The charming town of Big Valley is like Disneyland for the history buff. There are so many things to explore including a traditional wooden grain elevator, a picturesque Canadian Northern railway station, lots of old and interesting buildings, including the lovely (and blue) St. Edmund’s church on a hill overlooking town. Finally, there are remains of an old turntable and roundhouse and railway divisional point complex, the subject of this report.
Located south of Stettler, Big Valley is located along an ex-Canadian National branch line. Now used by Alberta Prairie Railway Excursion tourist trains, this is their southern terminus. Beyond, the track has been pulled up.
The remains we see here include of course the turntable and roundhouse, the main buildings in the complex, along with the foundations of numerous support buildings, a water tower and fuelling facilitates. In addition to servicing locomotives there were various stores, some for the maintenance of way crews that were based here. These buildings date from 1912-1918.
The rail line came through Big Valley in 1911 and was built under the charter of the Alberta Midland, a paper railway owned by the always financially shaky Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), a huge transcontinental line. In the early 1920s the CNoR amalgamated with its main rival, the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP), becoming the CNR, and in one fell swoop this facility became redundant. Most north to south traffic was soon rerouted to the nearby ex-GTP line which was better engineered. The Big Valley line then reverted to branch line status and while the complex was quickly downsized is was not completely closed – a skeleton crew remained in place for a time. Eventually however, it was abandoned and any equipment moved out (date unknown – late 1920s?).
Locomotives and train crews based out of Big Valley not only travelled the Alberta Midland line, they also served the Nordegg branch that headed west into the mountains from a junction just north of town. The latter served a number of coal mines, which fuelled the CNoR’s locomotives.
By the 1980s traffic was drying up and CN wanted out and so the line was sold to to the newly formed Central Western Railway who continued to operate into the late 1990s, primarily hauling grain. From the time the CNR divulged themselves of the line until today, tourist trains also have used the line.
On to the tour now – first up we find some miscellaneous foundations at the south end of the complex, connected with the fuelling station. Here the locomotive’s coal supply would be topped up. There would also likely be a sand house – each locomotive carried some which would get sprayed on the track in front of the drivers to help increase traction.
Locomotives need lots of water and next up is the former location of the water tower. In behind, what appears to be a large pond is seen but this is actually a man made reservoir put in by the railway to feed the tank that once sat here.
Further along, we come across the ash pit. Cinders would accumulate in the locomotive’s firebox over time and this where they would dispose of them. Dumped out the bottom via a hatch, this material would fall into a pit. Later it would be shovelled into a rail car, by hand, to be used as ballast on sidings and spurs. Even today one can still find these cinders along older tracks. The long pit in the photo, parallel to the dumping area, is where the rail car sat for loading. The track dropped down below grade to make transferring the material easier.
Finally we come to the turntable and roundhouse, the largest and most important structures in the complex. It’s here that locomotives would be bedded down for the night, they’d get lubricated as needed and minor repairs would be done. Steam locomotives are HIGH maintenance.
Steam locomotives, unlike diesels, need to be pointed forward when in operation and doing this was the main function of the turntable. It also allowed an engine to line up with an individual stall. This set up was compact (by railway standards) and worked well.
In the roundhouse one could find machine shops and the like, in this case housed in a separate room that juts out from the northwest corner of the roundhouse. Each track would have an inspection pit, allowing access to the underside of the locomotive. Their long foundations are still visible. Each stall would have a big set of barn style doors (probably drafty doors at that) for access.
Also inside, or nearby would be a coal fired plant to provide steam for heat and electricity, via a steam driven generator, to power the various buildings.
The turntable itself can be thought of as a bridge that can spin. It rests on a centre pivot, while the outer ends are supported by wheels riding on a perimeter track. Even with this three point arrangement, it was still important that a locomotive be accurately centred so that the turntable moved smoothly and easily. Power to run it was via an electric motor, a steam powered motor supplied by either the boiler plant in the roundhouse complex or by the locomotive being turned. At small terminals and the like, the turntable was moved by the crew, Armstrong style. I believe this complex used a steam powered motor.
At one time over 200 men were employed here, Big Valley’s biggest employer. That included the trains crews themselves, those who maintained and serviced the locomotives, bridge and track crews, the station staff and so on. It was a busy place…for a time.
In addition to locomotives, certain maintenance of way cars could be seen in the complex. For example, a railway crane might be stationed here. Another car that could be seen, likely stored away on a side track for most of the year. is a railway snowplow. And found not far away, between the roundhouse and turntable, was just such a car, looking much a traditional caboose.
Built in 1928 by the Eastern Car Company of Trenton Nova Scotia, ex-CN plow, #55351 was only recently retired by that railway. Since they were called out only occasionally, at times of extreme snow fall, these plows can last a long, long time (CP I believe has a couple a century old). At times of light snow – in other words most of the winter – the locomotive had its own smaller plow which was sufficient to clear the tracks.
These plows had their own operator who would keep in communication with the locomotive crew. In addition to the area between and immediately beside the tracks, wings allowed it to cut a wider swath if needed. These could be moved in and out via some air powered cylinders, and then locked in place using blocks and heavy chains. Depending on when the snow fell and how much there was, the plow would be pushed by a regular freight train or at time just a single locomotive (a snow plow extra). In heavy, heavy snow, sometimes multiple locomotives would be required to push the plow.
These plows could derail on hitting a packed snow bank and equipment to re-rail it would be kept inside.
So ends our exploration of the Big Valley turntable and roundhouse complex. But we’re not done and beside the grain elevator, which we already reported on, we’ll be covering some other interesting historical subjects in town in future reports. Stay tuned!
The same day, we vised the fascinating “restored” ghost town of Rowley and to see that report, click the link below…
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.