May 202014
 
Empress AB/SK sign

We’ll be supplying our own pictures for the then elements seen in this report. It’s not often we do this and typically our readers supply them to us from their own collections. Our subject is the CPR’s Empress AB train station and we look at it first in 1998 and again, sixteen years later, in 2014 (has it been that long?) So what has changed? The railways line is gone, and the station has been fixed up and repainted but otherwise it’s as though time has stood still and how it looks today is much as it did then.

The station dates from 1914, when the rail line came through. After passenger service ended in the early 1960s, it served as a storage building and sometimes as a crew bunkhouse. By the 1980s is was essentially abandoned and was boarded up. On our 1998 visit, the freight room door was open, but all we found inside was a large and very old scale that was formerly used to weight outbound express packages. It was left behind, I presume, because it was too heavy to move. Is it still there? We looked inside but our view was blocked by some building materials.

This station was made to CPR plan X-12 and was the only example of this type located in Alberta. We have been unable to find out how many existed or still exist in other provinces but we believe the numbers are low (it was an uncommon style).

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Designated an historic site in the early 1990s, on our first visit it was painted the typical CPR mineral or Tuscan red but has since been repainted a pleasant yellow. The latter was occasionally seen in the early years and I guess when renovating the building they found evidence that it was originally done up like that.

The building is still under renovation on our most recent visit and it’s hoped that it will be ready for its 100th birthday in June (according to CPR records, the line opened that month a century ago). I guess the building will be or is open to view – a sign on the side asks that you go to a business in town to gain access. It was empty, save for some windows being worked on, so we took a pass. I am assuming it will eventually be filled with railway themed displays and the like. I’d love see the insides when they’re done.

The rail line here was the CPR’s Bassano Subdivision, aka the Empress Branch or the Royal Line – it was so called for the many “imperial” named towns found along its length (Empress, Countess, Duchess, Princess and so on). The branch started at its namesake town of Bassano, along the CPR’s mainline and travelled roughly 180km east before arriving here in Empress. Continuing on from this point, the line crossed into Saskatchewan, becoming the Empress Subdivision in the process, before heading back to the CPR mainline near Swift Current.

This line, like most on the prairies, was built to transport grain. After 1929 there was also considerable coal being moved, which came in from a connecting line via the Red Deer River valley near Drumheller. Since the line paralleled the CPR mainline and was connected to it at both ends, it could also be used as bypass route for mainline trains in times of heavy traffic or if there was a derailment or blockage.

As you can see in the photos, the station is located close to the the Alberta/Saskatchewan border (Alberta side), marked by a large sign. Since our 1998 visit, it’s been flipped. In the past when facing the sign it told you what you were looking into. Now it tells you what side you are on. Either way is right although the current set up seems more logical.

Near the station is a wye (pronounced “y”), actually the remains of it. It was used to turn locomotives or snow plows so they are pointed in the right direction. Diesels for the most part do not need to do this, so after stream locomotives were retired, it saw less use. There also used to be a yard and fuelling facilities nearby, marked today by a large empty field. Empress, early on, was a divisional point along the railway but later lost this status (1960s or 70s?).

In the past, there used to be a row of grain elevators not far from the train depot. These were gone by our 1998 visit. The last trains to use this line, by the way, were the year before. By that time, Empress was the end of track, the centre section of line (Empress to Leader) having been abandoned around 1990. The section from Leader east to the CPR mainline is still in service and is operated by the Great Sandhills Railway, which we visited on this trip.

Walking around the old rail yard site we had to keep our eyes open for bird’s nests on the ground. We saw a lot of them, all full of eggs. It’s spring, but the trees had yet to bud. Fortunately, mosquitoes were not a problem this day. It’s still a bit early for them. In this area, we found an old loading dock, the only other structure remains we found.

Rules of exploration: show respect, don’t trespass and take only pictures.

On this trip we were heading to Saskatchewan on a strict schedule, but after shooting the depot found some time to do a quick walk-about town to take a few pictures. For your enjoyment, some of these shots are included in this report. We’d like to return some day to fully explore Empress. It’s an interesting place and I’d say it’s worthy of it’s own full report. These are many old buildings, a few in use – for example, That’s Empressive, an art gallery and tea house – while most others are empty like the old Bank of Commerce building, the hardware store and a boarded up hospital. Also seen shown in our shots is the United Church, the town’s gas station (one cardlock pump) with a vintage sign, and a old building converted to a public works garage. All very interesting buildings!

At the AB/SK border sign, we found a geocache full of interesting trinkets and knickknacks. In town I noticed a road sign that was wrong. It said Railroad Avenue, when it should have said Railway. Traditionally, the former is used in the US and the latter in Canada, although today many people consider them interchangeable. Like the people who made the sign, I guess.

The remains of the Bassano Subdivision, and the connecting Empress Subdivision into Saskatchewan, and other nearby by branches, can be followed in person or on Google Maps. In many places they are located nearby or cross a highway. There are lots of ghost towns or near ghost towns along these lines.

On our visit, the weather changed from cloudy to rainy to blue skies and back, all within a matter of ten or twenty minutes.

