Galt’s Southerly Expansion

The worldwide 1887 – 1888 recession struck the Galt family’s Lethbridge based coal company almost as soon as it went into production, necessitating finding new markets quickly if they were to survive. Their major customer was the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), but this meant the colliery was subject to the whims of that firm – sometimes much coal was ordered, and the next time very little. To remain profitable the Galt’s installed modern machinery and expanded mine operations, and the search was on to find 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, in that state, to exploit these new markets. However, the economic downturn in the United Kingdom shattered investor confidence forcing Galt, through two years of tenacious negotiations (and the cutting back of the railway line to Great Falls), in order to underwrite this 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. Railway yards and a 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 3,800 square foot International depot 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 structure was run by Donald Grant who brought 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 within days the first coal train leaving Lethbridge, Northwest Territories entered Great Falls, Montana in early October 1890. Great Falls reacted in much the same way as Lethbridge had when the railway first entered their limits. 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 fare was announced, to augment the passenger traffic. For $10, 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, that same distance can be covered easily, by automobile around 3 hours! Almost from its inception excursions were popular on the narrow gauge line. “Officially” opened to traffic on December 8th, 1890, and by 1893 four trains a day were running between Lethbridge and Great Falls.

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All images and content are copyright Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park Archives unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.  Special thanks to Chris Doering for reviewing & editing!


View of one of the GF&CR sleeper cars – 1890 – Courtesy Galt Museum & Archives – P19891046021-066







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










Joint timetable of the AR&CC and GF&CR – May 1898