Sinews of Steel

A Railroad History of Kalyna Country

It would be no exaggeration to say that the coming of steel to Kalyna Country in the first decades of the 20th century marked a turning point in the history of the entire ecomuseum region. For with the arrival of steam-belching “Iron Horses” a host of changes were introduced to Edmonton’s rural hinterland, which at once became more urbanized with the establishment of new villages and towns, and at the same time became more integrated into the life of larger centres that were now accessible by train. Initially, the railways helped to complete the settlement process, conveying immigrants much closer to empty quarters in partially settled lands, and to homesteads that had previously seemed too remote to make viable farms. The construction of the railway lines themselves provided jobs for some early settlers, who supplied food for the hungry navvies, hired on as temporary labourers, or later found work doing track maintenance for the railway companies. Most important of all, however, the railway provided the major stimulus for the rapid evolution of market-driven agriculture, enabling farmers to efficiently transport livestock, grain and other food products to processors and consumers, while simultaneously facilitating the delivery of agricultural machinery, supplies and goods to the countryside. Indeed, the elaboration of a network of rail lines linking scattered and formerly isolated settlements fundamentally transformed the economic, social and cultural landscape of east central Alberta, essentially inaugurating the modern era in the region and irrevocably shaping its future.

Significantly, many Kalyna Country communities owe their very existence to the railway, beginning as humble depots and station points that exploded virtually overnight into villages and towns at strategically-located sites along the shining sinews of steel. A few of these stopping-places and sidings were even named by the companies that gave them life, reconfiguring maps that originally depicted only sparsely inscribed physical features.

Other Kalyna settlements were forced to pull up stakes and relocate at townsites that had lots surveyed for sale by the railway companies to help finance the enormous costs of building track beds and laying steel. And still other early settlements that were bypassed by the tracks went into swift decline and then utterly disappeared, victims of radically altered travel and marketing patterns. Finally, as more new lines were built through different parts of Kalyna Country, several railway towns that had originally flourished by serving outlying districts, gradually withered when farmers redirected their business to shipping points that were closer and more easily reached.

With the ability to transport agricultural products to cities across Western Canada in a timely and affordable manner, agricultural production could fully shift from semi-subsistence farming, to larger scale operations focused on supplying distant markets. Not only grain and livestock could be moved over greater distances with relative ease, but it was possible for milk, eggs and other perishables to now be whisked on daily basis to Edmonton so as to help feed the capital’s ever-increasing need for fresh staples.

Typically, a variety of new businesses sprang up in the towns that developed along the tracks, including stockyards, general stores, livery stables and grain elevators, as well as restaurants, hotels and other commercial enterprises. While making trips to deliver and pick up shipments by rail, farmers would frequently shop for supplies, avail themselves of professional services, and take time to socialize and exchange the latest news. Of course, the passenger services provided by the railways also made it possible to travel to Edmonton on business, and to make quick trips to other settlements up and down the track. Time and space shrank dramatically as soon as one boarded a train, since rail travel could turn what had once been an arduous multi-day trek over rough-hewn trails, into a relatively comfortable jaunt of just a few hours that was unaffected by the terrain, season or weather.

Nevertheless, like all technologies, the railways were eventually overtaken by newer forms of transportation. As early trails became gravelled roads, and then paved highways, automobiles, trucks, and busses became the preferred modes of transport, steadily undermining the economic viability of regional rail lines. Beginning in the 1960s, and continuing to the present day, a growing number of Kalyna Country’s railways have been gradually abandoned, further contributing to the decline of some of the towns that once flourished along them. The powerful locomotives that had once been such a symbol of progress, can now be said to have become a victim of progress themselves…

The Mannville-Mundare-Edmonton CNR line

The first railway line to reach east central Alberta was laid by Canadian Northern Railways, a Winnipeg-based company founded by Ontario entrepreneurs William Mackenzie (1849-1923) and Donald Mann (1853-1934). In 1903 Canadian Northern received federal assistance to extend the track already in its possession from Grandview, Manitoba (west of Dauphin), through North Battleford to Edmonton – a distance of 1072 kilometers, or 670 miles. The Canadian Northern route across the parkland belt of the prairies filled a major gap in a third transcontinental line that was eventually completed in 1915, only to go bankrupt three years later. Subsequently nationalized by the federal government, in 1923 Canadian Northern holdings were amalgamated with the Grand Trunk, Intercolonial and other unprofitable companies to become the Canadian National Railways (CNR), in the process creating the largest single railway in the world.

