When one thinks of structures associated with Canadian railways, things like stations or perhaps roundhouses probably come to mind first. They both pretty iconic. There are lots of other types of buildings connected to then however. One that was once very common, yet little known or understood, was the lowly section house, which is our subject for this post.
The building’s purpose was pretty simple, it was accommodation for the “section man”, and his family. This person’s job was to maintain and inspect one “section” or length of track, perhaps 10-20km in length. He’d patrol his line on a speeder, tightening loose track bolts, resetting spikes, cleaning accumulated dirt or ice from switches – an endless variety of of tasks in other words. For jobs too big for one man, he’d call in a maintenance of way crew. This was his day to grind, no matter the weather or conditions.
The section house was always near the tracks, usually within sight of the train station. It wasn’t uncommon for the section man’s wife (most is seems were married) to set up a garden behind the house, and perhaps adorn the building with potted flowers and other personalized decorations, Many photos of old showing these buildings in use seem to include these two elements (plus always a clothes line). Living there must have been interesting – all those trains passing close by shaking everything, keeping the kids away from the tracks, soot from the locomotives. I bet it tested a lot of marriages.
The section house was built to a common pattern, meaning every one looked like every other for the most part. For the CPR, this meant a modest and simple L-shaped two story house, always painted in the firm’s trademark shade of red/brown. All CPR buildings were the same colour! This section house was built around 1915/1916 when the company built a branch into area. It was one of hundreds of such buildings scattered across the province.
With changes in operating procedures, the use of section men was phased out, slowly, starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1970s. When no longer needed, the section house was usually torn down although a few managed to hang on for various reasons.
Most survivors were bought by individuals and moved away for use as homes, sheds or whatever. That’s how this one got to where it is, away and on the opposite side of town from where the tracks used to be. Interestingly, it did not come from the community it sits in presently (although there was once a section house there) and instead was hauled in from the next town west down the line.
The plan was to move the section house to a nearby farm but with the unexpected passing of the farmer, it only got part way. This happened in the late 1970s or early 1980s – no one is really all that sure. And so it sits, boarded up, abandoned and forgotten. It seems structurally sounds (disclaimer: we’re no experts) but I guess at best it has an uncertain future.
Beside this section house, we know of a few others in the region that still survive. One is located in Manyberries in the southeast corner of the province and sits where built. It’s seasonally rented out to hunters and the like. Another can be found at Champion Park, a private vintage railway equipment collection, near Calgary. This author helped with some painting on the this building a couple years back.
Close to the section house is an interesting collection of old vehicles. They include a curious homemade-looking tractor. Aren’t farmers frugal? Nearby is a 1970s Coleman Skiroule snowmobile (in fact two of them). In that era there were dozens and dozens of firms who made sleds. This is the first time we’ve come across this make so it must be pretty uncommon.
A vintage boxcar was made into a shed. Given it’s all wood, including the underframe, it’s from no later than the early-1900s or thereabouts. Generally a wood car would last a couple decades in service, so maybe it’s been here since the 1920s or 1930s. Either way, it’s ancient! It was not unusual for old rail cars to be purposed like this. I can think of a few dozen examples in Southern Alberta. We looked all over it, but could not find any old railway lettering. All faded away I guess.
A uncommon find is the remains of a Graham-Paige car, all twisted and mangled. This make was never that terribly common and would be about the last brand of car one would expect to find on the remote and very rural Alberta plains. This author spent a lot of time trying to identify it with no luck and had to turn to experts online for help (in particular, thanks Bruce), an unusual step for me. It the first one we’ve ever seen from this auto maker.
Nearby is a mid to late-1920s (or perhaps early 1930s) International one ton truck. An old warhorse if there ever was one, it has a simple and utilitarian wood-framed cab with zero creature comforts. You had to be tough to drive this truck! Of course, people were back then. Both the truck and that rare Graham-Paige car must have been sitting here for some time. We can safely assume most vehicles lasted no more than twenty years in service.
Another old house, no longer lived in, is seen down the grassed over street. This town has more empty houses than occupied.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: August, 2014.
Location: The lonely plains of southeast Alberta.
Article references: Boyd Stevens, CPR records and archives @ Exporail.
This site is on private property