If you have some old photos like those seen in this report and would like us to revisit the locations seen to check out what things looks like today and then document it all in this blog, by all means send them to us. Contact information can be found below.

To see some other railway stations we’ve documented, go here…
CPR Calgary train station.
CPR Bassano Station.
Silver Streak movie then and now – boarded up train station.

If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Empress, AB.

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Lunch in Empress Alberta

Before we shoot, it’s time for lunch.

 

Empress AB railway station

The Empress Alberta railway station in 1998, from a distance.

Empress railway station

The same view sixteen years later.

 

Empress AB railway depot

The station is almost on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.

Empress railway depot

The rail line is gone and the sign has been flipped.

 

Empress AB train station

The station dates from 1914.

Empress train station

Not bad looking for a 100 years old.

 

CPR Empress branch

The empty railway roadbed just west of Empress.

Empress Alberta train station

Spring is here but the trees have yet to bud.

Railway loading dock

An old railway loading dock.

Bird eggs

We found many nests on the ground so we had to be careful where we walked.

Empress AB railway line

The rail line heads off into Saskatchewan.

Birds nest with eggs

Lots of eggs in this one.

Empress AB/SK sign

The border sign.

Empress Alberta geocache

We find a geocache.

Empress Alberta railway station

Few CPR stations were painted in these colours – most were mineral red.

Empress Alberta train depot

The interior is being worked on.

Empress Alberta station

The back or town side of the station – the sign is wrong, it’s Railway Avenue.

 

That's Empressive

That’s Empressive, an art studio and tea room.

Empress Hardware and Garage

The old hardware store and in behind, the town’s “gas station”.

Empress AB Bank of Commerce

This building once housed the Bank of Commerce and other offices.

Empress Alberta public works

The public works building.

Empress AB United Church

The McNeill Memorial United Church.

Empress AB hospital

The former hospital, all boarded up.

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28 Comments on "Empress Alberta – then and now"

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Johnnie Bachusky
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Johnnie Bachusky

Nice work Chris.

Jim P
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Jim P

Great shots Chris!!

James Tworow
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James Tworow

Heck, I passed right by here two summers ago! On my way back to Calgary from Saskatchewan, heading home from Maple Creek via Leader, then cutting north-west of Leader into Alberta… Saw the sign, but was trying to make time so kept driving, maybe should have stopped… *sigh*

Teresa Studer
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Teresa Studer

I just read your article about the Empress CPR Station it is very nice to see. Just so you know the last picture that you are calling an old school is actually the old hospital. Just thought you might like to know that.

Laura Bach
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Laura Bach

How right you are Teresa, think you were born there, and it was never painted yellow. The hospital was built in 1942, I was born in the old Cottage hospital – it was named- a house on the “hill” west of the school. The school was a block east, a brick building that was built in the early 1900’s and demolished by George Wingenbach!! He was an outsider who moved to Empress after World War 2. He destroyed a historical landmark for Empress!!
Laura (Brister) Bach

Jason Sailer
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Jason Sailer
Hi Chris: 1. It is the only example of a X-12 CPR station in Alberta 2. Empress lost its divisional point status in 1960 – passenger service ended around 1963 3. Used as a operator bunkhouse until 1972 4. Designated a provincial historic site on June 28, 2002 Additional items; On May 29, 1914, the CPR awarded the contract for all railway buildings at Empress to C.W. Sharp and Son from Winnipeg. Built at a cost of $8,393.40, the Empress station opened for business on October 21, 1914 when the first passenger line arrived from the west. Completion of the eastern portion of the line was held up pending construction of a bridge across the Red Deer River. It is distinguished by the utilization of the large windows and by ornamental pressed metal wild roses at the end of the roof ridge cap. The utilization of the station incorporates the… Read more »
Ed Tut
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Ed Tut

I’ve always been fascinated by pictures of the Canadian prairie. It appears to be more vast and remote, and a lot less inhabited, than the American prairie. It seems to go on forever.

Chris Herrmann
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Chris Herrmann

I love Empress. Had fate been a bit different, it may be today’s Capital of Alberta, due to the meeting of the Reddeer and South Sask Rivers. I know in the pastures around town there are old survey sticks. And the cemetery along the hiway was suppose to be in the middle of town. O I love the history of these towns.

Silvere L. Testa
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Silvere L. Testa

Glad that Cool old sign made it!

Merna Nelson
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Merna Nelson

Love seeing these old pics. Have a couple taken in Empress when my mother & her sister were young girls. Their family lived there in the early 1920’s before moving back to Merid,SK.

Barrie Geosits
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Barrie Geosits

It appears that someone is watching over the station.

Allan Hudson
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Allan Hudson

Have been by many of the places you have listed including this Empress one. Thanks for all the informative pictures you have posted Chris and Connie and really enjoy your site.

Angeline Wagar
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Angeline Wagar

My Dad was raised in Empress and my Mom is buried there along with my grandparents.

Kelly Rebar
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Kelly Rebar

We were just this morning talking about Empress. Thank you for this post, and all the others. Wonderful site.

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