If you’ve driven highway 575 heading eastbound between Acme and Carbon, you have no doubt spotted the large train bridge spanning a deep and wide valley off to your right, at a point roughly halfway between those towns. This is the CNR’s Swalwell Bridge, a large concrete and steel structure that supports the railways north/south Alberta mainline travelling between Edmonton and Calgary.
I’ve seen the structure many times and was curious about it and this pass I decided to pay it a visit.
Located some distance from any roads, it would require a bit of a hike to get to. No problem, that’s what we do. Looking at Google Earth, the best approach seemed to be from the east. Parking at a spot where a rural road crosses the tracks (any time is train time) we head out and follow the fence line paralleling the rail line.
Rounding a curve, the bridge and the valley it spans, comes into view. At a lonely solitary tree (it looks like a fruit tree but bears no fruit) I jump the fence and enter a cow pasture, dropping down to creek level.
An easy animal trail takes us to our objective. Along the way I am astounded by the huge Buffalo Berry bushes (heck they are almost trees) that grow along side the path. I am familiar with the plant, the fruit is edible, and we see them all the time in the mountains. They grow much smaller there, but regardless of size, the shiny red berries tastes awful. In spite of that they are a popular food for woodland bears and were eaten by the indigenous peoples, who must have had cast iron stomachs. This year the plants bear so much fruit (no doubt due to a wet spring) that the branches seem to almost strain under the load.
Under the bridge I find more berry bushes including some Chokecherries, another edible plant. Not great tasting either, I guess with some sugar, no lots and lots of sugar, and made into a jam, the berries might be palatable. These plants grow huge here as well.
Onto our subject now and it’s massive. There are huge cement piers, supporting a combination deck truss and deck plate bridge above. It’s quite a distance from where I stand to the top.
The bridge spans the deepest section of the valley, muddy Kneehills Creek and a long abandoned CPR branch line. Prior to this structure, which was built in the mid 1950s, a huge wooden trestle used to stand here. The latter, constructed in 1913 when the railway came through here, was much longer than the current bridge. Over time the north approach was filled in with earth, resulting in the high embankment we see today.
This is the CNR’s Three Hills Subdivision, originally built by the Grand Trunk Pacific. In the 1920s, that company and some others, all failing and at or near bankruptcy, were folded into the Canadian National system we know today. This line sees a couple or perhaps a few trains per day, although none showed while I explored the bridge.
There was some graffiti on the underside of the structure which seems very odd since it’s not that easy to get here. I bet I am the first non-train visitor in a long time.
Some old telegraph poles can be seen in the area. It’s been a long time since these were used. Some still have the lines strung between them.
On the bridge’s south side is that old CPR line mentioned earlier. This was that company’s Langdon Subdivision, which travelled from it’s namesake town, to the coal fields of East Coulee. Not only a conduit for coal, lot of grain moved along the line, which came through here in 1921. The branch was abandoned in the mid 1990s and the old roadbed is still easily seen as it meanders eastbound up the valley.
We hang around hoping a train will pass – that would be a great picture – but with none come so we reluctantly head home.
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Date: August 2013.
Location: Near Swalwell, AB.