In the first few decades of the twentieth century a huge number of railway branch lines were built across the Western Canadian plains. Look at any old time map and see. It was a messy spaghetti-bowl of track, running this way and that with reckless abandon, to near every town or village and what appears to be with little forethought in respects to the long term viability of the whole scheme. Still they built. A railway boom was on after all (most of these lines are gone now).
Crazy as it may seem, even more track was planned including a line that was to run north from Empress Alberta. While considered to some degree, nothing really happened here. Plans were put in place, clearly, but obviously they had second thoughts, an extremely rare case of siding with caution during this frenzied period.
The Canadian Pacific Railway built a line through Empress Alberta in the 1910s. It connected with the firm’s mainline at Bassaano Alberta, paralleled it a bit to the north for some three hundred and fifty clicks before the two reconnected a short distance east of Swift Current Saskatchewan. While it was planned as a major secondary line, in the end was just another sleepy “grain branch”. Even so, a good amount of coal traffic did polish the rails here, (post late-1920s and into the 1960s) coming out of the Drumheller area, to the west via a connecting line, and heading east.
Around the time the coal started moving, the CPR investigated exploiting markets to the north. That commodity was more profitable than grain so any chance to make a wee bit of money from it was given at least some consideration. A direct route north to Edmonton or northeast to Saskatoon, or maybe even a line to each (reports, variously, make mention of all these possibilities) was explored. Regardless, there’s was lots of untapped markets in those directions, so the railway took notice.
A line looked quite feasible. Just run the new steel off the tail end the Empress wye (a Y-shaped arrangement of tracks where locomotives were turned around) and away you go. Easy as pie here on the flat prairies. But there was one problem, one major problem, one costly problem, standing in the way was the Red Deer River right at the very start. It was wide and crossing it would have cost a fortune.
Sizing up the situation, the railway quickly deemed it not worth the effort and and with that the plan was shelved and soon forgotten. Was it ever seriously considered? From what we found, they at best only “toyed” with the idea. From the start, it seems everyone knew soon on, that bridge work was a deal breaker. Today, few people know of these plans, even long time residents of Empress.
The railway line though Empress was fully abandoned in the 1990s. The old roadbed is mostly intact including the old wye tracks (we found some steam locomotive “clinker” – remains of burned coal – scattered all over the place here). The tail track extends right down to the river on a high embankment (cut in two by a farmer’s access road). From here, one can clearly see just how challenging the crossing would have been. There’s a channel, a broad island and then the main part of the river (view blocked in our photo by that island) then finally a wide expanse of valley to cross. The whole thing, bridges and fill approaches, would have easily been a kilometre or two in length. Yikes, I could see why they balked.
Interestingly, while Empress is in Alberta, the turning wye, save for the very end of the tail track, is actually in Saskatchewan. The provincial border, aka the 4th Meridian, runs just east of the town site. A sign by the old rail bed marks the line.
Empress is home to nicely restored train station. It can be see off in the distance in one photo. This building has appeared in a few BIGDoer.com reports over the years. We even saw it before it was fixed up, not long after the last train visited.
Some unfinished railway lines…
Grand Trunk Pacific Calgary.
Unfinished Railway Line Calgary.
Unfinished Canadian Northern Railway line Fort MacLeod.
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: Larry Buchan, Charles Bohi, Leslie Kozma, CPR Archives.
This abandoned railway line can be walked