The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was a pioneer railway that became a transcontinental rival of both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. With humble beginnings in northern Manitoba in 1896, the CNoR’s expansion westward was instrumental in the settlement of the northern prairies.The promoters of the CNoR – Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann – wished to exploit the vast reserves of coal located in Alberta and Saskatchewan, both for domestic heating during the prairie’s freezing winters and for locomotive fuel. The CNoR’s plans for central Alberta focused almost entirely on the building of “coal railways” to tap the rich coal fields around Drumheller and at Nordegg (later Brazeau). Big Valley also could boast coal mines – the remnants of which can still be seen north of the village.
Completed in 1911, the Vegreville to Calgary Branch through Big Valley was the CNoR’s north-south spine through Alberta, planned primarily as a freight line. In addition to the coal traffic, “the Vegreville Branch” traversed a region of great agricultural potential for grain and cattle. One of the primary decisions that needed to be made by railway management was the location of its divisional point on the line. The availability of sufficient volumes of water – an essential element in the operation of steam locomotives – was an important factor in the location of any divisional point. In accordance with standard railway practice, the optimum location of the divisional point on the Vegreville Branch was roughly equidistant from its termini. Accordingly, there were only three real alternatives. Stettler, an established retail trade centre on an existing CPR branch, was desirable as a divisional point but problems with the acquisition of land – for the right of way, to say nothing about land for yards – made this option cost prohibitive. Warden, the junction with the Brazeau branch was the next logical choice, however the supply of water was evidently inadequate. Thus, it was the presence of a natural reservoir on Mott Creek – named for pioneer rancher Charlie Mott – that appears to have clinched the divisional point status for Big Valley. The construction of a dam on the creek was all that was required to ensure an adequate year-round water supply. The Big Valley townsite was surveyed in 1910. Lots were put up for sale in late 1911 and were in such demand that the CNoR had to make an addition to the original townsite survey. Standard “60-pound steel” (30 kg/m) was laid through Big Valley in 1911 and irregular train service between Stettler and Drumheller began in November. A standard second-class station was erected at Big Valley by the end of the summer of 1912. A five-stall roundhouse and turntable were complete by April 1913. By late 1913 Big Valley was home to 14 steam locomotives and an equal amount of engine service and train crews. The Big Valley train crews ran north to Vegreville, south to Drumheller, and west to Rocky Mountain House/Brazeau. There was also a large contingent of related maintenance staff. In addition to the station and the roundhouse facilities, Big Valley’s facilities included a freight shed, stores building, sand house, a 60,000 gallon water tank (270 m3), and a mechanical coaling plant. Specifically, Big Valley’s roundhouse handled boiler washing and running repairs for engines assigned to both Big Valley and Hanna. This led to the expansion of the roundhouse to 10 stalls in 1919.
Tri-weekly Calgary to Edmonton passenger service through Big Valley began in the summer of 1915. The following year this service was expanded to daily-except-Sunday. The passenger train – known as No. 25 and No. 26 – carried a café-parlour-observation car. Freight traffic was more irregular, subject to seasonal swings such as the grain rush (July to January), cattle haul (October to December), and the movement of coal (January through May). In 1919 Big Valley had some 22 crews, of five-men each, in addition to the divisional staff that included a superintendent, dispatchers, and agency staff with a payroll of close to $20,000 per month. By 1918, financial problems had caught up with the CNoR – and with its rival the Grand Trunk Pacific. Lack of projected traffic (however not on the Vegreville branch – it was a profitable line), burdensome debt, and economic downturn combined with the effects of the First World War had caused the company to be “nationalized” by the Dominion Government. In 1924, operations of the CNoR and GTP were officially merged into Canadian National Railways. For the Big Valley terminal, it meant a shift of the majority of the newly formed Canadian National’s operations to Mirror and the adjacent GTP line between Tofield and Calgary.
Times have changed, and many prairie branchlines were abandoned in the 1990s when grain elevator facilities were rationalized and modern high throughput elevators began to appear. However, in the true spirit of survival that has exemplified Big Valley for over a century – the Alberta Prairie Railway now safely operates a tourist railway service on a historic 21-mile portion of the old Canadian Northern between Stettler and the former divisional point town of Big Valley. With the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Town of Big Valley (this occurred in 1914) the original 60-pound steel line between Stettler and Big Valley remains a last vestige of Mackenzie and Mann’s once proud system. In fact, it remains the sole survivor of many similar “60-pound” branch lines that existed across western Canada. For more information on the Village of Big Valley visit www.villageofbigvalley.ca.