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).
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.
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.