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Paul’s trip to the Western side of the Treasure State – Part 1 (Alberta radio personality and history enthusiast shares one-of-a-kind experience)


18 minute read

Needing to escape before I potentially had a new job, I decided in the 11th hour that I was going to take my camera, my new (to me) Jetta and both my US/CAN passports, to access the Treasure State.

My goal was to witness some of the Milwaukee Road structures still in place built during the 1909 Pacific Extension, and photograph their existence.  I have long wanted to witness some of the treasures that you can find in Montana of the former CMStP&P main line.

Knowing that I only had 4 days, I decided to focus on a region, rather than try to see the line in a linear fashion of Harlowton-Saint Paul Pass. Instead, I decided to focus on Missoula-West to the Idaho line, and then use some of my allotted vacation time to stay in the Flathead for some GN heritage, now under the flag of the BNSF.

After choosing my starting point to be Missoula, I planned my routing to enter the state North of Cut Bank, and travel along the Front Range to Augusta, then cross the mountains on Highway 200 and end up in Missoula.

As I was heading along the corridor served by Highway 89, I wanted to try and locate any existing GN and MILW heritage along this route.

Day 1:  Monday- Alberta/Montana Border-Missoula

I left Edmonton on a Sunday, and overnighted in Lethbridge, opting to cross into MT at the Del Bonita border crossing.  The crossing was uneventful, and I stopped for my first photo at the end of the Valier branch, the former Montana Western Railway shortline built from Conrad to its terminus at Valier.

I shot the end of track and the elevators, and also noted that the town of Valier had a “Ponoka Avenue”, a nod to Indian heritage. Ponoka is the Blackfoot word for elk.

I went west to US89, where I followed it south-easterly along the eastern front of the Rockies, more or less obliterated by forest fire smoke.

A few miles from the hamlet of Pendroy, I encountered the former grade.  To my knowledge this was GN’s line, as more or less a few miles to the East was Agawam, served by the Milwaukee Road.  This was the furthest NW Milwaukee Road Northern Montana Division went, deep into GN served territory, the line ending at Agawam.

I was able snap a few shots of the grade and followed it through Bynum, Koyl and into Choteau.


At Choteau I was keen to find any remnants of the GN and the MILW’s history.  The trains still come into Choteau by way of Power and Eastham Jct, now served by the BNSF.

The Great Northern Railway has family history for my mom’s side; my great uncle Justus Jern was the agent in Choteau at one time. I was hoping to see if the depot was still standing, but sadly it was razed some time ago.  Downtown there is two visible lines, and the former MILW/GN joint main seems to be repositioned as an elevator loading track.

I got some photos of Choteau’s pretty downtown with the courthouse at the southern end of Mainstreet acting as the hub of the HWY 89/287 Traffic circle.

I needed to make my way to Missoula, so following Highway 287 led me toward Augusta.


Augusta, like Choteau is in scenic “prairie-meets-mountains” setting, and was at the Western end of a GN branch from Simms, parts of which were also used by the MILW in history.  I recall there was a depot the last time I was through the region in 2002, but I didn’t see it if it was there. My research shows that the GN came into the nearby hamlet of Gilman, just a mile or so before Augusta’s townsite.

After Augusta I drove along the ever-undulating terrain, the hills and mountain vistas getting grander the closer I got to Highway 200 junction.

Through Rogers Pass:

Highway 200 is a lonely road.  It’s also the longest state highway in the nation, running from the ND state line at Fairview 706 miles west to the Idaho border at Lake Pend Oreille.  In places it runs across the least populated regions of Montana, and the segment from near Augusta to Missoula is a beautiful drive.

The mountains really begin to rise as you climb up to Rogers Pass.  Yes, another Rogers Pass; named after the same A.B. Rogers, who’s name also graces the better-known pass in the Canadian Rockies.  This pass has never had rail traffic, yet is the only pass South of Marias Pass that you can cross the divide, so it is an important corridor.

Rogers Pass to Missoula:

On the Western side of the divide the terrain changes into lush forests, and remote towns like Lincoln (the one-time home of the Unabomber), Ovando and Greenough.  You travel along the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, and traffic is light on this scenic drive.

After Greenough, I was able to see some remains of the one-time line from Bonner (E. of Missoula) into the region.

