Hanna Alberta was once a divisional point along the CNR secondary line between Calgary and Saskatoon and because of that the location required some specific facilities for that purpose. Which is what we see here, a turntable for what else, the turning engines around and a roundhouse to service them. This type of complex would have been essential in the early years and every so often up and down the line, other towns like this would be set up similarly.
A busy place when steam locomotives were king, the roundhouse employed many people who kept the engines running. As diesels came into use however, the facility became less and less used. You see they require less servicing, they did not necessarily needed to be turned, plus changes in operating patterns allowed trains to pass by without stopping for fuel or servicing.
By the time of my visit in the later half of the 1990s, it had sat empty for some time. In between being abandoned by the railway and then, it was used, at least for some years, by a number of companies for other purposes. More on this further down.
This structure dates from around 1913, not long after the rail line through Hanna was completed. Built by the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), this company, long suffering and near bankruptcy at many points in it’s history, was folded into the CNR system a half dozen years later. Also near financial ruin and joining it in this amalgamation, was the CNoR’s main rival in the area, the Grand Trunk Pacific.
Hanna was envisioned as a rail hub and many branch lines in the area were planned and some even built and our roundhouse was to be the servicing point for all these lines. With that in mind, it was built with enough room (stalls) to hold ten locomotives. In around 1920, five additional spaces were added.
In the early forties, the roof in the original section of the roundhouse was raised to accommodate the larger locomotives then in use. Even with the arrival of diesels, in the early 1950s, the facility still found use, but by 1961 it was closed.
Taken over by a company that manufactured farming machinery the structure was used by them for most of the 1960s. Empty for the early part of the 1970s and vandalized, afterwards it was utilized by a cattle auction company. At some undermined point, this operation closed and the structure has sat empty ever since, with some parts of the building suffering from vandalism and exposure to the elements. Overall however, at least on my visit, it appeared fairly solid. Since then it has deteriorated a bit more, as would be expected.
My understanding is that plans are in place to stabilize and rebuild the structure, and knowing that this building, one of very few original roundhouse/turntable combinations still extant in the west, makes us very happy.
In addition to the roundhouse itself, there would have been other support buildings and facilities nearby. Like a powerhouse, machine shops, a large yard, a water tower, fuelling stations and so on. To supply water, a nearby stream was dammed and the reservoir they created is still visible today just south of the old rail yards.
The turntable, not really visible in my shot, was essentially a bridge structure that turned on a pivot, allowing engines to align with a specific stall in the roundhouse, or to turn them around. The mechanism could have been powered by a steam motor, supplied bu the heating plant, or alternately by en electric motor. In smaller facilities, the locomotive itself proved the steam power to run the machinery or in some cases, they had what was called an “Armstrong” turntable, powered by the train crew, who physically pushed the engine around.
No matter what, the positioning was critical and the engine had to be centred almost perfectly for it to work. Modern locomotives rarely need to be turned.
A few years ago the rail line through here was abandoned by the CNR ending almost one hundred years of service through town. Using Google Earth it appears that most of the tracks remain in place and there have been efforts by an independent company to return the line to service. Nothing has come of this as of April 2013.
By the time CN quit the line, there was only a couple trains a day using it and this lack of traffic, plus its circuitous route, heavy grades in and out of the Red Deer River valley and huge number of bridges to maintain (in the section south and west of Drumheller), all conspired to make this a money losing proposition.
On my visit I was on an oilfield hotshot delivery and given the time sensitive nature of that business, I only had a few moments to stop and took only this picture. We’d like to revisit the place soon, to document it further. There is a lot to see and record.
This picture was scanned from a 35mm print.
To see how the building looks in 2013, go here…
Hanna roundhouse and turntable.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: Late 1997 or early 1998.
Location: Hanna, AB.