The images we’ll be viewing today were captured two decades apart. The location is Empress Alberta, the scene taking us to the old railway line that once passed by town. In the first photo, we’re witness to perhaps the last run on the soon to be abandoned branchline, an enthusiast organized “speeder” outing, and today that same roadbed, sans track. Of particular note, this series takes place right on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. See the sign?
The village of Empress, not in the photos but just off frame to the right, was founded a century ago with the coming of Canadian Pacific Railway. It was envisioned as a major railway hub and for a time was a busy place, but soon settled down, becoming much the sleepy little burg it is today. Just shy of two hundred people call it home. In the early years, it was far more. The area here is a dry-belt almost desert-ish type region. Cacti are common – so un-Canadian like!
This railway line through Empress once ran all the way from Bassano Alberta, east to Swift Current Saskatchewan with Empress being about mid-point. For those who care, it comprised the Bassano and Empress Subdivisions respectively. Main commodities hauled include grain and from the 1920s on, up until the 1950s/1960s, domestic heating coal coming in from a connecting branch out of the Red Deer River Valley and heading east. That this branch met with the CPR’s mainline at both ends meant it could be used a bypass route in times of trouble or congestion. Still, it was an often quiet stretch of steel much of the time.
The section through Empress arrived in 1913. There used to be a large yard here (bigger perhaps than needed – but they thought it’d be busier), a row of grain elevators, a roundhouse and turntable all just behind the photographer’s position. The town’s historic station, also that same direction, managed to survive and is worth a visit. See it in this report (another then and now)…Empress Alberta – then and now.
The left diverging line seen in the old photo was part of the “wye” – a triangular arrangement of tracks that allowed locomotives or maintenance cars to be turned around. Both photos were shot from Alberta, but most of the wye track was in Saskatchewan. A separate line to points north was planned off the tail end of the wye, so to the left off frame, which will become the subject a separate report soon. It was envisioned but not built – still some remains found suggest they were serious for a time.
The track seen heading right was a continuation of the branch east. Soon after leaving town it would drop down and cross the mighty South Saskatchewan River on a spectacular bridge – see: Empress Subdivision Bridge. That stretch was abandoned around 1990 (a section in SK remains in use today). The rest, Bassano to Empress lasted a few years more, the last freight visiting the town in late 1997 or early 1998 (conflicting reports).
In the summer of 1998 a group organized a run on the most easterly section of the Alberta-side line, using member owned “speeders”, just before it was pulled up. These are self propelled cars formerly used by railway maintenance crews and inspectors to travel a line (the use rail-equipped trucks now) but mostly now in the hands of enthusiasts and museums. These folks often band together and arrange runs on little used or soon-to-be abandoned lines. There’s less and less of both each year. Typically anywhere a few to a dozen or more speeders will participate each holding a couple people or more, some pulling small trailers for added capacity. Sometimes the convoy of speeders stretches to the horizon.
The speeders that visited Empress were the last movements on the track before they were lifted. This group appears based out of Alberta, but seems to have disbanded. In the late 1990s they were kept busy travelling Southern Alberta lines the CPR was working to close (so, a lot). With most lines now history, I guess they don’t have anywhere else to go, so perhaps that explains why they’re off the radar? Interestingly, a US based speeder group, a couple years back, travelled the still extant eastern section of the line spoken of here, in Saskatchewan, now owned by a short line firm,
The large cross-shaped sign seen marks the border. Empress is just on one side of it, the Alberta side, the good side. Joking! The arrow straight line dividing Alberta and Saskatchewan is also the 4th Meridian, a major geographic reference point. Sharp viewers will notice the two bottom sign-boards have been reversed. In the old photo, they told crews what province they were entering. Now it tells viewers what side they’re on.
Outside the tracks being gone and new and larger trees, not much has changed in twenty years. The pipe, the hill in back, the fence, the railway cuts, are as they were.
We visited Empress around the time the speeder people visited – Empress Alberta – 1998.
The then photo was send in by a reader. They mentioned having once belonged to that speeder group, but provided no more details and asked their name not be used. Not sure why, but no biggie. In any case, most of the old photos used in these then and now series come from people just like you. If you have something like it in your possession (yours or public domain) showing a scene (railway, street, etc) you think we should recreate compositionally so like the one used here, message us. We’d love to hear from you.
No photo-shop or image manipulation trickery was used to help line up our now photo with the old one. It was done by eye in-camera. That’s it. Perhaps the long hard labourious way around it, given all the powerful software available out there that could make the task super easy, but that’s how we like it. It’s a challenge – one we fail at more than you may know. There’s many tried but never seen that just didn’t work out.
Get the idea we love the Empress area? You’re dead right!
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2016.
Location: Empress, AB.
Article references and thanks: Geoffrey Lester, Larry Buchan, CPR timetables.