Whoop-Up Railroad

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.


When one thinks of Lethbridge in terms of landmarks, it is easy to point out the goliath Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) High Level bridge as the southern Alberta city’s own unique ‘Statue of Liberty’.  It’s a great comment on Lethbridge’s role as an railway center.  But that great span across the Oldman River valley was not completed until 1909, and rail history was ingrained into the southern Alberta psyche long before then.  And for an few short years, a railway ran with an few yards of the original site of Fort Whoop-Up.


A 104 mile narrow gauge rail line was built by the North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) in the spring of 1885, as an means of getting the company’s coal to the CPR’s rail head at Medicine Hat.  In the late fall of 1893, the NWC&NC enters agreement with CPR to lease the Lethbridge – Medicine Hat rail line to CPR, who would then begin converting it to standard gauge.  CPR would purchase the rail line outright on December 31st, 1897.


By 1893, the mass colonization of the prairie’s, and the accompanying increase in grain production, as well as the opening of vast mining operations in southeast British Columbia led to an massive expansion of railway operations.  The Federal government and CPR, on June 28th, 1897 entered into an agreement, the “Crowsnest Pass Act” to extend the former narrow gauge line from Lethbridge and onward through the Crowsnest Pass to Nelson, BC – the act stipulated that the rail line had to go through Fort Macleod.  Additionally, the act granted CPR a subsidy of $11,000 per mile, to a maximum of $3,630,000 to be paid in not less than 10-mile rail sections.  You can see an overview of the entire Crowsnest Pass railway here:  http://railways.library.ualberta.ca/Maps-7-4-2/


The only obstacle seemed to be that massive mile-plus long valley of the Oldman River at Lethbridge.  The valley ran at an direct right angle to the track, and the sudden 300 foot drop of the valley seemed to have prohibited any notion of sloping the grade to facilitate the erection of low-level crossings.  So instead of crossing one big river, CPR engineers chose to cross a smaller tributary.


In retrospect, one supposes it may of seemed a good idea at the time.  All one had to do was run the line straight south a point a mile and a half east of the Lethbridge town-site (Lethbridge Junction), and use the coulees to gradually drop the grade to enable an low-level bridge crossing of the St. Mary’s River, to a point a mile south from its junction with the larger Oldman river.  After crossing the St. Mary’s, the track merely had to re-climb the coulee and follow the well rutted Whoop-Up Trail as it wound its way to Fort Macleod.  One more crossing would have to be made across the Belly River.  In all, the new extension between Lethbridge and Fort Macleod would be 37 miles long.  It seemed a reasonable concept, but the ‘Whoop-Up Line’ would soon prove to be a disaster.


A curiosity of this construction was the gauge of the line.  The old NWC&NC railway had all been narrow gauge, but the CPR was a standard gauge line, and wanted nothing to do with narrow gauge.  But rather than spend more money on new rolling stock, and with the costs of converting the newly purchased NWC&NC line, CPR decided to operate the Lethbridge – Fort Macleod line as an narrow gauge!


Unfortunately, the locomotives were hardly designed to be able to climb the kinds of grades that had been accomplished by the bull-whackers and their ox-driven wagon trains.  For the grade to be dropped to the elevations necessary for the river bridges, deep cuts and high hills had to be made to gradually drop the grade to the river trestle.  Because of the abrupt grade, the St. Mary’s trestle had to be 60 feet high, and almost half a mile long as it crossed not only the river, but also much of the flats on both sides.  Railroad historian Ronald Bowman wrote that “the bridge was composed of two wooden trusses over the actual river channel, with trestle-type approaches.  It was a forest of timber…”  The construction camp for the bridge was within an hammer’s throw of the original site of Fort Whoop-Up.  In 1897 the Fort was very much in living memory of many area residents, in fact there was undoubtedly a few ruins for an CPR surveyor, engineer, or track layer to pick through if they had a mind too.


When the line was completed, a series of water & coaling stations were built along the line.  The first was called ‘Dranoel’, which stood approximately where the Coast Hotel (former El-Rancho) stands today, as the line left Lethbridge in pretty much the same route as Mayor Magrath Drive and Highway #5 run today.  Another station ‘Whoop-Up’ was located at the top of the river valley before the line began its slow descent down into the coulee, while another station ‘St. Mary’s’ was located at the beginning of the wooden trestle that crossed the river.  Nearby the station was the Federal government gathering station that would facilitate the loading / unloading of cattle to be shipped to market.


Past the St. Mary’s bridge along the route to Fort Macleod, the stations Nena, Kipp, and Cumtux would occupy spots along the Blood Reserve.  After crossing the Belly river on another wooden bridge, the Pearce station would greet the trains before finally reaching Fort Macleod.  One pioneer passenger recalled an ride on the line as “… a long journey, as the train crawled slowly over all the bridges, but it was a picturesque view going through all the valleys, past the old Fort Whoop-Up, and other interesting sights.  It was an most winding and twisting railroad”.  When crossing many of the ill-conceived wooden trestles, engineers had to slow their locomotives down to a crawl, as the timbers creaked and groaned underneath their feet.


