The Alberta Prairie Railway Excursion tourist trains makes regular stops in Big Valley Alberta, a lovely and picturesque town with an historic ex-CNoR train station. This century old building welcomes those visiting no matter how they get here. We came by car but wished it we arrived by train instead.
There are a lot of old and interesting structures in this small town (links below) and for this post we’ll concentrate only on the train and station.
Before we look at he train, we’ll do a little back story on the rail line itself. This is a former Canadian Northern Railway line (Alberta Midland charter), a meandering and circuitous stretch of track which travelled from Edmonton (and Vegreville) south to Calgary.
Built in the early 1910s, this line changed hands a decade later, after the financially unstable CNoR merged with rival Grand Truck Pacific, becoming the Canadian National Railways. With that merger, this former north/south mainline was downgraded to branch line status. Traffic that used to be routed on this line was instead send down the more direct and better engineered ex-GTP route to the west.
Always marginal, the CNR wanted to rid itself of the line and in the early 1990s did just such a thing. Sold to short line carrier Central Western, this new company continued to serve the customers along the line, mostly grain elevators. Concurrent with that, the tourist railway we see here was established and while freights no longer operate here, (the last were in the late 1990s/early 2000s), the tourist trains flourished and today they use the track exclusively.
At one time the branch travelled much further south then it does today and in fact this town is now at the end of track. The tourist trains operate out of nearby Stettler and when stopping at Big Valley people are not only encouraged to explore the town, they also get a nice home cooked meal at a community hall.
Let’s take a look at the train – we get our first view of it through an old window opening while we explored the old CNoR roundhouse remains nearby. We in fact had no idea a train was due this day and it’s was just dumb luck that we caught it.
Starting from the back, we see a caboose, an ex-CNR car, #79146, which was built in the late 1950s on the frame of an ancient boxcar. Technically a caboose would not be seen on a passenger train, but they cater to tourists after all and historical accuracy is not always the main goal.
Next up is car #1002, known as “Tracey”. This ex-CPR car was built in 1931 and was as built a sleeper. Beside it is #5082, “Lone Star”, an ex-CNR lounge car built in the mid 1920s. Nameless #6603 is also an ex-CNR car, also from the mid 1920s, but was originally built as a coach. The oldest of the bunch is #7279, a circa 1919 ex-CNR coach.
Moving along we next see an open air car converted from an old flat car, which we did not photograph. Beside it is a relative youngster, #6744, an early 1950s era “lightweight” coach, built for the CNR. You’ll notice how massive the older “heavyweight” cars look compared to this one. Beside it are #2808 and #5080, two old cars (circa 1919 and 1924 – ex-CNR). Their pictures did not turn out well, so we’ll get them next time I guess. Lastly, we see #1001, “Glen Sutton”, an ex-CPR sleeper car. On the ex-sleepers, notice the wider window spacing, a dead give away to what the car was originally.
Of interest to train buffs all the cars seen were constructed by the Canadian Car and Foundry company, one of Canada’s most prolific rail car builders of the time.
The APRE for the most part sourced these cars from the railway’s that they were originally built for. A lot of work would have been needed to clean then up, since most were in rough shape, many of them having been used as storage or tool cars after being demoted from passenger service. They’ve come full circle!
Coming to the front, we see the locomotive. It’s an ex-CNR General Motors Diesel (GMD – London Ontario) model SW1200RS, built in 1957. Designed as a light weight, light duty locomotive, it is perfectly at home on this old branch line and who knows, in CN days, it or one of its kin, may have even travelled this line. One thing it was not designed for was to pull passenger trains and this is another of those historical inaccuracies that we’ll have to overlook. The train by the way is powered by a generator mounted inside one of the cars.
This engine is mostly used in early and late season runs and during the peak summer season, one of the company’s two steam locomotives are used instead.
Looking down the track from the front of the train, the Big Valley grain elevator can be seen in the distance. It, plus the train station which we’ll soon explore, and even the train itself (inaccuracies aside), together take us back to an earlier time. Many would say a simpler time.
Soon the train will head back to Stettler, which will allow us get a clear shot of the station. Before that, we wander around, checking out some static rail car displays. We see an old 1950s era CPR boxcar, a circa 1920 baggage car (CPR #404911) and others. Across the road we spot some kids cashing in on the tourists that the train brings to town and to quench the thirsts of those visitor’s, they have set up a Kool-aid stand. They offer cheap drinks and free cookies!
With the train now gone, the town does quiet. Wandering over to the station we take some time to explore this wonderful old structure. It was built in 1912 for the Canadian Northern Railway and was later inherited by the CNR in the 1920s. This is a divisional station (in CNoR vernacular, a “second class station”), bigger then would typically be built for a town of this size and the extra space was for the additional offices and staff needed at such a location.
Passenger trains, self powered Budd rail cars, continued to visit Big Valley into early 1980s although since the mid 1960s the station was not used and was otherwise locked up. Few passengers would be picked up or dropped off here so it was really not needed anyway. In the last years of operation, service was provided by Canada’s national passenger carrier, Via Rail. In the later years, the station fell into disrepair.
In the 1970s, the building was used as a senior’s centre and museum but that was short lived. Later, in the late 1980s the Canadian Northern Society, the station’s current caretakers, obtained the building and renovated it. This origination cooperates with the tourist train operators, but are otherwise not directly connected.
The building, as constructed, would have had waiting rooms, and a ticket and telegraph office, a baggage and express area and upstairs, living quarters for the agent and his family.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2013.
Location: Big Valley, AB.