The Lost Series: Edmonton's Lost Railways
By Lawrence Herzog
Herzog on Heritage | November 16, 2011 | Article 012
Look around the heart of Edmonton these days and you won't see much evidence of the historical importance of the railway to the city. But for more than 50 years, the rails were the lifeblood of the community. Without trains, Edmonton would not have grown the way it did.
In the early 20th century, Edmonton and area was cris-crossed by a myriad of railway lines operated by a half-dozen companies. The Calgary & Edmonton Railway line reached Strathcona in 1891, and the first Edmonton Yukon and Pacific Railway (EY&PR) train steamed across the Low Level Bridge and onto the Rossdale flats on October 20th, 1902.
The Canadian Northern Railway reached Edmonton from Fort Saskatchewan in late 1905. Five years later, with the completion of the bridge at Clover Bar, the first trains of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) chugged into the city.
The Alberta and Great Waterways Railway line, which was to become part of the Northern Alberta Railway, opened in 1912. The High Level Bridge was completed in 1913, and the first Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) passenger train, seven cars long and carrying 200 passengers, crossed into downtown on June 2nd that year.
Remnants of the historic rail lines can still be found around the city, such as above the Victoria Golf Course where the EY&PR used to run. But the city’s great railway stations and support buildings have mostly vanished. Here’s remembering a few of the great ones from the golden age of rail:
Canadian Northern Railway Station, 1905
The Canadian Northern Railway (CnoR) built its station and adjacent roundhouse at the northwest corner of 104th Avenue and 101st Street, on land donated by the City. The two-and-a-half-storey red brick building measured 118 feet by 33 feet, and was described in the Edmonton Journal as “a magnificent station, handsome and commodious.”
The last spike on the CnoR mainline from Edmonton to Winnipeg was driven on November 24, 1905, and a three-car train arrived from Winnipeg, making the journey in 27 hours. When the first GTPR train pulled into the station at 8:15 pm on July 4th, 1910, it was a momentous event, attended by 2,000 of the city’s 20,000 residents.
With use by both railways, the building became known as the Union Station. It was a place of tears and laughter, sad goodbyes and happy reunions. Troops left for the First World War. Some returned; some, sadly, did not.
When the new Canadian National Railways (CNR) terminal opened across 101st Street in 1928, most of the passenger functions were moved to the new facility. The old Union Station was relegated for use as extra office space and as quarters for the yard office staff. It was demolished starting in October 1951.
Canadian National Railways Station, 1928
The GTPR and the CnoR were folded into the CNR, formed in 1918, and Edmonton became one of the pivotal cities on the CNR line. Freight traffic increased sixfold in the mid-1920s to 40 trains a day and, as business prospered, the railway recognized the need for a new passenger depot.
The CNR's chief architect, John Schofield, oriented the building so it would be exactly at the centre of the intersection, offering a clear view down 100th Street to the Hotel Macdonald – the railway's other Edmonton landmark. The two-storey structure was built with steel and concrete and faced with brick, Tyndall stone from Manitoba, and tile. Its main entrance was framed with heavy stone Grecian Doric columns.
More than 10,000 citizens turned out for the official opening on March 17, 1928, St. Patrick’s Day. They admired the station’s exceptional finishes and craftsmanship that included terrazzo marble and quarter-cut oak. In 1948, a third storey was added, along with a bigger east wing.
For more than 36 years, the station was a place of welcome and farewell. It was where thousands of newcomers set foot in Edmonton for the first time and were then received at the city's Immigration Hall, just north of the tracks. In its operating lifetime, Edmonton grew from 70,000 people to more than 320,000.
On the evening of February 12th, 1964, Train 178 left for Saskatoon and the ticket wickets were closed for the last time. The station was demolished that year to make way for the CN Tower with a railway terminal in the basement, opened in 1966.
The CN rail yards, located north of 104 Avenue between 101 Street and 116 Street, were phased out of operation in 1988. The terminal in the CN Tower was closed in 1998, bringing an end to 93 continuous years of passenger train service into downtown Edmonton.
Canadian Pacific Railway Station, 1913
There’s a photo at the City of Edmonton Archives from 1919 showing the CPR terminal at the northwest corner of Jasper Avenue and 109 Street, surrounded by hundreds of troops returning from war. It’s a remarkable image that captures not only the history of the moment, but also the role that the station played in the lives of Edmontonians.
With the completion of the High Level Bridge, CPR opened the station on September 2, 1913. The first train took passengers to Wetaskiwin, Camrose, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
The railway company built the two-storey reinforced concrete structure on land it had purchased in 1909 for the boom-time price of $102,000. The main floor featured a waiting room finished in marble with terrazzo flooring, ticket offices, telegraph and telephone departments and an information bureau. The second floor was dedicated to offices, while the basement held what was known as a "women's retiring room," along with storage and offices.
CPR discontinued its passenger service to the north side of the river in 1972 and six years later the station was demolished. The railway closed most of its downtown operations by 1984, and in 1992 the bridge over Jasper Avenue at 109th Street was dismantled and the pieces shipped to Fort Edmonton Park.
The downtown CPR site is now occupied by residential and commercial construction. The last remaining remnant of the CPR's early days in Edmonton is the station at Strathcona, designated a national heritage railway station in 1991.
Canadian Pacific Railway Building, 1912
When CPR constructed its downtown headquarters in 1912, the seven-storey building at 10012 Jasper Avenue was one of Edmonton’s first steel frame structures. In its lifetime, the CPR Building was home to railway ticket and telegraph offices, a freight terminal and a mortgage company. It was even the broadcast headquarters for CFRN Radio for 30 years, from 1934 to 1964.
Created by Winnipeg architect W. Wallace Blair, the classical revival design was distinguished by massive stone columns and intricate relief sculptures on its front facade. The handcrafted panels depicted the coats of arms of Alberta and British Columbia, a farmer and a plow in a field, aboriginals, and the CPR crest. In 1969, the magnificent facade was concealed under a false “cheese grater” front and low grade concrete.
The two-storey-high rotunda was adorned with marble floors and solid oak counters. Around the outside walls were the operations of the CPR, and of telegraph companies including Dominion Telegraphs and Northern Alberta Telegraphs. A confectionary stand run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind operated next to the elevators.
Plans were announced in 1992 to demolish what was then known as the Tower Mortgage Building, and a citizen-led effort to save it prompted the City to remove the cheese grater front and transform it from an ugly duckling into a swan. Yet despite its historical significance and the support of such Edmontonians as Citadel Theatre founder Joe Shoctor, city council voted eight-to-three to demolish it.
The CPR Building was replaced with a two-storey handbag store that went out of business in short order, leaving the space to languish vacant for years. Elements from the historic facade were grafted onto the front of the new building, curios of a dismembered past, and a perpetual reminder of short-sighted decision making and irreplaceable loss.
Canadian National Railways Station decorated for the Royal Visit, June 2, 1939. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-160-831
World War I veterans returning at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station, March 22, 1919. City of Edmonton Archives, EA-63-5
Canadian Pacific Railway Building, 1929. Glenbow Archives, ND-3-4791b
Next time: Edmonton's lost hotels.
© 2011 Lawrence Herzog, All Rights Reserved.
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