In a few short years the Manyberries Alberta railway station will be a century old. Somehow this fine old building has managed to survive when most others across the province have not and today it’s being cared for by a couple who call it their home. It sits exactly where built and has been witness to the comings and goings of pioneers, settlers and travellers and of course, countless passing trains. Once a cornerstone of the community, it’s seen the town prosper and seen it in decline.
If you close your eyes it’s easy to imagine it a busy place, so many years ago. It reminds us just how important the train station and railways in general were to small towns across the prairies, a point now lost on today’s younger generation.
A vintage caboose and an old section house located on the property complete the scene.
The Canadian Pacific Railway came through Manyberries in late 1916 with the station being built later the following year. This section of track was known as the Stirling Subdivision and ran south from Lethbridge to its namesake town (a section still in use today) and then east on to Manyberries with a connecting line travelling further into Saskatchewan. This was primarily a grain gathering branch.
The rails were pulled up in the 1990s.
The station, known in rail buff circles as a CPR type #13, but officially as a type A2 Western, it was one of the most common depot designs used by the company. Almost two hundred were built, mostly across the prairies, in the years 1908-1918. It’s a combination passenger depot, freight house and has upstairs living quarters for the station agent and his family. That person sold tickets but was also a car broker, express agent, telegrapher and many, many other things.
It was these other tasks that accounts for the station’s longevity. Even after passenger service ended, the agent still needed a place to both work and live and so the building remained in use for a time, not closing until the early 1980s. It was not immediately abandoned however and the upstairs was rented out as a residence for a good number of years.
Unused since the early 1990s, the old station was discovered by a couple who wound up purchasing it and converting it to a bed and breakfast. The structure was in awful shape and I understand it took a much time and money to bring it up to habitable standards.
It continued to function as a B&B until recently when the owners retired due to health concerns. The current occupants, Cheryl and TJ and son, took possession of it earlier this year. They had tried to acquire it earlier, back in 2012, but that deal fell through.
In addition to the station, the property includes a second building, a section of track with a caboose and speeder, much of the old rail line and the former yard property to the east, and numerous pieces of train memorabilia.
A lot of work was done on the building in the last couple decades and and as such did not require much work for the new owners to move in. None the less, there is always something to do. Speaking with Cheryl, they have no immediate plans for the station, other then to keep it maintained….
”Our current plans are just to maintain the building and enjoy it as best we can. Keeping in mind the historic significance of it. We have no plans as of yet with all the land, but there is lots of time for us to plan and dream.”
A building like this is of course a natural curiosity (it sure caught my interest) and Cheryl has mentioned that many people drop by thinking it’s a museum or attraction. It’s not, it’s a home. That’s not to say that visitors are not welcome. If it’s a reasonable time of day and you ask nicely and show respect, they’ll be happy to show you around. Here’s what Cheryl has to say about this…
”We were well aware that the station and caboose are a major part of the community here and are excited when people come by to show interest in them. As long as visitors ring the bell and let us know they are here, they are welcome to have a look around. Not so much the inside the station, since it is our home, but around the property and in the caboose.”
She goes on to add…
”We have had quite a few people pop in, some just travelling by that thought we were a museum, some avid photographers, others who worked there years ago, a lot have known the owners who restored it into a B&B who have had their stories to tell as well. There have been a few that have the bold misconception that it is abandoned and they can go through personal property. Most of the encounters have been very pleasant…”
If they invite you for a tour, be sure to thank them for the opportunity. Remember, it’s their home and is private property.
Beside this station, there are a few more of this design still in existence in the province, one of them in Beiseker (used as town offices), one at Calgary’s Heritage Park and one is a museum in Castor. There may be others too.
Next to the station, on a short section of track, is a speeder car and caboose. The latter, CPR #436503, is just over a century old and prior to coming here in the early 2000s, was on display at Eston Saskatchewan. When it was retired by the CPR is not known but it could have easily lasted in service well into the 1970s or even the 1980s, when cabooses were for the most part finally phased out. That long? It’s certainty possible since the obsessively frugal CPR held onto to things for a long, long time.
Railway workers would often refer to their caboose as a hack, crummy or waycar. Here in Canada you might also hear them called “vans”. As you can see in the photos the car, which was both a work place and home on wheels for the tail end crew, was hardly a palace. The accommodations were very, very basic and clearly not that comfortable. One comment I hear from old timers is that the caboose was always too hot or too cold. Never was it just right.
There is a nice mid-1950s Chevrolet pickup on the property. I forgot to ask Cheryl and TJ about it, but perhaps I can convince them to comment here.
Next door to the station is what’s called a section house. It was home for the “section man” and his family, and his job was to patrol and maintain a specific stretch (or section) of track. He’d ride his speeder up and down the line inspecting it and doing any minor repairs and maintenance. Tightening rail bolts was one common task. The use of section men was phased out a long time ago.
It’s not clear when this building was constructed (research continues BTW), but around the same time of the station is a likely guess. When it was last used by the railway is not known either, but I understand that once the section man’s job ended (most of these positions were phased out in the 1950s/60s), it found use as a dormitory, a place for railway crews to overnight if needed.
Once no longer needed by the CPR, the section house was not demolished as one would expect, but rather rented out as accommodation. This is what accounts for its survival. It’s still being used in that capacity to this day.
The old railway yard, locomotive servicing and turning facilities and grain elevator were all located on a chunk of land just east of the station. On Google Earth, you can get a good idea where each was. We did not have much time to explore there, but hope to return.
Manyberries was founded with the coming of the railway although I understand a limited number of have lived in the area for some years prior. It’s in the proverbial middle of nowhere, at a remote crossroads in one of the drier regions of Alberta, and today it’s home to a handful of people. At the peak there might have been two handful’s worth! The area has never been heavily populated.
On this visit we stopped by the only open business in town, the Southern Ranchman’s Inn, for a bite and a beer. What an incredible place. It’s like stepping back in time and I just loved it! You can get a room to and that’s my to-do list. Not many of these old hotels remain in business.
Thanks to Cheryl and TJ Stromsmoe who allowed us free run of the station and its surroundings. A big shout out to Jason and Rebecca Sailer too, the couple who orchestrated the meeting between us all. In addition to getting us access here, they took us on amazing abandoned and old things tour of southeastern Alberta and for that we are forever grateful. We had a blast! Watch for more articles from this collaboration coming soon.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: August, 2014.
Location: Manyberries, AB.