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old CPR bridge in downtown Red Deer

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modern CPR locomotives

historic Red Deer CPR station
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Canadian Northern Railway in Central Alberta

For many years, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann worked as contractors building several sections of railway lines in western and eastern Canada, including the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in 1890-91. In 1895, they had the opportunity to purchase the charter of a proposed railway line in Manitoba. There was considerable provincial support for some competition to the Canadian Pacific Railway to keep freight rates at a reasonable level.

In 1898, they acquired the Edmonton District Railway renaming it to the Edmonton, Yukon and Pacific Railway, originally chartered in 1896 to provide a rail line from Edmonton to the Yukon gold rush. In 1900, the new railway built the low level bridge over the North Saskatchewan River linking Edmonton with Strathcona, connecting with the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in 1902.

The partnership resulted in the creation of a prairie network of railway lines and a new transcontinental railway, the Canadian Northern Railway, federally chartered in 1899. Their strategy included building into areas with high agricultural potential, minimum standards to reduce expenses and hasten commencement of service and low freight rates.

The railway's east-west main line reached Edmonton in 1905. By 1909, the main line was improved and a higher standard of construction was incorporated into new branch lines. By 1909, the federal government determined that all branch lines would be financed by provincial governments and the new governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan were eager to expand the rail network.

In Alberta, several branches were incorporated as separate companies in order to get maximum funding from the provincial government. Once completed, the Canadian Northern would operate and maintain the branch lines. Two of the lines incorporated separately were the Alberta Midland and the Canadian Northern Western.

The Alberta Midland Railway was incorporated in 1909 with Mackenzie and Mann as two of the shareholders. The company awarded the construction contracts of up to five branchlines to Mackenzie and Mann.

Big Valley Canadian Northern station with 6060In order to discourage east-west expansion of the competing Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad between Calgary and Edmonton, one of the contracts was for a line from the Canadian Northern main line at Vegreville south to Camrose built in 1909, extended east of Buffalo Lake to Stettler, Big Valley and Drumheller in 1911 and on to Calgary in 1914. Also in 1914, a line connecting Camrose with Strathcona was built, completing a direct line between the two major cities. Big Valley was chosen to become the divisional point for the line.

Most of the other lines in the charter were never built. The Canadian Northern amalgamated the branch lines into the parent company as soon as the government funding was received.

Canadian Northern locomotive in 1913Even before the Alberta Midland Railway was completed between Camrose and Drumheller, a charter was obtained in 1910 to build the Canadian Northern Western Railway from Warden, a point on the AMR south of Stettler west to the Brazeau Colleries near Nordegg west of Rocky Mountain House. Construction started in 1911 at Warden reaching Sylvan Lake and a spur line to Red Deer that was originally planned to become part of a shorter north-south route between Calgary and Edmonton. It reached Rocky Mountain House in 1912 roughly running parallel with the Alberta Central Railway and extended to Nordegg late the following year. Rather than build its own bridge across the North Saskatchewan River at Rocky, the CNWR leased the bridge built by the Alberta Central.

The Canadian Northern Western also had permission to build an extensive rail network north and east of Edmonton and near Medicine Hat but most of it wasn't built.

The Canadian Northern became part of the Canadian Government Railways in 1918 and absorbed into the newly-created Canadian National Railways in 1919. In 1923, modifications were made at Alix South Junction (on the former Grand Trunk Pacific Railway) as part of a consolidation and rationalization of the various railroads comprising the new CNR. Mirror replaced Big Valley as the divisional point for train crews for the Brazeau Subdivision as well as the north-south Calgary-Edmonton former Grand Trunk Pacific line.

The line between Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg (Brazeau) was formally abandoned in 1986, although the line hadn't been used for almost thirty years after the mines closed.

In 1986, the Central Western Railway, founded by Thomas Payne, became western Canada's first modern day short line railroad when it acquired the Alberta Midland/Canadian Northern (Stettler subdivision of Canadian National) line between Ferlow junction south of Camrose and Munson junction south of Morrin. In 1992, the Central Western acquired the Coronation subdivision of Canadian Pacific. Much of the railway was abandoned except for the portion between Stettler and Big Valley which was sold to Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions in 1998.

Stettler steam train excursion with engine 6060Today, Alberta Prairie runs popular steam excursions almost year-round (except for dead of winter) using either a 1920 Consolidation steam locomotive (no. 42), a 1944 Mountain steam locomotive (no. 6060) or a 1958 SW1200 diesel switcher. The excursion between Stettler and Big Valley usually includes a meal, entertainment and a hold-up.

The Canadian Northern second class station and a grain elevator at Big Valley have been restored and an interpretive centre developed around the remnants of the former roundhouse. The line is also used as a training facility. The Canadian Northern station at Camrose has also been restored and is home to an extensive library and archives on railway history. It also has a tea room, museum, gift shop, garden railway and park. The Meeting Creek third class station and a grain elevator have also undergone restoration.

The Canadian Northern Western Railway Brazeau Subdivision (Canadian National)
The Calgary and Edmonton Railway (now Canadian Pacific Railway main north-south line)
The Calgary and Edmonton Railway near Red Deer
The Alberta Central Railway (abandoned Canadian Pacific Alberta Central subdivision)

Railway Heritage Preservation in Central Alberta
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