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Alberta

The Canadian Northern Railway’s legacy at Big Valley, Alberta.

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By Shawn I. Smith, Canadian Northern Society

“The newly constructed train station circa 1913, Big Valley. Photo- Canadian Northern Society Archives

 

It’s a Saturday afternoon in June in the quiet Village of Big Valley. Visitors admire the splendid heritage railway depot and gardens at the end of main street. Two blocks south is a historic grain elevator – a classic Canadian symbol standing tall above the prairie landscape. To the east across the tracks are large stark concrete walls, visibly reminiscent of Stonehenge. “What are those curious walls?” is often asked. Then the sound of a locomotive whistle breaks the silence, creating a scene out of the 1950’s when a vintage passenger train pulls into town, and the train crew scurries about on the platform unloading its cheerful patrons.

“Visitors explore the Big Valley Roundhouse Ruins” Photo- Canadian Northern Society Archives

While not obvious to the guests who have enjoyed the 21-mile excursion train ride from Stettler aboard the Alberta Prairie Railway, the scene that unfolds on summer days in Big Valley is part of a legacy left by two dynamic railroaders who over a century earlier had an ambitious and grand vision for Western Canada. Today, both active and abandoned rail lines in central Alberta, related historic structures and sites, and indeed the communities that owe their existence to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) share this common heritage.

Since the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, railways have been inextricably linked with the development of western Canada. After Confederation the new Dominion Government quickly recognized that without railways real settlement would not take place in the sparsely populated North West.

Energy, Enterprise, and Ability

“The Canadian Northern Railway lines map, 1916” Map- Atlas of Alberta Railways

The CNoR (Canadian Northern Railway) was a product of two Canadian-born railroaders with CPR roots. William Mackenzie and Donald Mann met during the 1880’s while the senior road was under construction in the Selkirk Mountains. Their “Energy, Enterprise, and Ability” – which would become the railway’s motto would lead to a partnership in contracting, steamship lines, and a 9,500-mile transcontinental railway empire that served seven provinces and included the Duluth Winnipeg and Pacific Railway in the U.S. The two were knighted for their achievements in 1911.
Branch lines were the key to the CNoR strategy.The Vegreville to Calgary branch – chartered in February 1909 by CNoR subsidiary Alberta Midland Railway – was the company’s key north-south spine through Alberta. The portion between Vegreville and Drumheller was opened for service in 1911. While it had the appearance of a typical prairie branch line, its primary purpose was to carry steam and domestic heating coal from mines at Brazeau and Drumheller to growing prairie markets.
The fact that the line traversed a region of great agricultural potential for both grain and cattle farming was an added benefit. In typical fashion, grain elevators were located every five to ten miles – the distance being established around the practical ability for a livestock team to haul a load of grain and return in one day’s time from the growing number of homesteads clustered around each delivery point.
The Battle River Subdivision along with further line completions in 1914 to Calgary and Strathcona respectively provided the CNoR with an effective intercity freight route, albeit longer than those of its competitors.
The Brazeau Branch, extending 176 miles west from the junction at Warden to the Nordegg Collieries was extremely important to the CNoR which depended largely on this supply of steam coal for terminals across the West. The subsequent extension of the Goose Lake line at Munson became an important link from Calgary to Saskatoon. All of these CNoR lines were financed using provincial bond guarantees.

“Bustling Big Valley railroad yard, roundhouse, 1920’s” Photo- Canadian Northern Society Archives

By May of 1912 mixed trains crewed by Big Valley men were running north to Vegreville and south to Drumheller. Another run to Rocky Mountain House was added in June. A Second Class depot was erected that year and a five-stall roundhouse and turntable were complete by April of 1913.
By late 1913 a Railway Post Office Car service had been established on the line, and Big Valley was home to 14 locomotives and an equal amount of engine service and train crews. Assistant Superintendent Thomas Rourke oversaw terminal operations that included a train dispatching office.
By September 1917 fourteen mines were operating in the Drumheller Valley producing 250 carloads of coal every 24 hours. Drumheller was without question the “Powerhouse of the West.” Big Valley’s railroaders were kept busy 24 hours a day operating the trains that pulled the coal out of the valley.

“Train time at Big Valley. A Southbound train at Big Valley, 1920’s.” Photo- Canadian Northern Society Archives

After being selected as the CNoR terminal, Big Valley boomed. By 1919, its population had increased to over 1025, with some 325 souls working for the CNoR. At its peak, the company’s payroll included 26 train and engine crews, a shop staff of 40, and a Bridge and Building crew averaging 45 employees, managed by Frank Dewar. There were 8 sectionmen, and at the station an Agent, operators round the clock, yard clerks, and the train dispatcher. Four to five carman conducted car repairs and inspections.
Coal from Brazeau was piled in a huge stockpile almost a block long on the east side of the yard. A gravel pit operation north of town at Caprona was established to provide aggregate for line ballasting on all of the CNoR area lines. Steam shovels kept this operation steady, mining volumes often equating to 100 carloads per day.
Big Valley’s early railroaders were a colourful lot. Many came and went, and with the Big Valley collieries in production by 1914 shipping coal as far east as Ontario – night life in town could be wild. Assistant Superintendent Rourke, a former baseball player in the Detroit Tigers minor league system, was responsible for putting together the “Big Valley Bugs” – made up almost entirely of railroaders – who in 1918 put together a resounding victory over the high-flying Edmonton Red Sox.