Built as the Missoula & Bitter Root Valley Railroad, the line followed the Blackfoot River into the interior, and the grade was clearly visible in many spots.  Especially just before arriving at Milltown, where the MRL was using a short portion to service the industry there.  Bonner is a company town, and a found a great row of 1920’s Craftsman Houses.  Many have been kept up.

Missoula was my first of two nights on the road, so I checked into my hotel and rested up for my second day- chasing the ghosts of the Milwaukee Road’s Electrified Pacific Extension to Puget Sound.

Day 2: Tuesday- Missoula-Saint Paul Pass/Lookout Pass

I had been in contact with Jon Severson, who has explored a lot of the MILW main line and even managed to access the remote, and very difficult to enter (due to private property) of Sixteen Mile Canyon, between Harlowton and Lombard.  Since my car wasn’t a four-wheel drive, I had made the choice to explore the easier to follow grades that roughly parallel I-90. His advice was to explore the former MILW grade, most of it easily accessible from the frontage roads and former sections of Highway 10.

Lozeau and The Yellowstone Trail:

After a coffee, I hit I-90 West, and did a straight shot (easy to when the limit is 80 MPH) until Lozeau, just a little west of Alberton.

After exiting, I took a shot of the MRL (former NP) grade crossing at Lozeau and then crossed the unique single lane, wooden deck platformed truss bridge over the Clark Fork River and immediately met up with the former MILW grade and Old Highway 10.

Following old Highway 10, the “Yellowstone Trail” with roots to the Mullan Road (the original Wagon Road) is a scenic drive in itself.  For the most part the road follows the MILW grade, and also parallel to the MRL’s former NP Mainline.  I was on the “Mainstreet of the Northwest”!

It wasn’t long before I was rewarded one of MILW’s concrete bridges.  Keystone Road’s underpass has since lost the center span.

I took shots of scenic Superior, MT, and then hopped back onto I-90 and highballed straight to Saltese.

Saltese, Lookout Pass, Saint Paul Pass:

Saltese has the scenic high bridge of the MILW grade.  At this point climbing up towards the summit and tunnel through Saint Paul Pass.

The bridge at Saltese is now open for trail traffic, and is unofficially part of the “Route of The Hiawatha Trail”.  A few miles upgrade the official trail head begins for the 15-mile ride through the 1.7-mile-long tunnel at East Portal through to Pearson, Idaho.

It’s worthy to note that the MILW wasn’t the only railroad in this narrow valley region.  The NP had a branch line running from Sant Regis over Lookout Pass and into Wallace, Idaho.  Much of the old NP route is somewhat accessible, and I can say I drove on a portion of it into Idaho at Lookout Pass.

Also, part of the scene is the old Highway 10 grade, and the newer I-90.  I drove a few miles of the former Highway 10 on the Montana side of Lookout Pass.  I ran into huckleberry pickers along the road.  Most were expressing their distaste for the lack of huckleberries, the weather was hotter than normal, and the crop wasn’t excellent.

Saint Regis & Cyr:

I began to work my way home towards Missoula.  I stopped at Saint Regis to photograph the bridges over the Clark Fork River.  The Former MILW used to cross over the NP, just above the NP’s depot.  The NP depot is gone, but the lanes of I-90 cross overhead.

Near Cyr Montana I captured the old Highway 10’s Spring Gulch bridge, right next to the old highway grade is the MILW grade.  The bridge is now gone.

As I was driving into Alberton, my scanner went off, and on the opposite side of the valley was a BNSF coal train on the MRL.  I retreated the 9 miles back to Cyr and found a crossing where I could get a pic of the power.  A Santa Fe Warbonnet, with a FXE unit trailing.  It was worth the chase. Otherwise, the MRL was pretty quiet on this day.


Alberton was the division point for the MILW.  The previous one was Deer Lodge, and the next one would be Avery, Idaho.

Alberton was by every sense a true Milwaukee Road Town.  The depot has been saved and acts as a library and other functions.  The yard is gone, but you can see where it was, and a preserved Milwaukee Road built ribbed Bay window Caboose (these were built with passenger car trucks) and a former wooden baggage car are saved and on display nearby.

From Alberton I drove the old Highway 10 and at the former site of Soudan the incredible concrete structures carried the MILW over the road.  The section over the highway has been removed, but the other segments still stand, resplendent as ruins by the Romans.

