Abandoned, and looking every bit the part, pressure is growing to save the historic wooden road/rail bridge that spans the Red Deer River at East Coulee Alberta. Dating from the 1930s and last used just over three decades ago, it was built by the railway to access nearby coal mines, and later also carried vehicular traffic. Time is tricking away and the structure deteriorates more and more with each passing year. Something needs to be done.
This scenic valley here, a deep cut surrounded by the Alberta plains, at one time was home to dozens and dozens of coal mines. One of the largest, and the very last to operate, was the Atlas, directly across the river from town. The bridge we see was put in to access it and two other coal mines nearby, the Western Monarch and the Murray, plus a grain elevator.
Built in 1936, the bridge was strangely not made of steel as would be expected for the time, but wood (some of the beams are simply HUGE), likely as an economic measure. It’s made to the Howe Truss pattern. In this style the diagonals slant outwards, towards the ends. The similar Pratt Truss design, which is very common in railway use, has diagonals that slant inwards. The Pratt is better suited for steel, the reason they went with a Howe instead.
This crazy jumble of wood is held together with huge bolts and interconnected steel rods.
When built, the support piers were made of wood (pilings surrounded by earth and rubble in a wood casing). At some point a few were replaced with concrete examples (read on).
The bridge was damaged in 1948 from ice build up caused by spring flooding, and soon after by the overzealous use of explosives used to free the mess, and afterwards had to be rebuilt. Photos from then show one span leaning at a precarious angle. I suspect those concrete piers we spoke of in the previous paragraph were put in during that repair work.
At some point, (it’s thought the 1950s) the bridge had decking installed that allowed auto traffic to cross the structure. Prior to that only trains used it, and pedestrians who were accommodated on a side walkway, now mostly collapsed. A ferry is mentioned to have been located close by, which was how cars crossed the river before.
The last trains to cross the bridge were some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s (there is some debate). It appears that autos were allowed to use it for a time after. Today, a new road bridge is located a distance downstream.
At the north end of the structure is a small shack, used by the person whose job it was to stop autos from crossing when a train was due.
The railway line into here was owned by the CNR but shared with the CPR, two companies that were normally bitter enemies, under a joint trackage agreement. They had to share it, as the valley was too narrow for two lines.
This arrangement meant you could see trains from either company using the track. I understand each worked it half of the year. The lines dates from the later half of the 1920s and closed when the Atlas shut down. Coal traffic from the East Coulee mines (and many others in the Red Deer River valley) could travel east or west to points in Southern or Central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Coal was used for domestic heating and cooking, a market that dried up as natural gas made serious inroads starting in the 1950s.
At the peak of coal usage, train load after train load left East Coulee. By the end of service, output was mostly seasonal and sometimes many weeks passed before the trains moved.
Before the Atlas and the other mines on this side of the valley opened up, others used to operate on the town or north side of the river. Located at the very south end of the bridge is the abandoned Murray Mine, little of which remains today.
The structure today looks bad. The deck is rotted, but the main beams seem solid enough. One top cross brace has detached (minor I’d say) and some shims have rotted out at one pier causing a span to drop downwards somewhat.
The East Coulee bridge, one of the last of its kind in the country by the way, has been listed as an endangered historic site by Heritage Canada. Hopes are it can be saved and perhaps incorporated into the Atlas Mine museum. Imagine a pathway, across the bridge, connecting the Atlas site with the nearby East Coulee School Museum. That would be one heck of a heritage walk. Doing this of course requires money, lots of it, and securing that is a tall, tall order. Where would it come from?
So for now, nothing happens. These sort of things always move slowly anyway, but at least people, and even historical groups, are talking about it and the voices are only getting louder (witness all the recent online articles and new reports on the subject…Google it). Dialog, hopefully, will soon turn to action. Even the Atlas group seems to be looking at the bridge with a sort of renewed interest. Then the subject of money comes up.
In the meantime, the East Coulee bridge is still owned by the railway, the CPR in this case (not the CNR as expected, although some sources say both, in error), even though the tracks have been gone for an eternity. The railway industry in Canada, based on our own personal experiences, seems to be, at best, disinterested when it comes to matters of an historical nature such as this. With that in mind, getting any kind of help from them seems unlikely. We’ve dealt with the railways on other projects and they have little time for sentiment, that much we know. I guess they are a business after all, so should expect anything less? Naturally, our calls to the CPR were greeted with a big “NO COMMENT”. Noncommittal? Again, are we surprised? At least they spoke to us, something they’ve refused to do many times in the past (it’s that crazy historian guy again!).
East Coulee was founded in 1928 (or so, some reports says 1929) – either way, when the railway came through. A coal mining town for much of its history, it’s today home to around a hundred and fifty people. Compare that to the peak, when thousands live here. Little has changed in this town, which is now part of the extended municipality of Drumheller, and walking around one can still see many old miner’s cottages.
Joining us this trip was noted film photographer Robert Pohl and given that theme, we felt it a good idea to bring our vintage Minolta along to shoot a few frames ourselves. We only recently started shooting film again, and expect to do it more from time to time. It’s different and requires more thought. We like that it slows us down.
The BIGDoer crew is well versed at visiting dangerous places, it’s what we do, professionally, and we understand and know how to gauge the risks. We suggest you stay off this structure.
The Atlas Mine…
Historic Atlas Mine.
Down the valley…
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2015.
Location: East Coulee, AB.
Article sources: Book: Hills of Home – Drumheller Valley, East Coulee School Museum, CPR and CNR archives, Larry Buchan.
The bridge structure is dangerous and should not be crossed.