Jun 032013
Dunshalt Alberta crossing

A downright obscure place, Dunshalt Alberta is none the less the focus of this report. At one time two competing railways crossed each other at this remote location and to manage train movements there was an interlocking tower. This structure controlled signals that protected the crossing thereby preventing any conflicts (IE one train hitting another). Read on to get a better understanding how this arrangement worked.

Dunshalt is actually not a town, although as I understand it a grain elevator briefly stood here in the 1920s, but rather simply the name the railways used to identify this crossing. While there would have been farms and perhaps a post office and one room school nearby plus that one grain elevator mentioned, there was no town here in the true sense. Outside of some easily missed railway artifacts one would never know there was EVER anything here.

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Canada’s two major railways were represented at this crossing. One set of tracks belonged to the CNR and this was its secondary main line between Calgary and Saskatoon. The last train used this track in 2008 (through freights) and 2010 (some local work) and while closed to business the rails and other infrastructure remain in place (for now). The other line was a CPR branch, it’s Irricana Subdivision which travelled from its namesake town east to Bassano on that railway’s mainline. This section was pulled up by 1976.

Friend Larry Buchan, who worked for the CPR, was kind enough to supply us with some pictures of the crossing at Dunshalt. These were taken in 1974 only a couple years before that line was abandoned. By the date of his visit, service on this section of track was on an as needed basis, with sometimes weeks between trains. Rough track and slow orders were the norm on this line.

The interlocking itself was a mechanical arrangement inside the tower that controlled signals at the crossing and it was set up in such a way that only one line at a time could ever have the “green”, much like a traffic light. Trains approaching were instructed to slow down ahead of time and check the status of the signal and act accordingly.

Of the two railways, the busier CNR line had priority and that meant the signal was always green for them with the only exception being if a CPR train was occupying the crossing. CNR trains only had to slow down to prepare for a stop if necessary. For the CPR however things were different and they had to completely stop each time. A crew member would then walk to the interlocking tower, climb the rickety stairs, set the appropriate levers, have the trains pass, before finally returning all the levers to their original position and then jumping back on his train. A lot of work.

The levers acted on control rods that paralleled the tracks and these moved the semaphore arms to their appropriate positions. There were also coloured lens and for one aspect the arm would be in one position with a green lens in view and in the other, it would be in a significantly different position with a red lens showing.

The rail lines came through here in 1911 (CPR) and 1914 (CNR) respectively. The two tracks paralleled each other for a bit before crossing at this shallow angle.

At the time Larry visited here, this part of the CPR branch was in trouble. This section travelling east of Irricana had only a couple grain elevators to provide traffic and clearly this was insufficient to keep the line operating. Formerly, it travelled all the way through to Bassano, but in the 1960s the centre section was closed east of Tudor Alberta. The other half travelling between Standard and Bassano, remained in service until about 2000.

Connie and I were on a trip to Drumheller and since we were passing near the area, we made it a point see what’s left of Dunshalt. Larry is no longer able to explore due to quadriplegia from an auto accident and I thought it would be nice for me to be his legs and let him see what the place looks like now.

In Larry’s pictures you can see the tower, the levers and the semaphore signals. These were taken on a small snapshot camera and so are not of the best quality. At the time of his visit, the building was in rough shape, with boarded up windows and an overall feeling of neglect. Snow had gotten inside and only the open door provided light.

On our visit in May 2013 we easily find the tower foundation and the spot where the crossing was, and using these reference points plus the still standing telephone poles, we easily lined things up.

Rules of exploration: show respect, don’t trespass and take only pictures.

Here’s a funny story Larry had about the interlocking tower (from 1974)…

“The four levers were painted bright red, had unlocking handles at the back, and number plates from left to right painted in white 1, 2, 3, and 4. The way the signals were set always gave the CNR the right-of-way. The instructions stated for train movements by the CPR first unlock and pull to lever No.1 toward you this was to display stop signals on the CNR, what happened next scared the hell out of me, the open door violently closed shut and I was left in the darkness momentarily, there was enough light through the cracks in the boards over the window to allow me to see again, the next instruction was to unlock and pull lever No.3 by doing this a mechanical clock mechanism behind the lever started clicking and timed out for 3 min. with this done I was able to unlock and pull lever No.2 towards me, this gave our train a clear signal to proceed southward. Our engineer whistled twice and pulled lower train through the interlocking stopping the caboose just in the clear on the south side. My next step was to restore all the signals to the way they were when I entered the tower, by doing this a steel lever coming up through the floor opened allowing me to open the door and exit. This simple but ingenious method of making sure the signals were all restored to normal was probably thought out by the signal maintainers who probably got tired of being called out to restore signals by negligent CPR brakeman who have not followed the instructions. Of course the veteran crew had a good laugh at my expense, knowing beforehand about the towers locking mechanism, it was kind of a rite of passage for railway men.”

Larry’s account using really helps one understand how it functioned. This tower was an important safety mechanism if not a pain in the behind to operate.

Th whole time we explored the site, a vocal hawk shadowed us, and presumably his nest was nearby. It looked at though he was unhappy with a presence thinking perhaps us a threat to its young ones (or eggs).

To see some other reports from this same area of the province, check out the links below…
Prairie sentinels – Chacellor Alberta.
Rosebud Alberta then and now.
Buffalo 2000 grain elevator Lyalta Alberta.

To see Larry’s post that was the inspiration for this report, click the link below…
Zone 3 Wayfreight Trip 2 February 21, 1974 .

If you wish more information about this place, by all means contact us!

Date: May, 2013.
Location: Dunshalt, AB.

Hawk on telephone pole

This Hawk was very vocal and clearly unhappy with our presence.

Dunshalt Alberta railway

The tower foundation remains behind and in front, the unused CNR rail line.

Dunshalt AB control tower

A close up of the tower base.


Dunshalt AB crossing

Dunshalt Interlocking tower in 1974. Picture compliments of Larry Buchan.

Dunshalt Alberta crossing

The same scene as the previous image, taken in 2013.


Interlocking tower levers

These levers controlled the signals at the crossing. Picture compliments of Larry Buchan.

Dunshalt AB semaphore

The levers acted on this semaphore (right). Picture compliments of Larry Buchan.


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10 Comments on "Remote railway interlocking tower then and now"

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Coal Man
Coal Man

This is the CN line that heads to Drumheller, right? I find it amazing that all the tracks are still in place.

Richard S.
Richard S.

They have started pulling the line from Drumheller to Hanna…

Jeffrey Flaker
Jeffrey Flaker

(via Facebook)
And those poles are still there with wires. Interesting.

Paul O'Neil
Paul O'Neil

(via Facebook)
CN left the telegraph lines up.. it had that classic look!