Just before Huson, the old Highway 10 peters out and you are back on I-90 through Frenchtown.  Here, I jumped off the Interstate and found myself on the old Mullan Road (here numbered as Highway 263) and closely paralleled the MILW into Missoula.

Just 9 miles from Missoula is the former station of Primrose.

Primrose Substation:

Primrose has one of the surviving electric substations that powered the Milwaukee Road’s 438 miles of electric lines between Harlowton, MT to Avery, ID.

There were 14 substations along the right of way to keep the 3000 DC current flowing into the catenary that powered Box cab Electrics, Bi-Polars and Little Joe locomotives that pulled freight and passengers alike- notably the Olympian Hiawatha’s service from Chicago to Puget Sound. There are a few substations still standing in Montana, and others still in Washington between Othello and the Coast.

It was great to see a substation, and I knew I had to see two more structures before the end of the day, so into Missoula I went.

Milwaukee Road in Missoula:

Missoula is home to the University of Montana, headquarters of Montana Rail Link, a city bathed in history and also one of the most scenic small cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Missoula’s railroad heritage goes to the Northern Pacific, establishing a yard and division point and firmly in place by the time The Milwaukee Road entered the scene.  The Milwaukee Road’s route from the East ran through Hellgate Canyon, past the University, and their depot was constructed just off Higgins Avenue, along the Clark Fork River.  The Milwaukee Road’s larger depots were nothing like you would see in the West.  The depot in Missoula was constructed in 1910, and was used by the railroad as a passenger terminal through 1960, after the cancellation of the Olympian Hiawatha and all other passenger trains on this extension.  The railroad retained the building to house freight operations until the railroad went bankrupt in 1980.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to use the depot as a restaurant it was restored to house the Boone & Crockett Club as their headquarters, after being in the East for 105 previous years.

My final salute to the Milwaukee Road was to walk a short portion of the “Milwaukee Road Trail”, a paved trail that passes the depot and runs along the scenic Clark Fork River.  I followed the trail to the U of M campus where two block signals still stand today, adjacent to the U of M’s Washington/Grizzlies Stadium.

I tried to imagine Little Joes and later EMD power running past the stadium during Griz’ games.

The trail is popular with Missoulians and I was happy to see that the rail – trail celebrated the era of being a transcontinental railroad.

It was my last night in Missoula, so I found a nice dinner at the Thomas Meager Pub in downtown Missoula and prepared for my trip up to the Flathead.  More in Part 2!

PGO History Buff, Railroad Connoisseur.

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My European Favourites – Segovia, Spain

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Spain is one of our favourite countries to visit in Europe. The warm sunshine, the history, the architecture, the gastronomy, and above all, the passionate and friendly people make it a desirable location. We have been to Spain with sightseeing groups, school groups and soccer groups. Madrid, the Spanish capital is always included in our itineraries. In addition to exploring the city, there are numerous worthwhile day trips to surrounding towns. Segovia is one of those towns.

Segovia is located about an hour northwest from Madrid and the day trip is sometimes combined with a stop in the nearby medieval walled city of Ávila. Segovia is just inside the large northwestern Castile and León region of Spain. The region consists of an expansive high plateau surrounded by a ring of mountains.

Segovia’s old town is perched high on a rocky hill surrounded by the Eresma and Clamores rivers. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, the old town features an impressive cathedral, numerous Roman churches, a Jewish quarter, and the striking Alcazar or castle. The town is full of Roman and medieval structures including the massive Roman aqueduct.

A Brief History Of Segovia

There was already a settlement by the Aravaci, a Celtic people, for over 600 years in Segovia prior to the Romans arriving in 96 BC. The Romans installed a military installation here to control access to the Douro River region in the north, and they built the aqueduct to bring in fresh water from the surrounding mountains. After the Romans left, Segovia was inhabited by people from northern Europe until the Spanish invasion by the Moors in the early 8th century.


Panoramic view of Segovia with the Cathedral at the centre.

After the reconquest by Christian Kin Alphonso VI in 1079, Segovia was resettled by Christians. Numerous parishes and monasteries were established in area. Due to its location on main trading routes, Segovia reached its golden age during the middle ages due to the foundation of a cloth industry. The town experienced a rise in the Jewish population and became an important centre for wool and textiles.