A series of trestles (up to 20) would have to be built across dry coulees, as the line traveled south from Lethbridge on the way to the river crossings.  Railroad techniques of the day dictated that the cheapest and most available building material (wood) to be used for bridges, and would be later replaced with iron as the railway made money.  But the railway never did make money, and a scant seven years had passed before the bridges literally began to fall apart.  Spring run-offs often caused washouts, and destroyed entire structures.  Fire was also an threat to the bridges, both from prairie blazes and from hot flying cinders from the locomotives.  General wear & tear loosened bolts and joints, making the bridges unstable.  Beside the engineering headaches, the rail line was often proved to be unworthy for commerce as well.  Trains were often only half-loaded due to having to climb steep grades and cross shaky wood bridge spans.  The long passage across the Blood reserve with the lack of commercial / agricultural operations was completely unproductive for passenger or freight revenue.


When the line reached Fort Macleod, even the rail head proved to be controversial as well.  The railway station, yards, and shops were located outside of town to the southwest at an location called Haneyville, named after CPR contractor Michael Haney.  Fort Macleod residents were fearful that the CPR line would connect with the Calgary & Edmonton railway tracks, and encourage new development to occur at Haneyville, instead of Fort Macleod.   The Haneyville station seemed to contravene the “Crowsnest Pass Act”, which stated “… the railway shall be constructed through the town of Fort Macleod, and a station shall be established therein…” or “…at a distance not greater than 500 yards from town limits.”  Either Haneyville was illegal, or Fort Macleod’s town limits were not properly defined.  Locals in Fort Macleod say that a Chinese section was in the Haneyville vicinity, so it seems that CPR stretched the idea of ‘town limits’.  Bowman even relates an old folk tale “… that the Fort Macleod populace objected to the noise pollution of railway operations, and wanted to keep the railway at an distance.”  By 1907 CPR relented, and moved the railway station & shops into town limits.  You can see an photo of the station at Haneyville under construction here: http://www.fortmacleod.com/visiting/photo_gallery/default2.cfm?mode=viewImageMode&id=4349A2A5-1143-CD94-4C34C0ED802887F1


When an estimate of over $2 million was submitted in 1904 for the cost of re-locating the rail line, CPR officials agreed that the increase in business would offset the cost.  The CPR was finally ready to pull the pin on the “Whoop-Up Railroad.”  In 1905 the CPR made Lethbridge the divisional point on their new Crowsnest Line, complete with the construction of an new roundhouse, yards, and an new Union Station.  Little wonder since the young city had connections to the ‘main’ line at Medicine Hat and an route to the United States.  With this new distinction, CPR officials saw it fit to justify construction at Lethbridge of what was called ‘one of the wonders of the world’.  This of course, is the massive structure that we know today as the great landmark of Lethbridge.  The excavation and substructure contract went to Gunn and Sons of Winnipeg with the work completed in February 1908.  The bridge was designed by the CPR but built by the Canadian Bridge Company of Walkerville, Ontario.  Once construction was complete, a new rail line was constructed to Fort Macleod, on the present-day route that runs parrell to Highway #3.


The rickety sets of tracks and bridges running by Whoop-Up was then abandoned.  In modern times, even Fort Whoop-Up itself was moved to Lethbridge, reconstructed actually, as an interpretive centre / tourist attraction adjacent to the CPR High Level bridge.  Even dismantling the line proved to be an jinxed process.  On Monday, January 31st, 1910 one bridge was being dismantled, and the materials were being re-loaded onto an work train – CPR engineer George Munroe braked locomotive #1413 abruptly on the bridge.  But Munroe was oblivious to the fact that workers loosened the reinforcement bracing on that particular bridge.  The sudden inertia sent the bridge, locomotive & tender, flatcar and 12 workers plunging 50 feet to the coulee below.  A special ‘wreck train’ quickly left Lethbridge for the accident site with Dr. McNally & an team of medics and nurses to tend to the injured. One worker died instantly in the accident, with engineer Munroe later dieing in the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge.


Many remnants can be seen of the original railroad – the grades can be seen on both sides of the St. Mary’s river as they descend into the river valley.  In one place, an rail could be seen sticking out of an eroded bank.  The two  concrete bridge abutments stood like sentinels in the St. Mary’s River until 1995, when an torrential flood knocked one of them over.  Today on virgin prairie in the shadow of Lethbridge on an secluded river flat, sits the ghosts of two great adventurous endeavors – the original site of Fort Whoop-Up, and the first branch of the Crowsnest rail line.


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.  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.


Bull Snake on tracks – west of St. Mary’s Station

A group of men working on the tracks west of the St. Mary’s station. They are looking at an large bull snake stretched out on the tracks (1905). GM+A 19760234013









St. Mary’s Railway Station

A group of men standing on the platform at the St. Mary’s Railway Station. Approx. 1895. GM+A 19760234046









St. Mary’s Railway Station

St. Mary’s Railway Station located near the confluence of the Oldman & St. Mary’s Rivers (Approx 1902). GM+A 19760234045









St. Mary trestle bridges

Railway works on one of the St. Mary trestle bridges – (Approx 1902). GM + A 19780259009








Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Crowsnest line (1898). GM+A 19851025001








CPR train wreck 10 miles sw of Lethbridge, Alberta

Image shows a collapsed bridge, engine-tender and flatcar on the abandoned C.P.R. Lethbridge to Macleod line – British & Colonial Photographic Co. – 1910.  Prairie Postcard Collection at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library (university of AB) # PC004103









This entry was posted in Galt Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.