STETTLER – Mile 50.9 CNR Stettler Sub

STETTLER: DIVISIONAL POINT ENVY? | Mileage 50.9 CNR Stettler Subdivision

By 1908, Stettler had succeeded in being the pre-eminent commercial centre east of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway (CPR), between the Red Deer and Battle rivers.  Indeed, in keeping with the boosterism of the time, Stettler declared itself the “Heart of Alberta.”
The town could thank the CPR for putting Stettler on the map in 1905, a station on the branch that would reach Coronation in 1913.  Prior to the CPR, a Swiss settlement known as Blumenau developed to the east of the townsite – which declined soon after the railway’s arrival. Like many other up-and-coming young centres of the time, one railway was just not good enough!  Thus when Canadian Northern surveyors began selecting the route for its Vegreville to Calgary branch, securing passage through Stettler became the local Board of Trade’s first priority.
Main Street, Stettler, Alberta, 1908. ©CNoS Archives

Main Street, Stettler, Alberta, 1908. ©CNoS Archives

Not surprisingly, the most significant complication with accomplishing this was the CPR itself.  Since competition usually meant reduced freight rates, to maximize its investment in Stettler the CPR wanted to keep the CNoR out, it not forever, than as long as possible.  The CPR’s strategy was simple – although it could not legally deny its rival access into Stettler, the CPR owned much of the land in the area.  By inflating the cost of the land required for the right of way through Stettler, the CPR believed that the CNoR would be unable to justify the extra expense and hence avoid building through the community.

CPR depot Stettler, c. 1906.

CPR depot Stettler, c. 1906.

Stettler, c 1912. Photo©CNoS Archives

Stettler, c 1912. Photo©CNoS Archives

The Stettler Board of Trade however would not hear of this.  While confident in the future of its fair berg, the last thing the Board wanted was the establishment of a rival CNoR community on its back doorstep.  In consultation with and on behalf of the CNoR, the Board purchased the required right of way and station grounds along the eastern edge of town.

Once the CNoR line through Stettler was assured, the next step was securing the junction with the CNoR’s line west to the Brazeau coal fields.  There was great excitement and celebration when the CNoR track layers arrived 13 June 1910 at three o’clock in the afternoon:  “…when a large number of citizens headed by the Stettler Band marched down to (where the CNoR crossing) intersects the CPR line and witnessed the placing of the diamond.  While the spikes were being driven the band played, children frolicked, while the older ones looked on with interest.”  (Stettler Independent 15 June 1910).

But within mere months the effervescence had turned into “intense indignation” when its was discovered that the CNoR was locating the junction of its Brazeau line five miles south at Warden.  After all it had done for the company, the town felt slighted. The town naturally wanted the line to start from Stettler and after negotiations, the CNoR decided to meet council half-way.  A “cut-off” line was built and joined the Vegreville line 1.4 miles closer to Stettler (located on the west side of the railway at mileage 54.4).  While this was operationally a symbolic gesture, the Board of Trade and local newspaper interpreted the cut off line as “…. making (Stettler) the actual terminus of the Brazeau line.  A further concession made by the CNoR was to ensure that all passenger trains off the Brazeau line would run into and out of Stettler, and that the Brazeau business would be handled there.

Canadian Northern depot Stettler, 1985 – visit this classic Second Class Station at the Stettler Town and Country Museum

Canadian Northern depot Stettler, 1985 – visit this classic Second Class Station at the Stettler Town and Country Museum.

The Stettler station, at the foot of Saunders Street – on the site of the present Alberta Prairie Railway depot – was the focal point of CNoR operations.  Construction off the standard Second Class Station commenced in mid-July 1910.  The Stettler Independent reported unabashedly that “the CNoR will build one of the best station in the province at Stettler….The building will eclipse anything in Alberta with the exception of Calgary, Edmonoton, Lethbridge, and Red Deer.”

Of course, it was reasoned, the purpose of putting such a large and expensive station at Stettler pointed either to the conclusion that the town would be made a divisional point or that it was intended to handle the business accumulating along the Vegreville line, the Brazeau line, and the proposed branch to Hanna.  Inevitably, the question of divisional point facilities became an issue.  The optimum location of the divisional point on the Vegreville to Calgary route was roughly equidistant from its termini.  There were only three real options.  Stettler was indeed desirable as the divisional point but problems with acquisition of additional lands required for the terminal became cost prohibitive.  Warden, the junction with the Brazeau branch, was the next logical choice but the water supply was apparently inadequate.  Clearly water supply became the most important factor in selection of the divisional point on this line and thus the presence of a natural reservoir on Mott Creek clinched the location for Big Valley.  While the company did not make the choice official in the earliest days of the operation – there was little chance the decision would be reversed. This did not deter the Stettler Board of Trade from trying – and in 1917 it again made representations to the railway to have the divisional point relocated from Big Valley.  Letters to the CNoR outlined operational advantages and of course outlined the virtues of the growing Town of Stettler, however the railway saw no reason to relocate. In fact, large capital investments had been made at Big Valley, and by this time – the CNoR had serious financial issues.

Regardless, Stettler remained an important station along the CNoR Vegreville Branch, and later would become the namesake for the CNR’s Stettler Subdivision.  Completion of a transfer track between the CPR and CNR near the diamond allowed shippers to access both railway without having to ship from one to another in a roundabout way.  Grain, express, lumber, and even automobiles would be handled at Stettler, which up to the late 1970’s featured a “town spur” that served local carload freight shipments to the north and west of the station.  Passenger services at Stettler used the classic CNoR depot until 1980 when it was moved to the Stettler Town and Country Museum.

With the acquisition of the Stettler Subdivision by the Central Western Railway (CWR) in 1986, Stettler became headquarters for operations of the new-shortline in 1986.  Again, due to site limitations, CWR used the Warden and Big Valley yards for most of its switching and marshalling until purchasing the former CP Lacombe Subdivision through town in 1992.  Stettler finally got its divisional point, but perhaps not on the scale it had hoped!

6060 and the now-preserved Stettler P&H Elevator, June 28, 1989.

6060 and the now-preserved Stettler P&H Elevator, June 28, 1989.

Today, Alberta Prairie Railway is a long-established business in Stettler, and has assumed the short line service provided by CWR in town.  Its employees live and work in the area, and its equipment is stored and maintained at Stettler.  A four stall shop is located on the former CP line, and its fleet of three diesels and steam locomotive 41 are serviced at this facility.

Former AWP Elevator at Stettler, and CWR GP—7 locomotive 4301, 1987. ©S.I. Smith Photo

Former AWP Elevator at Stettler, and CWR GP—7 locomotive 4301, 1987. Photo ©S.I. Smith