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Written by Shawn Smith from the Canadian Nothern Society
In an era when every town touted itself as a future railway centre, Camrose was one of only a handful of communities in the west to fulfill the optimistic projections of its early boosters.
Camrose had its beginnings in 1905 as Sparling – a new townsite on the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) important Winnipeg to Edmonton line that branched eastward from the Calgary & Edmonton Railway at Wetaskiwin. Within a year, the fledgling community had been renamed Camrose – Welsh for “valley of the roses.” At the north end of Main Street, the CPR built a standard No. 5 railway station, together with a water tank for steam locomotives.
The water supply for this tank was drawn from Mirror Lake, which was created by the CPR as a year-round reservoir.
CPR depot Camrose – Canadian Northern Society Collection
In the development era of the Canadian west, railways provided essential transportation services and were critical to the movement of people and all types of goods, contributing to the growth of the vibrant communities that we enjoy today. In addition to the Canadian Pacific Railway, two rival roads – the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) and the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) - were constructed through Camrose in 1909 and 1910, respectively. By early 1910, the CPR North Mainline through to Winnipeg had been completed, giving Camrose a direct connection with the Manitoba capital and its large manufacturing and retail economy. Like most prairie towns, the layout of Camrose was shaped by the railways; the major difference was that it was served by all three transcontinental companies (in Alberta, only Edmonton, Calgary and Alix were in a similar position). The lines cut a distinctive “H”-shaped swath through the community.
The CNoR was led by the enterprising tandem of Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann. These pioneer railroaders wished to exploit the vast reserves of coal located in Alberta and Saskatchewan, both for domestic heating during the prairie’s freezing winters and for locomotive fuel. The CNoR main line arrived in Edmonton in 1905 via Dauphin, Humboldt, North Battleford, and Vegreville. To connect the main line with Calgary, in 1909 the CNoR built its “Battle River Subdivision” from Vegreville via Camrose, Stettler, Big Valley and Drumheller. This was the CNoR’s north-south spine through Alberta, planned primarily as a freight line. In addition to the coal traffic, “the Vegreville Branch” traversed a region of great agricultural potential for grain and cattle.
In 1911, after its arrival in Camrose, the CNoR built a Standard Third-Class Station. Over the years, it was expanded to handle increased passenger and express business. Behind the station were located freight sheds for local distribution of goods. In 1912 the CNoR built its “Strathcona Cut-Off” line which formed a more direct route to Edmonton via Hay Lakes.
Map of rail lines through Camrose
While the CNoR experienced success with its profitable prairie branch lines, financial problems caused by the onset of the first World War and zealous over-expansion led to its nationalization by the Dominion Government in December 1918. By that time, the GTP was in even worse financial shape – saddled with debt and never handling the traffic expectations of its federal promoters. As a result, in 1924, the CNoR and GTP were amalgamated to create the Canadian National Railways (CNR). At Camrose, this resulted in the consolidation of the CNoR and GTP lines through town, with the GTP station – which was located just east of the present-day Grace Lutheran Church (53rd street and 50th avenue) – being closed in favour of the CNoR depot, and the GTP line running through town and across Mirror Lake removed. A large wooden trestle crossing the Battle River near Duhamel was thus no longer required, and it was dismantled in 1926.
In the 1920s, Camrose stood only second to Edmonton as a CNR point in the province. Ten regularly-scheduled CNR passenger trains passed through town daily, plus coal trains servicing the Drumheller and Brazeau mines, together with “extra” freights. The CNR Alliance Branch was extended to connect with Youngstown in 1930.
Following World War II, the development of an all-weather highway system and increasing reliance on private trucks and automobiles reduced the public’s dependence on railways. The last CPR passenger train known as the “Great West Express” was discontinued by 1960, and the VIA passenger Railliner operating between Edmonton and Drumheller via Camrose was discontinued in late 1981. Although Camrose’s importance as a railway centre was considerably diminished - the City remained a key administrative and commercial centre for the surrounding farm districts, and both CPR and Canadian National continued to be important to the community handling agricultural and manufactured goods such as steel pipe to market.
Duhamel rail bridge near Camrose, build 1909-1910, was dismantled in 1924. Image from public domain.
Today, the freight handled by the CNR and CPR remains very important to Camrose, handling the produce of local farmers, including thousands of carloads of canola meal and oil which leave the community’s Cargill crush plant each year. In addition, CPR through trains between Edmonton and Winnipeg continue to pass through the city - the CPR being Camrose’s oldest continuously operated business. The railway heritage of Camrose is also actively preserved by the Canadian Northern Society, a volunteer-led local group that has since 1992 been active in the conservation of the 1911 Canadian Northern Railway depot located in the Augustana neighbourhood, complete with gardens and historic railway structures and artifacts. The Camrose Heritage Railway Station is a significant attraction in the community for residents and visitors.
In the Stony Creek Valley, the original CNoR line from Camrose to its crossing with the Battle River remains in service, and each day trains to and from places such as Prince Rupert, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and points in-between ply the “Camrose Hill” as it is known to railroaders. From south to north, the line climbs a 0.6% grade, challenging even modern locomotives as it did during the days of steam.
The park system in the Stony Creek valley provides a great and safe vantage for viewing these modern trains – often up to 10,000 feet in length.
While the city of Camrose subsequently adopted the wild rose as its municipal symbol, it could have just as easily chosen the “iron horse” since the community developed on the strength of the railway. Its early sobriquet, “The Town That was Born Lucky,” was indeed apt, but perhaps an even more accurate title might have been, “Camrose: The Railway City.”
CR train winding its way north through the Stoney Creek Valley
Photo by Shirley Rostad
For further information on the railway heritage of Camrose, and the Camrose Heritage Railway Station and Morgan Railway Gardens, contact the Canadian Northern Society at 780 672 3099.