The tracks are still in place, but it’s been a good number of years since a train passed over the CNR Midland bridge that spans the Red Deer River near Drumheller Alberta. An imposing structure, many large concrete blocks can be seen in its deck, leftovers from the spring 2013 floods, where their weight was used to help stabilize the structure against the fast flowing waters.
The line on which the bridge sits is technically neither in service nor completely abandoned. It’s in a sort of a moribund state while the railway figures out what to do with it.
The railway arrived in Drumheller in late 1911 and the bridge we see dates from that time. A photo this author has seen, from early 1912, shows the current structure in place. In spite of that, we did look for a date stamp on one of the concrete piers or a builders plate on the girders, in hopes that it would confirm everything. It’s possible we missed them in the waning light – that is if they even exist – not all bridges have them. Or they could have been on the opposite side – who knows? In any case, I am confident the date is correct.
The line was built under the charter of the Alberta Midland, a paper company owned by the transcontinental Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR). From Drumheller the line travelled west to Calgary, east to Saskatoon with a branch to points north (from nearby Munson Junction).
For a time Drumheller was the temporary end of track and it wasn’t until 1914 before the last section of the line, the one to Calgary, was opened.
The CNoR was always a financially shaky company, it built too many lines too fast, overextending itself in the process. Near collapse, it was merged with rival Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP), both lines becoming the Canadian National Railway (CNR) under government control. This happened in the early 1920s – actually the complicated process was started some years earlier but took some time to complete.
In the coming decades, the line was pretty busy, handling coal from the Red Deer River Valley and grain from the area. It also hosted through freights travelling between Saskatoon and Calgary. After the coal market died (starting in the 1950s), things became a bit quieter. None the less, it was still a fairly busy line, seeing 2-4 trains per day in its last decade of operation, some of them 100+ cars long.
By the early part of this century, the CN wanted out. The line was a maintenance headache with dozens and dozens of bridges to maintain. There were also steep grades in and out of the valley and with the closing of most small town grain elevators in the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was a loss of traffic.
Because of this it was decided to reroute everything to an ex-GTP line. That route is longer and less direct, travelling from Saskatoon west to Edmonton, then south to Calgary, but since it’s better engineered overall (a GTP trait), transit times did not suffer much.
The last through trains travelling over this bridge were in 2008, although I understand some work trains and locals continued to use the line into 2010. For now the track has not been pulled up.
The structure is technically called the Midland Bridge, so named for the nearby company town of Midlandvale, which housed workers from the Midland Mine (1912-1959). This former independent community was absorbed by Drumheller in the early 1970s.
Seen on the bridge deck, over each pier, are a number of large and heavy concrete blocks. There were placed on the bridge by the city of Drumheller during the record spring floods of 2013. Their extra weight helped stabilize the structure against the rushing waters. Since there are no trains travelling the line, they have not been removed. The structure by the way, shows no signs of having shifted or being damaged.
This bridge is a Pratt Truss style, one of the more common types used by railways. Strong and simple it’s an adaptable design that can be used singly or in groups supported by intermediate piers, as is the case here. Like most major railway bridges this one was overbuilt and that it is a century old should be of no surprise or concern. The railways were always thinking ahead and designed them to handle loads many times what was actually needed at the time of their construction. Meaning, the heavier trains of today would not strain them.
What does the future hold for this bridge? Will the line it sits along be resurrected by a private company? There has been talk of this. Or will the structure become a foot bridge? That’s a good idea since the Drumheller pathway system passes on both sides of it. Or will it simply be dismantled?
There are lots of possible outcomes and I can’t help but think that a change will come soon.
If you explore this bridge, be sure to check out the very interesting East Coulee road/rail bridge a couple dozen kilometres down stream.
At the south end of this bridge and a bit east is the former community of Nacmine. To see a report we did on the mine there, click this link…
Stirling Mine – Commander Mine- Nacmine Alberta.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2013.
Location: Drumheller, AB.