Almost forty years separate the two images seen here and while the mountains in the back help line up the pictures, otherwise one would be hard pressed to know this is the same location. Seen in Cowley Alberta, the elevators, the train station, the oil shed are all gone and in their place there is nothing but emptiness. That’s not to say the town here is dead, it seems to be doing okay, just the area around the rail line appears so.
Located just west of the foothills in Southern Alberta, Cowley is the first prairie town you reach when heading east, or the last when heading west into the mountains. Some will argue that Lundbreck, a little further west should hold this title, but that’s an argument for another time. Cowley, in the area and at least in recent times was home to the first set of grain elevators east of the mountains.
Of the buildings seen here in the first image none remains, and not even much in the way of foundations can be found. While it’s not clear to me, at least at this point, when these building were torn down, this author has seen another photo from the early 1980s showing all the structures still standing. So sometime in the mid to late 1980s would be a good guess and I’ll continue to research (and will gladly accept input from visitors to this blog).
BTW, the elevators seen were constructed in the late 1920s one for the Alberta Wheat Pool (front one) and the other originally for Alberta Pacific Grain – later Federal Grain who bought that earlier company. Later still, in the early 1970s, the AWP bought out Federal (only it’s Alberta elevators) – I wonder they ever repainted it? I have been unable to find any data on when the station was built.
What I find fascinating is what changes have taken place in the railways industry. Passengers used to arrived by train, hence the station seen. Now they arrive almost exclusively by private auto. Grain was shipped from every small town and elevators dotted the prairie, now there are huge inland terminals that load complete trains. Grain trains still pass by here, they just don’t stop any more. And even oil, gas, kerosene and propane arrived by rail, in tanks cars, which would have been spotted at the oil dealer in the back behind the elevators.
In the mid 1970s as seen in the first image Cowley looked much like any other prairie town out there and things have come full circle and that same statement could apply to it today. Now every town is sans its elevators and stations and other rail related industries, just like Cowley, and they are all somewhat emptier because of it (IMO).
Of interest to train buffs is the locomotive seen, number 5804 a General Motors of Canada Diesel Division model SD40-2. This engine was built in 1974 which means it was likely only a year to two old at the time of the first image. CPR had quite a love affair with this model and bought hundreds of them from the London Ontario company. This locomotive was retired in 2008.
At the time of this photo, it would have been a transition period along this line. Up to mid 1975, Canadian Locomotive Company, Fairbanks Morse designed engines ruled the roost here and it was rare to see a train without one of these in the consist. And often they were leading. CP Rail held on to their “FM units” as they were called, long after other rail lines disposed of them and they worked hard right to the end.
After the CLC built units left the SD40-2 like seen here was the usual replacement and they could be seen on nearly every train passing through. Until the arrival of the now ubiquitous GE AC4400 models that is, which are now the dominate locomotive in the the area and across the entire CPR system.
The beaten-up rail cars seen in the second image carry wooden cross ties. The CPR has an aggressive replacement and maintenance program going on in the area and rail cars loaded with ties, along with piles of ties along the right of way can be seen up and down the line. A tie can be good for ten, twenty, thirty years, or even more before needing replacement.
The rail line here is the CPR’s Crowsnest Subdivision. In addition to being the line that heads into the interior of BC it also is a conduit for coal heading east coming from the Sparwood and Elk Valley regions of BC, and for interchange traffic headed to and from the Union Pacific railway at the US border. At one time, a lot of Crowsnest Pass coal passed by here too, but those days are long over. Coal mining there died some time ago.
Seen in the background is a wall of mountains known as Livingstone Ridge. In spite of appearances you can hike it almost in its entirety and we plan to do it one day.
Cowley, due to the constant winds that seem to blow here, is a mecca for sail planes and an airport sits just north of town. Just east are some large wind turbines, a further testament to the howling gales that often blow across the region. In fact, I really don’t ever seem to recall a calm day while passing through the area.
Movie fans might recognize Cowley as Signal Wyoming in the movie Brokeback Mountain. To see a then and now series from that movie, check out this link…
Brokeback Mountain then and now – Signal Wyoming.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: December 2012
Location: Cowley, AB.