Crossing the Tracks of Time
As I sit in my house, especially in the cold winter months, I can hear the train whistle blow at the Soda Flats Crossing about a half mile from my house. Sometimes it gets me to thinking about how that train is crossing the tracks of time. So much has changed from the first whistle blown at that crossing.
You see, where the train is blowing its whistle is now only a trail for horses, hikers and off highway vehicles. It used to be the main highway or trail from Smith to Hondo – changed of course when the pavement came through and altered the landscape yet again. I would venture to say that for every 1000 times that whistle blows the engineer might encounter a single human being at that crossing.
While we often consider ‘the tracks” as bumps in the road, where more maintenance is needed, or where we have to wait for the train to pass. Think about how life and communities were centered around the railway.
I live in Smith, Alberta, which was the first divisional point from Edmonton for the ED & BC Railway. Like so many other areas across northern Alberta when the railway came in 1913-14 it essentially changed the town location. The original town was Mirror Landing located on the opposite shore of the Athabasca River.
Within several short years, the thriving steamboat town, Mirror Landing, that had been located on the opposite shore of the Athabasca River, had all but disappeared.
McLennan became the main terminal in the Peace River country, although it was a terminal along the route that really shouldn’t have been a station at all as described in “Ribbons of Steel” by Ena Schneider.
In 1915 as the ED & BC line was deciding on the location for a northern terminal it required a location with abundant water that was free of minerals. A location next to Round Lake (now called Lake Kimiwan) was suggested and a man named Hughie Hunter was hired to retrieve a water sample.
He got his sample and proceeded on horseback to Grouard, to board the steamer, the Midnight Sun, en route to Edmonton. Somewhere along the line he discovered all of the water had leaked from his sample so reached over the side and got a scoop of water from Lesser Slave Lake.
The test showed the water was suitable for steam engines and the terminal in McLennan was built and they started pumping water for the trains. It didn’t talk long to figure out hat is was high in scale-producing minerals and on top of it was not even fit to drink.
As the stations were established, and community sites rearranged, the railway became central to life. Dances and other activities were often held in train stations. Christmas turkeys arrived on the train. Loved ones arrived from far away places. Trains were used as ambulances.
One of my husband’s uncles was accidentally shot. They hauled him out of the bush by hand, and put him in a boxcar to go to the hospital in Westlock – in the winter.
How many people arrived into the North Country to settle the land? Start talking to the locals in northern Alberta communities and you are bound to run into a more than a few whose ancestors along with their belongings arrived in a 2 free box cars from other areas of Alberta and other countries.
As you are driving along the roads, and see the trains they are still on the same track system established over a 100 years ago. In many areas you can still see the long ago abandoned telegraph poles with the insulators glinting in the sun, or the wire covered in frost.
Other portions of track have long ago been torn up, the trails repurposed. The Iron Horse Trail has over 300 km of trail and parks through boreal forests, wetlands and rolling prairies. Starting out a trail for First Nation and Metis people, fur traders, for Red River Cart brigades, used it and later in the 1900’s it was the route for the CN Railway.
The next time you are waiting for the train, use your imagination and step back into time. What we consider a nuisance in modern times was the lifeblood of communities across the north.
While the passenger trains ceased long ago, along much of the track, through the bush, much is the same. Wooden trestles, encroaching forests and in many areas, the telegraph lines are still strung with their glass insulators gleaming in the sunlight.
Take a side trip into communities and you will see evidence of the train era. Train cars and cabooses, are available to see. Former stations are now used for Visitor Information Centres or other purposes. The Alberta Railway Museum, located near Edmonton, offers visitors a ride along their section of track or exploration of a multitude of cars. High Prairie boasts of a mural of the train and its passengers.
If trains are as fascinating to you as they were to previous generations, the History Check mobile app offers a multitude of ways to explore. You can search ‘railway’ to see the multitude of communities formed by the railway and read of their histories. We continue to add the sites of the station houses, the cars and other railway memorabilia. Take the journey by downloading at www.historycheck.ca .