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Summer Vacation Idea – Central Alberta’s collection of Train stations preserved along the Highway 56 Corridor

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Article submitted by Paul O’Neil

For decades, the railroad station or “depot” was the transportation hub of many communities across North America.  As the “storefront” for the railway company, the depot was the town’s gateway, handling express freight, serving travelers, and providing vital communication in an erathat is now almost forgotten.  In Canada’s West, the remaining small-town depots that continue to exist are now museums, private businesses or residences, or in the worst cases have been left to deteriorate as hulks on private property.

There is however a special historical railway on the Prairies that has developed into a true “historic railway district”.  A visit to the depots preserved by the Canadian Northern Society in Central Alberta provides a glimpse into the past – an entire collection of classic railroad station designs, carefully and lovingly maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers.

History Background:

Members of the Canadian Northern Society include historians, community volunteers, gardeners, and other local supporters who have since 1987 been active in the preservation of its namesake railway’s history, and in particular its depots.  The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) traces its origins to Manitoba in 1896.  Visionary founders Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann – both instrumental as contractors in the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway – grew the company from a modest short line between Gladstone and the Dauphin district of Manitoba into to a 9500 mile transcontinental system.

Despite the relative business success of the CNoR’s branchline network, negative financial impacts created by the First World War, together with mounting debt from the over-expansion led to the company being nationalized in late 1918.  By 1924, operations in Central Alberta were amalgamated with the rival Grand Trunk Pacific Railway under the newly formed Canadian National Railways (CN) banner.

DEPOTS

Similar to other western railroads, the CNoR designed standard plans to be used at individual locations based on the size and importance of the locality to be served.  In Alberta, the most common CNoR design was the combination freight and passenger “Third Class” station.  Several “Second Class” depots intended primarily for divisional points were constructed, and a single-story “Fourth Class” depot design were also found.  The designs were flexible enough that additions could be constructed as traffic or operations warranted.  The distinctive pyramid or “semi-pyramid” roofline of a CNoR depot, a feature designed by company architect Ralph Benjamin Pratt, created a unique and pleasing image.

By the late 1960’s the depot-era on the former CNoR Battle River Subdivision (a large portion had by then been renamed the “Stettler Subdivision”) was drawing to a close.  However, the presence of a branch line passenger service in the form of a Budd RDC service between Edmonton and Drumheller ensured the continued existence of several depots as passenger shelters that otherwise would most certainly face demolition.  The Edmonton to Drumheller service lasted into VIA Rail Canada times until the Trudeau Government service cuts of November 1981 gutted passenger service across Canada.

ENTER THE CANADIAN NORTHERN SOCIETY

Meeting Creek, MP 21.2

My beautiful picture

By 1986, the CNoR Third Class depot at Meeting Creek was surviving on borrowed time, vandalized and yet escaping the fate of several identical structures in neighboring towns.  As a result of an interest by a small group of younger railroaders and rail historians, powered perhaps by a few pints enjoyed in a Stettler pub, the Canadian Northern Society (CNoS) was soon established with the intent to save this classic structure from imminent destruction.

Armed with enthusiasm, some grant money, and the support of short-line Central Western Railway; the CNoS got to work repairing the roof, floors, rebuilding the wooden platform, painting, and replacing missing windows, doors and chimneys.  By 1989 the Meeting Creek depot was resurrected from a sad state to her today’s 1940’s-era appearance.

Complimenting the station today is another vanishing prairie icon.  A 1917 Alberta Pacific Grain elevator located across from the depot was purchased by CNoS from the Alberta Wheat Pool in 1992.  Over the years, it too has been conserved by the Society and work continues into its second century.  A second grain elevator, while privately owned, ensures that Meeting Creek continues to feature two classic prairie elevators that dominate the skyline in this picturesque location.

 

Donalda, MP 30.9:

9.7 miles south of Meeting Creek lies the Village of Donalda.  Always an agrarian-based community, Donalda was never larger than 500 souls, and as such rated a Canadian Northern Railway “Third Class Depot”.  Unfortunately, the original depot at Donalda was demolished in 1984.

Thanks to the efforts of the CNoS, the group was able to relocate an original CNoR “Fourth-Class” type depot, donated by a Saskatchewan farmer many miles to the east.  All the Societyhad to do was physically move this building 700 miles from her location at Vandura, Saskatchewan to Donalda!  Through fundraising and community support, the building was moved to Donalda in 1991. The depot was restored to her CN oxide red paint scheme, with cream trim on the windows and facia boards.  The interior of the depot was refurbished to her heyday as a depot and is now included in the present-day collection of the Donalda & District Museum. Like Meeting Creek, a short section of original CNoR 60-pound steel main track remains preserved in front of the depot.

Warden MP 55.8:

Five miles south of Stettler is the one-time important junction of the CNoR Brazeau Subdivision, its westward extension into the coal fields at the foot of the Rockies.  Originally, a “Fourth Class” station was located here, being destroyed by fire and replaced with a standard later version of the company’s “Third Class” design in 1919.  This structure was sold and demolished in the 1980’s, and was recently replaced by a “representative” train order office/depot built entirely by CNoS volunteers, that features design features, artifacts, and “parts” of the original depot.  It is used for educational purposes in a peaceful park-like setting along what is now short-line Alberta Prairie Railway.

