Located in High River Alberta, almost downtown in fact, the old CPR railway bridge across the Highwood River has not seen a train in years. In spite of that the tracks are still in place, as though waiting for one to pass. This massive structure has stood fast for what seems like forever (a century perhaps), but is due to be dismantled soon.
Located along the CPR’s MacLeod Subdivision branch, the bridge is of a Pratt Truss design. In simple terms, it features some cross members under compression (the vertical beams), and others under tension (the diagonals). This was and is a common railway bridge design where modest gaps need to be crossed, often in a single span arrangement like seen here. They can also be made multi-span with intermediate support piers. This is a style a bridge hunter is likely to come across fairly often. Most we’ve documented seem to date from the first few decades of the twentieth century, the style having been superseded by more modern designs since.
The railway came through High River in the 1890s, on it’s way south from Calgary to the subdivision’s namesake town of MacLeod (Fort MacLeod actually). It’s assumed this bridge dates from after this time however, but that’s just a guess. Often quick and simple temporary wooden structures were put in place first, which at later times would be replaced by a more permanent span. We searched for a date stamp on the concrete supports and a builders plate on the bridge itself, but could find neither. Typical of the CPR, this bridge was built to high standards, you might say overbuilt, and without any obvious modifications, was able to support progressively heavier trains as the years passed.
The last through trains to use this line were in the mid to late 1990s, when most of it was abandoned. A stub section was kept in place south of town which was occasionally used to store excess rail cars up until the mid 2000s. With the building a of new highway access route north of town, the line has been completely severed now, but the track remains in place. North of that spot, the line is still in use to serve a small number of industries and formerly, the mysterious Magnesium Company of Canada (an interesting place).
Unless you have been living in a cave, you have no doubt heard of the terrible floods that hit the area in the spring of 2013. Most of High River was underwater for quite some time and many homes and businesses were badly damaged. The whole time the bridge stood fast against the rushing waters. Now however it is being blamed by some for having aggravated the flooding problem. It’s claimed that the structure in some way caused the water to change directions or back up, or some such thing.
Because of this, it is due to be demolished soon (Update 2014, it has).
What is never explained is why the adjacent highway bridge, which is of the same length and roughly the same height over the river, was not part of the problem as well. Questionable logic?. The town is called “HIGH RIVER” and there is a long history of floods so that it happened again should come as a surprise to no one. Train bridge or not, the town would have flooded.
Instead of being demolished, the bridge and the old rail line could have been incorporated into the town’s Happy Trails pathway system. A section nearby runs alongside the busy highway, and could have benefited by being rerouted along the rail line instead.
On bridges like this, one will see two extra rails running parallel between the outer tracks. People have often asked what these are for and it’s a simple answer. The are called guard or check rails, and they keep a derailed car from damaging the structure. If (heaven forbid) a wheel comes off the track, it will be kept in place by these rails. It’s a simple measure which could prevent considerable damage to an expensive structure like this. Of course, the odds of a rail car derailing on a bridge is small, but this is a cheap and simple insurance policy just in case it does happen. You’ll also see these guard rails in railway tunnels.
Near the bridge, and almost obscured by shrubs, an odd sign is seen, with two dots on a contrasting background. These alert an equipment operator that an obstruction (the bridge in this case) is ahead. For example, a flanger, which scrapes ice and snow from between the rails, would then be lifted so the blades would not catch the guard rail when passing over the structure. You’ll see these same warning signs just before a road crossing too.
Also close to the bridge are some remains of the CPR telegraph line, some with wires still attached. These old poles are still quite common along many rail lines, even though they they have not been used for many, many decades. The railways are never that quick to remove old infrastructure, they are too frugal, and will do so only if they absolutely have to.
I’m not sure if we’ll have another chance to visit this bridge before it goes. Too bad, it’s a fine example of railway history and a landmark in town.
Update: February 2014. A recent visit shows the bridge has been demolished – that happened in late 2013. The local government blamed the unused structure for the massive flooding that took place in the area in the spring of 2013 – they have to blame someone or something after all. Apparently, when built they narrowed the channel to accommodate the bridge, thereby creating bottleneck in the river. Perhaps, but what about the highway bridge right next to it that is the same length (hence creating the same bottleneck) and same deck height? Sounds like someone is either looking for a pat on the back, or a local official is deflecting criticism away from their own lack of action during the disaster. The bridge was responsible for all the flooding in High River. Yeah, okay. Instead, it could have been saved and incorporated into the town’s pathway system which near here travels right alongside a busy and dangerous road. What a lack of forethought.
A number of movies were filmed in High River and to see some locations we’ve photographed, check out these links…
Superman 3 then and now – Smallville.
Silver Streak movie then and now – paper burning scene.
High River has a nice pathway system (now messed up due to flooding) and to see a report on it, click this link…
Happy Trails High River cycle.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: January, 2013.
Location: High River, AB.