The Crowsnest Pass Train Robbery

Original article by Gord Tolton. Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.

On August 2nd, 1920 three passengers boarded the day-coach of an westbound Canadian Pacific Railway Train #63 in Lethbridge, Alberta and calmly took their seats. Before they got off, they had initiated one of Alberta’s most audacious and sensational crimes. The conductor, Sam Jones, was only concerned for schedules, delivery of freight, and the safety of the passengers. Mundane was the expected norm – on the Lethbridge to Cranbrook run, nobody expected surprises or excitement. By 1920, rail travel was a safe and reliable utility, time and settlement having conquered the vagaries of its wild frontier days.

That is why train #63 wound westward through the string of coal-mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass and as it approached the Sentinel train station, Jones could only look dumb-founded when one of the passengers stood up and pointed an Mauser automatic pistol at him. Train hold-ups were a thing of the past, not in the living memory of Canadian railway men! Jones dismissed the gunman as an idiotic prankster, and reached to pull the emergency brake cord. But before he could pull the cord, the gunman’s nervous finger pulled the trigger. The train did brake, but only because it had reached its regular stop at the Sentinel train station. The locomotive engineer and brakeman were oblivious to what was happening a few cars back, but outside an road worker by the name of Charles Uresenbach seen the raised hands through the windows, and ran ahead to warn the crew. The crew scoffed Uresenbach’s attempts until shots rang out. The bullet only grazed the conductor’s forehead, but two other gun-wielding passengers joined the lone gunman. The railway baggageman entered the coach to investigate, and much to his surprise three fugitives were waving their pistols wildly, and yelling in a thick foreign accent for the stunned passengers to be quiet.

Within minutes, the three gunmen were moving down the rows of seats, reliving the passengers of watches, wallets, jewelry, etc. An executive by the name of Donald, was the manager of the Alberta – British Columbia Power Company, and upon seeing the incoming bandits, he rolled up his money and hid it in a fold in the seat. Female passengers and children were left untouched. One of the gunmen approached Conductor Jones and admired his watch, which he soon took for himself! As quickly as they started, the trip ended the event. They stepped off the railway car, fired an warning shot to not follow them, and ran off into the surrounding trees. The passengers on board could only watch as they left with a sackful of valuables, and $400 in cash.

Subsequently, the law arrived on the scene – the combined forces of the newly-formed Alberta Provincial Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the CPR’s own police force. Interviews with the victims exposed the criminals were not exactly careful in their plot – they didn’t wear masks, and that several on the train knew who they were – they were Russian migrant laborers who were working at one of the local coal mines in the region. They were; Tom Bassoff (who shot the Conductor) was 45 years old, with an large black mustache, and had an glass eye; George Arkoff, and 20 year old that was clean shaven and had an shock of white in his hair, and; Alex Arloff another 20 year old.

As news relayed of the daring daylight robbery, rumors began to start that the robbers missed their intendant target – the wealthy rum runner Emillo Picariello (Emperor Pic). Tongues wagged that Emperor Pic (known to carry $10,000) was the actual target of the gunmen, and had sneaked the money in the train seat cushion while the gunmen robbed the passengers. We know that it wasn’t Pic on board who did this trick, but the manager of the power company! The Russians appeared not to know what to do next. Despite the nearby mountains or the vast prairies to the east to hide in, they lingered nearby the crime scene. Four days later, they were spotted in Coleman, Alberta. The trio had argued about escape plans and it was decided that Arloff would take most of the loot and head south to the United States. They never saw him again. Bassoff & Arkoff decided to head east but for reasons unknown, they weren’t too fast in leaving and were often spotted at local bars and dances in the area. The local labor clubs were loyal to their patrons, and many times didn’t tell the law that they were hiding the two criminals.

Not long after the robbery, Bassoff & Arkoff arrived in Bellevue – ambling past the local court house and pausing at the window to look at their own wanted posters, before heading across the street to the Bellevue Cafe. Inside the courthouse, justice of the peace J.H. Robertson was alarmed by the pair’s curiosity towards their own wanted posters, and watched them from his window cross the street to the cafe. He then quickly phoned the Alberta Provincial Police (APP) detachment in Blairmore to get the police out to arrest the two. As the two sat down for breakfast in the cafe, Constable James Frewin commandeered a train for the short trip to Bellevue. In minutes, he was met by Constable Fred Bailey of the APP, and Corporal Ernest Usher of the RCMP. The policemen met at the courthouse where Robertson confirmed the fugitive’s identity. Approaching the cafe slowly, Frewin, out of uniform, offered to enter the cafe first to check out the situation. He walked into the cafe, and nonchalantly walked over to the booth were the two fugitives were sitting and pulled back the booth’s curtain, oblivious to the pair sitting there. Bassoff & Arkoff looked up from their breakfast – Frewin apologized for disturbing them, re closed the curtain, and retreated from the cafe.

Quickly a plan was formed – Bailey would enter the cafe from the rear, and Frewin & Usher would enter from the front. What happened next only took seconds, but became a moment of terror. With gun drawn, Frewin whipped back the booth curtain and informed the fugitives they were under arrest, and to have them raise their hands. Bassoff holding a coffee cup, feigned disinterest. But instead of raising his hands, Bassoff dropped his cup and pulled the muzzle of Ferwin’s gun down, as Arkoff went for the pistol in his coat pocket. His life now threatened, Frewin fired, his gun wounding Arkoff in his neck. For some reason Usher never fired his weapon, as Frewin emptied his. Hearing the shots, Bailey rushed into the rear of the cafe – and knowing his gun was empty, Frewin backed away to let Usher take over. In that split second, both bandits were armed and began shooting back, with Bassoff shooting with two guns. Usher, badly wounded, retreated through the front door but was hit in the back and fell dead into the street. Bailey was following Usher, but in backing out tripped over Usher’s body and knocked himself out on the concrete sidewalk. As both Usher and Bailey fell, the fugitives both wounded slunked along the wall of the cafe to the front door. Arkoff was the first one out of the door, and ran 86 feet down the street before collapsing under the weight of seven bullets in his body. Bassoff, wounded in his legs, was the last man standing in the doorway of the cafe. At this time, Bailey was waking up and seeing this, Bassoff turned and shot him fatally in the brain. Confused and angry, Bassoff emptied his gun into Usher’s body and then limped off towards Frank Slide. Justice of the Peace Robertson exchanged some shots with Bassoff from behind a telephone pole, but the killer managed to get away. Before he did, one of the newspapers reported that Bassoff shot Arkoff in the head to put him out of his misery.

Frewin, unhurt, was unable to stop Bassoff. As he tried to reload his gun, Frewin was struck with ‘Shell Shock’ (now known as Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disease) which Frewin got from serving in the First World War. In mere seconds, the situation went beyond a trivial stick-up to an gruesome capital crime. Bassoff escaped into the woods, as the manhunt for the robber-turned killer escalated. The police put every available man on horseback into the back country, searching for a wounded and desperate fugitive. A trained dog tracker from Washington State, an sheriff Lee, gave chase with his three bloodhounds through the limestone rubble of the Frank Slide. The trail through the rubble led towards the Holloway Ranch, but an sudden thunder shower washed away the scent. The sheriff didn’t realize that he was within feet of apprehending his prey. Bassoff recalled later that the trackers came close enough for him to almost reach out and touch them. Nerves in the Crowsnest Pass, with the Bellevue Cafe riddled with bullets and blood was fragile. That evening, an pair of special APP Constables by the name of Kyslik & Hudson were searching some abandoned houses nearby the crime scene. Kyslik entered the front door of one building, and for reasons unknown jumped out the rear main floor windows startling his partner enough to accidentally shoot him dead. Bellevue’s death toll mounts.

