Where Highway Ten crosses the Red Deer, at a place called Cambria, turn and glance north for a second. Over there, upstream, not far away and super easy to see, giant hunks of concrete sitting there in the middle of the river. Strange monoliths these, the remains of two bridges, one for trains one for autos, that once stood here long ago, these pillars of cement and steel too difficult and expensive to remove and so unceremoniously left behind. Safe bet – they ain’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
The setting here is the stunning one, amidst the incredible Alberta Badlands near Drumheller, visited by us in fall with the trees all ablaze with colour. One can follow the old highway alignment, crumbling here and there, but in pretty good shape overall, on the east side of the present crossing and view these “piers” up close and personal. This is a popular fishing spot as we found out on arriving.
The group of three piers in a line (actually there’s a fourth hidden in the trees) once supported the railway. This line, built to exploit the coal fields east of Cambria, dates from he late 1920s. It belonged to the Canadian Pacific Railway and was its Langdon Subdivision but hosted Canadian National Railway Trains through a sharing arrangement.
What? Two hated rivals cooperating? Hell just froze over, right? In this case they had no choice due to the limited space here – there was not enough room for two railways to share the valley. Both competed for the same business but at the same time had to share some infrastructure. A strange alliance for sure.
This combined stretch of track ran east from Drumheller through Cambria and on to East Coulee. Some was owned by the CPR and jointly operated with the CNR, some the other way around. Both railways had diverging routes off this stretch of track going to here and there and where ever. There were lots of mine spurs along the line too – one, for the Rosedale Mine, branched off in a westerly direction just east of the bridge. Back then, the whole valley was a maze of tracks jammed into a narrow space.
Old photos show the bridge was comprised of several plate-girder spans. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Leading edges on the piers are sheathed in steel plating, acting as a knife of sorts to cut through winter ice. It can get thick here!
For all of its history the span supported coal trains, the biggest commodity hauled out of the valley. Lots of it moved west to Calgary with more going east into Saskatchewan. Grain was also big business, the fields above being quite productive.
It’s hinted that the bridge for a while, early on, was also used for road traffic, planks being laid down flush with the rails so cars could pass over. What happened when a train and auto met? Seems like a recipe for trouble as the rail line back then was quite busy. This is still be researched and verified. Or, if our readers know…
The coal market dried up in the late 1970s/early 1980s. At the end service was intermittent with only one mine, the Atlas in nearby East Coulee, still operating. All others were gone by the 1960s. With the closing of the line then, the bridge spans were removed.
A second bridge (with a single pier) once supported the highway. It’s not entirely clear when it was built and since provincial and other records are mute on the subject, we have to guess a bit. We did find a single photo, undated but estimated to be from the 1940s (a vehicle from that era is seen), showing the structure being worked on. Whether it was under construction or simply getting repaired or upgraded is not completely clear. No info accompanied the image.
In the photo – interestingly – an “East Coulee Transport” Truck is seen parked on the iced over river and was probably delivering material to the site.
The highway bridge seen in the photo was a Parker Through Truss. Pretty typical for the time.
Prior to this crossing, road traffic forded the river a bit downstream (in places it’s quite shallow), used a ferry a bit upstream, in winter crossed on the ice, or as was hinted at, may have used the railway bridge.
The highway was realigned in the 1980s (exact date unclear) with a new concrete structures, the present day bridge, being built a bit to the south. With that, the old bridge spans were removed, but like the train bridge, the mid-river pier, just one on this structure, was left behind. It’d have cost a lot to remove it.
Standing there, on the old highway alignment overlooking the piers, we imagine all the people and things that moved across both bridges. The Valley, in those days, was booming and on this spot one would be witness to the comings and goings of so many cars and trains loaded down with coal and grain. Right here would have been a busy spot. Over there was the town of Cambria (mostly gone) and just a couple clicks away, Rosedale. Now all that’s seen is these reminders of days gone by, old bridge remains, and the only sound is that of the wind and anglers chatting below. No trains, no cars, just peace and quiet here.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2017.
Location: Cambria, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Book: Hills of home – Drumheller Valley, Geoffrey Lester, Glenbow Archives.