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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

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Alberta

Veteran Canadian RB McCarty comes out of retirement to sign with Calgary Stampeders

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CALGARY — Veteran Canadian running back Calvin McCarty came out of retirement Sunday to sign with the Calgary Stampeders.

McCarty, 36, retired in March following 13 seasons with Edmonton. McCarty appeared in over 200 regular-season games with the franchise and helped it win a Grey Cup title in 2015.

The five-foot-10, 215-pound McCarty ran for 1,615 career yards and 17 TDs while registering 263 catches for 2,005 yards and 143 touchdowns in 203 games with Edmonton. In 2019, McCarty became just the fourth running back in CFL history to achieve the 200-game milestone.

The Stampeders also announced they’ve released receiver Dorian Baker, defensive back Josh Nurse and defensive linemen Dadi Nicolas, Qaadir Sheppard and Mbi Tanyi. All are Americans.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Hemp having a moment as farmers try to grow niche crop into $1-billion industry

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CALGARY — Not that long ago, Rod Lanier could count on an annual spring visit from the police. 

The southern Alberta farmer has been growing hemp for 12 years, and in the early days, the distinctive odour that wafts from his fields when the crop is in flower would invariably catch the attention of area residents.

“For years each spring, the police would have to come out to ask, ‘Mr. Lanier, is that hemp or is that marijuana?’ ” Lanier recalls. “And I would answer, ‘if it was marijuana, would I grow a mile by a mile field of it, right beside the highway?” ” 

Today, Lanier is far less likely to get a knock on his door just because the wind is blowing a certain way. Once considered a bit of an oddity, Lanier is now one of about a dozen farmers in the Lethbridge area growing industrial hemp — and the sight and smell of the distinctive, jagged-leafed plant are far less likely to attract unwelcome attention.

In fact, hemp, which is part of the cannabis family but contains no THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), is enjoying a bit of a moment. Across the Prairie provinces, new businesses are popping up to process and market different parts of the plant. 

Hemp farming is still a fledgling industry, but some proponents believe it has the potential to move from a niche crop to a staple of Canadian agriculture. 

“How do we turn hemp into the next canola? How do we turn hemp into a 500,000 acre crop in the next 10 years?” says Andrew Potter, chief executive and president of Blue Sky Hemp Ventures. 

“I believe it’s very, very doable.”

According to Health Canada, which licenses and regulates the industrial hemp industry in this country, there were about 22,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of hemp seeded in Canada in 2020, up from just 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) in 1998. Alberta leads the way in hemp production, followed by Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The growth in acreage is due to multiple factors, including growing interest in hemp seed as a nutritional “superfood” as well as the legalization of cannabis in 2018. That opened up a new source of revenue for farmers, as hemp growers can now harvest flowers for CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid that was once illegal without a medical prescription.

Blue Sky, which was founded in 2017, believes the key to expanding the hemp industry is “whole plant utilization.” The company already has a CBD extraction facility near Saskatoon and another facility in central Saskatchewan is capable of processing 5,500 tonnes of hemp seed annually into food products like protein powder and hemp seed oil.

Blue Sky is also on the verge of announcing its plans for a large-scale “decortication” facility, which Potter says will process the hemp plant’s tough stems and stalks into fibre products. Hemp fibre can be used to make everything from building products and insulation to textiles.

Dan Madlung, president and chief executive of BioComposites Group, which runs a hemp fibre processing plant near Drayton Valley in central Alberta, says developing this third plank of the hemp industry is crucial. In the past, most Canadian farmers growing hemp for seed have had no buyer for the stems and stalks, and have had to let that part of the plant go to waste.

Building out decortication capacity across the Prairies would give farmers a third revenue stream and a much greater incentive to grow hemp, Madlung says. He adds BioComposites Group already has plans for a new, larger second facility to be built in a yet-to-be-announced Alberta location.

“We have what it takes right now to develop a new industry,” Madlung said. “But there’s tons of interest across North America . . . others may beat us to the punch.”

There are still many challenges that must be overcome before hemp farming becomes truly mainstream. While farmers no longer have to undergo a criminal records check to grow industrial hemp (it was required before cannabis was legalized), they still face other regulatory requirements such as Health Canada licensing. 

The industry also needs to invest in market development and commercialization, says Manny Deol, executive director of the non-profit Alberta Hemp Alliance. Many consumers don’t know quite what to do with hemp hearts or hempseed oil, so there’s room for the development of more customer-friendly products.

Farmers also need to be encouraged to grow a crop that may be brand-new to them, Deol says. Because the hemp plant is also good at sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil — better than many other crops — the industry is lobbying for the creation of a carbon credit for farmers who grow it. That would provide additional incentive for producers looking to branch out.

Canadian hemp exports exceeded $110-million in 2019, and Deol says he believes this country could have a $1-billion industry by 2030, if it does everything right. He says investors appear to think so too, given the number of new processing facilities recently constructed or proposed.

“There is a buzz about hemp right now,” Deol says. “I think farmers and other business people are looking for any diversification opportunities, so they’re watching this crop.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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