On August 9th, Bassoff left his hideout in the Frank Slide and walked to the Holloway Ranch cabin, where he walked in on the ranch owner’s wife and child. Mrs. Holloway didn’t panic, as she fed Bassoff who soon left. As soon as he left, she alerted the APP who renewed the manhunt for Bassoff. Still Bassoff eluded his trackers, but a break came on the evening of August 11th. A CPR train engineer by the name of Hammond was driving a westbound train near the Pincher Station siding, when he noticed a man fitting Bassoff’s description lurking near the train station. As soon as the train stopped at Lundbreck, he got on the phone with the Canadian Pacific Railway Police on his find. Four railway detectives were dispatched to Pincher Station on an eastbound train. Upon arriving at Pincher Station, one of the detectives noticed movement an slight ways behind the depot by an boulder. From his vantage point in the moonlight he yelled out ‘Throw down your hands’ – but the figure didn’t move, although it brought the other detectives over. The figure reached into his pocket but only pulled up some food. As the detectives closed in, Bassoff weak from his wounds, began eating and then surrendered. He was then handcuffed and turned over to the APP.

The prisoner was remanded at Fort Macleod – after an hearing on August 17th, Tom Bassoff was charged for the murder of Constable Fred Bailey, in which he plead not-guilty. Bassoff was then transported to Lethbridge for his trial, where witnesses stated that Bassoff shot Bailey six times, but the autopsy only showed one bullet in his brain. As well, witness stated that the police failed to identify themselves and fired first. But no matter, as Bassoff emptied his gun into Bailey’s body! It took the jury only an hour to determine Bassoff’s fate – an verdict of guilty! On December 22nd, 1920 Bassoff was taken to the Lethbridge Jail gallows and hanged for his crimes – the 5th to die from the August crime spree in the Crowsnest Pass.

The death of the bandits left one member unaccounted for. The APP flooded the continent with descriptions of Alex Arloff and the description of the missing CPR conductor’s watch. But not an trace was found until January 18th, 1924 when an man walked into an Portland, Oregon pawnshop seeking quick cash on an CPR conductor’s watch. The pawnbroker was wary and checked the serial numbers – and sure enough it was the same watch! The officials were notified, and the APP tracked the sale of the watch to Butte, Montana where Arloff was finally arrested. He was extradited back to Alberta, and was sentenced to seven years in the Prince Albert Penitentiary. He would die in prison in 1926.

The Bellevue Café still stands – it was originally built in 1917 by Joe Mah, who had emigrated from Canton, China to Canada in 1908. Mah lived originally in Vancouver Island, but moved to Bellevue in 1909 to operate a restaurant. The original building was a small shed-roof wood framed structure with clapboard siding. It burnt down in the fire of 1917 and Mah was one of the many Bellevue resident’s forced to rebuild its businesses. The Café remained in the Mah family until being sold in 1975. The bullet holes from the shootout remained visible for several years afterwards. In December 1989 the building was designated an registered historic resource by Alberta Culture. The original clapboard siding and window details of the front elevation were reconstructed in 1990 by the Alberta Main Street Program.



If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


NA-1146-1 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Portrait of Tom Bassoff – 1920











NA-1146-2 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Portrait of George Arkoff – 1920












NA-1146-3 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Reenactment of Shooting at Bellevue, Alberta – 1920









NA-2814-10 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Gun side salute of Ernest Usher at Fort Macleod Cemetery – August 11th, 1920








PA-956-1 Glenbow Museum & Archives – Gun side salute of Ernest Usher at Fort Macleod Cemetery – August 11th, 1920





Posted in Galt Blog

Galt Railway Shareholder Profile – Charles John Brydges

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.

While Charles John Brydges shares in the Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC), appear to not be bank breakers (as he sold them around 1891), it is significant enough with his name on the shareholder’s list to make mention in an web blog post.  Brydges was the moving force in the Hudson’s Bay Company transformation from an feudally-run fur venture into an modern corporation.  And he knew an few things about politics, and railroads too.

Brydges was born in London, England on February 23rd, 1827 into an middle-class family.  The names of his parents are unknown, but during his successful middle years he claimed a connection with the barony of Chandos, then much in dispute.  His father died before he was two, and his mother five years later.  With no siblings or close relatives, he entered boarding-school for nine years – dependent for his future upon only a small legacy, driving ambition, and an extraordinary capacity for work.  As he entered his teens, C.J. apprenticed as an junior clerk with the London & South Western Railway Company, beginning an lifelong relationship with railroad administration.  As he rose in the company, Brydges viewed the railroad as the coming technology, one of the first in management to view railroad workers as specialized employees.  Brydges was probably one of the industries first ‘human resources officers’ and established workers libraries, company schools, and many progressive programs on behalf of the employees.  Though his idealism often flew in the face of the industrial revolution, and he clashed with his superiors, Brydges results came out of productivity, and later on C.J. was made the London and South-Western corporate secretary.

He was not content, however, to await indefinitely the final promotion possible from within company ranks.  In 1852 he was offered the post of managing director of the Great Western Railroad Company of Canada (GWRRC).  Notwithstanding a hasty offer of the secretaryship and efforts by the directors to obtain his release after he had accepted the overseas post, Brydges was off to Canada.  Although only 26, he was determined to strike out afresh, putting his apprenticeship to the test in a promising managerial challenge.

Brydges new appointment illustrated the problems inherent in the development of huge ventures by colonial promoters who were heavily dependent upon external capital.  GWRRC’s project (connecting the urban centers of Toronto and Hamilton with Niagara Falls, New York) depended upon private British investors for more than 90 per cent of its capitalization, however, and the Canadian board was shadowed by a London corresponding committee.  Brydges was the committee’s appointee; this factor, combined with his youth, compromised his position.  Yet, with characteristic energy and confidence, he soon played skilfully to both sides of the house – but it was not without controversy.  He would often clash with the Canadian Board over his decisions in improving administrative efficiencies, and his authoritarian way of conducting GWRRC business.  But C.J. held out, and by December 1861 anticipating an future merger between rival Grand Trunk Railway and GWRRC (which didn’t occur until 1884), he accepted the position as superintendent at Grand Trunk, making the acquaintance of Alexander Galt.

Though he ran operations at Grand Trunk, Brydges never lost sight of his interest in the workers, and established education and benifit programs that were the envy of the industry.  As Brydges continued on, he became an very political animal, becoming good friends with John A. Macdonald.  In the Fenian Raids of 1866, he organized railroaders into an military regiment (the Grand Trunk Regiment) to stave off the threat of Irish-American republic invaders.  After Confederation, Brydges relationship with Grand Trunk soured, as he faced accusations of profiteering from the company.  By March 1874, he resigned his position, and was asked by Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie, to organize the National Railway as an government project (later to became the Canadian Pacific Railway).  But Mackenzie lost the federal election to Macdonald in October 1878, so C.J. lost his new job.