The Western Canadian leg of the Northern line strung together such far-flung settlements as Roblin, Kamsack, Canora, and Humboldt, before swinging north of Saskatoon to the Battlefords, Lloydminster and Vermilion. As Canadian Northern surveyors passed through the vicinity of present-day Mannville, they determined that a station and townsite were to be established for the homesteaders in the district and named in honour of Donald Mann (who was later knighted along with his partner, William Mackenzie). A small squatter’s town immediately sprang up around a post office that took the name Mannville, in the hope that the Canadian Northern station would be built there. However, all of the buildings in this “boomtown” subsequently had to be moved 2-1/2 miles to the east, where the official townsite was eventually surveyed in 1905, the year that steel was laid through the Mannville area.

Afterwards, Mannville became the staging point for construction as the line proceeded further west, with Minburn being designated as a depot and watering stop because it had a nearby creek that could provide an adequate supply of the soft water required by locomotive boilers. Snaking its way north of Birch Lake and south of Akasu Hill, the CnoR tracks arrived in the Vegreville district in October 1905. Once again, a new townsite was designated several miles from the original hamlet, which was hastily and unceremoniously moved to be adjacent to the shining new steel. Continuing northwest to Mundare, the work crews pressed onward through modern-day Chipman, Lamont and Bruderheim, arriving on 8 November at Fort Saskatchewan, where local officials declared a half-day holiday to celebrate the happy occasion. The last spike was finally driven in Edmonton on 14 November, just twelve days after steel was laid across a temporary bridge that had been built at Fort Saskatchewan, subsequently replaced in April 1906 by a concrete and steel structure described as “the second largest on the C.N[orthern].R.”

Immediately, pioneers began making use of the C.No.R. line to settle on homesteads that previously could only be reached with great effort by foot, horse, or cart. In the absence of competing railways, towns like Lamont, Chipman and Mundare became important trading centers for farmers all the way to the North Saskatchewan and beyond – only to be undermined after new railways were eventually constructed further north on both sides of the river. Subsequently, the Depression and improved highways also took an inevitable toll on the long-term viability of several formerly vibrant railtowns, while passenger service was gradually reduced until even the one-coach Dayliner to Vermilion was finally cancelled in May 1977.

By then, the history of this line had been marred by a terrible tragedy that occurred on 19 November 1960, when a fast freight bound for Edmonton struck a school bus as it was crossing the tracks near the centralized high school in Lamont. Seventeen youths from the Chipman area lost their lives in the horrific accident, which is said to have indirectly inspired the haunting 1997 Atom Egoyan film, The Sweet Hereafter. On a much happier note, in August 1978 a train bearing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip travelled the CNR line as part of the Royal couple’s Western Canadian tour, making brief but memorable stops in Vegreville, Mundare and Chipman enroute to Edmonton.

The Viking-Tofield-Edmonton CNR line

The second railway to cross Kalyna Country was the Grand Trunk Pacific, founded in 1903 to provide the venerable Grand Trunk Railway (est. 1852) with a system of tracks that would extend the company’s reach across Western Canada. To do this, a line was built between 1907 and 1914 from Winnipeg via Yorkton, Saskatchewan, through Wainwright and Edmonton, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Incorporated into the Canadian National Railway system in 1923, this line was destined to become one of the main railway routes across Canada, and remains the primary CNR line for servicing Edmonton from the east.

G.T.P. roadbed crews passed through the Viking area in 1908, after which tracks were laid the following year. As in many railway towns, a boxcar originally served as the GTP office before being replaced by a permanent station in 1909. For much of its active history the Viking station boasted an attractive garden, planted as part of a company policy that for promotional purposes encouraged the beautification of railway facilities. One of the highlights of the line’s history includes the passing of the special train carrying King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their 1939 visit to Alberta.