Big Valley, MP 72.1:

Established in 1911, Big Valley was once hub of the division for the CNoR.  By 1921 this one-time bustling terminal boasted well over 300 employees on payroll and featured a 10 stallroundhouse, coaling plant, water tank, and other terminal facilities.  Big Valley’s 1912-built depot was a large “Second Class” design commonly constructed by the CNoR at divisionalpoints across the system. The main floor handled passenger and LCL business, while the second-floor housed accommodations for the agent – and later crews and offices.

The Big Valley depot was the second major conservation project for the Canadian Northern Society in 1989.  Encouraged by the Village of Big Valley, CNoS began refurbishment of the station, and was able to raise funding from Alberta Historical Resources Foundation and various temporary job creation programs to restore the depot to today’s attractive 1940’s-era exterior appearance.  

At the same time, shortline operator Central Western Railway was launching Alberta’s first tourist railroad service. Big Valley, like in her previous railroad life, again had the infrastructure to accommodate steam powered trains into the community.  In addition, the 10-stall roundhouse,by then in ruins with only the concrete walls showing her prominence to the community was preserved as an interpretive park through the efforts of CNoS, Central Western, and the Village of Big Valley.  Volunteers cleared and excavated the site, allowing the view of the ash and turntable pits, boiler room and machine shop.  You can imagine the one-time bustling activity of Ten-Wheelers and Consolidations locomotives receiving service at the Roundhouse.  

Big Valley today is the centerpiece of this rich CNoR heritage, plus a restored grain elevator to complete the scene of a bustling prairie railroad terminal.  The Big Valley Historical Society also operates an excellent local museum in a classic garage on Railway Avenue, together with maintaining St. Edmund’s Church – a spiritual home of many of the community’s early railroaders.   Serving as primary destination for Stettler based Alberta Prairie Railway, seasonal excursion trains arrive at Big Valley on a scheduled basis, where passengers spend a few hours in the community, experiencing the magic of its railway, ranching, and mining historical attractions.

Further along the line in the ghost town of Rowley is another preserved CNoR Third Class depot, built to a similar floor plan as Meeting Creek’s railway station.  While not part of the Canadian Northern Society’s collection, it is certainly worth a visit while in historic “Rowleywood”.

Other Projects

In addition to its Stettler Subdivision projects, the Canadian Northern Society has and continues to support other railway preservation efforts.

Over the years the preservation of depots at Rowley, Smoky Lake, Viking, Canora in Saskatchewan, and Dauphin in Manitoba have all been supported by CNoS. A roundhouse project at the former CNoR divisional point of Hanna has also been aided by the CNoS.  While the 1909 Viking depot is in fact a rival GTP station, the CNoS was instrumental in its 1991 preservation – and remarkably you can still catch a train here – with VIA Rail Canada’s flagship train “The Canadian” stopping upon request.

The CNoS collection of depots and the corresponding regional history that they represent has become part of the historical fabric of Western Canada.  It is proud to have left this legacy – and its true hope is that future generations will continue to be educated by its efforts, and will perhaps contribute to the further preservation of each of these wonderful historic structures.  

This summer the Canadian Northern Railway Historical Society invites you to visit these historic buildings along Alberta’s Highway 56 corridor.  

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Alberta

Regulator lays charges against Tidewater Midstream for acidic water release

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CALGARY — The Alberta Energy Regulator has laid charges against Tidewater Midstream and Infrastructure Ltd. for a release of acidic water in west-central Alberta.

The regulator says the release occurred in Oct. 2019 at Tidewater’s Ram River sour gas processing plant near Rocky Mountain House. 

It says the acidic water flowed into a nearby creek.

Calgary-based Tidewater has been charged with 10 violations under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, including releasing a substance to the environment that caused or may have caused an adverse effect. 

The regulator also alleges that Tidewater failed to report the release of the acidic water as soon as possible, and failed to take all reasonable measures to repair and remedy the spill.

Tidewater is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 8 in Rocky Mountain House.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published October 21, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:TWM)

The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Alberta's top doctor says COVID-19 cases receding but vigilance needed at Halloween

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EDMONTON — Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says COVID-19 case numbers in the province continue to recede.

But Dr. Deena Hinshaw cautions that the hospital situation remains precarious given the high number of patients.

And she says Albertans can’t afford to let up on health restrictions, particularly with Halloween coming up.

There were 770 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday for a new total of 10,434 active cases.

There were eight more deaths, bringing that total to 3,014.

Alberta Health Services says there are 912 people in hospital with COVID-19, and that 201 of them are in intensive care.

Alberta remains under gathering restrictions for indoor and outdoor events, and Hinshaw says it’s important to stick to those limits at Halloween.

Hinshaw urged those setting out candy for trick or treaters to not use bowls, but to set out the candy spaced apart on a surface like a blanket.

She says those who want to have a Halloween party should consider a small gathering of vaccinated people.

“This is not the year for large Halloween parties,” Hinshaw said.

“If you’re planning a Halloween gathering try to have it outdoors and make sure the limit of no more than 20 people is observed.”

Hinshaw noted that last Oct. 31 there were 5,600 active COVID-19 cases, about half the current total. There were 141 people in hospital with the illness a year ago.

Alberta continues to battle a fourth wave of the pandemic.

It has more than doubled the normal number of 173 critical care beds and has had to cancel thousands of non-urgent surgeries to handle the surge.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley says with winter coming and COVID-19 still circulating, the province needs to provide stable funding to social agencies for winter emergency shelters.

“All people deserve to live in dignity and have a safe place to call home,” said Notley. “These calls are urgent. It’s getting cold outside, and our northern winter will be here soon.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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