Seeing the west as the promised land, Brydges moved out to Winnipeg and took an new job in May 1879, as the powerful land commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  That post saw Brydges involved in every faucet of western Canadian business, including steamboats, hotels, mills, furs, and the entire transportation network.  He oversaw supply contracts for the Northwest Mounted Police, and was involved for moving the HBC Canadian administrative offices to Winnipeg from Montreal in November 1880.

Brydges held that the Hudson’s Bay should erase the image of the old fur-trading company which was speculative and passive in its social and regional concerns – intent on incremental profits from the industry of others.  It should instead identify with the northwest, even at the risk of offending vested political and economic interests.  This boldness would eventually prove his undoing.

Brydges himself assumed a leading role in the rapidly expanding town of Winnipeg.  As in Montreal, he was prominent in civic activities: energetic chairman of the general hospital, president of the Manitoba Club, president of the board of trade and of the Manitoba Board of Agriculture, an outstanding diocesan figure, and a determined advocate of retrenchment in municipal proliferation, and taxation throughout Manitoba.  Although a supporter of the property owners’ association, he acted independently of the “Citizen’s Ticket” urban reform movement – perhaps because it was dominated by CPR figures.  He was determined to make HBC a part of the growing regional consciousness in Manitoba and the west.

His forthrightness exasperated many people and he could not escape charges of partisanship.  But when Alexander Galt talked to him for an proposal for an mine and coal contract on the far flung Belly & Bow Rivers, Brydges purchased 20 shares of Northwest Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) for himself, and 20 shares for his son Frederick.   This involvement alarmed the CPR, particularly in view of the old Grand Trunk connections of Galt and Brydges.  As well, Brydges petitioning of Winnipeg over Selkirk for CPR business earned him gratitude of the church and Winnipeg business interests, but further alienated CPR personnel like Sanford Fleming, and others higher up in the company on doing business in Winnipeg.   Although pressured to establish policies for the promotion of immigration as well as for the development and sale of land jointly with the CPR, he demurred, for he foresaw inherent complications and competition.  He felt that the Hudson’s Bay should remain free to criticize the CPR’s monopolistic rates and branch lines policies, thereby lining up with western interests.  Inevitably, these tactics alarmed CPR supporters such as George Stephen, and Donald Smith.  Smith’s rising power in both Hudson’s Bay and CPR caused more concern for Brydges.  The suspicions of the railway and the government were exacerbated by unfounded rumors that he was helping the Grand Trunk Railway undermine the CPR’s bond sales prospects by feeding information critical of the CPR to agents of the Grand Trunk who used it on the money markets in New York and London.

Brydges’ success in recovering Hudson’s Bay land and maintaining payments between 1882 and 1889 was perhaps his finest managerial achievement.  By carefully pressing for payments when economic conditions improved and relaxing demands during hard times he countered the effects of the Manitoba land bust (caused by massive speculation on the arrival of the CPR), and retained many original settlers on company lands.  The HBC would realize nearly $900,000 in collections and recoveries of unpaid early instalments, while retaining its reputation for efficiency and fair dealing. Brydges obviously expected warm commendation for his efforts. Instead, he soon faced Smith’s most effective attack yet.

Miscalculating Smith’s strength on the HBC board, he pushed the directors to grant an American line, the Northern Pacific Railroad, access to company land in Winnipeg to provide competition for the CPR, and to improve Hudson’s Bay property in the center of the city. The deal was rebuffed by the board (due to Smith), and he lobbied HBC officials to have Brydges removed as land commissioner.

On February 16th, 1899 the fight was out of Brydges – he died of an stroke in Winnipeg, while making an weekly inspection at the Winnipeg General Hospital, and is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in the city.  He left behind his wife Letitia Grace Henderson, and his three children; Frederick, Charles, and daughter Margaret.


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.
All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.

C.J. Brydges – March 9th, 1889 – Library & Archives of Canada – Mikan# 3531393

Presentation to Mr. C. J. Brydges, Late Manager G.T. Railway – Cdn. Illustrated News (Sept. 1874) – Library & Archives of Canada Record 1583

Posted in Galt Blog

History of Coutts in relation to Narrow Gauge Railway & NWMP

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.

The hamlet of Coutts began as the southern point of the narrow gauge railway, on which construction was started on in the spring of 1890 by the Alberta Railway and Coal Company (AR&CC) to transport coal from Lethbridge, Northwest Territories to Great Falls, Montana.  In June 1890, an crew was sent to the present-day site of Coutts to begin construction of the railway line northward to meet the construction heading south.  The site of Coutts was picked by AR&CC engineer Mr. Barclay, and Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) Inspector John Moodie.  The lumber for the new station and police barracks was purchased in Great Falls by Mr. Barclay and hauled to Coutts by Bull Train.  As we know from Blog Post #2 “The Baroness, an Railroad, and an Town” the reason that Coutts was named Coutts, was that AR&CC was honoring one of its largest shareholders the Baroness Burdett-Coutts!

The coming of the narrow gauge railway necessitated the stationing of the NWMP along the railway line while under construction, as the work crew consisted of some rough characters that caused trouble.  As time went on, liquor became available to the men as well, but the NWMP managed to control the situation, and crime was kept to an minimum with no serious offenses committed.

By late summer an railroad station was being built, straddling the International Boundary.  The railroad station would contain the offices of both customs & immigration for both countries, as well as an telegraph line that would connect the station to Lethbridge.  The first barracks of the NWMP was completed in November 1890, and was built on the railroad right-of-way.  It was located just up an slight grade to the west of the railroad station.  The Barracks was built well, and had rooms for the police men to live in and jail cells in the basement for any prisoners.  Since there was not many other structures in Coutts, the Barracks would also serve as the church on Sunday, an boarding house, an community hall, and also an morgue!

In reference to the NWMP Barracks, Superintendent R. Deane reported “At Coutts, which is the name of the railroad station on this side of the boundary, with Sweetgrass being the name of the embryo town on the other side.  Some excellent buildings have taken shape, being built by the AR&CC for the use of the NWMP for the sum of $2,619.16, which will be completed by November 1890.  The Barracks measures 26 x 28 feet, with an lean-to kitchen and mess room, each 21 x 14 feet; shingled roof, sheathed-inside with beaded lumber, painted with two coats.  Upstairs there is an large Barracks room the full size of the house.  In the basement was an officers room 16 x 11 feet, an storage room 10 x 11 and two jail cells 7′-6″ x 5 feet.  As well their is an spacious cellar, an coal shed 12 x 8 feet outside, an 24 x 36 feet stable with an shingled roof and sided & painted, that could hold 14 horses, an oat room, and saddle room.  The doors are at the end of the stable, and opens into an corral measuring 24 x 28 feet.”

The first home built in Coutts was owned by Martin McGerry, an American section foreman employed by AR&CC.  It too was built on the railroad right-of-way, and was rented to the first American Immigration officer to work at the station, Joe Mantle and his family.  Another house was built on the same property, for the first Canadian government veterinarian Herbert Johnston.  After he left, the NWMP took over the house for additional living quarters.  That house would also be used as the first Anglican church in the area.  One of the first children born in the area, son of NWMP Sargent John Logan, was baptized in that house.  Later on, church services were moved to the main Barracks until an proper church was built in 1905.

