At one time nearly every medium to large sized town had a rail yard and often located nearby or within it was a turntable and roundhouse. These were needed to turn steam engines around and as a place where they could be inspected, maintained or stored. Nowadays few of these fascinating facilities are left although if one looks hard, remains can often be found like the example seen here in Fort MacLeod Alberta.
This town was once a bustling divisional point on the CPR’s Crowsnest line, its southern mainline, and as such it required a large yard and maintenance facilities. With that need a turntable and roundhouse were constructed. It was a busy place and the future looked bright.
However, around 1910 a new bypass line (called the cutoff) was constructed between Fort MacLeod and Lethbridge and this shorter and faster route allowed the railway to move the division point to that more easterly town. Jobs were lost in Fort MacLeod and the facilities downsized and at this time it appears the roundhouse was made smaller, loosing a good number of stalls. The remains we see today reflect this later smaller incarnation.
In spite of what we’ve researched it’s still not clear when the original structure was built, exactly when some of the stalls were removed and when it was abandoned completely and these questions invite further research. The pit still remains but is filled with old concrete and other flotsam and the roundhouse drop pits are still there. That’s all that’s left of it, but even so it’s easy to see how it was laid out.
The turntable is an interesting structure and it works much like a rotating bridge. It rests on the centre pivot and each end is supported by wheels that travel along a guide lip or along rails anchored to the guide lip. Once on the table the engine is carefully centred and spun to which ever track is needed. Typically the turntable was driven by an electric motor or used air supplied by the locomotive itself or from the power plant attached to the roundhouse. Some turntables were of the “armstrong” type being moved by hand and body (WOW).
The second last image, courtesy of Google, shows an aerial view of the overall site. In the centre of course is our main subject, the turntable pit and roundhouse remains. In the upper right is the rodeo grounds, and to the lower left, the Fort MacLeod rail yard, well filled with cars (it had far less filled on our visit).
Of particular interest is what appears to be the ghost of a wye (pronounced“y”) with the turntable sitting right in the centre of it. This is a triangle arrangement of tracks, look hard and you can see it, that allows an engine or piece of railway maintenance equipment to be turned around. In effect doing much what a turntable does. That it’s here hints at a few things. First and foremost, the tunable may have been abandoned at an early point due to lack of use (likely not long after losing divisional status). A wye takes up more space but is cheap, where as a turntable, roundhouse and associated facilities are costly to run. With the change of status perhaps they replaced one with the other as a savings measure.
Now both are gone as engines today don’t really need to be turned and no locomotives are stationed here anyway.
East of here the railway continues its journey to Lethbridge (and beyond) and on doing so crosses the famous High Level Bridge, the largest of its type in the world. However prior to 1912 there was actually a different route into Lethbridge taking a more circuitous route. As we mentioned when the new line was opened, it cut transit times enough that the divisional point was moved. Those with eagle eyes can still trace that old line in places even though it was abandoned over a hundred years ago.
Seen in the last picture, a postcard courtesy of the Calgary library, the roundhouse and turntable can be seen in 1910. As mentioned it’s assumed the building was downsized after the divisional status was changed – not long after that picture was taken I presume. After the changeover the facility likely only hosted engines coming off the MacLeod Subdivision and those from other local trains.
The locomotive seen on the turntable appears to be numbered 833. If so this was one of CPR’s ubiquitous “D” class engines. They were seen across the entire system doing yeoman’s work and were used mainly for local trains. This series was built in the years 1905-1913 and most served until the 1950s. Several of these are preserved today. These engines were built by The Montreal Locomotive Works (MLW), The Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston Ontario, the CPR’s own Angus shops in Montreal and a couple US firms. This example was built by MLW in 1909.
The rail yard here seems to be used mostly for storage. On one side of it is a large throughput grain elevator owned by Viterra. Unlike the elevators of old, these can fill a train load of cars in no time, instead of a few at a time as in the past. However just to remind us of what was, an old Alberta Wheat Pool “prairie sentinel” can be seen on the other side of the yard. This traditional wooden structure is privately owned and I plan to visit it at a later date.
Near the roundhouse we see a number of old bridge spans. These were likely salvaged from abandoned branch lines in the area, possibly including the MacLeod Subdivision which I spoke of earlier. I have noted some missing spans along that right of way, so this makes sense. These bridges are kept for further use or are just being stored until they get around to scrapping them.
Right up from the yard is the Fort MacLeod rodeo grounds. It looks like it’s been a while since the outdoor facilities have been used and it has a lonely abandoned feel about it. Right next to it however is an large indoor stadium which looks to be well used.
Just west of town an endless seas of wind turbines can be seen stretching off in the distance. This part of Alberta is a windy place! Lots of snow fences nearby also suggest that.
The whole while we explored the area, some horses in a nearby field kept watch over us and one in particular took great interest in what we were doing.
Fort MacLeod is home to the notorious American Hotel and be sure an check out the report I did on it. It’s an interesting read!
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: December 2012.
Location: Fort MacLeod, AB.