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Alberta

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

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13 minute read

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

Province wants everyone in Alberta to get a third shot

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Expanding COVID-19 booster to all Albertans 18-plus

Expanded availability of third doses of COVID-19 vaccine will help Albertans increase their protection against COVID-19.

Starting Dec. 2, all Albertans aged 60 and older can book appointments for a booster dose of mRNA vaccine six months after receiving their second dose. First appointments will be available beginning Dec. 6.

All other Albertans aged 18-plus will be notified when the next age group is able to book appointments. Additional age groups will be announced as quickly as possible.

“I am pleased that we can offer booster doses to more Albertans. Millions of Albertans have rolled up their sleeves to have their best protection against COVID-19. While two doses continues to provide strong protection against severe outcomes, we will continue to push the federal government for supply to ensure all Albertans can receive their third doses to continue limiting COVID-19 infection and transmission.”

Jason Copping, Minister of Health

“With the winter season increasing transmission risks, and more Albertans approaching the six-month milestone since receiving their second dose, the evidence supports expanding booster doses to add an additional layer of protection. Vaccines continue to be our best protection against COVID-19, and I continue to encourage Albertans to book their first, second and third doses as soon as they are eligible.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health

Current evidence indicates that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 infection appears to wane over time. While individual protection against severe outcomes remains strong after two doses for most people, there are still many in our communities who are completely unprotected, and third doses will help boost population protection and limit the spread of COVID-19.

Expansion of booster dose eligibility was informed by the advice of the Alberta Advisory Committee on Immunization.

Booking for booster doses

Effective Dec. 2, eligible individuals can book appointments for third doses online with participating pharmacies by using the Alberta vaccine booking system. Albertans can also call 811, participating pharmacies or participating physicians’ offices. The first appointments will be available starting Dec. 6.

Booster eligibility is based on birth date. Albertans who are 59 turning 60, and First Nation, Métis or Inuit individuals who are 17 turning 18, are asked to not book appointments before their birthday.

Albertans who were previously eligible for third doses continue to be able to book their appointments.

Albertans eligible for additional doses

Albertans eligible for additional doses now include:

Eligible at least six months after receiving their second dose:

  • Albertans aged 60-plus
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit people aged 18-plus
  • Health-care workers providing direct patient care and who received their second dose less than eight weeks after their first dose
  • Individuals who received two doses of AstraZeneca or one dose of Janssen vaccine

Eligible at least five months after receiving their second dose:

  • Seniors living in congregate care

Eligible at least eight weeks after receiving their second dose:

  • Individuals with eligible immunocompromising conditions

Quick facts

  • To date, 378,507 Albertans have received a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • 84.1 per cent of eligible Albertans 12 years of age and older have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine while 88.8 per cent have received at least one dose.
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Alberta

Cargill, union reach tentative deal that could avert strike at High River meat plant

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CALGARY — The union representing workers at the meat-packing plant that was the site of one of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks says it’s reached a tentative deal with Cargill Inc., just days before a looming strike deadline.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, which represents about 2,000 workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., said Wednesday it is recommending its members accept the latest contract offer from the company.

In a statement on its website, the union said the new contract offer, if ratified on Saturday, would be the best food processing contract in Canada.

“It is a dramatic improvement from the offer that union members saw last week and will significantly improve Cargill workers’ lives,” the statement said.

In an email, Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said the company is offering a six-year collective agreement that includes retroactive pay, signing bonuses, a 21 per cent wage increase over the life of the contract and improved health benefits.

“We remain optimistic we can [ratify the] deal before the strike deadline and encourage employees to vote on this offer,” Sullivan said.

Cargill and the union have been at loggerheads for some time over issues related to wages as well as health and safety. Workers voted 98 per cent last week against Cargill’s previous offer, and the union had said workers would strike on Monday if a contract agreement couldn’t be reached.

In addition to a significant wage increase, the proposed deal being recommended now also offers workers a $1,000 signing bonus and a $1,000 “COVID-19 bonus,” the union said Wednesday. It also contains “significant contract provisions to facilitate a new culture of health, safety, dignity, and respect in the workplace.”

In May of 2020, Cargill’s High River plant was the site of a major workplace-related outbreak of COVID-19. More than 900 workers tested positive for the virus, and three deaths were linked to the outbreak.

The Cargill High River plant processes 35 per cent of Canada’s beef production.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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