The first Canadian customs agent was Edwin Allen who worked in the railroad station from October 1890 to mid 1891 – he was paid an pricey $75 an month.  The work was very interesting, as beside having to clear wagons and trains, much time was spent keeping tabs on the large American cattle herds grazing in Canada, which often the NWMP was called in to help herd them back into Montana.  He was relieved by a Mr. Cooper for an short spell, and then was relieved by Henry Tennant Sr. Henry and his family occupied another house built on the railroad right-of-way, just west of the station and along the International Boundary.  This house was later used as an residence for for the section foreman of the AR&CC.  The Tennants purchased land just an few miles west of Coutts, close enough that Henry and one of his sons George could go between working at the Railroad Station or on the family ranch.  The family lived on the ranch until 1910 when Henry Jr. married and took over operations of the ranch.  Henry senior and his family moved back into Coutts.  At the railroad station, the Tennants also handled the mail for both Coutts & Sweetgrass, sorting and storing it in an cupboard built out of crates.  This mail box is still in existence at the train station at the Galt Historic Railway Park – an photo of it is in Blog Post #5 “Lost and Found Artifacts“.  Henry Jr. was also employed by the Canadian government as an livestock inspector and rode through the district examining livestock for disease.  Henry Sr. other son Joe was employed by AR&CC as an conductor on the train that ran between Lethbridge & Coutts.

In the early years horse stealing was frequently committed, and an great many offenders took refuge across the border.  Just an year earlier in 1888, an large amount of horses were recovered by the NWMP and returned to their owners in Montana.  Hostile natives along the border and in the vicinity of the Sweetgrass Hills, just east of Coutts, also caused anxiety at times.  In 1894, an group of 40 Metis near the Sweetgrass Hills had begun an reign of terror, with stealing horses, or killing cattle as they pleased on either side of the border.  If anyone stood in their way or complained to the authorities about them, the Metis threatened to burn down that person’s property!  In April 1894, word came that three of them were in Canada.  A Corporal Dickson of the Writing-On-Stone detachment went out to meet them, finding their camp near dawn just north of the border near one of the boundary markers.  He hid their horses, captured and arrested one, and fired several shots.  The other two were away from the camp but came running in to come face to face with the armed NWMP officer!  He then arrested the other two and took them into custody.  The corporal had an strong case, but to be sure the NWMP hired an surveyor to confirm that the boundary marker was in the right spot.  To the NWMP dismay, the marker was 443 meters south of the boundary in the United States!  So they had to release the three Metis.  Later on, an group of United States Calvary ran the Metis group out of the Sweetgrass Hills.

One of the new tasks the NWMP was tasked with was cattle management.  With the increasing border patrols the Mounted Police would often come across cattle grazing with no cowboys in sight.  In one instance in 1896, customs agent Henry Sr. Tennant rode on horseback to the south fork of the Milk River and collected duty on cattle & horses belonging to two settlers.  The settlers had 3,089 head of cattle  and 42 horses.  After allowing 32 head duty-free as settler’s effects, Tennant would colled $6,319.70 as duty.  The duty was paid by cheque, drawn on the Union Bank in Lethbridge.  Tennant would later report that an estimated 10,000 head of American cattle were roaming in the Coutts area, between Writing-on-Stone and Pendant d’ Oreille.  This was an time when many American ranges were overstocked and had very little grass, and many cattle herds were moved within an couple of miles of the International Boundary and left to ‘drift’ over the line into Canada, where the cattle could graze on the lush Canadian pasture.  As an result, the NWMP would be called on several times to assist government stock inspectors in herding the cattle back into Montana.  At times things did get heated between the American and Canadian cowboys over who’s cattle was grazing on the right side of the border, and then the Mounties had to step in to figure out the mess.  Despite these occurrences, the NWMP made sure that the Canadian ranchers were protected against cattle theft, illegal branding, another stock crimes.  The ranchers were quick to repay the service with unwavering support of the Mounties, often times feeding them and putting them up for the night if they were on patrol in the area.  Many Mounties after their terms of duty would become ranchers themselves.

Another issue was the sale of alcohol – liquor was already on the plains, since the days of wolfers.  The liquor was coming north into Montana either by pack horse or wagon; yet for an man who understood how to carry it on, the illicit trade was the most profitable business in the country.  However the Mounties were able to slow the liquor trade until the First World War, when the Alberta Government passed an prohibition law in 1916, and two years later it was made an national issue when Canada issued national prohibition.  The push for the dry movement was done primarily by the churches, but the First World War became the driving force behind the “banning of the bar”,  because it was seen as necessary and natural for the benefits of the soldiers that the country they returned to was a better place. The argument was also raised that prohibition would benefit the war effort as well since it would prevent waste and potential inefficiency.  National prohibition was the first and last attempt to impose national standards on the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol.  However in the early 1920′s Canadian Provinces began repealing the prohibition laws, starting in British Columbia in 1921 and finally Alberta in 1924.  During the Prohibition period in Alberta, the majority of alcohol smuggled into Alberta was through the Whiskey Gap area, just west of Coutts, from the United States. Later it flowed in the opposite direction when the Americans declared Prohibition starting in 1922 and lasting until 1933.  In any case, the police were very busy!

In 1912 when the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC) the customs agents had to move out of the railroad station.  An combined port-of-entry / residence was built on the road that was located just to the west of the railroad line just before the International Boundary.  This building was last until 1950 when an much larger facility was built and officially opened for traffic in 1952.  That building last up until the late 1990′s when it was demolished and an joint Canada – United States port-of-entry was built and opened to traffic in September 2004.

Not far from the railroad station (to the east) was an unusual road, which the locals called ‘Boundary Road’.  It runs east from Sweetgrass on the American side of the Boundary, which is some eight rods in width and is marked at intervals of one mile with an iron post.  At one time, an road on the Alberta side of the Boundary was kept up and traveled by Canadian traffic, but since the American road was built, many began using it more than the Canadian road and soon it fell into disuse.  Eight and one half miles east of Coutts the road swings back into Alberta – and since there are lateral roads that connect to this Boundary Road from both sides of the Boundary, the people of the two countries use it with equal freedom.

History of the Border Country of Coutts 1965 & 2000 editions
Sweetgrass Hills: A Natural & Cultural History – Johan Dormaar (2005)
Alberta’s 49th Parallel: A Natural & Historical Journey – Johan Dormaar (2009)
Tales of a Mounted Police Officer: Supertindent R. Burton Deane of Lethbridge NWMP Division – William Baker (1999)
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.
 All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.

NA-1167-15 (Glenbow Museum) – Alberta Railway and Coal Company Station on boundary at Coutts. NWMP Barracks in background – No Date

NA-2436-4 (Glenbow Museum) – View of the interior of the NWMP Barracks at Coutts – Christmas 1901



NA-1254-4 (Glenbow Museum) – View of the exterior RNWMP Barracks at Coutts – 1912

NA-2578-12 (Glenbow Museum) – RNWMP personnel at Coutts – May 1915

Posted in Galt Blog

Macleod’s Railroad Dreams…

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.  Additional information supplied by Chris Doering.

