There’s an impressive wood-framed trestle along the abandoned rail line at Waskatenau Alberta. Built of massive beams it’s been here for close to a century and spans a little water course just outside town. The rail’s still in place across it, but it’s been many years since they’ve been polished by the passing of a train. Down the same track, where it abruptly ends not that far away, is a weird old rail car that was simply left behind. Strange indeed.
The town of Waskatenau sprang to life just after World War One, concurrent with the arrival of the railway. Early on it was home to perhaps a couple hundred people. Today it’s slightly more, bucking the almost universal trend that most small prairie towns wither in size over time. The economy is tied to agriculture and the petroleum industries.
The stretch of track here was the Canadian National Railway’s Coronado Subdivision. It ran from Edmonton, east through Waskatenau and beyond before splitting in two, ending up in the towns of Cold Lake and Heinsburg respectively. The plans for it were hatched by the firm Canadian Northern Railway, which the CNR absorbed around the time construction started. The track was was kept busy for decades hauling grain, petroleum and salt products. Passenger service ended in the 1960s.
In the late 1990s, the line through here was spun off to a short line operator, the Lakeland and Waterways railway. A couple years after, with continued loss of business down the line, this stretch was cut back to Waskatenau. Around 2006 the CNR reacquired the track. With the loss of the only customer here, a grain elevator which spectacularly burned to the ground around 2010, the line was then cut back even further. It now ends at a point a good number of kilometres to the east, at another elevator.
Why they didn’t pull up the tracks is unknown. Often they do. We noticed they have been removed from the highway crossing to the west however, but the rest remains.
The trestle, which is original to the line, is pretty typical over all but larger than most found in the flat-land prairies provinces. Also typical, the wood is impregnated with a preservative to make it longer lasting. Waskatenau Creek runs beneath and long ago was dammed by the railway. Water was then pumped up to a tank nearby which steam locomotives could pull from. In the 1950s both ends of the trestle were filled in with earth, shortening the span by half.
The two extra rails seen between the main running rails on the bridge are a safety feature. In the off chance a car were to derail while on the structure (heaven forbid), these “check rails” would keep the wheels in line thereby preventing the car from plunging off into the water below. These can be found on every rail bridge.
Beside the structure, poles from the old telegraph line remain behind. These always paralleled railway tracks in the old days.
An old rail car can be found at the very end of track, just east of the trestle, it’s purpose unknown (no one we spoke with had an answer). It’s clearly very old being from the 1940s or 1950s era based on how it’s constructed. It appears to be a cut down boxcar and given most of the support structure has been removed, it certainly couldn’t carry anything heavy. A coupler on one end is missing. We suspect it was used for line maintenance work, but would sure like to know more. What’s the story here? If any readers have something to add…we’re curious.
Just beyond the rail car and end of the track, so behind that large checker-board sign seen in one photo, the old roadbed has been converted into a rail trail. Known at the Iron Horse Trail, it’s been in place for well over a decade. One can travel from Waskatenau taking in the entire abandoned line to the east, close to three hundred kilometres worth of it. This “linear park” is open to ATVs, horse riders, bikes, hikers and come winter, snowmobiles. We’ve been eyeing it up for some time. Haven’t done nearly enough biking in recent years. Memo to self.
While the section of roadbed from the abandoned rail car over the trestle and into town, a distance of perhaps a click or so, is listed on some sites as part of the Iron Horse Trail, it hasn’t been brought into inventory yet. We understand they’re working on it however. They’d of course have to remove the rails, the railcar too, and fence the trestle and plank over the deck. Our own thoughts – the trestle would add a whole new dimension to the trail, and would assure the structure’s survival, and starting in town and not outside it, next to some farmer’s field does make sense on many levels. Can’t argue that.
This trip found us exploring abandoned things in an area northeast of Edmonton, in collaboration with noted film photographer Robert Pohl. Together we documented some amazing subjects, real stunning eye candy stuff (even for us), which will be shown on this website in the upcoming months. Stay tuned! There’s more to come from this trip!
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: November, 2016.
Location: Waskatenau, AB.
Article references and thanks: Robert Pohl, Geoffrey Lester and the University of Alberta Press, Town of Waskatenau, Alberta Iron Horse Trail Society.
Until it officially becomes part of the rail-trail, we suggest you view the trestle from the road that runs next to it.