The Great Falls & Canada Railway

Article by Jason Paul Sailer.  Re-edited by Chris Doering.

The worldwide 1887 – 1888 recession struck the Galt family’s Lethbridge based coal company almost as soon as it went into production necessitating new markets immediately if it were to survive. The major customer for the Galt coal was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but having only one major customer meant that colliery was subject to the whims of the CPR in the orders – sometimes lots of coal was ordered, and the next time hardly any. To remain profitable the Galt’s installed modern machinery and expanded mine operations, and the search was on to find some additional major customers. With the recent boom of mining in Montana (copper, silver, gold, etc) Sir Alexander Galt began the planning on building a railway south to Helena, Montana to new markets. However, the economic downturn in the United Kingdom shattered investor confidence forcing Sir Alexander Galt through two years of tenacious negotiations (and the reduction of the railway line to Great Falls) in order to underwrite the new railway. However, it was not until October 2nd, 1889 that the newest of Sir Alexander’s charters was approved by the United States government: that for the Great Falls and Canada Railroad (GF&CR). Capitalized at $2 million, with equipment costs estimated at $4 million, the original Board of Directors was interlocked with that of the Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC), through the presence of Sir Alexander Galt, Donald Grant, Alexander Kinsman, Samuel Grant, and William Barr.

Five months later, while equipment was being assembled in Lethbridge to extend the railway 65 miles to the International Boundary, a very similar construction camp was organized at Willard, Montana, two miles west of Great Falls. In March 1890, a plow, a pair of engines and thirty cars, accompanied by 500 men, began construction of the railroad. It progressed at the rate of three to four miles a day, following the water-courses which led generally northwestward, paralleling the deep-rutted “Whoop-Up Trail” most of the way.  Laborers were paid $1.50 per 10 hour work day! The actual distance was 134.37 miles to the border and this required the construction of many timber bridges, as well as two Howe-truss spans across the Teton and Marias Rivers. Construction progress was steady, so that by midsummer 1890, the railroad had reached Conrad and was heading for the Marias River. An railway yards and roundhouse facility would be built in Great Falls, located on the west bank of the Missouri River.

A port of entry was required for crossing the International Boundary so AR&RC engineer Mr. Barclay and NWMP Inspector Moodie chose the site for the location of the train station in June 1890. A 3,800sf 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 a man by the name of Donald Grant. He brought the building materials up from Fort Benton on bull trains. The station was designed to include U.S. & Canadian customs areas, freight areas, and a dining room – the only evidence of the boundary marked by a painted line on the platform! Exactly 108 days after construction began; the AR&CC and the GF&CR met at the International Boundary and regular traffic began to roll over the 35-pound rail immediately, the first coal train leaving Lethbridge, Northwest Territories the day following, October 2nd 1890. The city of Great Falls reacted in much the same way as the city of Lethbridge had. The newspapers heralded the event and a magnificent dinner was given by Mr. Phillip Gibson at the Hotel Bristol in honour of the GF&CR officials. On October 20th, a special one-week excursion fore was announced, to augment the passenger traffic.For a $10 fare, a passenger could leave Great Falls for Banff; via Lethbridge and Dunmore, a round trip of some 900 miles. Leaving Great Falls in mid-evening, the mixed train arrived at Lethbridge after lunch on the following day. Today, the same distance is covered – albeit by automobile – easily in less than four hours! Almost from its inception excursions were popular on the narrow gauge line. The first was to run almost before the new roadbed had settled on May 25th, 1891, carrying Colonel Searles, editor of the Great Falls Tribune and 59 others northward to Lethbridge. His account of the journey was written from the ample comforts of Roadmaster H. L. Laughlin’s private car suggesting that the official served something stronger than Missouri River water. “The train was under the immediate supervision of that prince of conductors, Harry O’Brien, while cool-headed watchful Joe Carroll occupied the seat of honor and responsibility at the lever and throttle valve. It is not claimed that the Great Falls and Canada narrow gauge is the great “scenic route” to British Columbia. The road does not run through deep cavernous canyons, where the possibility of a land or snow slide under which a train might be crushed to pieces, adds just enough of the spice of danger to the tourist to make the passage through it intensely interesting, nor does it run over the brow of precipices from whose dizzy heights the trembling passenger may be dashed to eternity. Upon every hand broad plains extend as far as the eye can reach, broken only here and there by streams of pure mountain water, or on clear days by the grand old Rockies in the far distance and the Sweet Grass Hills in the near. Not a tree is to be seen between Great Falls and Lethbridge, and indeed, as far as the question of fuel is concerned, none are needed.”

