Bridges, we love bridges! In fact, we can’t get enough of them! The fine bit of engineering we’ll be looking at today was a mighty one, approaching three quarters of a kilometre in length from end to end (fractions with metric, shame on me). About a century old, it once carried a railway line over a broad meandering river just inside the Saskatchewan border. Today only the piers remain, lots of them, plus the old roadbed leading to each end, the decks that supported the trains long removed.
Our viewpoint didn’t allow us to see the remains in their entirety. Still, what an incredible sight. Big and long, so lonely, so remote, so forgotten. We really hope to return some day and came no where close to getting enough this trip. Not nearly so. The three photo presented don’t do it justice. It’s that good a subject and needs further exploration.
The line here was the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Empress Subdivision running from it namesake town just across the line in Alberta to a point in the east near Swift Current where it joined up with the mainline. Built in the 1910s it was a conduit for grain moving out of the area, and later for coal coming from the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller and bound for southern Saskatchewan markets. In the 1930s-1950s in particular, a lot of it moved along the line. It was heating fuel.
The bridge was a huge undertaking and held up completion of the line for many, many months. Makes sense, since it was the greatest engineering challenge along the line and kept lots of men busy for quite some time. Interestingly, we found what appears to be the location of a fair-sized yard along the old line, to the east, which presumably was the staging area for materials coming to the site. It’s easily four tracks wide and we can’t think what other purpose it could have served outside what we’re guessing at.
The bridge is compromised of some thirty plus concrete piers, equidistant from each other. This allowed the many spans needed to be identical to each other, thereby reducing costs. Even so, this was of course a pricey endeavour, and was one of the longest bridges on the entire system. Any CPR records we searched did not make mention who built the spans. Dominion Bridge seems like a likely candidate though. They were the largest such firm in the country, by a fair stretch.
Spans were a deck plate style, so open topped with support beams underneath. All were the same.
The structure was straight for most of its length. One the east end, so the side we visited, there was a curve with an obvious cant (or super-elevation). This suggests track speeds here were fairly brisk. Embedded in the piers are some old rails which helped reinforced the leading edge against wear from moving ice and the like.
Blocking most of the structure from view is a large island. What we can see from this position is perhaps one quarter of its length! The South Saskatchewan sure is a wide water course. In hindsight, your author should have climbed up the river valley a bit to get an overall better view. Not sure why it failed to cross my mind. Next time. Next time!
The line here, from Empress to Leader Saskatchewan was closed in around 1990 – the east end still sees trains though. Since the coal markets died in the 1960s traffic was a mere trickle here anyway. Soon afterwards the spans were removed. It’s understood many were reused in other places. Into the late 1990s, a number of them languished away in the old Empress Alberta rail yards. The nearest community to the structure was Estuary Saskatchewan but it’s a ghost town now.
The last passengers run to cross over the bridge was in the early 1960s.
A few hours before that very same day we tried to approach the bridge from the west side, with the land owner’s permission, but were turned back several kilometres away due to a slump in the road. Actually the old railway bed turned road. Hiking in would have been an option any other day but not this one. By the way there is very little civilization within sight of the bridge and at best limited access via very rough roads, or on the west side, no roads at all (anyway recall it’s private land there). You could of course canoe or kayak in. The river is big but come mid-summer is quite placid.
Given the scarcity of photos found, online or elsewhere, from any date, it’s clear the structure was or is rarely ever visited. Few know of it so we feel extra special that we got to experience its splendour. It sure is impressive! What a thrill it would have been to crossing it on a train.
On this adventure we hung around with good friends Jason and Rebecca Sailer of Lethbridge. A big thanks goes out to them. I think Jason was as thrilled to see the structure as I was. I’ve been dreaming of visiting it for decades, even since I saw it in a Greg McDonnell book. If you’d like to host or join up with BIGDoer.com on a some trip, drop us a line. We love to collaborate.
The subdivision’s namesake town…
Empress Alberta then and now.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2016.
Location: Eastern Saskatchewan.
Article references: CPR timetables, records and archives.
Land around the bridge is privately owned.