CAPRONA – Mile 67.4 CNR Stettler Sub

CAPRONA: WATER AND STONE  |  Mileage 67.4 CNR Stettler Subdivision

Caprona owed its existence to two unseen assets both prized by the railway:  water and gravel. Originally unnamed – merely identified as mileage point 120.7 Battle River Subdivision – it was established as a railway water supply location.  In 1910 a Standard Enclosed Water Tank was erected at track side fed from a spring 700 feet due north of the tank.  The location is marked on the west side of the track today with a station name sign.

Standard Water Tank in Kenaston, Saskatchewan. A tank similar to this existed at Caprona until the end of the steam-era.

Standard Water Tank in Kenaston, Saskatchewan.
A tank similar to this existed at Caprona until the end of the steam-era.

Once the track had been laid past this point, the pent up demand for suitable ballast became insatiable.  Accordingly, spurs were laid to work the local gravel deposits and for the boarding cars which housed the work force.  Unofficially christened as the Big Valley Pit, for the next few years a giant steam shovel and an army of workers called it home.

With every scoop of the steam shovel’s dipper up to 3 cubic yards of gravel was gouged from the ground, then dumped – crashing noisily into a cloud of dust – into one of a string of cars waiting on an adjacent track.  In a seemingly endless procession, the locomotives and crews picked up the loaded cars, ferried them out to the point required on the line where they were emptied, the returned to the pit for more.

By late 1913, working around the clock seven days a week – the pit was turning out 88,000 cubic yards of gravel daily – the equivalent of 100 carloads per day.  Occasionally cinders or sparks from the giant steam shovel’s exhaust were blamed for serious grass fires on the adjoining fields.

The Big Valley Pit was the source of much of the ballast for the Battle River line south of Warden and subsequently the improvements to the west end of the Goose Lake Line from Hanna to Calgary.  Following consolidation with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, ballast for the Goose Lake Line was more economically sourced from the Irricana Pit northeast of Calgary.

Effective 1 May 1921, the ballast pit and water tank became known as Caprona.  By the following October, a 40-car passing siding was installed, the remnants which can be seen today on the east side of the main line.  By June 1922 the siding capacity was increased to 55 cars.  There was never any provision for a station or operating facilities at Caprona, but being on the northern approach to Big Valley it was an important meeting point for trains especially while Big Valley remained the terminal.

The Caprona Pit supplied only small quantities of ballast for the new Hanna to Warden branch constructed between 1925 and 1927.  Shortly afterwards the pit appears to have been exhausted, the spurs removed, and the pit abandoned.  The pit site was retired by CN Realties in 1936 and subsequently sold to private interests.

In 1950, the Fenn-Big Valley Oil Field became the site of the second major oil strike in central Alberta behind that of Leduc.  Operated by British-American petroleum, the company built a gas processing plant directly to the west of Caprona known as “Big Valley field gate.”  The Caprona water tank, converted to electric operation in 1953, survived until dieselisation was completed in about 1958, after which the structure was removed.

COAL – BUT NOT ENOUGH: BIG VALLEY COLLIERIES  |  Mileage 71.1 CNR Stettler Subdivision

At least 11 coal mines were located in the Big Valley area in the course of its local history. Most were small operations, mining limited quantities of lignite coal, usually for local consumption in domestic heating.

The most significant of these from a railway standpoint was the Big Valley Collieries, about one mile north of town. It opened in 1914, supplying the district and shipping to outlying points.  The Canadian Northern Railway built a spur into the mine and coal shipments were enough to warrant the installation of track scales at the Big Valley Yard, a significant investment by the railway.

The mine employing over 100 men was a boon to the local economy. It was closed in 1924 following a strike. A succession of owners operated the property after this but evidently provided only minimal traffic to the railway.  The last company manufactured briquettes, until closing its doors for good in the mid-1950’s.

The remnants of this operation and the mine spurs are clearly evident on the west side of the tracks. The scale tracks are located north of the Big Valley depot and are marked with interpretive signage.

LAST STOP: BIG VALLEY Mile 72.1 CNR Stettler Sub