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

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.
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.

One thought on “A History of the Coutts / Sweetgrass International Train Station

  1. It’d be interesting to find out what happened to the GN station/ex-customs building that was bought by the farmer and moved away. Who knows, maybe something from it is still left. You know how farmers are, they never get rid of anything.

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