Sitting Bull was not the only fugitive to seek the northward sanctity of that mythical line as the whiskey traders had often fled for safety south across it. That white line beside the track was to provide still another sanctuary. Apparently US law officers chased a fugitive northward who beat them across the line at the depot. Since there was nowhere else to go, the officials decided to hang around and starve him out.  Taunting the lawmen, he had food carried to him over from the US side and ate it sitting on the depot bench on the Canadian side with the lawmen a few feet away, fuming! When a correspondent of the Winnipeg Free Press ate lunch at Coutts in March, 1891, his impressions described anything but the Harvey Girls, as a not nearly occurred. “The table (in the restaurant) bore a strong resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s cupboard and the waiter 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 grief in Montana Forty-Rod. He brought in one piece of ham and two eggs to satisfy twenty hungry individuals.” Apparently the passengers devoured the only nourishment available, a portion of a barrel of pickles and its brine, since the only other food available in the kitchen was a small blackened piece of ham presided over by a brooding cook and “a boy whose shirt had been used to supply dish cloths 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 a change of management, a Great Falls bound excursion train was treated to as royal a repast as the writer’s meal had been frugal.

Prior to 1896, as many as four freight trains a day were working 200 to 300 tons per train southward. At Great Falls, parallel to the standard-gauge tracks of the Great Northern Railway (GN), a massive thousand-foot-long, 26-foot high interchange coal dock had been constructed, so that the self-dumping narrow-gauge cars of the GF&CR could dump their contents into the hoppers of the GN. Lethbridge coal was almost the only source of revenue for the road and little effort was made to attract other commodities.  It is likely that Canadian crews and motive power worked the AR&CC / GF&CR line from Lethbridge to a point about 94 miles south eastward, where United States engines and crews took over, although engines were frequently used interchangeably. This changeover point was Shelby Junction – actually Virden – three miles west of Shelby, Montana, the crossing point where the narrow gauge intersected the newly constructed mainline of the Great Northern Railway. A disused boxcar did duty as a station. The road’s roster of that time shows eight engines lettered GF&CR, six of which were new Baldwin moguls, with two consolidations of unknown ancestry. Probably because of their brand-new condition, the moguls were good steamers, but bailing Lethbridge black diamonds was no easy job on the twisting, uneven road bed and at least one fireman sheepishly admitted that his broken ankle was the result of an unexpected exit from the diminutive cab.

The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression in the United States that began in 1893 – it was marked by the overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads, resulting in a series of bank failures. Compounding market overbuilding and the railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply. The Panic of 1893 was the worst economic depression the United States had ever experienced at the time. This Panic would affect most of the railroads, including the GF&CR to a lesser-extent. The famed American railroad, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad would declare bankruptcy, followed by the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The prolonged effects of the Panic would also cause banks to close, businesses to fail, and numerous farms to shut down. A wave of strikes took place across the United States, most notably coal miner’s strikes that lead to violence in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. The more serious Pullman Strike would virtually shut down all the railroads in the United States west of Detroit, Michigan from the spring to the fall of 1894. The American Railway Union pitted the Pullman Company, several railroads (including Great Northern), and the federal government over massive layoffs at the Pullman company, and the general reduction of wages throughout the railroad system. At its peak 250,000 in 27 states were on strike – and 30 strikers were killed in response to the riots and sabotage that caused up to $80 million in damages. The violence occurred when the federal government sent in the Army to stop strikers from interfering with trains that carried mail. However, as this was occurring the GF&CR was unaffected by the strikes and was for the summer of 1894 the only source of railroad communication open to Great Falls. As a result, the GF&CR put in special freight rates from St. Paul, Minnesota over the lines of SOO, Canadian Pacific, and their own AR&CC to move items to/from Great Falls. Ironically, some of these freight rates were lower than what Great Northern was charging previously to the strike!