Fort Macleod was one of the oldest communities on the southern plains, older than Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Regina, Battleford, or Saskatoon.  So it’s not surprising that the town boosters of Macleod with its old Bull Trail connections to Montana and points north should not think itself as the hub of transportation and a potential railroad centre. But Macleod would always play the bridesmaid to the other cities whom railroads would make prosperous.  Even when the tracks did arrive, the town’s relationships with railroads were tempestuous.

The CPR veered north in 1883 and made Calgary the metropolis it is.  The North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) in 1885 showed more potential, but their tracks ended in Lethbridge.  Finally in 1892, the upstart Calgary & Edmonton Railway (C&E) extended its tracks south of Calgary towards Macleod, by then the center of ranching country.  The C&E was not without its characters – where Harry Longabaugh broke horses for the grading crews, before returning to the USA to resume his career as the ‘Sundance Kid’.  But when that 106 mile from Calgary did pull in, builders stopped on the north bank of the Oldman River some two miles west of Macleod.  Contrary to the expectations of Macleod’s residents, the railway company had no intention of extending the line across the river and into Macleod.  Instead the company promoted a new town at the terminus of the line and appropriately named it ‘West Macleod’.  And for five years Macleod had to be content with the wagons that brought passengers and freight to and fro the two settlements.

The Crowsnest Line, constructed by CPR in 1897-98, was yet another line to run within a short distance of Macleod (two miles south).  But that CPR line was a was a narrow gauge that ran haphazardly on rickety wooden bridges, crisscrossing several coulees and the St. Mary’s River south of Lethbridge and across the Blood Reserve. To add insult to injury, the CPR established a rival town just south of Macleod called ‘Haneyville’ (after one of the contractors of the Crowsnest Line), and then developed a divisional point there.  To read more on the background of the narrow gauge line, please read the previous blog post “Whoop-Up Railroad” on January 6th, 2014.

An elegant two-story frame station was built at Haneyville in 1898.  Certain design details indicate that this plan is, perhaps, a predecessor of later masonry stations.  Incensed Macleod townsmen feared a connection to the CPR Crowsnest Line and the C&E may occur at the new station, and grew even tenser that Haneyville should spring into a separate and rival town.  Town boosters begged, pleaded, and even offered to pay the CPR to bring the tracks into town, and talked of building a street car line to Haneyville to bring passengers into town.  But Haneyville never budged.  In return, the CPR tried to persuade the residents of Macleod to move over to Haneyville, but Macleod would have no part of it.  With only minor commercial activity, Haneyville could barely sustain itself.  A scant seven years passed before the CPR bridges between Lethbridge and Macleod literally began falling apart forcing the trains to run slower and to run half empty – forcing bottlenecks on the line.  Thus, Haneyville remained an railway-only town, occupied completely by railway employees.  By 1905, the CPR proposed an plan which eventually saw the railway enter Macleod.  In 1906, C&E spanned the Oldman River and the line was extended into Haneyville.  A spur line was built from the C&E line into Macleod, and CPR began planning to make preparations for the development of divisional point facilities in Macleod.

With the increase in railroad activity, the residents of Macleod were determined to take advantage of any potential growth that would result.  A sub-committee of the Board of Trade went to Calgary to solicit support of the proposed Calgary – Montana Railway charter, with Macleod sharing in the expense to obtain the charter.  The charter was granted, however, a simultaneous charter was granted to the Alberta & Great Northern Railway for a parallel line, wiped out the chances of the development of the Calgary – Montana Railway.  The lack of capital, despite the grant of ten thousand acres per mile of track, prevented the construction of the Alberta & Great Northern railway.  The Board of Trade approached other rail lines; the Grand Trunk Pacific, Great Northern, Alberta Railway & Irrigation, and even Canadian Northern.   It seemed the Board was not content to connect with anything less than every set of tracks on the western half of the continent.   Lot prices boomed and the town extended its limits to accommodate the influx of speculators.  Such dreams abounded in those days when a land boom threatened to transform southwestern Alberta into an agricultural & industrial heartland.  But the bubble would burst, pricked by the realities of prairie farming, a glut in grain production, and the advances of World War One – which would make iron scarce for new railroads.  Canadian Northern was the closest to building a new rail line, but only got as far as a rail bed…nothing more.  Macleod would have to be content in the 20th century with two rail lines; the CPR Crowsnest line and the C&E (which would be later purchased by CPR in 1913).

However, changes were coming on the horizon.  The CPR later revealed that it was planning to construct an standard-gauge diversion that would run west from Lethbridge through Macleod (following the present-day route), and that the original plan of having divisional point facilities in Macleod was nixed and divisional point operations were moved east to Lethbridge.  Jobs were lost in Macleod, and some of the rail facilities were downsized.  Around the same time the Haneyville station, along with the related railroad buildings, were relocated to the south end of 2nd Avenue in Macleod in 1907, and West Macleod was soon deserted.  The new diversion began with the opening up of the High Level Bridge in Lethbridge in August 1909 and the old 1896 narrow gauge line was torn up.  Not long afterwards Haneyville was then abandoned.  The station stood at its new site in Macleod until January 31st, 1967 when a fire completely destroyed the structure.

Today the majority of the former C&E rail line is gone (from High River south to Macleod), as well as the majority of the rail yards in the town.  But the Crowsnest Line ironically seems to be one of the few rail lines that will remain in southwestern Alberta in the 21st century.  As a railroad centre, Macleod had its growing pains, but served rail travel well, and continues to see freight from all over the world pass through the back door.  Fellow blogger Chris Doering has done some interesting posts on some of Fort Macleod’s railway history – the remains of the turntable & roundhouse and the unfinished portion of a Canadian Northern rail line near Fort Macleod!

Fort Macleod Turntable & Roundhouse Remains -

Unfinished Canadian Northern Railway Line -


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at  Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


CPR station in Macleod (former Haneyville) around 1908 – J.A. Virtue Stationer & Confectioner (Macleod) – PC003608 – Peel Library, University of Alberta









Dignitaries, including members of the Michigan Free Press Association, prepare to cross the newly finished High Level Bridge in Lethbridge – August 1909 – Galt Museum & Achives P19760234015


Posted in Galt Blog

Galt Railway System Rolling Stock

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Additional information from Chris Doering.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer

Narrow gauge lines like this were not terribly common in Canada and while they offered some perceived benefits (lower cost of construction being one), they had several major disadvantages too. An example being the exchange of freight between lines – the load or freight had to be physical transferred from narrow gauge to standard gauge cars at the interchange point. A laborious and costly undertaking!

“Probably nowhere else in Canada has a motive power roster of a compact railway operation been so elusive as that of the Galt Railway system.  While much of the original data has been documented in builder’s records, the subsequent history of the engines (both the re-numbering and sales) has defied positive identification, since apparently no company records were preserved or at least none have come to light.  Photographic and other research have partly filled this void, and the findings are documented in hope that additional research could continue.” — Omer Lavallee in ‘Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada’ 1972.









When the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC) began upgrading their rail lines to standard gauge between 1893 to 1909, the majority of their narrow gauge rolling stock was sold off.  One of the locomotives, #16 was present by AR&IC to the City of Lethbridge as a display at the current site of the Lethbridge Exhibition Grounds, in 1912.  But the locomotive was neglected by the City and fell into disrepair - so much so, it was scrapped in 1916.

