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 –


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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


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