In the 13th century, Alfonso X, King of Castile, León and Galicia, made Segovia his residence.

Later in the 15th century Henry IV, King of Castile, also made Segovia his residence, built important buildings, renovated the Alcazar, and made Segovia the site of the Royal Mint.

Segovia is also known as the place where Isabella the Catholic pronounced herself Queen of Castile in the church of San Miguel in 1474. Afterwards, she married king Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, to create a unified Spain. They are probably best known for financing the voyages of Christopher Columbus.

In the mid 16th century there was a revolt by the citizens of Castile against King Charles I and his administration. The “War of the Communities of Castile” lasted 18 months from April 1520 to October 1521. One of the rebel leaders, Juan Bravo, was from Segovia and has a statue in the main square. He was captured in the Battle of Villalar along with two other prominent rebel leaders. They were beheaded the following day. Despite the rebellion Segovia remained prosperous and the population grew to approximately 27,000.

Segovia’s decline started with an outbreak of the plague in the late 16th century and then mostly by the subsequent 17th century collapse of the textile industry. By 1694, the population dropped to just 8,000. Later attempts to revive the textile industry by King Charles III failed. In 1764 a military academy, the Royal School of Artillery, was established and is still in operation. In 1808, during the Napoleonic wars, Segovia was sacked by French troops.

19th century Spain had three Carlist Wars related to claims to the throne of Spain. During the first Carlist War, Segovia was unsuccessfully attacked. Since then, it has escaped military destruction, including during the Spanish Civil war from 1936 to 1939 that pitted the Republicans against the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. In fact, since 1920 the population of Segovia has grown from 16,000 to over 50,000 in the early 80s. The population has stabilized in the last 40 years and the economy along with it.

The Roman Aqueduct, the Candido restaurant, and the aqueduct from the Plaza del Azoguejo.

The Roman Aqueduct

Our walking tour begins at the Plaza del Azoguejo and you can find a google map of our walk at to follow along. Once a market place, the plaza is located at the foot of the colossal Aqueduct of Segovia. The 28.5 meters tall aqueduct bridge, known locally as El Puente (the bridge), is one of the best preserved in the world. Built by the Romans at the end of the 1st century from stacked granite, the aqueduct transported water over 15 kilometers over rolling hills from the Sierra mountains to the town. The pillars and arches are solid rock with very little mortar in between. The aqueduct continued to supply water for many centuries after being built by the Romans and is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Spain.

The Artillery Academy of Segovia, which recently celebrated a 250 year anniversary in Segovia, is located a few blocks from the plaza in a former 15th century Franciscan convent with an interesting Gothic cloister.

Located in a half-timbered house on the south side of the Plaza del Azoguejo, you will find the famous Cándido restaurant. Since 1905, three generations of the Cándido family have been serving their famous suckling pig, stews and wines. The official Tourist Office of Segovia is located across the square from the Cándido. From the plaza, we will walk up the Calle Cervantes. Calle means street, and this one is named after the most famous Spanish literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes is best known for being the author of the literary classic, Don Quixote.

The Miradouro de la Canaleja, the panoramic view, and an interesting building at the viewpoint.

The Medina de la Campo and the Jewish Quarter

About 200 meters from the Plaza del Azoguejo, we arrive at an observation terrace named the Mirador de la Canaleja. Here we can admire a fantastic panoramic view of the lower town’s pastel colored buildings with red roof tops.

There is an interesting light blue building on the north side of the Mirador with three stacked sunrooms. We walk along the side of this building on the Calle Juan Bravo, the street named after Segovia’s rebel leader. A few steps away on the right is the eye-catching Casa de los Picos. The 15th century historic Gothic-Renaissance building is decorated with numerous pyramids or diamond tips made from granite and now houses the School of Art and Superior Design.

The Palacio de Cascales façade, the narrow Calle de Juan Bravo, and the Casa de los Picos.

A bit further on the Calle Juan Bravo we will come upon a little plaza on the left that leads to the Palacio de Cascales. The palace is known by a few names from its past including the Aspiroz or the del Conde Alpuente. Nowadays, it is used for the offices of the Ministry of Development of the Junta de Castilla y León. The palace was built in the 15th century by a prominent knight from Segovia named, Alonso Cascales. Its façade features Gothic windows, a unique pattern on the walls, and a Moorish or Mudejar arch kept from the original Arab building that was once there.