Other engines and rolling stock went west to the Kootenay region of Britsh Columbia, where the Kaslo & Slocan railway operated 53 kilometers of narrow gauge track between Kaslo to Sandon, and to the new silver mines in the region.  Kaslo was located on the shores of Kootenay Lake, and was served by steam ships connecting to railways near Creston and Nelson, British Columbia.  Construction on the railway started in 1895 after obtaining financial backing from the Great Northern Railway, which was seeking shortcuts against CPR for its mainline at Spokane.  Great Northern had gained control of the neighboring Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway in 1893 which gave it access to Kootenay Lake.  Great Northern bought out the original investors in 1897 making the railway part of the Great Northern system under the Kootenay Railway and Navigation banner.  Much of the silver ore from the K&S was shipped to US smelters, providing traffic for the GN.  The Kaslo and Slocan faced stiff competition with the CPR’s Nakusp and Slocan for the ore from the mines.  On December 16, 1895, crews from the Kaslo and Slocan attacked and demolished the station the CPR had just built on land disputed between the two railways.  The CPR relocated the station to other land. Both railways competed with building spurs to service mines in order to obtain ore traffic destined for the other railway.

The K&S was very profitable in the later 1890s.  The railway had high operating costs because of its location along the side of step hills, many of which had been burned in forest fires, which was also affected by frequent snow and mud slides.  In 1900, when Sandon burned to the ground, and ongoing labor problems at the silver mines spelt an end to the boom years causing financial problems for the railway.  By 1904, the line was losing money on each train it ran, and train service to Sandon was suspended by 1908.  In 1910, an forest fire took out an majority of the remaining bridges and snow sheds along the line.  In 1911, GN sold the railway to an consortium of business people from Kaslo to re-start the railway.  Unfortunately, it was short lived, as CPR returned to Kaslo and made an agreement with the new owners of leasing the K&S for 999 years beginning on January 1st, 1912.  The CPR rebuilt the narrow gauge line to standard gauge, and connected it to their own Nakusp & Slocan line.  The CPR would continue to operate the line until abandoning it in the mid 1950s.  Most of the narrow gauge rolling stock of the K&S was scrapped in Vancouver in 1917, probably for the First World War steel demand, although the rest were able to stay active well in the late 1920’s.

Another locomotive, #6, rests beside the grade of a narrow gauge spur line that originally was connected to the CPR main line, near Field, British Columbia.  For decades, the rusting boiler, frame, and tenders were assumed by locals to be a wreck of a runaway pusher.  However, railway historians knew that no runaway locomotive had been scrapped at the base of the ‘Big Hill’.  In the 1950′s, the builder’s plate was found in the wreckage, identifying it as #7717, a 36″ gauge 2-6-0 built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, in November 1885.  It had been sold to NWC&NC, which numbered it #6.  The locomotives identity was established, although the question why was it abandoned in the Canadian Rockies just off the CPR main line, far from its original home?

The Spiral Tunnels were an important and costly project and this allowed the CPR to finally abandon its famous Big Hill. Incredibly steep (by rail standards) the Big Hill line was a major bottleneck and trouble spot and construction of the tunnels alleviated a number of nagging problems. To a degree anyway and even today this is the steepest section of the CPR mainline. Trains here travel very slow which means the line is often at times very congested. Certainly it’s one of the more challenging sections on the entire railway!

One of the companies involved in the construction of the Spiral Tunnels, MacDonnell & Gzowski, purchased at least two, maybe three locomotives.  At the end of the job in September 1909, #6 was then abandoned, and over time it somehow got pushed to the bottom of the grade with various bits removed.  We are not sure where locomotive #15 ended up.  Chris Doering mentioned that he had heard rumors the other locomotive, #7 ended up in one of the local lakes.  Hard to say, but who knows?  You can check out Chris’s earlier blog posts on the mysterious #6 locomotive here, and here, that feature some unique photographs of this almost lost artifact.


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at  Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

A narrow gauge locomotive #17 at Great Falls, Montana – 1895 – from left to right: Bill Niven (fireman), Tom Nolan (engineer), R. Gilkey, W. McDonald, and R. Hardy. – Galt Museum & Archives Photo 19760234083










Photograph of the snow plow in front of the train clearing the railway track between Lethbridge, Alberta and Sweetgrass, Montana after an blizzard – February 1st, 1907 – Galt Museum & Archive Photo 19730113001











Narrow Gauge Locomotive of the NWC&NC at Lethbridge, Northwest Territories – 1887 – The three men on the locomotive are identified as C.F. McPherson, unknown, and Bernard Stanford Burrell. Glenbow Museum photograph NA-1322-21








The staff stand on and around the narrow gauge locomotive #16 on the occasion of the AR&IC merger with CPR – April 1st, 1912 in Lethbridge, AB. Galt Museum & Archives Photo 19760234066









Former Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company Baldwin 2-6-0 #2 locomotive at Kaslo, BC in 1925 – Provincial Archives of British Columbia Photo (B-7154)









Another one of the former Alberta Railway & Coal Company’s Baldwin 2-6-0 locomotives (#15) with an level top boiler and bell next to the cab, at the interchange with the standard gauge CPR mainline at the base of Mount Stephen in 1908 – Glenbow Foundation Collection Photo

Posted in Galt Blog

Lost and Found Artifacts…

Web blog by Jason Paul Sailer

We have decided for this blog post to compile some of the artifacts found in the 1890 International Train Station during renovations that occurred between the fall of 2001 to its re-opening to the public in the fall of 2005.

If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at  Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.

This piece of metal was found under the second level staircase. We think it is an piece of an locomotive, but we are not sure. It has ‘July 1883′ stamped on the back of it.

This is an authentic 1890 Mammoth lamp shade & frame (harp) that was found in the attic! It has since been cleaned up and now operates as an electric lamp. Special thanks to the Community Foundation of Lethbridge & Southwestern Alberta for providing funding to locate / refurbish the other Mammoth lamps & shades for our station!

These cardboard cereal boxes were found in the attic as well.

This buffalo horn was found under the second level staircase.

This bucket had an interesting story. It is an original water bucket that was later used by CPR as an paint bucket! It was also found in the attic space – the wire attached to the handle had an paint brush attached at the other end!

The ‘Tickets’ sign was found in the waiting room walls and is original to the station.

The Ticket Wicket is also original to the station, as well as the counter and the brick brack bracket under the counter. The wicket was filled in, and would be later discovered when the GCPRS took over the station.

The last artifact is the original Coutts / Sweetgrass post office! This is an handmade original, that was probably built by Henry Tennant Sr., the first Customs Agent at the train station.










The Canadian Customs badge on the left was found under the floor boards on the main floor. The badge on the right is an reproduction of what it would of looked like new.



























Posted in Galt Blog

New Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society Article!!

Here is an new article with myself and Cody Kapcsos on the Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society – will be in the Taber Times, the 40 mile Commentator, Cypress Courier, Westwind Weekly News, the Sunny South News, and the Vauxhall Advance…. Please join our cause and buy an membership! – Jason Sailer. To join our group simply download Membership Form, include the cheque, and mail to us…simple as that! If you have questions or want fliers to hand out, just ask!

