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old CPR bridge in downtown Red Deer

corner of Gaetz and Ross downtown

modern CPR locomotives

historic Red Deer CPR station
Mintlaw ACR trestle



The Calgary and Edmonton Railway

When the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Calgary in 1883, land quickly opened up along the line for development and for a relatively economical way to move agricultural products. But there were still vast areas for potential settlement beyond the 10-20 mile range that the new railway served. There were also other communities in the west that were not served by the railway, including Edmonton. Branch lines would be essential for the railway to prosper.

Meanwhile, the Calgary and Edmonton Trail quickly gained major significance as the north-south stagecoach route between Calgary and Edmonton, carrying freight, passengers and mail. It wasn't long before the value of a railway joining Alberta's two major population centres became obvious.

In 1885, a charter was granted to the Alberta and Athabasca Railway Company to run a rail line from Calgary to Edmonton and on to Athabasca Landing. Construction was to start in the summer of 1887, run east from Calgary to Drumheller (due to potential oil and coal fields) and north along the west side of Buffalo Lake to Edmonton (later adopted by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway).

When the company had trouble financing the project and oil was not found at Drumheller, a revised new charter was to take the railway near the proposed Alberta Lumber Company facilities (built in 1887) near Innisfail, owned by the same principals as the railway. Grading commenced in 1887 but stopped after a month due to continued financial problems.

The charter was revised again with a new proposed route that would cross the Red Deer River near the mouth of the Blindman River (a few miles northeast of the current city of Red Deer). Again, financial problems caused the charter to be extended with a new name, the Alberta and Great Northwestern Railway. In early 1890, interests were sold to a new venture, the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company.

The new company was incorporated by the federal government to build a railway from Calgary to a point at or near Edmonton (about 190 miles) and from Calgary to Fort McLeod and on to the international boundary. It was also given the right to extend northward toward the Peace River area. For each mile of railway constructed, the company would receive a land grant of 2560 hectares (6400 acres). Selling and managing these lands was the Calgary and Edmonton Land Co., incorporated in 1891.

The primary stockholders of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company were James Ross, William Mackenzie, Donald Mann and Herbert Holt, all very familiar with building railways. Mackenzie and Mann were later to create and build the Canadian Northern Railway.

The C & E Railway was an independent company but it never intended to run trains. It's intention was to lease or sell the line to another operator and initially gave the Canadian Pacific Railway the rights to a renewable 6-year lease, once completed. As a result, the CPR took an active role in the design of structures along the route and the naming of communities. A station was to be established about every 18 miles along the line with a siding about midpoint between stations.

early train on the Calgary Edmonton RailwayMuch of the northern leg toward Red Deer was surveyed in April and May of 1890. The route more or less followed the Calgary-Edmonton Trail but major adjustments needed to be made for reasonable grades and curves. In addition, there was a significant challenge in crossing the valleys of the Red Deer and Blindman Rivers roughly half way between Calgary and Edmonton. Three crossings of the Red Deer River had been surveyed -- one near Innisfail, one at the Red Deer Crossing settlement and another at the mouth of the Blindman River which would enable the crossing of both rivers simultaneously.

James Ross, the supervising engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway who had supervised several railway construction projects including the transcontinental from Moose Jaw through the Rocky Mountains, contracted his partners in the venture, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, to construct the line. Holt became Superintendent of Construction.

The official sod turning occurred in Calgary on July 21, 1890. During that same month, Mr. Ross met with landowner Rev. Leonard Gaetz on his land at the Red Deer River. The historic meeting resulted in the abandonment of all three previously surveyed river crossings in favour of a new one at the Gaetz homestead.

Rev. Leonard Gaetz was one of the largest landowners near the river downstream from the Crossing and had a great deal of political influence as well as being one of the principle promoters of the region in his travels to Calgary and eastern Canada. When Rev. Gaetz offered to Mr. Ross that he would give the railway 600 acres of land (half of his holdings) to build the townsite and railway there, Mr. Ross gladly accepted.

downtown originates with coming of the railwayTracklaying reached the new Red Deer townsite in November 1890. That month, the first passenger train ran from south of Red Deer (near present-day Springbrook) to Calgary, as the four bridges needed to cross the meandering Waskasoo Creek had yet to be constructed.

Innisfail station 1890Communities with stations (some very rudimentary in the beginning) included Beddington, Airdrie, Crossfield, Carstairs, Didsbury, Olds, Bowden, Innisfail, Penhold and Red Deer. Sidings were at Burnson, Balzac, Wessex, Rosebud, Neetook and Tuttle.

During the winter of 1890-91, a wooden railway bridge was built crossing the Red Deer River near the Gaetz homestead. Construction of the line continued north toward Strathcona during 1891 with completion occurring in July. The line did not cross the North Saskatchewan River into Edmonton until several years later due to the high cost of building a bridge.