The Church of San Martin, statue of Juan Bravo in front of the Tower of Lozoya, and one of our school soccer academy groups.

A short distance away along the Calle Juan Bravo is the square of Medina del Campo. The square contains three notable buildings, the house of Juan Bravo, the Tower of Lozoya and the Church of San Martin. The 14th century rectangular shaped Tower of Lozoya, was once used as an armoury. The tower is now used to exhibit contemporary art. The 12th century catholic Church of San Martin, at the centre of the square, is an interesting mix of Arabic and Romanesque elements.

Moving forward on the Calle Juan Bravo, we will reach the small square Plaza Corpus. The square is named after the Corpus Christi Church which is located on the left side of the square. The church was once the largest Jewish Synagogue in Segovia starting in the 13th century. You can visit the interesting church that was converted from a synagogue in 1410 as it is open to the public.

At the Plaza Corpus you will reach a fork in the rod. The Calle la Juderia Vieja (Old Jewish Quarter Street) is on the left, and as the name implies, it leads to the Jewish Quarter. We will take the Calle Isabella la Catolica (Isabella the Catholic) on the right to the Plaza Mayor (Main Square).

Entrance to the Corpus Christi Church. The town hall and cathedral on the Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is the central hub of the town of Segovia. The large rectangular cobblestone square has a performance gazebo at its centre surrounded by trees. The square was once a market place in medieval times, and Segovia’s citizens still meet here to celebrate festivals and to enjoy the numerous bars and restaurants spilling onto the square from the arcades. The square still hosts a market every Thursday. The La Concepción on the north side of the square is a bit pricy, but its terrace is a great place from which to people watch. Next to the restaurant is the 17th century Segovia town hall.

On the east side of the Plaza Mayor is the Juan Bravo Theatre. Built in 1917 and refurbished in the 1980s, it is the principal theatre of Segovia. A few steps away on the south east of the square behind the luxury priced Villena restaurant is the 16th century gothic San Miguel Church.

The church is famous for being the place where, in 1474, Isabella the Catholic was crowned Queen of Castile. Exploring the maze of alleys and squares behind the San Miguel Church, you will find various interesting and moderately priced bars and restaurants. The El Sitio and the El Figon de los Comuneros are two great choices for lunch.


The Segovia Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor and a panoramic view of the cathedral and its tall tower.

Located on the west side of the square, the main building on the Plaza Mayor is the Cathedral of the Assumption. As the highest point of Segovia, the cathedral, built in late gothic style between 1525-1577, can be seen for miles around. Construction began after the original cathedral, located near the Alczar, burned in 1520. The cathedral can be toured and the view from the cathedral tower is memorable.

The Tower of John II at the entrance to the Alcazar, the Weapons Patio and the Clock Yard.

Segovia Alcazar

From the cathedral, we will walk about 600 meters on the Calle Marques del Arco which becomes the Calle Daoiz to the Plaza la Reina Victoria Eugenia (Square of Queen Victoria Eugenia). The Queen’s square is a nice garden located at the forefront of the entrance to the Alcazar. In addition to the imposing castle façade, there are great views of the Spanish countryside from the garden. On the left, there is a building called the Casa de la Química. There is a cafeteria there with a nice terrace with an amazing view of the town. There are better places for a meal, but it’s a good place to enjoy a drink under the shade of a patio umbrella on a hot day.

Like most fortresses, the Alcazar is built on an elevated area that offers a natural defensive advantage. The Alcazar’s site, on a large rock promontory at the spur of the Eresma and Clamores rivers, was a fort during the Roman occupation in the 1st century. Since Roman times, the castle has been rebuilt and expanded many times over hundreds of years by different people including the Romans, the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty in the 8th century and eventually the Spanish in the 12th century. Over time, the Alcazar has been used as a fortress, a royal palace, a prison, and a military school. The picturesque Alcazar is now a museum, a major tourist attraction, and one of the most recognizable castles in Europe. The original building from the 13th century was painstakingly restored after a devastating fire in 1862.

Statue of Ferdinand VI, the Armoury, the Throne Room, the Chapel and a panoramic view.