The National

During the First World War, financial problems caught up with Mackenzie and Mann and their rapidly expanding enterprise. Despite profitable western lines such as the Vegreville and Brazeau branches, lack of traffic on the transcontinental lines, burdensome debt, and the negative impacts of the War would result in the company being “nationalized” by the Dominion Government in 1918. The rival Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) Railway would fare even worse, having been placed into receivership in 1919. These events led to the creation of today’s Canadian National (CN).
The new CN was confronted with the task of rationalizing the CNoR and GTP lines throughout western Canada. Consolidation was affected by the elimination of duplicate facilities and improving services by combining portions of the former competing lines. Construction of track connections joining the Brazeau branch with he former GTP Tofield to Calgary line at Alix were opened for service in 1922.
Connections were also made between the Battle River Subdivision and the former GTP mainline at Ryley. Geographically the GTP divisional point at Mirror was seen as central to the operations of the Brazeau branch vs. Big Valley. Coal that had originally moved over the Brazeau line to Warden then northward was now diverted over the new connection at Alix via Mirror which became the new home terminal for crews running west.
The new routing via Alix saved a distance of over 50 miles between Brazeau and Saskatoon. The former GTP south of Camrose also became the CN’s north-south main line through Alberta.

“The end of daily passenger train service between Edmonton – Drumheller. VIA Rail’s Dayliner at Big Valley, 1981” Photo-Charles Bohi

This consolidation led to the significant decline of Big Valley as a railway town. While the company kept a small number of train crews assigned to both freight and passenger service, by 1925 the exodus to Mirror, Edmonton, Drumheller, and Hanna began. It was reported that over 100 railroaders’ homes were moved out of the village, some of which continue to exist in Mirror today. In what was known as the “Battle of Big Valley” – the unions fought the company’s decision hard but were left with little compensation for their relocation expenses after the issue went to arbitration in the late-1920’s with the decision going with the company. By the onset of the depression, Big Valley’s population had dropped by some 500 souls to 445.
It is without question that the old Canadian Northern Railway’s reason for existence in central Alberta has changed dramatically since its arrival in 1910. Coal is no longer used to heat our homes – and in fact its use is considered sinful by some!
Packages ride on trucks, and people drive their own cars and trucks instead of riding mixed trains and Nos. 25 and 26 to get to Calgary or Edmonton.
While huge volumes of grain still move on trains – these are now loaded in modern high capacity elevators capable of loading 100 cars or more in 12 hours or less. The original steel rails that remain in service between Stettler and Big Valley are therefore of historic testament to Mackenzie and Mann and their great accomplishment. In fact, this section of track is the sole operating survivor of many similar “60-pound” branch lines that have now been re-laid or abandoned across the prairies. And almost incredibly one can still experience a passenger train ride over these vintage rails, pulling into Big Valley just as travellers did one hundred years ago.

Canadian Northern Society

Alberta

Alberta premier defends new rules on in-person learning, no mask mandates in schools

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By Dean Bennett and Colette Derworiz

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

“We need a normal school environment for our children, and we need to make sure that the classrooms stay open to be able to support our parents,” Smith said at a news conference in Medicine Hat on Friday.

“That’s why we made the decision that we did — to give that clear direction.”

Her comments came a day after she announced regulatory changes saying school boards must provide in-person learning. Schools also can’t require students to wear masks in school or be forced to take classes online.

The changes take effect immediately.

“Anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they feel that that is the right choice for them, but we should not be forcing parents to mask their kids, and we shouldn’t be denying education to kids who turn up without a mask,” Smith said.

She has said mask rules and toggling from online to in-person learning adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic and strained parents scrambling to make child-care arrangements when schools shut down.

That’s over, Smith said.

“We’re just not going to normalize these kind of extreme measures every single respiratory virus season,” she said.

School boards have been asking for more direction as a slew of seasonal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, along with some COVID-19 cases, have led to high classroom absentee rates and have jammed children’s hospitals.

In Edmonton, Trisha Estabrooks, board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, said the decision provided the clarity that the board was seeking.

“All Albertans now understand that it’s not within the jurisdiction, and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards, to make decisions that belong to health officials,” said Estabrooks.

She said the province has made it clear that any future public health order would supersede the new rules.

The in-person learning change applies to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter and independent schools.

The masking change applies to those same grades and schools, but also to early childhood services.

The Opposition NDP criticized the new rules, saying it’s unrealistic to force schools to be all things to all students while also handling a wave of viral illnesses and not providing additional supports to do it.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the government needs to work with school boards to figure out how to make this work.

“You have schools that are struggling to staff the building, (they) can’t get substitute teachers, teachers are sick, they’re covering each other’s classes, principals are covering the classes,” Schilling said in an interview.

“And then to say if you go online, you are to still offer the same programming in person — we just don’t have the people to do that.”

Wing Li, communications director for public education advocacy organization, Support our Students, said it will be difficult for schools to offer hybrid learning without any additional resources.

“There are no teachers,” Li said in an interview. “Pivoting online was mostly due to staffing shortages, which is worse now three years in.”

Li said online learning is challenging for students but, when temporary and supported, can keep schools and communities safe from spreading illness.

“This is a quite aggressive use of the Education Act to enshrine an ideology,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022

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Alberta

Don’t have a cow: Senator’s legen-dairy speech draws metaphor from bovine caper

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OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.

Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.

“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.

“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”

On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.

Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.

The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.

“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage. 

She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.

But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do. 

“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.

Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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