Communities with stations (again some rudimentary in the beginning) included Blackfalds, Lacombe, Ponoka, Hobbema, Wetaskiwin, Miller, Leduc and Strathcona (south Edmonton). Sidings were at Labuma, Morningside, Menaik, Navarre, Bigstone, Kavanaugh, Nisku and Ellerslie.

Red Deer develops with the railwayThe Canadian Pacific Railway officially took over operations of the railway in August 1891, named all the numbered stations along the route, built a telegraph line and started carrying the mail, taking it away from the stage coaches along the C & E Trail. Regular scheduled passenger service between the two major centres was in place by 1892, reducing the travel time from 4 days by stagecoach to 12 hours by train. This effectively put an end to the C & E Trail stagecoach service.

The Calgary to Fort Macleod leg was also surveyed in 1890 and construction reached Mekastoe/Haneyville (three miles north of Fort Macleod) in 1892. In 1898, a short link with the Crowsnest Pass line was completed. With almost 300 miles of construction complete the C & E Railway received a total land grant of 1.8 million acres.

By the turn of the century, Mackenzie and Mann were building the transcontinental Canadian Northern Railway in direct competition with Canadian Pacific. The new railway entered downtown Edmonton in 1902 with the Edmonton Yukon and Pacific Railway, creating a threat to the Canadian Pacific's influence in the area. As a result, Canadian Pacific reluctantly started plans for a bridge across the North Saskatchewan River.

Meanwhile, Mackenzie and Mann were also eyeing the Calgary and Edmonton Railway for absorption into their Canadian Northern. The original 6-year lease with Canadian Pacific had been renewed annually. As CP had first option to lease or buy the Calgary & Edmonton Railway, CP decided to sign a 999 year lease to thwart any takeover move by the Canadian Northern.

Lacombe CPR stationIn June 1903 Canadian Pacific received authority to construct a high level bridge to link Strathcona with Edmonton as well as two branchlines to extend 100 miles east of the C & E at Wetaskiwin and Lacombe.

In 1905, the branch from Lacombe to Alix was opened and extended to Stettler the following year. The line was further extended to Castor in 1910, to Consort in 1912 and to Kerrobert in 1914. Meanwhile the branch line from Wetaskiwin east to Camrose also opened in 1905 and extended to Hardisty the following year.

Residents of Strathcona became concerned about the future construction of the High Level Bridge that could diminish the town's importance. In 1906, Canadian Pacific made an agreement with the town that it would remain the main divisional point for northern Alberta and the terminus for the branchlines at Wetaskiwin and to Saskatchewan in return for a land grant from the town and tax concessions.

railway station, park and coal chutesIn 1908, Red Deer also became a divisional point and the wooden bridge across the Red Deer River was replaced with steel. In 1910 a new station was built at Red Deer.

Construction of the High Level Bridge commenced in 1910 and opened for traffic in June 1913. The bridge was unusual in that it was used as for the railway, streetcars and vehicle traffic on the lower deck.

Jubilee 3001 the ChinookFrom 1936 to 1955, excluding the war years when heavier locomotives were necessary, passenger service on the C & E used a specially-designed locomotive for inter-city service, the 4-4-4 Jubilee no. 3001. Only five of its class were ever built and none were preserved. It led the 'Chinook' service featuring the daily 'Eskimo' and 'Stampeder' trains. The first diesel ran in 1949 and the Jubilees were replaced by the 'Dayliner' service in 1955 cutting the five-hour trip by one and a half hours. The 3-per-day Dayliners reached their peak in 1969 with 80,000 passengers carried.

Dayliner at InnisfailPassenger service ceased across the High Level Bridge in 1972 when Strathcona became the northern terminus. In 1985, passenger service came to an end after 94 years with the 'Dayliner' making its final run. However, proposals for new passenger service surfaced that included new-generation LRC locomotives operated by VIA Rail on CP or even a high-speed service, neither of which has so far become a reality.

Remnants of the steam era no longer used by the railway include the High Level Bridge in Edmonton still used for vehicle traffic, the Red Deer River bridge at Red Deer used as part of the Trans Canada Trail and restored railway stations at Strathcona, Red Deer and Didsbury. The Bowden station has been relocated to the Innisfail Historical Village. A scaled-down replica of the Wetaskiwin station is located at the Alberta Central Railway Museum 16 km southeast of Wetaskiwin.

The Calgary & Edmonton Railway near Red Deer

Railway Heritage Preservation in Central Alberta
     The Forth Junction Project
     The Alberta Central Heritage Model Rail Project
     'Moving People by Rail' Themed Community Proposal
          Historic Rail Background for 'Moving People by Rail'


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