Here’s an undeniably rare find, an original standing-where-built railway water tower that was once used fill the boilers of steam locomotives. Way back when there used to be literately thousands of these across the country in strategic places up and down every main or branch line (steamers required a lot of water). With the end of that era, more than half a century ago, they were no longer needed and most were quickly torn down and forgotten about.
Now there are but a few scattered examples left, found here and there, surviving for any number of odd reasons. This particular one can be found in the tiny and rather remote Alberta community of New Brigden. Constructed some ninety years ago, it managed to outlive the railway line it once served, which decades ago was pulled up, the former roadbed today overgrown and almost unrecognizable.
The tower is rather simple. A wood enclosure, octagonal shaped, held a large tank (typically wood, sometimes steel) atop massive wood beams all supported by a concrete foundation. Water would be pumped in from a well, or nearby pond or creek. A track side spout (missing) allowed a locomotive to be filled. Sometimes there was a fuelling station nearby.
A small coal heater would be used to warm the water in winter to keep it from freezing – a section man came by once in a while to keep an eye on things. The enclosure acted as a wind break and insulator of sorts – in warmer climates, so not Canada, the tank would usually be out in the open.
The mast-mounted ball seen on the roof was acted on by a float and indicated the water level. If high it was full, and if low, empty. Simple, yeah? Typically these structures were located at major junctions, terminals, and every so often along each and every line – say thirty to fifty kilometres or so apart, depending on any number of factors, like train frequency, grades, where water could be found and so on.
This structure was built by Canadian National Railways in 1925 (the line came though that year) and follows a pretty standardized designed used by the company and built over a wide span of time. Competitor CPR and other Canadian railways had ones that looked very similar as well. While most of these structure were torn down with the coming of diesels, the instantly recognizable octagonal-shaped foundations of many can still be found next to many in use or former rail lines. I guess they were too much work to remove. We know of many.
Why the structure survived after steam service ended (1950s) is not really clear. One document suggests the tank was also used to store water for community hockey or curling rinks and was still needed. Perhaps? Photos from the 1980s show it looking basically abandoned. Those from a few years ago show it badly leaning with support cables attached to keep it from falling completely over.
Recently the tiny community has got together so stabilize and restore the structure. The work is still ongoing I understand, but the building looks good and probably much as it did when built so long ago. Kudos to those dedicated people. The water tower is the oldest structure in town and since the grain elevators were taken down in the early 1980s, also the tallest. It stands very near the intersection of Main and Railway – every small town had streets so named and they were traditionally the two most important thoroughfares in the community.
The railway line here was a former CNR branch that came in from Eastern Saskatchewan, starting at Biggar, travelling through sparsely populated areas to a place called Scapa Alberta just north of Hanna. The section through New Brigden, about mid-way, came through in the mid-1920s.
The branch was never that busy and at best trains visited a few times week. The main commodity hauled was grain. Passenger service, so mixed trains – a single coach tacked to the end a freight – lasted into the early 1960s. The railway tried to rid itself of the line completely around that same time, but it was not until the late 1970s before permission was granted. The rules of the day made it near impossible for a railway to pull-out even if losing a great deal of money.
For the last decade or so freights were sporadic. Shortly after closing, the tracks were pulled up, and the operation now but a distant memory. Still, the line can be easily followed if one knows where to look. Much of the roadbed was left untouched.
The town’s train station would have been left of the water tower. A couple rail-served grain elevators once stood nearby too.
New Brigden got its name from settlers who came to the area from Brigden Ontario. It never had much of a population and today only a handful of people call it home. The only business in town is the postal outlet, their building appearing to be a reused grain elevator or bulk plant office (just a guess). There is also a school with most kids being brought in from farms in the area. Otherwise there is not much else here. The water tower is a real highlight however and a must see if you’re in the area. They should put a donation box near it – I’d drop some money into it.
A similar looking CPR water tower…
Canadian Pacific Railway octagonal water tower.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2016.
Location: New Brigden, AB
Article references and thanks: New Brigden Community, Alberta Register of Historic Places, Exporail: The Canadian Railway Museum, Johnathan Koch.
The tower can be viewed without restriction.