In July 1894, surveyors were busy locating a grade for a new branch to the Boston & Montana Smelter and the citizens of Bynum, Montana were clamoring for a 16-mile branch to their town. Plans were being prepared for a new $5,000 station at Great Falls, to be built just west of the Montana Brewing Company’s plant. The tract of land was to have been about nine acres in area, accommodating a yard 2,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. The right-of-way, coming in from Willard, was to have been 50 feet wide by two miles long. All this enthusiasm had been generated by the discovery of anthracite coal in the Crowsnest Pass and vastly increased tonnage on the GF&CR was anticipated. And with good reason: Pennsylvania anthracite was $18.00 per ton in Great Falls, while the Alberta fuel was expected to sell for $10.00. Alas the best planning did not achieve the anticipated result.

On the ” ‘lone prairie”, the wind normally howls at better than 60 miles per hour and under such conditions, the narrow-gauge empties being returned from the south ran the continual risk of being derailed. When the wind blew this hard, train schedules went by the board, as train speeds were reduced from a brisk walk to a careful crawl. As more land went under the plow of the homesteader, top-soil, driven by the raging wind, made operation of the railway a nightmare, with visibility dwindling to a few feet ahead along the winding track. Fires were a constant danger during the dry summers and the laboring locomotives frequently were the cause of large blackened patches along the right-of-way. The Canadian Pacific Railway, further to the north, had adopted the expedient of plowing strips on either side of the track, to “trap” the red-hot cinders.  The GF&CR, being subjected to high winds in all seasons of the year, found it impossible to prevent sparks from igniting the tinder-dry grass, sagebrush and tumbleweeds.  When one vast area of prairie, almost 600 square miles, burned over in 1894, the GF&CR was the target of ill-will and ugly rumors, which it needed not at all, considering the woes that the company already had.  The Sand Coulee, Montana coal mines went into full production in May 1896, their product being offered in Great Falls, delivered to the households, at $2.50 per ton, while the cost of Galt coal was twice as much. The market for the Canadian product evaporated rapidly. The railway’s future was so gloomy that it was not surprising that other alternative forms of traffic began to be sought.

But a bright line was on the horizon – the federal government granted AR&CC (and its predecessor NWC&NC) large tracts of land (in excess of one million acres) in return for building the rail lines (from Dunmore to Lethbridge and Lethbridge to Great Falls). Land sales would offer profit back to the AR&CC, but the AR&CC needed people to buy the land and farm. But on the semi-arid prairie, irrigation would be the key to keep people on the land. Irrigation was proposed back in 1881 by William C. Pearce, a senior federal civil servant in Calgary, after a study of systems in Colorado and Utah. The only people with the extensive knowledge of irrigation at that time were the Mormons, based out of Utah, USA. In negotiations between the company and the Mormons, it was decided that the AR&CC would sell the land to the Mormons for $1 per acre, on the basis that the Mormons would dig an irrigation canal. However two obstacles came up; the first was the church did not want to assume the whole burden of the project, and that custom of granting alternate sections of land prevented efficient irrigation, because they would have to dig the canal through the government, school, and private lands as well as their own. The deal was put on the back burner for a few years, while talks continued. It was then after the federal election of 1896 that Clifford Sifton, the new Liberal minister of the interior, became involved with the negotiations and offered any assistance to speed up the processes. The minister worked with the Galt’s land commissioner, Charles Magrath, and the lobbying efforts of the Lethbridge News, to allow the AR&CC to consolidate its land holdings into large blocks, and assisted with the necessary survey & research work into where the proposed irrigation canals were to be built. Again, the AR&CC re-approached the Mormons and this time was able to work out a suitable agreement. The Mormons would supply all the labor to build 100 kilometers of irrigation canals from the St. Mary’s River, in return for a payment of one-half in cash and one-half in land with the water rights included. As well, the Mormons were to establish two settlements with 250 inhabitants in each (future Stirling & Magrath).  With the deal signed on November 3rd, 1897, the Mormon leader, Charles Orca Card, plowed the first furrow for the irrigation canal ten months later. The GF&CR gained its new form of railway traffic – transporting Mormon settlers north from Great Falls into southern Alberta. The railway would lessen the new settler’s feelings of isolation from Utah, and sped up the colonization of the AR&CC owned land.