Posted in Galt Blog

Tiny Relic Tells Big Story…

Original article by Gord Tolton.  Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer

One day Don Nilson of Stirling, Alberta was poking about the soil just west of the Galt Historic Railway Park, and looked down in the dirt and seen an small bow-tie shaped brass name ribbon, no more than 2″ wide by 3/4″ high.  Don knows an bit of Stirling’s history and its placement on the old Northwest Mounted Police trail that stretched from Fort Macleod Alberta to Fort Walsh Saskatchewan in the mid 1870s to late 1880′s.  He thought that the name ribbon fell off an policeman’s saddle.

The ribbon bore the corporate name of ‘J.H. Bunnell & Co., N.Y.’ and in the center had the number ’150′ stamped on the top and ‘O.H.M.S’ on the bottom.  On the flanges on either side of the ribbon were small holes where an braid or nail could be inserted to or attached to something.

Don turned the ribbon over to Bill Hillen at the Railway Park, along with his thoughts on the tiny relic.  Bill knew someone who knows something about the NWMP, Gord Tolton.  Upon first glance, Gord  discounted the idea of an saddle plate, since saddles identify their trade names with leather-tooled impressions, not with metal plates.  The name ‘Bunnell’ sounded familiar to Gord, but he just couldn’t remember the reason why it did.  Gord had thought maybe it was an shipping container plate, judging the ‘O.H.M.S’ could stand for ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ (similar to an luggage tag of present day).  But it was an guess, so Gord turned to the next best thing to solve the mystery – the internet.  The first search hit paydirt!  J.H. Bunnell & Co., was the continent’s foremost manufacturer of telegraph keys and telegraph equipment. Not knowing the significance of the letters, or the numbers, Gord contacted Neal McEwen who operates the ‘Telegraph Office’ homepage for further information (

Neal writes “The age of the Bunnell plate is a little hard to determine, as they did not change much over the years.  The ‘bow-tie’ plate was only used from 1890 to 1905 or so, as the plates afterwards changed to an rectangular shape.  The number ’150′ is the resistance of the telegraph relay (key) and is measured in ‘OHMS’, which is the electrical unit of resistance.  150 OHMS relays were used from almost the start of Bunnell’s manufacturing to the very end.  It was most likely pinned to an wooden base that would of sat on an desk.  After 1915, the bases were then made out of slate.  Canadian Pacific Railway & Canadian Pacific Telegraphs were large customers of telegraph instruments, with an large majority purchased from Bunnell.”

So why was this name plate lying out in an field just an short distance from the Railway Park?  Perhaps it was part of the original telegraph relay that was installed in the Galt station at Stirling, and when it needed to be replaced it was tossed into the dump?  Perhaps the telegraph relay was used as an grave marker?  The mystery remains, but at least part of part of the story can be told!


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at  Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.

All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


Here is an photo of the name ribbon that was found west of the current location of the Galt Historic Railway Park. Photo taken by Jason Sailer on Jan. 4th, 2014










Here is an view of what the name ribbon would look like if new. This example is attached on an telegraph relay for sale here:










Here is an later example of an telegraph relay with the later Bunnell name ribbon (rectangular) instead of the ‘bow-tie’.


Posted in Galt Blog

Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society – Prairie Post Article – Jan. 31st, 2014

 We are in the process of applying for an charitable status!

 We need more members!

Please download and print off the membership form and send in!!

 Any questions please contact either Cody Kapcsos 403-715-5238 or Jason Sailer 403-320-1578

Posted in Galt Blog

A History of the Coutts / Sweetgrass International Train Station

The Great Canadian Plains Railway Society (GCPRS) has decided for 2014 we should blog about various items of interest of southern Alberta history, railway tidbits, etc. We will be trying to blog twice an month. Lots of the blogs will be coming from older GCPRS newsletters, which were written up by Gord Tolton for the Society. Original article by Gord Tolton. Re-posted to web blog by Jason Paul Sailer.

The depression of the late 1880′s struck the Galt Family’s Lethbridge-based coal company almost as soon as it went into full production - necessitating new markets immediately if it were to survive.  One of these new markets was the emerging copper / steel smelters in Montana that required large amounts of coal.  As well, another new market was supplying coal to the American railway giant Great Northern.  Out of this, came the Great Falls & Canada Railway (GF&CR)  - which was incorporated in the United States on December 3rd, 1889.  The Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC) built the 65 miles of Canadian portion, while the US chartered GF&CR built the 134 mile American portion that ended at Great Falls, Montana. Construction began in March 1890, and exactly 108 days later the AR&CC and GF&CR met at the present-day location of Coutts / Sweetgrass.  As we know from the last web blog post, Coutts was named after one of the main shareholders of the AR&RC, the Baroness Burdett-Coutts!  An few days after, on October 2nd, the first train (an coal train) left Lethbridge bound for Great Falls.  On October 20th, 1890 an special one-week excursion fare was announced to augment the passenger traffic – for an $10 dollar fare an passenger could leave Great Falls for Banff via Lethridge and Dunmore an round trip of some 900 miles!

An port of entry was required for crossing the International Border, so AR&RC engineer Mr. Barclay and NWMP Inspector Moodie chose the site for the location of the train station in June 1890.  An 3,800 sf International train station would be built over the summer months, and would be situated half in Canada and half in the United States.  The construction company that built the station was run by an man by the name of Donald Grant.  He brought the building materials up from Fort Benton on bull trains.  The station was designed in the Victorian era, although it was not overly adorned with the typical Victorian character defining elements.  The only visible signature of the builder is the use of an angled pattern of profiled tongue & groove siding which was placed below the bumpout on the stationmasters area.  This pattern has been used by Scandinavian craftsmen.  Additional research finds that the former Grand Trunk Railway station in Claremont, Ontario has an similar building style to the Coutts / Sweetgrass station.  Sir Alexander Galt was an director of the Grand Trunk Railway, so an person can infer his experience with Grand Trunk influenced this station!

The American portion included an customs area, where US customs agents would check incoming / outgoing passengers, inspect items on the train, etc.  As well an US Customs agent office, and an secured baggage room was located here to hold items ‘in bond’ while the train was at the station.  Usually items, luggage, etc was moved behind the station on an boardwalk between the American & Canadian sides.  As well two detention cells were here – since there was no jail in Sweetgrass these were used by the Sweetgrass sheriffs in detaining people who didn’t have proper identification, cattle rustlers, whiskey smugglers, drunks, etc.

The actual border would actually run through the waiting / dining room of the Station (marked outside on the platform by an painted line).  The painted line was an obvious marker to people seeking refuge – one story was US law officers chasing an fugitive northward who beat them across the line at the train station.  Since there was nowhere else to go, the officials decided to wait him out.  Taunting the lawmen, he had food carried to him over from the US side and he ate it sitting on the bench on the Canadian side, while the lawmen standing an few feet away fuming!

When an correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press made an lunch stop at Coutts in March 1891, his impressions described anything but the Harvey Girls, as an riot nearly occurred; “The table (in the restaurant) bore an strong resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the writer did not appear to be in any great hurry.  The bill of fare consisted of ham and eggs, and when the waiter made his appearance with the first consignment it was plain to be seen that he was sad and lonesome there by himself, and had been drowning his sorrows at the Sweetgrass saloon.  He brought in one piece of ham and two eggs to satisfy twenty hungry patrons.”  Apparently the passengers devoured the only nourishment available, a portion of a barrel of pickles, and its brine, since the only other food available was a small blackened piece of ham presided over by an brooding cook and a ‘boy whose shirt had been used to supply dish clothes when its owner was short taken.’  The cook let the howling mob board the train without paying but insisted the correspondent pay four bits since he was the only one to dine.  Four months later, following an change in management, an Great Falls bound excursion train was treated to as royal a repast as the writer’s meal had been frugal.

