The picturesque village of Big Valley Alberta is rich in history – railway history in particular. There is a beautifully restored train station, remains of a once busy railway divisional point with roundhouse, and the subject of this report, an iconic wooden grain elevator that for decades loaded rail cars. All structures mentioned are is part of an historical display and the elevator is the last of four that once called this town home.
Big Valley is not far south of Stettler and is located along an ex-Canadian National branch line. This track is now used by Alberta Prairie Railway tourist trains and Big Valley is their southern terminus. Beyond, the track has been pulled up.
The structure seen here, is by wooden elevator standards a fairly new one, having been built in 1960. Most wood-cribbed elevators date from 1915-1930 but limited numbers were built well into the 1980s. This one, compared to others of this style seems a little…well…chubby and indeed it is a bit wider than most, reflecting a higher storage capacity. It retains that traditional look though and could easily be mistaken for one decades older than it is.
This elevator was built for the Alberta Wheat Pool, once the biggest player in the province’s grain industry (1920s-1990s). That company has since been merged out of existence. At one time there was a second AWP elevator in town, built in the early 1920s (as a United Grain Growers elevator) and torn down in the late 1990s. Also sharing that space was an old Parrish and Heimbecker and a Home Grain elevator, both built in the 1910s and closed in the early 1980s and mid 1920s respectively.
The last rail cars loaded here were in the late 1990s – by then the days of the small town prairie elevator and a sleepy branch line serving them was near an end. The business was changing and gathering a few cars here and there from every town and village simply became uneconomical. Now they load huge trains at equally huge high-throughput concrete and steel elevators strategically located along railway mainlines.
The Big Valley elevator, now a protected provincial historic site, is one of only a couple hundred traditional wooden elevators remaining in the province from a one time high of about 1700. The structure is open for inspection when a train is in town, or at other times by appointment.
It’s not known, to this author anyway, if the structure was ever painted in the contemporary (1970s-1990s) AWP light blue/green scheme. The current paint is an older mineral brown, used until the 1960s or 1970s, not only by AWP but also by some other elevator companies.
Two historical rail cars are seen near the elevator. One is a snow plow, which will be explored on a future report and the other an old water car right next to the elevator almost under the loading spout. It’s not meant to represents a typical rail car that would be loaded here however. In the period up until the 1980s, grain box cars would be one type of car loaded. Later in the period 1970-1990s, grain hoppers would also be seen. The latter were easier and quicker to load and could carry more – but even they could not stem the tide.
The tracks came through Big Valley in the early 1910s. In fact, the town was a divisional point and in support of that a large roundhouse and turntable and fuelling facilities were built. These are for another report however. The line, built under the charter of the Alberta Midland Railway, was owned by the huge but always financially unstable Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR).
In the 1920s that company was in trouble, as were some of its competitors (most notable the Grand Trunk Pacific) and so they were all merged together becoming the government controlled Canadian National Railways system. That company continued to operate this line until the around 1990 when ownership was transferred the a new short line, the Central Western Railway. They left town in the late 1990s when the grain traffic dried up.
The whole time (early 1990s – today) tourist trains past through town. They not only stopped at Big Valley, but visited other quaint places up and down the railway as well. Most of these lines, except for the section between Big Valley and Stettler have since been pulled up. One of these tourist trains happened to be in town the day of our visit. It was diesel powered – sadly steam is mostly used in the summer months.
We came to Big Valley not only to record the elevator but also some of the town’s other historical attractions too. That old roundhouse, the train station, the tourist train that we were lucky enough to catch, and the lovely blue St. Edmund’s Church on a hill above town. While photographing each we tried to incorporate the elevator into the background.
At the extreme end of track, just south of the elevator, we see a railway sign from the old days. There are two signs in fact on the same post and each has two separated white dots on a black background. They tell an equipment operator (typically on a snow plow or flanger – a car that scrapes ice from the inner rail) that there is something ahead that could snag their equipment. In this case, that would be a switch which can be seen it the picture past the sign, along with a derail device on the side track (hard to see) – two possible obstructions in this case. If there is only a single obstruction, only one sign board will be present. Other places you’ll see these signs are near road crossings, bridges, and in tight clearance areas.
By the way, these signs can help confirm the lineage of the line. The CNR used white dots on a black background, while competitor CPR reversed it, putting black dots on a white background. Regardless of the railway, they mean the same thing.
The day of our visit, we were blessed with beautiful Alberta blue skies and lovely fall colours. Perfect!
Many other places and things in Big Valley we mentioned will be the subject of their own report. There was just too much to cram into one article. It’s a fascinating, photogenic place!
Not terribly far from Big Valley is the restored ghost town of Rowley and to see a report we did about it, follow this link…
Rowley Alberta ghost town.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2013.
Location: Big Valley, AB.