The massive train bridge seen here carries the CPR’s north/south mainline over the Bow River in Calgary, just east of downtown. Located next to Nose Creek and just up from Harvie Passage, a kayakers paradise, the bridge has stood here for what must be close to a century.
The structure is built to the Pratt Truss design, a form that’s often used by railways. This style afforded great strength, ease of construction and was quite adaptable. It could be used singly for moderate spans or any number could be connected in a series, with intermediate piers, forming a much larger multiple span crossing.
No information could be found when the bridge was built, nor could a builder’s plate be found on its sides (on either end). Based upon its design and known build dates of other similar structures however, the 1910s or 20s is a good bet. This style seemed to fall out of favour after those dates with deck style bridges taking over, which were cheaper to construct.
In the time the bridge has stood here, we’ve gone from the horse and buggy era to the technologically complex society of today and all the while the bridge did its work day after day, supporting passing trains.
As with most railway infrastructure, the bridge was overbuilt and while ancient by most people’s standards, it has no trouble supporting the heavier trains of today. Railways always like to get their money’s worth. The bridge in fact held fast during recent flooding (June 2013) and the water got so high as to almost touch the bottom girders. To help further stabilize it, the CPR parked some loaded grain cars on it to weight it down – railways often do this and parking full cars of grain or gravel on a bridge during floods is common practice. Both commodities by the way would cause no real damage if the cars holding them, heaven forbid, tumbled into he river and spilled their contents.
The local media mistakenly reported that a train stalled there, which is not surprising since they rarely get anything right and love to fear monger.
Prior to this bridge, there was another earlier example at this same spot, however no real information on it could be found by this author. I do however believe it was a wooden structure.
The tracks seen here belong to the CPR’s Red Deer Subdivision which has been in operation since the early 1890s. Many trains use the line which travels north to Edmonton, with a number of side branches heading off at various locations. Until the mid-1980s, passenger trains used the line too.
The extra set of rails seen in the middle of the track serve an interesting function. They are known as check or guard rails and keep a derailed car from damaging the bridge. Simply, if a car comes off the tracks (unlikely but if it were to happen it could get messy) the rail forces the wheels to stay between it and the outer running rail, keeping the car upright and centred on the structure. While the car may chew up some ties, the bridge overall would be saved from any serious damage. You’ll see these rails on most train bridges.
Seen on the west side of the structure are the remains of an old telegraph system. At one time, these lines travelled parallel to most tracks, and were used for public messaging (anyone remember getting a telegraph?) and inter-station communication. These fell out of use by the 1970s or thereabouts, yet even today one can find remnants of them, like these for example.
In an incredible act of stupid, I remember crossing the bridge on foot as teenager in the late 1970s, along with some equally dumb friends. What if a train approached? Were we to hang off a girder, or jump into the river and get swept away? If the latter, what about the notorious weir just down stream? It was a people killer and no one escaped its death grip.
You know, we never even gave it much thought. We were invincible, as teenagers are apt to think. As it turned out anyway, we made it across without incident but actions like this have me surprised I made to to adulthood.
The bridge is just downstream from Nose Creek, which enters the Bow River beside the structure. The railways parallels that meandering waterway all the way to Airdrie, some 35km away. A public pathway ducks under the bridge on both ends, allowing one easy access to study it. The Calgary Zoo is nearby and busy Memorial Drive can be seen (and heard) nearby.
Downstream, at the site of the old weir, that deathtrap mentioned earlier, is Harvie Passage. These man made river channels are a kayaker’s dream and while still hazardous they are nothing compared to the previous structure which took a number of lives. There are a good number of warning signs for this section of rapids upstream of it (as there there was for the weir too). One of these signs is on the bridge.
A portage route bypasses Harvie Passage for those in canoes or rafts, or for those in kayaks who feel their skills are not up to the task. The passage has both a class two and three rating, or medium and difficult respectively. The floods this year damaged the channels, built only a few years ago. On our visit the Class 2 route was closed and empty of water and was being repaired.
To see a nearby train bridge which collapsed during the June 2013 floods, go here…
Collapsed Bonnybrook train bridge.
To see some kayakers playing in nearby Harvie Passage, follow this link…
A day off watching kayakers.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: December, 2013.
Location: Calgary, AB.