In 1897 and ’98, the GF&CR filed applications to become a bonded carrier and there was speculation that the line would be standard gauged. More rumors followed in 1901, probably generated by Elliot Galt’s application to Ottawa, in February, to lease the remaining Canadian and United States holdings to the Canadian Pacific Railway. This was followed by a trip to England, where Galt attempted to convince the shareholders to standard gauge the line. There was the additional possibility, so it was said; that the line might be sold to the Great Northern Railway and James Jerome Hill. The AR&CC / GF&CR threat to sell to Great Northern’s main competition was recognized by J.J. Hill, who was not about to allow the GF&CR to slip through his fingers, as the SOO Line had recently done. Hill therefore quickly moved to incorporate the Montana and Great Northern Railway (M&GN), which would purchase the Great Falls and Canada. On August 1st, 1901, this strategy was successfully accomplished. What may have surprised the officials of the Great Falls and Canada was the purchase price – apparently, Hill paid only $750,000 for his new property, but simultaneously assumed indebtedness of $2 million, most of which was held by a New York City bank. While the Montana and Great Northern was not to assume control of the property until October 30th, 1902, thus giving the GF&CR time to standard gauge its line, it was the natural elements which were to deal the final hand to the narrow gauge. Almost as soon as the agreement of sale was signed, a third rail was laid and business went on as usual until May 1902. After that, the line was closed when heavy rains caused severe flooding and innumerable washouts, several major bridges being swept away by roaring streams. The M&GN rapidly under took the replacement of bridges and culverts, relocating portions of the line to reduce curvature and lower grades, and replaced light iron with heavier rails. On January 1st, 1903 standard gauge service commenced between Lethbridge and Great Falls, Montana. In 1907, the GN officially assumed operation of the rebuilt railroad to Sweetgrass, Montana, just south of the International Boundary from Coutts, Alberta.

While a narrow-gauge railway had at first appeared to be a viable enterprise to the Directors of the AR&CC, it had some negative aspects. At a time when most railways in North America were building to a 4-foot-8 1/2-in standard gauge, Galt and his associates chose to build to the less expensive 3-foot narrow gauge. They saved on the main line costs, but spent much more on expensive freight transfer facilities, necessary wherever the narrow gauge touched the standard gauge. Moreover, the AR&CC/GF&CR had been built primarily for the purpose of hauling coal and little effort had been made to diversify its traffic into general merchandise until it was too late. The final blow was dealt when the Sand Coulee coal mines began to produce. This destroyed the GF&CR’s main source of revenue and, to economize, the railway deferred equipment and right-of-way maintenance, a decision that resulted in rapid deterioration of the plant that rising profits could not forestall. As such, some of the equipment was sold off to raise funds – a good portion of the equipment went to the Kaslo and Slocan Railway on the west side of Kootenay Lake in central British Columbia, while other engines and cars went to various narrow gauge railways in the Pacific Northwest, and to Alaska.



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“Great Northern Railway Mileposts” – April 2011 – James C. Mattson, Seattle, Washington USA
Atlas of Alberta Railways – University of Alberta –
Dictionary of Canadian Biography “Elliot T. Galt” –
Great Falls Tribune – May 26, 1963
Canadian Rail Magazine – #273 – October 1974
Canadian Rail Magazine – #376 – September 1983
Irrigation in Southern Alberta: 1882 – 1901 – A.A. Den Otter (1975)

View of an wreck of the GF&CR steam locomotive #12 on the Sun River curve, 7 miles north of Great Falls, Montana – June 1891 – Galt Museum & Archives P19760234080
GF&CR steam locomotive #13 (former Alberta Railway & Coal) at Shelby Junction, Montana. From left to right; Andy Niven (fireman) & Tom Nolan (engineer) – 1897. Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1167-11
Alberta Railway & Coal Company steam locomotive #17 in Great Falls, Montana in 1894. From left to right; W. Niven, T, Nolan, R. Gikey, W, McDonald, and R. Hardy – Glenbow Museum & Archives NA-1245-1
View of one of the GF&CR sleeper cars – 1890 – Galt Museum & Archives P19891046021-066
Irrigation flume near Stirling, NWT – 1900 – Galt Museum & Archives 19731721000-016
Irrigation canal of the St, Mary’s project – southwest of Lethbridge – 1911. Galt Museum & Archives 19740030053