For this trip we set the time machine back to 1998 and we find ourselves exploring the barren and dry prairies in the eastern part of the province. For this report we’ll make a brief stop in Empress Alberta, a tiny little hamlet right on the Alberta – Saskatchewan border and we’ll take a look at the old train station and the area around it.
The rail line here is the CPR’s former Bassano Subdivision which left the mainline at it’s namesake town further west of here, ending in Empress. In the past however the track extended further east, making a large arc before finally connecting with the CPR mainline yet again near Swift Current Saskatchewan. This double ended connection meant it could be useful as a bypass route for mainline trains in times of heavy traffic or if the mainline was blocked for some reason. At some point around 1990 this centre section from Empress to Leader Saskatchewan was abandoned.
The tracks came through in 1914 and this branch line was constructed during the great railway building boom that took place between the years 1910-1930. Anywhere rails could be laid, they were and the expansion was very aggressive. However this meant that sometimes bad decisions were made and some lines were clearly never going to be profitable. Including perhaps this line as the area is bone dry and the farming difficult.
Luckily though in early years the line was a conduit for coal coming in from the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller heading east, and it also hosted detour freights coming off the mainline. When that traffic dried up it ceased to be anything more than a backwater grain branch line and as you may know these were rarely profitable. Especially in such an area were farming is difficult. By the 1990s traffic on the line was a trickle and it was abandoned, the last train passing in 1997.
The station dates from the time of the line’s construction and served it in that function until the late 1950s or early 1960s (conflicting information on this). By then passenger service had ended and the station re-purposed. It served as storage and as a sometime bunkhouse. By the 1980s though it was essentially abandoned and boarded up.
This station was made to CPR plan X-12 and it was the only example of this type located in Alberta. However this author has been unable to find out how many of this style existed in other provinces.
Designated an historic site in 1992, in recent years the building has been spiffied up. Instead of the typical tuscan red common to most CPR stations, it’s since been painted a pleasant yellow. This paint scheme was occasionally seen in early years so its application here makes sense and I guess when renovating it they found evidence of this original colour.
As you can see the railway here straddles the Alberta – Saskatchewan border with the town and train station being on the Alberta side. But just. In case you get lost there is sign here letting you know where you are (see the pictures). I am not sure if it still stands.
Right by the sign is the train wye – a triangle arrangement of tracks that allows a locomotive or other equipment like a snow plow to be turned around. While the yard and station are in Alberta, this track is just inside Saskatchewan.
Interestingly I have found evidence that at one point, the CPR may have been considering building a line from Empress, using the north and east legs of the wye, all the way to Edmonton. Whether this was seriously considered or casually discussed is unknown. One thing for certain though, heading that way would mean spanning the Red Deer River which sits just north of town. This would be a major undertaking and would be neither easy or cheap to do. Also apparently coming of the north leg of the wye was a spur to a gravel pit.
In mid July 1998, just prior to our trip here, a special excursion visited the line. A number of speeder owners got together to travel from Rosemary to Empress and back and they were likely the very last vehicles to travel the line. Except perhaps for the equipment used to salvage it.
For those who do not know, a speeder is a small motor car that travels on the tracks that is typically used to ferry maintenance crews around. This work is now done by trucks with retractable rail wheels and the speeders mostly retired. However these cars have been snatched up by enthusiasts who use them to travel old rail lines (they get permission to do this). It’s assumed the tracks was pulled not longer after their (and our) visit.
At one time, Empress was home to a couple grain elevators and this author has seen some pictures supplied by Larry Buchan, from the early 1990s showing them. At that time, Larry worked branch lines in the area and documented many of his trips. These elevators were torn down just prior to our visit. Also seen in Larry’s pictures is a fair sized yard chock full of cars, which is confusing since traffic on the line was supposed pretty scarce by then. Odd. Stored cars perhaps or maybe it was a brief surge in traffic?
The rail yard on our visit could have used a good mowing! I was heavily overgrown.
Empress was at one time a divisional point – in railway terms it’s essentially a crew change location – and it was also home to a roundhouse, turntable and coaling tower.
At the time of our visit there were numerous bridge decks scattered about the “rail yard” and these may have come from the nearby South Saskatchewan River bridge just east of here. It was a very long multi-span structure, pulled out, I believe, in the 1970s or 80s (exact date unknown). Google imagery shows all the piers for this bridge are still in place, three dozen of them!. Presumably these spans were removed not long after our visit.
One time home to some eight hundred souls, Empress now has a population of under two hundred.
I’d like to return to the area, to explore the town more, the train station and other bits and pieces around it. It’s a fascinating region!
These pictures were scanned from 35mm prints.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: August 1998.
Location: Empress, AB.