For this report we find ourselves exploring the lonely plains southwest of Medicine Hat. Initially it appears there is not much to see, but when we look a bit closer history starts to unfold right before our eyes. For example, we discover this amazing piece of engineering, the CPR Suffield Subdivision bridge over the Bow River near the former town of Cecil Alberta.
The area is mostly uninhabited, due to its remote location and very dry conditions and farming only takes place near irrigation canals, none of which are near this bridge. To visit this location requires a bit of a hike along the old rail bed, so most of the time the bridge sits alone.
The history we found on the area is pretty sparse, just the like land itself. We know that the bridge was built around 1912/13 and that the CPR had high aspirations for the area (hence the fine engineering). First came the trains, and then the throngs of people and almost concurrently, the irrigation. That was the plan anyway. But it never happened and most of the region remained dry and unpopulated. So while the line was built to typical high CPR standards, it hosted only short infrequent trains.
When this section of the line was abandoned has not been found by this author. But it was before 1988 at least, since I have seen a timetable of that era and it does not list this subdivision. Given the low volume of traffic on the line, maybe it was even earlier than that. I’ll continue to research and post updates should further information be found.
Other portions of the Suffield Subdivision continued to be served out of the west – they had enough traffic. This second part of the line extended from a point south of Calgary to Hays and was used until the late 1990s or early 2000s. Only this low traffic portion from Hays to Suffield, where the bridge is located, was abandoned earlier.
Just before the structure is the former town of Cecil Alberta. Calling it a town might be a stretch – perhaps a station stop would be a better description. No solid evidence of any buildings could be found nearby, only signs of a short siding off the CPR line. On Google Maps, some possible shadows of foundations can be seen, but nothing is certain. If there was something here, it never was much and the evidence is long gone
This town did rate a mention in the CPR timetable, as a flag stop*, at least in the 1925 issue I found. At that time, a twice a week mixed train (hauling both freight and passenger cars) used the line. Fares from Cecil to Suffield along the CPR mainline were 90 cents and the train took almost two hours to travel the 42 kilometres. A slooooow ride indeed! From Suffield, one could transfer to a mainline train heading west to the city of Calgary or east to the large town of Medicine Hat.
Oddly, you can call up Cecil using Google Maps. Of course all you will see is an empty field. Nearby and equally empty is the town of Ronalane. Cecil also shows on other print and online maps I have seen too. Vary strange!
Between the bridge and the metropolis of Cecil is something called a wye. What is a wye and why is a wye called a wye (or “Y”)? Well, it’s an arrangement of tracks in the form of the letter Y that allows trains from one line to transfer to another, independent of what direction they are travelling. Or like the one here, it allows locomotives or equipment to be turned. But that begs the question, what were they turning?
Typically a wye is placed at the end of a line but Cecil was not the end of this branch. Sometimes a wye is placed at the top of steep hill so the pusher engines can be turned. It’s hard to tell the grade here, it does not seem much though, but even if it was, were pushers needed on this lightly travelled line? Seems unlikely. It is well engineered, that’s for certain and for now remains a mystery (update below).
Just down from the wye is the bridge. And what an wonderful piece of engineering it is. In spite of not being used for some time, it appears in superb condition. All the piers are nicely in-line and the deck is flat (meaning it has not shifted). A portion of the deck near the beginning has been removed, to prevent access – a good idea considering how dangerous this structure could be. It does not look high in pictures, but it is and there is a long drop to the shallow river below. On the opposite end, I assume some decking was also removed, but could not confirm from my angle. On the first pier a cross member was missing, and another cut. For what reason though?
On my visit, not a single person was seen (not surprising). Only some old fences, a few cows on the opposite bank and a couple farms far in the distance were the only other indicators of human habitation. Totally lonely and that’s a feeling I like.
*Terminology: A flag stop is an infrequently used station or siding where trains only stop on an as-needed basis. When requesting pickup from such a station one need wave the supplied flag, or a piece of clothing like a jacket, or their arms to signal the train crew that they intend to board. These stations could be a small bus shelter type building, a simple platform, or even a level spot by the tracks sans any structure at all. When trains pass by a flag stop they do so at reduced speed in case there is a pickup. On some routes a flag stop could happen anywhere.
Update: July 2013. I have done further research and have confirmed that this section of the line was abandoned in 1977. The mixed train mentioned operated until 1958 and afterwards the line was freight only. Service in the last few decades was weekly. The wye mentioned was used to turn locomotives that brought in materials being used to repair the bridge after it was badly damaged (see link below).
In 1947 the bridge was twisted, bent and even partially collapsed due to ice build up and to see a report showing the damage and the resultant repairs, refer to the link below…
Abandoned CPR Bow River bridge part 2.
To see our report on a nearby abandoned highway bridge over the Bow River, click the link below…
Highway 524 abandoned road bridge.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September 2012.
Location: Cecil AB, southwest of Medicine Hat.