Our goal for this trip is the abandoned CPR railway bridge at Bullpound Alberta. Located in a remote section of the Red Deer River valley, far from any civilization, or even a road, getting there will require hiking in across empty featureless plains.
Bullpound was nothing more than a nondescript siding along the rail line that once passed here. There were some storage and passing tracks, a water tower so steam engines could replenish their supply, and what I am told a section house. The latter would be home to a section man, and his family if he had one, whose job it was to maintain his section of the line. Among other things, this would include patrolling the track looking for loose bolts or spikes.
Outside of those facilities, and the bridge (our goal), there was nothing else here to speak of – it was never a town even if it was listed on CPR maps. Interestingly it still shows on Google Maps too and can also be found in the Alberta Backroads map book. It’s assumed it was so named for Bullpound Creek which empties into the Red Deer River nearby. How the stream got its name is a mystery (so far).
There is no road into Bullpound and one must drive down a rough gas-well access road, before heading out across the plains on foot. If you have a high clearance vehicle, and we don’t, you can drive to the valley rim a bit further on. I guess it would also be possible to walk in along the old rail line itself, but the nearest access road is many, many kilometres away and anyway what a dull hike that would be.
To get to the site we head in from the south, which means we’ll have to use the Finnegan Ferry (one of a handful in the province) to cross the Red Deer River. Passing the ghost town of Finnegan Alberta, it’s hard to believe there was anything ever here. Only the old rail bed and a falling-down loading dock are left. Otherwise it’s just empty fields.
Driving up from the river valley to the plains above, we turn east on a good gravel road, then south down a goat track. When it becomes too rough, we head out on foot (no big deal for hikers like us). I misread my map however and instead of travelling roughly southwest as we should, I point us almost directly west instead. This takes several kilometres off our intended route. Along the way, we spot some hunters far off in the distance. A little nervous we’d be mistaken for “big game”, we hope they see we’re people.
It seems like forever before we reach the valley rim and on looking over, I’m shocked to see that the bridge is nowhere in sight. No wait, is that it far off in the east? Damn, it is! I missed it!
Heading back, we walk along the valley top and from our lofty position we have a good view of the Red Deer River. The valley here is gently sloped and grass covered, and quite beautiful in a way. Unlike the rugged badlands further west.
Finally we get close to our goal, and after lunch I head down to the bridge while Connie decides to stay behind. I spot the rail line coming in from the west and before long, I’m walking it. I’m a bit cautious, and have been the whole trip, hoping I do not run into a rattle snake, which do live in the area. On our last attempt to reach the Bullpound Bridge we had very close encounter with one and turned back because of it. This time we’d have nothing to worry about and none were seen, although two coyotes crossed our path and I even scared up a Mama Moose with calves.
On the rail line, I come to large flat area. It’s clear there was a passing siding here and I know there was a water tower too, and I have no trouble finding the old foundation. This was a water stop in steam engine days and there was a traditional CPR style octagonal tank, which was enclosed to protect it from bad weather. One task the section man had (remember him?) was to tend the small stove in the tank which kept the water from freezing in winter. With the coming of diesels, in the 1950s, this structure was now longer needed and was likely torn down around that time.
The section house would have been close by, but I could find no evidence of it.
Heading atop a long sweeping embankment, it’s not long before I am at the bridge. This is what’s known as a deck-plate or deck-plate girder bridge, so named for it’s open top and steel plates that support from the underside. This is a common style of railway bridge.
Heavy underbrush makes it hard to shoot the structure. I still manage to make it to riverside though after much bushwhacking, and get some shots from the side and underneath. In spite of being abandoned for decades, it appears in fine condition (not that I am a bridge engineer). The spring 2013 floods damaged countless spans across the province, but this ones seems unaffected. In fact it looks ready to support a train today.
The rail bed continues on the opposite side, making a sharp left before heading up a grade to the prairies above.
There are some odd platforms off the bridge deck and these, in stream days, held water barrels, the contents of which would be used to put out small fires started by hot cinders from the locomotive. It would be the sections man who kept these topped up. He did a lot of odd jobs.
This track was the CPR’s Rosemary Subdivision which was completed in 1929 – our bridge probably dates from that same time although I could find no date stamp on it. This line was mostly a conduit for eastbound domestic coal (for heating and cooking) travelling from the many mines further west up the Red Deer River valley. Passenger service on this section was limited to a mixed train, meaning a coach on the end of a freight.
With most homes changing over to natural gas, the coal industry slowly died out, and with nothing much else to sustain this section of line it was abandoned and the rails pulled up. This happened in the mid 1970s, although the coal industry had been in a steady decline since the 1950s.
Climbing back up the valley, I am surprised to find Connie chatting with those hunters, bow hunters as it turned out, the ones we spotted earlier. They were heading back in their trucks and they were kind enough to offer us a ride back to our vehicle. Normally we like to walk but given how dull that multi-km walk through the grass would be, we gladly took them up on their offer.
I am not doubt the first person to visit this bridge in some time. It’s so remote and off the beaten path – I love it! It took three attempts to get there and while it is a pretty run-of-the-mill-nothing-special bridge, I was happy to have finally visited it.
Further up the same railway line, west of Finnegan, is the very photogenic ghost town of Dorothy Alberta, which is worth a visit. There is an abandoned grain elevator there, one of only a handful painted in Alberta Pacific colours, along with two very nice churches. Further west is the historic Atlas Mine, a museum, along with the very cool East Coulee road/rail bridge. To the east, the railway had a large ballast pit, in a place called Control, which I hope to explore some day.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2013.
Location: Bullpound, AB.