They call it the Canmore “Engine” Bridge. Here in a thoroughly spectacular setting, it spans the mighty Bow River and while used by pedestrians and cyclists today, it used to support a railway line that once served Canmore’s coal mine. Yes, they mined that stuff here – and in fact many of the newer residential areas are above the old underground workings. Today the town is more known as an outdoor recreation mecca with few fully aware of its gritty industrial past. The bridge is one of the last things left from those days.
Canmore was founded in the 1880s, concurrent with the railway’s arrival (Canadian Pacific’s east/west mainline). Right off the bat, coal was discovered and soon on a mine established. The railway itself became a good customer for a time, using it to fire its fleet of steam locomotives. The rest was shipped out to industrial concerns and sold as domestic heating fuel. Back when houses were heated by coal – quite common in the old days.
To reach the mine a spur line was built. It left the mainline, crossed the river and then trended east to reach the loading tipple. It was perhaps a few clicks long. When built it was outside town. Now it’s well within its borders.
The original bridge here was made of wood. In 1919 it burned down and was replaced by the current structure. This second bridge was not built new here however, but rather came in from somewhere else, and was reused.
Here’s what we know. The bridge is said to be from 1880.* Indeed, it follows design and construction techniques of the era. Clearly it’s pre-tewentieth century – no argument there. It was already old when installed in Canmore. We don’t know from where it may have come – CPR records searched were rather silent on it. We did find it was built in Toronto however.
* When speaking of the “bridge”, we’re referring to the most prominent span, one of two that make up the structure as a whole. The second span is circa 1910/1920s, probably, is of different form and is only touched on briefly.
That the CPR had a spare bridge kicking about is not odd. It must have been replaced itself at some point (probably because it was being taxed capacity wise) and held in case there was a need somewhere down the road. The wood bridge in Canmore burned down, they had a nice steel one with nothing to do and it was the right size and capacity rating. Viola! What a beautiful solution. And in typical railway fashion it would have been done on the cheap. It all fits.
The bridge remained in use until the mine closed in the late 1970s. In the some ninety odd years the “Canmore Mines” operated almost 16 million tons of coal, coming from both underground and pit mine workings, was extracted here. This translates into well over two hundred thousand rail cars of the era being filled and all moved out over this very bridge, as many as a hundred per day when business was good. That’s a lot of stuff!
Post closing – for a time the bridge stood there disused, the railway not terribly interested in spending money to dismantle it. Then at some point a couple decades ago it was bought by the town, probably for a nominal sum, and converted to pedestrian use (officially that is, I heard it was used in that capacity even before that). It’s now part of the Canmore Pathways system. The bridge also supports a pipeline.
In design the bridge uses a fairly rare Whipple Truss, the first and only this author has seen in person. Diagonals are elongated rods and tie in with a vertical at least two away from the anchor point. These are under tension. Pin connections are used throughout as was common for the time. It also has box ends, further dating it.
A Whipple Truss structurally is very similar to the Pratt Truss design more commonly used by railways.
A second span here uses a more conventional Warren Pony (open topped) Truss. Compared to the stunning piece of metalwork that is the Whipple span, the second one gets minimal attention from us. Suspect that holds true of anyone who views the Canmore Engine Bridge.
The coal mine, which was one of the earliest in the province, one of the longest lasting and one of the biggest in terms of output once used a steam locomotive to move cars about their property. And they did so well into the 1960s. This “engine”, for which the bridge is named (we believe – no one we reached out to seemed to know for sure) resides today at Calgary’s Heritage Park.
The bridge is certainly stunning in it’s own right. Add to that the scenic wonder that is Canmore, what with all those towering mountains, the deep green Bow River, the deep green woods, well, it’s awe inspiring. We stand there and repeat to ourselves “this is something amazing”. Could a more scenic setting be imagined? Not likely. Prominent peaks seen include Ha Ling Peak, Miner’s Peak, Mt Lawrence Grassi and East End of Rundle a long mass that continues west all the way into Banff Park.
We hiked over the bridge…
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2017.
Location: Canmore, AB.
Article references: Book: Canmore – story of an era, Various CPR records, Alberta Energy (Ministry of Mines), BenGadd.com, Bridgehunter.com.