Canadian National Railway’s recently abandoned route in the Drumheller area of Alberta is home to around sixty bridges. Yes, that many, amazingly all along a stretch of line perhaps thirty or forty kilometres long (roughly). The track shares the narrow valley with the meandering Rosebud River and is forced to cross it and recross it again and again. There was no way around it. In this report we look at four of these bridges found in quick succession along a stretch if this very line.
The track that used to run here was built in the mid-1910s by the Canadian Northern Railway under the charter of the Alberta Midland Railway. It become a Canadian National Railway property in the early 1920s, when it took over operations of the CNoR (and some competing companies).
The line, with many side branches, ran between Saskatoon and Calgary. It was last used for through freights around 2008 although I understand local trains continued for a short time after. The rails, by then rusty and weed choked, were only recently pulled up. All bridges remain.
This line near the end saw a few trains per day but was hindered by a lack of business along the middle section, heavy grades coming in and out of Red Deer River valley, unstable soil in the badlands and finally the bridges we’ve been speaking about. A few are no problem, but sixty (or what ever the true number is – no one seems to really know) is a costly maintenance headache.
It’s not known what officially will happen to the roadbed. Often old rail lines are converted to trails, but no solid information on what could be in store here was found. The CNR is being tight-lipped on this. We called them and they told us to bugger off.
In the meantime, people have been using a the lane-width roadbed for recreation purposes. Evidence of 4×4 tire marks and a passing motorcyclist confirmed that. With some work, it’d sure make a good a multi-use trail, in fact it’s ideal for this unlike most prairie lines so converted (which travel through the featureless plains). This one instead passes through the very scenic Alberta Badlands, home to lots of nature and very few people. It’s nice and remote and amazingly scenic, as our pictures will prove. It’s got a lot of potential.
The section we explored, perhaps a click or so in length, crosses the river four times, three on deck-plate (open top) spans and one using a through truss (it’s a Pratt style, commonly used by railways). All the bridge piers are dated, showing they are from the 1940s. They replaced worn out wood-pile trestles – some of the current spans still have pile ends – which go back to the time when the line was constructed.
It’s not known who built the current steel components. We looked for builder’s plates or evidence of factory marks, but could find none. Dominion Bridge maybe? They were the country’s biggest and longest lasting bridge making firm.
Two of the bridges have side walkways. On the others, we had to tie-hop, taking great care as it’d be easy to fall between them and snap an ankle. This author is rather scared of heights and even though these bridges are not that high, looking through the grates or ties with a view down to the water, was, well, a bit uncomfortable at times.
The Rosebud River, as with all prairie watercourses, is slow and muddy. The valley here eventually meets up with the Red Deer River near Drumheller, (technically Rosedale), the most well known area within the Alberta Badlands. This offshoot valley, in contrast is not well know and has few roads passing through it. That’s what we like.
We’d love to explore the area more. There are a lot of bridges left to see. Four down, some fifty something to go. That will keep us busy for a while.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: April, 2015.
Location: Rosebud River Valley, AB.
Article sources: CNR company records, University of Alberta Press.
The land status of this railway line is not known and therefore one should be cautious when exploring it.