Continuing westward, GTP steel was pushed through the Bruce, Holden, and Ryley districts, reaching Tofield in June 1909. The first train from Winnipeg to Edmonton, carrying railway officials, passed through Tofield on 22 July 1909, followed by a mixed freight and passenger train on 1 August, and a passenger run made 12 days later. Daily train service was inaugurated in 1910, when express trains began conveying travellers between Winnipeg and Edmonton in 30 hours, reaching a top speed of 48 mph. The line continues to carry an impressive amount of freight traffic in both directions, and although VIA Rail currently utilizes the line for passenger service, the only place to access its thrice weekly train (westbound and eastbound) is by special request at Wainwright.

Since the 68.8 km (43 mile) stretch between Viking and Tofield was for many years the longest stretch of straight, flat track in all of Canada, engineers were able to cover the distance with their locomotives at full throttle. By the 1920s, special “Black Silk Trains” bearing valuable raw silk from the Orient to Eastern Canadian cities and New York would occasionally hurtle by going as fast as 70 mph, speeds that were much more easily attained following the introduction of more powerful diesel engines in the 1950s.

A line linking Tofield with Camrose (and extending to Calgary) was also constructed by the G.T.P.R. shortly after the Grand Trunk line was laid between Wainwright and Edmonton. Although initially completed on 29 November 1909, there were numerous problems with the Tofield-Camrose track (which nevertheless was successfully traversed by Alberta Premier Rutherford and railway officials on 5 February 1910) that prevented regular service from being established until mid-1911. Subsequently incorporated into the C.N.R. system, service between Camrose and Kingman was discontinued in the mid-1960s, though the portion of the track between Tofield and Kingman was occasionally utilized for a short time afterwards to accommodate local elevators. All of the rails were eventually removed on this line in 1977-1978.

Canadian Northern Railways likewise built a line north from Camrose around 1910. Starting in Alliance, directly south of Viking, it travelled northwest through Camrose, then turned northeast to Round Hill, before intersecting the G.T.P. rails just west of Ryley. Initially crossing at a station named Yelgar en route to its terminal point of Vegreville, the Yelgar stop was abandoned when the line was rerouted past Ryley station after the G.T.P. and C.No.R. were amalgamated (in 1923) to create Canadian National. Service on this little-used route was discontinued in the 1940s, notwithstanding the fact that it had been extended to Willingdon a decade earlier.


The Edmonton-Thorhild-Newbrook CNR line

As Edmonton grew and Alberta’s frontiers were rolled back by a swelling tide of homesteaders, a widening web of railways began to penetrate ever deeper into outlying parts of the province. In 1909, a Provincial Charter was granted to the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway to build a new line more than 400 kms northeast of the capital to the junction of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Following numerous delays due to disputes and litigation involving the provincial government, in 1914 track finally started to be laid north from Carbondale (8 kms northwest of Namao) toward a planned terminus at Waterways, roughly a dozen kilometers south of modern-day Fort McMurray. Passing through Fedorah, Opal, Egremont, Thorhild, Abee, Newbrook and Boyle, the steel arrived in Lac La Biche in July 1916, when financial problems precipitated by the First World War stalled further progress. In 1920, the Province of Alberta assumed control over the foundering line, which was then completed to Waterways in 1925. Four years later, the CNR and CPR took over operation of the line through the jointly-created Northern Alberta Railway, with the CNR eventually acquiring sole ownership of the track – for many years the only reliable overland route to Fort McMurray.

Passenger movement on the line peaked during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period, spurred by defence-related activities that resulted in the rails being upgraded with heavier steel. However, once all-weather highways began carrying an increasing volume of the traffic to Alberta’s resource-rich north, passenger service was inevitably cut back, so that today only freight is carried on the line. Bon Accord station was closed in 1954, having in its early years enjoyed thrice-weekly mixed service to Edmonton. Similarly, the modest depot that once served Opal has since become a monument to a bygone era at the Alberta Pioneer Railway Museum, located south of Highway 37, east of Namao.

The Edmonton-Smoky Lake-Heinsburg CNR line

Canadian Northern Railways began work on a second major line through the northern part of Kalyna Country in 1914, but soon ran into financial troubles because of over-expansion and the strained wartime economy. Starting at Oliver Junction in northeast Edmonton and passing through Gibbons, Coronado, and Redwater, the C.No.R. slowly made its way as far as Radway by 1917, when the much-delayed project temporarily ran out of steam. Nevertheless, regular train service commenced the following year, enabling Radway Centre (as the village was generally known prior to its relocation trackside) to briefly emerge as an important focus of local traffic and trade. Construction resumed the following year, when the steel reached Waskatenau, the first train coming through in July 1919 as work continued on the roadbed further east. Surging through the Warspite, Smoky Lake, Bellis and Vilna districts, the steel arrived at Spedden late in 1919, a name that was chosen to honour the memory of railway survey crew member who died while working in the vicinity of what had been formerly known as the Cache Lake area.

