Big Valley Station: Nothing Second Class About It
The station dominates Big Valley from its commanding position at the foot of Main Street. This Canadian Northern “Standard 2nd Class Station” was completed in 1912, and is typical of those constructed at divisional point and strategic locations in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. As built, it was identical to the Stettler, Alberta depot – built in 1911. The first floor of the station was set aside entirely for railway business – providing a general waiting room for the traveling public, a women’s waiting room, two express rooms, and the all-important office for the agent, cashier, and telegraph operator. When not occupied as living quarters for the agent, the upstairs apartment in the station was utilized by the CNR Social Club, and over the years also served as a bunkrooms for out of town train crews. Extensive gardens were developed on the town (west) side of the station, likely in the early 1920s. The remnants of this garden are clearly evident to this day.
The only material structural changes to the station building occurred about 1917, when the north side express room was converted into office space to accommodate three Dispatchers and an Assistant Superintendent. Other improvements were made to the building over the years: the walls were insulated (1938), the wood siding on the exterior was refinished with rough-cast stucco (1942), electric-lighting was installed (1952) and sewer and water connections were made and public washrooms were added (1956). The agency was closed in 1967. A caretaker was appointed to unlock the waiting room for “Railiner” passengers and to perform minor housecleaning. Thanks primarily to the efforts of the Big Valley Historical Society, the station was preserved when it was no longer required for railway purposes. In 1989, the Central Western Railway and the Canadian Northern Society took a greater interest in the building and substantial preservation work was completed. It is now a Provincial Historic Resource and the last vintage Canadian Northern depot in railway service (Alberta Prairie Railway) in the province.
Big Valley – Taking Stock
Despite the relocation of Big Valley’s railway terminal facilities to Mirror in the late 1920’s, and the following years of depression, the village’s location in prime ranch country and the early development of the Imperial Ranch by famed Calgary businessman Pat Burns meant that Big Valley would serve as an important point for loading livestock on the railway- right up into the 1960’s.
The “white-washed” standard railway stockyards, built in 1913 and expanded in 1924, were located north of the station on the east side of the railway yard. The remains of the stockyards are evident today, near the red wooden structure that you can note from this location.
Ranchers had settled south of Big Valley in the Scollard district by 1902. To reach markets, cattle had to be driven overland more than eighty miles to the CPR at Lacombe. Extension of the CPR’s Lacombe easterly branch to Stettler in 1906 cut the distance by nearly two-thirds, but it was not until the arrival of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1910 that all the pioneering and hard work paid off for local ranchers. By the 1920’s it was not unusual to ship thousands of head of cattle by rail from both Big Valley and Scollard within a week.
By the 1960’s, as a result of a changing transportation environment, shipping cattle by truck became much more efficient than by rail, a far cry from the early days. Today, Big Valley remains ranching country, and a look down the valley at Mott Creek towards Scollard conjures up images of a time when herds of cattle roamed the prairie grasses in the district.
The Unsung Heros of the Railway
Despite being the single largest group in the army of railway workers, section crews—or track gangs as they were often called—were the railway’s “unsung heroes.” Seven to ten miles of track comprised a section, each end usually a yard, station or junction. A foreman and one or more laborers comprised a gang. Public perceptions of section gangs usually evoke recollections of men struggling with track ties, or with mauls poised to drive a spikes. Nostalgia colours these memories with notions of romance, but there was nothing romantic about working on the track in the early days of railroading on the prairies—the labor was backbreaking and it was dirty.
Using a handcar or track motor car, the crew patrolled its section at least twice a day. Progressively over the summer, defective ties and rails were replaced as needed along the section. Track bolts were tightened, track was kept in gauge, ties were adzed down on curves to keep the rail from rolling outward and public road crossings were repaired. Switch lamps were kept clear of ice and snow. Where a pumpman was unavailable or unwarranted, the foreman ensured the water level in the tank was full to quench the thirst of the steam locomotives. While the hours of work for the various jobs were based on labor agreements with the company, in reality the men were perpetually on call.
The section crew was provided with accommodation at a nominal fee. On the Canadian Northern this invariably took the form of a second-hand boxcar taken off its wheels, with doors and windows cut into the body, and set onto wood sills somewhere on the station grounds. Comparatively speaking, a real section house was a luxury: only three were erected on the Battle River Subdivision—one here in Big Valley in 1918. In 1952, a “modern” section bunkhouse was built here—now preserved to the north of the station.
By the 1960s, as the mobility and mechanization of section crews improved, the length of the sections were increased. While the size of the crew increased, there were fewer crews. Track maintenance is essential for the safe operation of trains yet, to this day, the men labouring on the track remain anonymous—still the “unsung heroes.”
The grain trade in the West came to be symbolized by the “prairie sentinel”—usually the tallest structure in the community. While the vertical grain elevator was proven to be the most efficient means of handling grain, some of the earliest grain handling facilities on the Canadian Northern’s Battle River line were comprised of small track-side warehouses, such as those at Round Hill, Camrose, Edberg, Stettler and Rumsey. However, by 1915, there were 15 grain elevators on this line, and including the warehouses—totalling 505,000 bushels of storage capacity.
By 1930, 51 elevators were located at 22 grain delivery points between Vegreville Jct. and Drumheller. In addition, grain loading platforms were located track side at every station for the convenience of farmers who wished to load their own grain rather than market it through the grain elevators. The first elevator on the Canadian Northern Camrose station grounds was not built until 1926; the next two were erected in the 1960s. Similarly, there were few elevators on the CNR at Stettler, a reflection of the Canadian Pacific’s strong position in these towns, where at least three elevators were located.
The opening of the Panama canal in 1914 stimulated grain production in Alberta. By the 1916–17 crop year test shipments of grain were being sent from east-central Alberta to Vancouver and shipped to Europe via the canal. Railways, elevators, farmers, and agricultural communities have been interdependent upon each other ever since.
The wood-cribbed grain elevator remained a constant in most prairie towns until the 1990s. Modernization of the western grain handling system brought about removal of hundreds of smaller elevators – in favour of fewer steel and concrete high-throughput elevators such as those built east of Camrose at that time. Today, historic elevators have been preserved at Rowley, Big Valley, Stettler, and Meeting Creek – classic icons of an earlier day on the Prairies.
To learn about the Big Valley Station restoration effects by the Canadian Northern Society, visit Big Valley – Then & Now.
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