Approaching the Alcazar from the Queen’s square, we are faced with the imposing Tower of John II and the draw bridge. Once inside there are two staircases with 156 steps leading to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a great view of Segovia. Entering further, we arrive at the first major open area of the fortress, the Parade or Weapons Patio with a colonnade and upper walk way. This is the largest open space in the Alcazar, and along with the next outdoor area, the Clock Yard, has a great deal of Moorish influence.

At the back of the fortress, there is the Armoury with medieval flags, lances, swords, knights armour and even armour for horses. The “V” shaped well terrace at the very back looks like the bow of a boat gives the castle the appearance of being a large rock ship. The Alcazar’s garden, with shrubs in geometric shapes, is also located at the back of the castle.

The Alabaster Hall, stained glass with the Spanish coat of arms and the Armoury.

Other interesting rooms include the Chapel, Throne Room, Royal Bedrooms, a Pineapple Room, the Alabaster Hall and the Kings Hall with 52 sculptures of kings that ruled the area for hundreds of years. The Museum of the Royal Artillery School in the Alcazar contains documents, scale models, weapons and uniforms from the 18th and 19th centuries. At the base of the castle and along exterior of the city walls there is a network of connected gardens and wooded areas.

The Monastery of Santa Maria del Parral and the Church of Vera Cruz.

View from the Alcazar

From the Alcazar’s Tower of John II, you will have a great view of the surrounding area’s rolling hills, churches and monasteries. You can’t miss the impressive 15th century Monastery of Santa Maria del Parral that was founded by Henry IV of Spain. The monastery’s church was built in gothic style, while the later built bell tower has a Romanesque top. The monastery, currently owned by the Order of St. Jerome, has four interesting cloisters in built in various architectural styles.

Looking to the left from the monastery, we see the tower of the Romaesque Church of San Marcos at the bottom of a winding road. As we look up along the road, we will see the larger Convent of San Juan de la Cruz on the left and the unique Church of Vera Cruz on the right. The Church of the Vera Cruz was founded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 1208. The Romanesque style church was built in the shape of a twelve-sided polygon with three semi-circular chapels. The design of the church was inspired by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that the order was named after.

El Sitio restaurant, sucking pig, patatas bravas, tapas and sangria.


Segovia is a great place to enjoy traditional Spanish cuisine and in restaurants with matching architecture and atmosphere. The local specialities include roasted suckling pig (cochinillo), suckling lamb (lechazo), Cantimpalos chorizos, wild mushrooms and a traditional layer cake named Ponche Segoviano.

One of the best places to enjoy a meal in Segovia is near the aqueduct. We have already mentioned the famous Candido restaurant and dinner upstairs with a view of the illuminated aqueduct as a backdrop is a memorable experience.

On the Calle De Cevantes, not far from the aqueduct, there are two more great restaurants serving traditional dishes. The Conde Duque, one of the oldest restaurants in Segovia, has a unique interior while the Asador El Bernardino has a terrace with a great view.

On the Plaza Mayor, we wrote about enjoying a drink and people watching at La Concepción. Near the square we have three recommendations. El Figon de los Comuneros is a great place for sampling local tapas. At El Sitio you can have a nice traditional meal or try their pinchos in the bar area. The Restaurante Jose Maria has excellent wines, a tasting menu and a nice selection of tapas at the bar.

After dinner at any of these restaurants, you may want to take a walk of the historic centre with all the town’s monuments lit up.

Let’s Go To Segovia

Segovia is a great place to visit at any time of year, and you can easily spend a couple of days exploring the town’s historic buildings, walls, churches, monuments, narrow streets, shops, museums, bars, cafes and restaurants. The town is also known for two special religious events, the Holy Easter Week (Semana Santa) and the Three Kings parade (los Reyes Magos) held on January 5th.

Segovia is well worth the journey from the hustle and bustle of Madrid and is one of my favourite destinations in Spain. If you get a chance to visit the town, I think you will agree.



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Painful History: The worst tragedy in the history of the Northern Alberta Railways

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This article is submitted by members of the Alberta Railway Museum

On November 10, 1959, 13.6 miles North of Dunvegan Yards, the worst tragedy in the history of the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) occurred. As a result, four people died and half a dozen men were released from their positions following a public inquest.

The hamlet of Carbondale, North of Edmonton’s Dunvegan Yards, was at one time home to a small railway station on the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) line. NAR was a CN-CP Rail joint venture that operated throughout Northern Alberta from 1929 to 1981. Carbondale is where the mainline split, allowing passengers and freight either West to Grande Prairie and Dawson Creek, or East to Fort McMurray.