For almost a year, Spedden enjoyed some prominence as the railhead on the new line, which subsequently proceeded on to St. Paul in October 1920, when work was once again suspended. In 1923, the C.No.R. was reconstituted as part of the Canadian National Railway system, but it took until 27 September 1927 before the first train reached Elk Point and until 28 December of the following year for service to be provided to Heinsburg. Although the original plan was to extend the tracks some 62 kms east to the C.N.R. line running to Frenchman Butte, Saskatchewan, despite numerous promises by a succession of politicians this gap was never filled, much to the chagrin of frustrated local farmers.

In 1978, service to Heinsburg was cancelled by CN, and in the mid-1980s the steel was removed from the railway bed into Elk Point. A decade and half later, local residents began a successful initiative to transform the abandoned line into a multi-use recreational resource that they aptly named the “Iron Horse Trail.” On 31 October 2000, Canadian National officially closed its line between Elk Point and Waskatenau, as well as its branch extending from Abilene Junction, east of Ashmont, through Bonnyville to Cold Lake. Taking advantage of the unique opportunity presented by these closures, residents of the affected communities subsequently mobilized to have the railway beds preserved for use as part of an ambitious regional trail network. Tied in through the Iron Horse Trail to the Trans Canada trail system running through neighbouring areas of Saskatchewan, the new tourist attraction will serve both as a fitting monument to the legacy of the railroads, and as recreational amenity that will undoubtedly be enjoyed by many generations to come.

The Edmonton-Bruderheim-Rusylvia CPR line

The last major railway line built in Kalyna Country was eventually constructed — after a false start and numerous delays — by Canadian Pacific at the relatively late date of 1927-1928. The Alberta Midland Railway Company had received a charter “to build from Vermilion to Whitford Lake and Bruderheim” as early as 1909, the same year that the A.M.R.C. was absorbed by the Canadian Northern Railway. Although partial surveys were then conducted for the approved line by the expanded C.No.R., after which construction of a rail bed from Bruderheim began in 1912, work crews only advanced 6.4 kms before their efforts ground to a permanent halt. Notwithstanding several petitions from inhabitants along the proposed route, who in 1918 argued that a railway would have expedited the delivery of medical aid during the devastating influenza epidemic, the pleas of frustrated farmers failed to move either politicians or railway officials. A new charter was issued to Canadian Pacific Railways in 1919 for a line that was to run from Cutknife, Saskatchewan, through Lloydminister to Whitford, but despite assurances that work would start within two years and be finished in 1924, these deadlines were allowed to pass despite repeated protests to provincial authorities.

Construction of the C.P.R. tracks through the central townships of Kalyna Country only got underway in 1927, with the steel proceeding east to west 175 kms from Rusylvia to Bruderheim, before turning south through Josephburg on the last leg into Edmonton.

Passing through the Myrnam area and Two Hills in 1927, the rails reached Willingdon, Andrew, St. Michael and Star by the following year, arriving in south Edmonton in 1929, when freight and passenger service to Lloydminster commenced on 15 August. Although welcomed by residents who previously had to make long trips to get to a railway station on either side of the North Saskatchewan River, the C.P.R track with its new stopping points at the same time struck a painful blow to the economies of communities ranging from Bellis to Chipman.

In 1930, Canadian National constructed a branch line north from Vegreville to Willingdon, providing direct access to both its transcontinental line as well as the track built two decades earlier through Ryley to Camrose. This offshoot created convenient grain shipping points for the Norma, Warwick and Fitzallen districts, but as area roads improved, use of the line declined and its steel was finally removed in 1979-1980.

Meanwhile, regular service from Edmonton to Lloydminster was offered by the C.P.R. until 25 October 1957, after which a way-freight and passenger car continued to make the run for another seven years, when the latter operation ceased entirely. Since then, the line has suffered a fate similar to that of many of the other railways serving Kalyna Country, as the popularity of trucks, buses and cars have steadily eroded the rationale for maintaining the track for the long haul future…