Adjacent to this space would be the stationmaster / telegraph room, where bonded shipments would be arranged from country to country.  After that was followed by the Canadian customs that included an unsecured / secured baggage rooms, customs agent office, and customs space was located.  There was no jail cells in the Canadian portion – the NWMP barracks was located just behind the station (a short walk up the hill) on railway property.  The NWMP barracks were also built by AR&RC for an pricey sum of $2,600 dollars in the fall of 1890.  The Canadian Customs would also serve as the main post office for both Coutts / Sweetgrass, with the Canadian Customs officer Henry Tennant, handed out both Canadian & American mail from an homemade apple box mail slot beside his desk!

In April 1894, the Great Northern Railway and the Montana Central Railroads were paralyzed by strikes, leaving the GF&CR the only operating railroad in Montana.  The Great Falls & Canada put in special rates from St. Paul over the lines of Soo, Canadian Pacific, and their parent company AR&RC.  Many of these rates were much lower than GN’s.  By 1901, the train service had been increased to three times per week from Shelby, MT to Lethbridge, NWT.  Prior to 1896, as many as four freight trains an day were working 200 to 300 tons per train southward.  At Great Falls, parallel to the standard gauge tracks of the Great Northern Railway, an massive thousand foot long, 26 foot high interchange coal dock had been constructed, so that the self-dumping narrow-gauge cars of the AR&RC and GF&CR could dump their contents into the hoppers of the GN.  Lethbridge coal was the main source of revenue for this rail line.  Canadian train crews and rolling stock worked the line from Lethbridge to Shelby, where American crews and rolling stock took over operations from Shelby to Great Falls – where the north / south narrow gauge line crossed the newly built east / west standard gauge GN line.

By this time, Montana coal mines began opening up and the cheap cost of coal threatened the exported Canadian coal market – for instance the one mine offered Great Falls customers coal delivered at $2.50 per ton, while the Galt coal went for an price of $8 to $10 per ton!  These market conditions forced the Galts to consider selling the rail line – it was initially suggested that the Galts could sell the entire rail line to Canadian Pacific, something that GN would not let happen – so they stepped up to the plate and purchased the American portion of the GF&CR on August 1st, 1901 at an cost of $750,000.  One of the conditions of the sale was that AR&RC would have to upgrade the railway line from narrow gauge to standard gauge prior to GN taking over the operations.  This upgrading of the rail line would occur over the course of 1902, with the final handover occurring on October 30th, 1902.  As an result, AR&RC would upgrade the line from Coutts north to Lethbridge at the same time, to accommodate the new standard guage rail traffic, which would commence operations on January 1st, 1903. AR&RC operations would be reorganized into the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC) in June 1904.  On January 1st, 1912 AR&IC would enter with an tentative agreement with Canadian Pacific Railway to allow CPR to take over operations and by June 2nd, 1912 CPR would assume control of all the Galt rail network.  When CPR initialized the purchase agreement of AR&IC in Jan. 1912, the took over control of the northern portion (Canadian) side of the station while Great Northern Railway owned & operated the southern portion (American) side.

To much surprise and shock, CPR cut their portion of the Coutts / Sweetgrass train station away from the American portion on September 10th, 1916 and moved it an quarter mile north.  We are unsure if there were passengers inside the station at the time, but we can read from the correspondence between Sweetgrass and GN’s head office in St. Paul, MN that there was some strong words pointed at CPR!  In the meantime, GN was scrambling to put together an temporary depot, as passengers had to sit on the platform for up to two hours waiting to cross into Canada, with many of the women and children sitting inside the small American portion, while the men stood outside.  GN rushed into two unused boxcars and set them up on the south side of the old 1890 train station and built an cinder block platform.  Bad publicity from two newspapers (the Great Falls Daily Leader and the Sweetgrass Advocate) that December pushed the construction of an new depot to the forefront of GN’s priority’s.  The Sweetgrass Advocate reported that – “up to 320 people – men, women, and children, standing on and around the tracks with little bonfires here and there, the thermometer at -6 degrees Celsius waiting at least two hours (and some reported up to five hours) waiting for the train…”  So in early 1916, GN began construction of an new depot, 30′ x 96′ located approx 450′ from the International  border that opened up that spring.  This depot would serve GN well – it would be renovated in 1953, but with lagging passenger traffic it was closed and replaced by an small 9′ x 31′ metal structure in 1978.  To please American Immigration officials, GN moved the old 1890 structure to to the opposite side of the tracks and placed it beside the depot.  This would be the ‘new’ customs building that would continue to serve until being replaced with an new facility in April 1936.   It was then sold to an local-area farmer, an Mr. Alex Suta, for $100 who moved it to his property in July 1937. We are unsure if it still stands.

After CPR split the station and moved 1/4 mile north, it continued to operate in that location until 1986 when stationmaster Cecil Walker retired.  It was then operated part time for three years, until finally closing in 1989.  It sat vacated until 1998, when the Federal government began studies into redeveloping the border crossing at Coutts / Sweetgrass.  The downside to these studies called for the demolition of the train station as it would sit in the way of the proposed new border crossing layout.  Around this same time, the Great Canadian Plains Railway Society (GCPRS) was formed to tell the story of the railroad in southern Alberta with emphasis on the Galt rail network.  Much to their surprise, that would include one of the original Galt stations!  GCPRS would receive ownership of the station in October 1999, and the rest is history! (or for an future webblog post!)

Canadian Rail Newsletter #273 September – October 1974 ‘The Tea Kettle Line’ by Patrick Webb

Canadian Rail Newsletter #376 September – October 1983 ‘The Second Turkey Track’ by Patrick Webb

Coutts History Book – 1965

James C. Mattson (Seattle, Washington) ‘Great Northern Railway Mileposts’ – April 25, 2011 – Great Northern Railway Historical Society

Great Northern Railway Correspondence from 1912 to 1939 – Great Northern Railway Historical Society

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All images and content are copyright Gord Tolton and Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.

AR&RC / GF&CR train station on the International Boundary at Coutts, NWT & Sweetgrass, MT – 1890 (Glenbow Archives photo NA-1167-15)









AR&RC / GF&CR staff on the train station platform – no date – from the left; Mrs. & Mr. Moberly (station master), George Tennant (Canadian Customs Officer), Henry Tennant (Customs Agent), and three men who are believed to be Canadian Custom Officers










AR&IC / GF&CR train station on the International Boundary at Coutts, AB & Sweetgrass, MT – 1908 (Galt Museum & Archives P19760234044)









AR&IC / GF&CR train station on the International Boundary at Coutts, AB & Sweetgrass, MT – 1908 (Galt Museum & Archives P19760237031)








View from US / Canada border crossing looking north towards the train station. The coaling tower and livestock yards are seen to the right of the photo. In the far distance one of the Coutts grain elevator stands – no date








View from behind the Coutts train station looking SE into Montana – no date








Aerial view of Coutts, Ab & Sweetgrass MT – July 1957 (Galt Museum & Archives P19754008042)










Jeff Henricks photo of Station in 1995. Coutts grain elevators in background.

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