The station was not only a stop en-route to several destinations along the line but, from 1956-1959 it was also the home of Station Agent Arthur “Art” Fraser, his wife Alice, and their youngest of three children, son Kelly (18 years) who were previous station agents in Smith, Alberta.

Courtesy of Shannyn Rus, 2020

On November 10, 1959, the weather was cool and a bit windy as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Carbondale Station was closed until 9am on weekdays and the Frasers were nowhere to be seen. NAR passenger train No.2 was southbound behind CN steam locomotive 5115, having left Grande Prairie the night before, destined for Edmonton. No.2 passed through Morinville at about 7:51 a.m., and was due at Carbondale at 8:00 a.m., on schedule, but was not scheduled to stop.

While the passenger train was headed south, NAR Train No.31, lead by NAR diesel locomotives 202 & 208 with 119 freight cars, left Edmonton behind schedule. In a rush to depart from the city at 7:20 a.m., crew members had improperly placed a tank car filled with gasoline directly behind the two engines, a violation of railway marshalling operating rules.

Upon reaching Carbondale at 7:51 a.m., No.31 moved to switch onto a sidetrack to allow the southbound passenger train to pass, but several cars detached from No.31 and were on the main track as the passenger train quickly approached. In a desperate attempt to notify the oncoming passenger train, the brakeman from the freight train ran ahead to deploy an explosive warning device called a torpedo on the track and wave a red flag signalling the steam train to stop. He did not get far, and the engineer of the passenger train did not see or hear the warning signals.

A precisely 8:00 am, the trains collided head on at a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) resulting in a sound described by a witness as “atomic”. The impact ruptured the tank car, causing the rapid spread of gasoline over the station, a garage, and three vehicles. The gas immediately ignited. The bodies of the Fraser family were found outside of their home by a high-wire fence; it remains speculation as to whether they were attempting to flee the inferno or were blown from their home at the time of the explosion. The body of steam engine Fireman Albert Villeneuve was found in the buckled cab of the steam locomotive. An additional 19 people were injured in the accident.

Living just 18 metres (59 feet) from the station was retired coal miner William Dickinson. He told the Edmonton Journal in 1959 that the blast was “like an earthquake” and shook him awake. Seeing smoke and fire everywhere, he ran to the phone to report the collision, but the phone line was dead – the crash had taken out the phone and power lines, stopping his electric clock at precisely 8:00 am.

The fire obliterated the station, a garage, and three vehicles. Historic accounts show the station was destroyed except for its fireproof safe and brick chimney. An official investigation followed the collision. Conflicting testimony was given by the flagman from the freight train and the engineer from the passenger train. The flagman was required to go two kilometres (2,000 yards) beyond the stopped freight train to flag and alert the crew of the passenger train.

The flagman testified he went forward approximately 220 metres (240 yards); however, no footprints were found in the fresh snow beyond 23 metres (75 feet). The engineer of the passenger train stated that he did not see the red flag or hear the track torpedoes. The engineer also testified that he failed to see the freight train on the main track until he was about seven metres (23 feet) away, at which time he placed the brakes into emergency.

Following the investigation, the entire crew of No.31, the freight train, was dismissed by the NAR for violating the operating rules by having the train on the main track and not flagging down the passenger train. The engineer of the passenger train, No. 2, was also dismissed for not obeying the rule that the train be prepared to stop at the junction. The conductor of train No. 2 was severely reprimanded for not checking the signals at the junction and “for failure to exercise proper supervision over his train”.

Courtesy of Shannyn Rus, UPI Telephoto ARP-111101-November 10/59

62 years have passed since this tragic historic day and what remains buried of the Carbondale station has begun to reveal itself brick by brick. Carbondale resident Shannyn Rus and her family began finding these “ACP” stamped bricks in 2019. The chimney bricks were made by Alberta Clay Products (ACP) which existed from 1909 to 1962 in southern Alberta, near Redcliff.

The Rus family collected 20 full size, intact red bricks from the crash site and have donated them to rest at the Alberta Railway Museum as part of a collection of rail history not to be forgotten or buried again. You can find a short documentary on the Carbondale Station here.

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