Calgary’s Rail Line to the Past
By Tim Johnston
Last summer while wandering the city looking for things to photograph, I came across two Canadian National (CN) locomotives at work in Calgary’s Highfield industrial area. Numbered 7077 and 7078, the locomotives had been manufactured in 1957 at the Electro Motive Division factory of General Motors in London, Ontario. In their early years, the 1,800 horsepower generated by their V-16 engines would have qualified them as lead units on the railway’s mainline trains. Today’s modern locomotive engines produce 4,500 horsepower. That’s why these 60-plus-year-old machines now find themselves doing yard work and spotting cars on local sidings.
To reach the Highfield area, the locomotives had come from CN’s Sarcee Yard, located parallel to 50th Avenue SE, and travelled southwest on a rail line that used a set of linked bridges to cross the irrigation canal, the mainline Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) tracks and Ogden Road. Turning northwest, the rails crossed the Bow River on a 1912-era bridge, Deerfoot Trail on a much newer structure, and Highfield Boulevard on yet another bridge. From there, the locomotives began their assignments, first collecting a loaded gondola car from a scrap metal dealer and moving it further north along the rails that end just south of Blackfoot Trail. Uncoupled from the gondola, the engines reversed and climbed up a fairly steep grade to reach the plateau upon which the Highfield district is located.
With camera at the ready, I followed the engines as they topped the grade and then headed west, paralleling 42 Avenue SE. They turned north on the CN right-of-way between 9th and 10th Streets to drop off a boxcar and collect three empties. A final stop was made just north of 34th Avenue to couple on to an empty covered hopper car.
Accompanying this story are photographs that show the return of the engines back down the hill and the assembly of the train of cars to be returned to Sarcee yard. I had witnessed a creative dance with locomotives and railcars, directed by the CN train crew, that had helped keep the wheels of Highfield commerce rolling.
As the train departed, I wondered why so much infrastructure was in place to service just a few businesses with a handful of railcars. A visit to the Calgary City Archives was about to provide some answers.
At the beginning of the 20th-century, railroad construction was one of Canada’s foremost industrial activities. Three major railway companies vied for access to the broad Canadian prairies and Canada’s west coast as well as to markets in Eastern Canada and the United States. The Canadian Pacific Railway was the first to reach Calgary on its route to Vancouver. Shortly after, the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) and the Alberta Midland Railway (AMR) arrived in Calgary and established their own rail yards and depots in the young city. Alberta Midland was owned by the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) and had used bond guarantees from the Alberta government to establish a provincial railroad company. AMR then constructed a line to Calgary from the CNoR transcontinental line that passed through Vegreville on its way to Edmonton and then on to Vancouver.
Routing in the city for the Grand Trunk Pacific started where the CN tracks currently enter the western boundary of Sarcee Yard. Curving in a broad loop to the north, the rails crossed the irrigation canal and the Bow River on bridges that are still in use. Swinging in a large arc to the northwest and west, the tracks followed the south bank of the Bow River to the Elbow River where another bridge took the rails into what is now Fort Calgary. There, a rail yard and station were constructed.
Entering Calgary south of the GTP, the Alberta Midland crossed the Canadian Pacific tracks and the Bow River on the very bridges that the CN crew had used to bring their train to the Highfield area. Continuing north from the truncated line where I had observed the train being assembled, the rails turned west just behind what is now Crossroads Market. Further west, the rails crossed Macleod Trail and ended in Lindsay Park where AMR established its Calgary train yard. A final bridge carried double tracks north across the Elbow River to access St. Mary’s Parish Hall, purchased by the AMR for use as passenger terminal, freight depot and general office.
At the turn of the last century, our nation held high hopes for its future. Immigrant families poured into the country, many brought here through the encouragement and support of the railways. By 1915, however, with war underway in Europe, immigration all but ceased and money from European lenders had dried up. The expense of maintaining duplicated main lines and over-extended branch lines placed all three national railways in perilous financial straits. A Royal Commission was established to determine options for dealing with the railroads in which the government was part owner or had the most significant investment.
Tabled in the House of Commons in May 1915, the report of the Commission recommended the “immediate nationalization of all the railways of Canada, except the American lines and the Canadian Pacific Railway.” One of the report’s recommendations was adopted in August of that year when the government took over ownership of the Canadian Northern Railway and its subsidiary companies such as Alberta Midland Railway. The Grand Trunk Pacific and its related companies were folded into what had become known as Canadian Government Railways in 1919. By 1923, the enormous rail system created by the amalgamation of so many separate companies officially became Canadian National Railways.
As Canadian National, the line to Lindsay Park and St Mary’s Parish Hall continued in service until 1971 when the station was closed and the yard was moved to the Sarcee location. Rails were removed back to the south side of Blackfoot Trail where they terminate today. CN removed the yard and station of the Grand Trunk Pacific from the current Fort Calgary area and terminated that rail line near today’s Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. CN now uses these rails to access a private railcar maintenance facility and to interchange railcars with Canadian Pacific.
The short piece of rail where I had watched a CN crew assemble their little train is all that remains of a chapter of Calgary’s railroad history. The branch lines built from northern main lines to Calgary by Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific opened additional land for settlement and provided competition for the dominant Canadian Pacific Railroad. Over this very length of rail, passenger trains had once come and gone to and from other parts of Canada. Freight trains had moved manufactured goods into the city and shipped agricultural products to markets elsewhere.
But time and progress change things. The Lindsay Park rail yard, once so vital to our city, was moved to the Sarcee location. CN’s container terminal, located northeast of the city at Conrich, has now displaced much of the activity there. The old rail yard, now part of Erlton community, is a beautiful residential neighborhood, close to downtown, and hosts the Repsol Sports Centre, one of Calgary’s fabulous recreational assets.
The little CN train was a joy to photograph and its two old locomotives that I call the “Twins” have served the company well and could conceivably have operated into Lindsay Park yard in their prime. Turns out they are also teachers, prompting me as they did to learn more about Calgary’s evolving railroad history.
CN in Calgary Story Cutlines
1. 5390 The “Twins” arrive below the Highfield industrial area on the former CN mainline into Calgary
2. 5396 A boxcar is spotted at the Westrock plant. The empty boxcars at the left will be included in the train that returns to Sarcee Yard
3. 5401 7077 and 7078 head for their last pickup at a plastics factory
4. 5414 With an empty covered hopper in tow, the locomotives head back to collect the empty boxcars at Westrock
5. 5417 Heading downgrade to the old main line
6. 5424 The CN crew control the locomotives with belt packs that are wirelessly linked to the locomotive controls
7. 5435 To return safely to the yard, the crew move the locomotives to the leading end of the train of cars
8. 5439 With couplers and air lines safely engaged, the train gets underway
9. 5446 Almost home, the train approaches Sarcee yard
Story, cutlines and photographs copyright 2020 by Tim Johnston.
One-time rights granted to the Calgary Kerby Centre for Seniors for publication in the Kerby News.