accessible.
To see the nearby Seebe Dam, go here…
Seebe Dam and the spindly bridge.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: August, 2014.
Location: Seebe, AB.
All the places seen in this report are publicly accessible.