The Canadian Northern Railway played a critical role in the transformation and colonization of the Canadian West, and especially in the development of the central plains and parkland. This was an enterprise whose beginnings are traced to a partnership of two railway contractors who met during the construction of the CPR in the Selkirk Mountains in the 1880’s. Later, this enterprising pair of Ontario-born Canadians, Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann would parlay their partnership into a contracting enterprise, 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 Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company between Gladstone and Dauphin, opened in 1896, was its genesis. Portions of a line acquired from the Northern Pacific, (via the Manitoba government in 1901), an extension east through the Rainy River district to Port Arthur in 1901, and completion of lines into the northern plains west to Edmonton and Prince Albert anchored a strong western network – and represented its most strategic assets to handle and bridge originating freight. With its alignment to the south of the Duck Mountains near the Manitoba – Saskatchewan border – the main line generally paralleled the Saskatchewan River Valley through productive farmland, and areas of timber presenting strong rail traffic potential. The line ran to the north of its arch-rival Grand Trunk Pacific, as well as the CPR “Prairie North Line”, both well underway by 1908.
Branch lines were key to the CNoR strategy, as they were for the Canadian Pacific during the second wave of railway construction on the prairies. Hundreds of elevator points, towns and villages would spring up – with the CNoR alone being credited for the creation of over 550 communities in the West. Several of these branches were built to tap the vast reserves of coal located Alberta and Saskatchewan for both domestic heating uses and for locomotive fuel. With the frigid prairie winters creating a ready market for soft lignite coal, box car shipments from coal line origins were moved to growing cities such as Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg – as well as intermediate towns.
The Vegreville to Calgary branch – chartered under the Alberta Midland Railway in February 1909 – was the CNoR’s key north-south spine through Alberta. Planned primarily as a freight line, the portion from Vegreville to Drumheller was opened for service in 1911. This line became known as the Battle River Subdivision and together with the Brazeau extension in west-central Alberta comprised two of the company’s prairie coal lines. Diverging south from the CNoR main line one mile west of Vegreville station, the Battle River Subdivision followed a 173-mile path through parkland, plains, and the valleys of Battle River and Meeting Creek before commencing its descent through the Fox Coulee into the Red Deer River Valley at Munson – just north of the coal mining centre of Drumheller. 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.
While the communities along the Battle River Subdivision were becoming established prior to and during the First World War, financial problems caught up with the Mackenzie and Mann and their expanding railway. Despite profitable western lines such as the Vegreville to Calgary branch, lack of traffic on their transcontinental lines, burdensome debt, and economic downturn – combined with the effects of the War caused the company to be “nationalized” by the Dominion Government. Operations of the CNoR and its rival GTP, which was by then insolvent, were amalgamated by 1921 under the banner of Canadian National Railways (“CN”).
Under CN, the Battle River Subdivision between Ferlow Jct. (mile 0.0) located in the Battle River Valley south of Camrose, and Dinosaur (mile 108.0) became known as the Stettler Subdivision. The Stettler Subdivision was an important contributor of rail traffic to the CN system for over five decades until it faced economic pressures resulting from growing urbanization, improved road networks, and the public’s reliance on private automobiles. In 1986 it became Canada’s first modern-era short line railway and was operated by the Central Western Railway. With grain elevator rationalization that occured in the late 1990’s, much of the line was abandoned, leaving in place its right of way between Edberg and Stettler, and between Stettler and Morrin that was conserved as a linear park by the East Central Alberta Heritage Society. Along this abandoned route lies historic railway preservation by the Canadian Northern Society at Meeting Creek (mile 21.2), Donalda (mile 30.9) and Rowley (mile 92.9).
Led by the community-minded efforts of Alberta Prairie Railway and the East Central Alberta Heritage Society, the old Battle River Subdivision between Stettler (mile 50.9) and Big Valley (mile 72.1) has been preserved and is an active rail line featuring freight operations and Alberta Prairie’s popular excursion trains.