The Alberta Railway & Pincher Creek

Article by Jason Paul Sailer & Chris Doering

I had a chance to attend the trains event at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village (KBPV) on August 23rd, 2014. It included a talk by curator Farley Wuth, children’s crafts and photo displays of local area railways. The bus tour in the afternoon, which followed the former Kootenay & Alberta Railway route from Pincher Station to Beaver Mines, was also very interesting. Approximately 20 people, including myself and my wife, departed from the museum heading west. We stopped where the old rail beds could be seen and a number of wooden trestles were once located. As well the locations of local ranches, coal mines, schools and churches were pointed out to us.

But back to the Alberta Railway connection to Pincher Creek!

As Farley described in the talk, there were at least six different proposals to bring railways into the Pincher Creek area. We do have to remember that when these plans were being formulated (1900 – 1930) Alberta was in the middle of a railway building boom. Anywhere there was a town, no matter how small, a line would be constructed to it. In fact, in some places, a rail line was built with hopes that the towns would soon follow. As we know several of these lines would see limited service and would eventually be closed down and the tracks torn out.

One of the earliest railways to express an interest in Pincher Creek was the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&RC). It was agreed the Crowsnest Pass should be the route of a rail line connecting the newly developing ranching industry on the east side of the continental divide with the coal fields to the west. Most locals could see the benefits. The debate that raged during the 1880s & 90s however, was who should build the line. The Galts, owners of the AR&RC, were given the charter in 1892, yet for reasons unknown to this author, the company decided not to purse the project and instead sold it to the Canadian Pacific Railway. At the same time, AR&RC converted the Lethbridge to Dunmore narrow-gauge line to standard gauge and would lease it to the CPR, who would then buy it outright in 1897. With these two pieces of the puzzle in place, CPR began planning of the Crowsnest Pass route. For more background information please read the blog post ‘Whoop-Up Railroad”.  A full generation after the AR&RC charter, the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC) arrived on the scene. Pincher Creek was still without railway access although at that time the CPR had established a rail connection at Pincher Station, approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) to the north.

At that time the Kootenay & Alberta Railway was almost in operation, although it would run from Kandary west of Pincher Station, bypassing Pincher Creek altogether, on its way to Beaver Mines. In 1911, AR&IC officials proposed a scheme to extend its subsidiary, the St. Mary’s River Railway, from Cardston to Pincher Creek (not Pincher Station), a distance of 79 kilometres (49 miles). Initial plans called for the line to begin at an point between Spring Coulee and Mountain View. This was later revised to an location between Mountain View and Cardston. From there the line was supposed to travel northward and cross the Waterton River.  In an interesting twist company officials decided that once the line approached Pincher Creek it was to bypass the town by several kilometres and would instead connect with the Crowsnest Branch of the CPR not far away! Why the AR&IC decided to change their minds and not enter Pincher Creek is a mystery, although this author feels that engineering costs were at least part of the reason it never happened. Pincher Creek is in a valley and a railway line in would be circuitous and expensive to build.

Already angered by the fact that the CPR never constructed a line through the community the apparent slight by the AR&IC was further aggravated by the rumour that was nothing but a subsidiary of the bigger railway. The AR&IC had filed survey plans with the Town of Pincher Creek, but they didn’t conform to the original 1892 charter granted to the AR&RC by the federal government (which would of included Pincher Creek on the railway line).  Two town council meetings held in early November 1911 brought the AR&IC issue to the forefront, and this clearly illustrated the local frustration in being treated poorly by yet another railway company. The first session, held on November 1st, passed a council resolution strongly protesting the fact that the proposed line did not match the 1892 federal government charter, and thereby missed connecting the town to the outside world. This resolution was forwarded to the federal government minister of railways for his consideration. Less than an week later, at the second council meeting, the AR&IC issue was again thoroughly discussed. Most members agreed that a town representative be sent to Ottawa to lobby government officials on their behalf. Alderman Charles Kettles, supported by Aldermen Allison & Watson, argued strongly that the town solicitor Arthur C. Kemmis, should take the stand for Pincher Creek’s position, in the hopes that the proposed railway route changes would be approved. Aldermen Ross & Fraser agreed that the government lobbying was required on the issue, but it should of have been done by the former Member of Parliament John Herron working with his successor Dr. David Warnock. Eventually, the council agreed that most of the lobbying work should be undertaken by Kemmis but that both Herron & Warnock should be asked for assistance whenever requested. Both government politicians cooperated on this issue in spite of their different political ideologies.

In the end Pincher Creek’s efforts were only partially successful and by early December 1911 the federal government Minister of Railways had ruled in the town’s favour. A letter was sent advising AR&IC officials that new surveys through the town would have to be completed before further work was undertaken. This would have guaranteed the community a direct rail link with the outside world, yet it was not to be. The AR&IC officials eventually lost interest in the route, partially due in part to political issues, and the fact that the railway was in talks with the CPR who was interested in purchasing the company outright. In the end the AR&IC link between Pincher Creek and Cardston never became a reality.



  • The History That Almost Wasn’t – Chronicles of Pincher Creek’s Ill-Fated Railway History (2008) Farley Wuth
  • Civilizing The West: The Galts and the Development of Western Canada (1986) A.A. den Otter



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



Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company engine #13 (formerly Engine #1 of the North-Western Coal & Navigation Company) leading an construction train reaching Cardston in 1903. Train crew identified L to R as: J.W. Tennant – conductor, Alexander McKay – brakeman, Waldren McKay – fireman and James (Smoothy) Wallwork – engineer. Galt Museum & Archives photo 19754324000










AR&IC passenger train at Cardston, AB on the St. Mary’s River Railway in 1910. Galt Museum & Archives photo – P19760234092










Kootenay & Albert Railway route outlined in red overlaid an Google Earth image – Map courtesy of University of Alberta Press










Kootenay area coal mines & railway charters – Alberta Railway & St. Mary’s River Railway outlined in red, Canadian Pacific Railway outlined in pink, Kootenay & Alberta expansion route outlined in green, and AB Railway expansion route outlined in blue. Map overlaid an Google Earth image – Map courtesy of University of Alberta Press