Camrose and the Canadian Northern Railway

Camrose, 1971.

Camrose, 1971.

The Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) was a pioneer railway that became a transcontinental rival of both the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the Grand  Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR). With humble beginnings in northern Manitoba in 1896, the CNoR became an important transportation link, critical to the settlement of the northern prairies. The CNoR was led by the enterprising tandem of William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, whose contribution to the development of the country through not only the railway – but other business enterprises – deserve far more historical credit than they have been provided.

Mackenzie and Mann wished to exploit the vast reserves of coal located in Alberta and Saskatchewan, for both domestic heating during the prairies’ 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).

The CNoR mainline ran westward from Winnipeg via Portage la Prairie, Dauphin, Canora, Humboldt, North Battleford and entered Alberta at Lloydminster. From Lloydminster the alignment ran through Vermilion, Vegreville, and Fort Saskatchewan. The line traversed a scenic and fertile area of western Canada where it served small communities and fledgling prairie communities.  An early promotional phrase described the railway as the “Saskatchewan Valley Route.” The line arrived in Edmonton in November 1905. Subsequently the CNoR was completed west through Jasper to Vancouver via Blue River and Kamloops, with the transcontinental main line being opened for service in 1915.

The Vegreville to Calgary Branch was the CNoR’s north-south spine through Alberta, planned primarily as a freight line. The CNoR was clear from the beginning that they would primarily be a freight road – as opposed to CPR’s lock on the fast passenger and express business. In addition to the coal traffic, “the Vegreville Branch” traversed a region of great agricultural potential for grain and cattle.

Known officially by the railway as the “Battle River Subdivision,” the Vegreville Branch was approved under the provincial charter of the Alberta Midland Railway. Construction commenced in 1909 and reached Camrose in April of 1910. Subsequently, the CNoR would construct its “Strathcona cut-off” – running from Camrose to Strathcona via Hay Lakes and New Sarepta in 1911, providing a more direct route from Camrose to Edmonton.

The company’s Battle River Subdivision that operated through Camrose followed another scenic prairie alignment. From Vegreville it ran south-westerly towards Camrose via Roundhill, and followed Stoney Creek to the Battle River Valley. Crossing the Battle on a small timber pile trestle, it would climb back towards Viewpoint and Edberg before following the Meeting Creek Valley south towards Donalda and then on to Stettler, Big Valley, and Drumheller.

The Camrose depot was constructed in 1911 to the company’s standard third-class station design.  Not long after its construction, the depot would be expanded to handle growing business. Located on the east outskirts of the Town of Camrose, a regular dray and bus would ferry passengers from the depot to downtown Camrose.

Bi-weekly freight service began through Camrose in November 1910, and by 1912 passenger trains began regularly operating to Drumheller. Service was extended to Calgary in 1914. In the Camrose region, coal was also a predominant rail commodity with coal loaded at Dodds, between Camrose and Ryley. Grain elevators were constructed, and the Canadian Northern became an important part of the daily life of citizens of the communities along the line, handling grain, livestock, construction material, as well as less than carload services and express.

Camrose would become an important junction on the Canadian Northern, with the north-south Battle River Subdivision, the “Strathcona cut-off,” and in 1915, the opening of the branch operating southeast of town to Alliance, via Kelsey, Rosalind, and Forestburg. In addition, the Canadian Northern interchanged traffic with the rival Grand Trunk Pacific who operated their north-south Tofield to Calgary line through the city (the depot was just west of the current Grace Lutheran Church), and the Canadian Pacific. The Canadian Northern operated an interlocking tower north of the depot where it crossed the Canadian Pacific “North Main line” at grade.

With the consolidation of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific operations in 1923, the Canadian Northern Railway route through Camrose became part of the newly formed Canadian National’s main line between Calgary and Edmonton. The GTP operations were abandoned, and local railway business was consolidated to the Canadian Northern depot and freight house. The depot remained in railway service until 1989 when it was donated to the Canadian Northern Society – moved onto a new foundation at its present site adjacent the old Battle River Sub – and now serves as a community centre. Each day, CN freight trains continue to pass by the depot as they have done so for now over 100 years.