ADVENTURES IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE KOOTENAY & ALBERTA RAILWAY
One of the most fascinating chapters from our local heritage has been that of the Kootenay and Alberta Railway, that truly frontier spur line that bisected the Pincher Creek area as it connected Beaver Mines with the Crowsnest Line of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Filled with intrigue and adventure during its construction & short life as an active line, it remains as the only non-C.P.R. line to have been completed in this area. The line’s unique history truly is a story worth telling. Yet today, less than a century later, and even with a few archaeological remains & stories from our local folklore still present, there is the danger that its memory could rapidly fade from the community’s recollections & oral traditions. Perhaps written historical sketches, of which this would be one, would help to keep some of those historical memories alive.
BEAVER MINES COAL DEVELOPMENT
Within a decade of the construction of the Crowsnest Canadian Pacific Railway, there was an increasing popular & economic demand for a spur line leading into the foothills those dozen miles west of the ranching settlement of Pincher Creek. Earlier geological surveys had determined that along the remote Beaver Creek there were sufficient coal reserves to be economically exploited. As early as 1907, the Western Coal & Coke Company, which had connections with the North American Collieries & was financed with overseas investments from Belgium, had been acquiring property in the area. Two coal seams adjacent to Beaver Creek were chosen to be mined. The mining company, quite correctly, had the expectation that the apparently rich coal seams could be successfully mined and brought to market.
For several years, the coal mining industry at Beaver Mines boomed but it went through many a hard time as well. On the positive end of the cycle & due to increased market demand for coal, an economic upswing was experienced during the spring of 1913. The Number One Mine, which had been temporarily closed the previous eighteen months, was destined to open again as soon as a sufficient work force of miners could be obtained. The Number Two Mine was in full operation at that time. Company officials put out the word that more miners were required in order to meet full capacity.
Local demand for coal apparently slackened off during the following winter but by April 1914, the markets had strengthened enough to re-open at least one of the mines here for three days a week, and the mines continued to prosper throughout the summer. Production had increased sufficiently to warrant Company officials to consider the installation of new coke oven technology at Beaver Mines.
The historical ups and downs in the Beaver Mines coal industry also was quantified in the number of men employed in & the amount of coal extracted from the mines. The N.W.M.P. reported that twenty-five men were employed at the mines in 1909 with the hope of further development. The following year, that employment had doubled to fifty men accompanied by a mining output of 300 tons monthly. By 1911, the Mounties reported that 101 men were working at the Beaver Mines coal operations, and that production had again increased. Further production was hampered by the lack of a rail connection.
Although the N.W.M.P. do not appear to have reported on the completion of the K&A Railway in 1912, they did note the following year the good news that the line’s use at brought to coal mining activities at the line’s western terminus. By then, 164 men were employed at the mines, and output was measured at nearly 70,000 tons. During 1914, production had fallen slightly but was still going relatively strong: 138 men had jobs at the mines which saw just under 40,000 tons of coal mined. The first full year of the First World War, 1915, spelled doom for most of the coal extraction at Beaver Mines: the mines had closed down with little hope of significant production down the road.
During that coal-mining era, the settlement of Beaver Mines also boomed. Its residential area included up to one hundred company houses plus many privately owned dwellings. The business district boasted a thriving blacksmith shop as well as two livery barns. During the Christmas Season of 1911, the Beaver Mines Post Office was opened for the first time. Set up at Tappy’s Hall, it featured twice weekly delivery service, & was well appreciated by Beaver Mines residents who had lobbied hard for local postal service. Previously, the nearest postal outlet was in Pincher Creek itself, some twelve miles distance away, & this had caused much inconvenience to the pioneers of the coal mining settlement to the west.
Further good business news came some two & one half years later. Beaver Mines also featured a large hotel, complete with a dining room. The hotel’s grand opening in March of 1914 was one of the biggest social events that year, & was well attended by a large turnout of locals from this coal mining settlement. The gathering included complimentary bar service, a supper, & dancing. Much of the hotel’s business, likely including lodgings, food, & drinks, over the years expected to be from those employed in the district mines. Beaver Mines’ business district was again expanded that July when Harry Drew, late of both Pincher Creek & Coleman, re-established a Meat Market in Beaver Mines that had previously been operated by a Mr. Chaput.
This community also had the services of two rural school districts: Coalfields No. 1275 that operated continuously from 1909 to 1962; and Beaver Mines No. 3135 that offered classes from 1914 to 1922 & again from 1938 - 1955.
Coal mining indeed had made Beaver Mines an often-prosperous settlement.
ESTABLISHING THE KOOTENAY & ALBERTA RAILWAY COMPANY
The key to the proposed mines' success was accessing consumer markets, and in those early days of the 1900s, the best route was via a viable rail link with the outside world. Thus was created by an Act of the Legislative Assembly Of Alberta, dated May 09th, 1906, the legal means by which the Kootenay And Alberta Railway Company was established. The legislation was passed during the very First Session of the First Legislative Assembly for the newly created Province of Alberta, making it one of the earliest Provincial Acts of Incorporation. Its primary purpose, as stated in its bylaws, was to construct that much needed rail link between the Crowsnest Line of the CPR and Beaver Creek. Yet it was not to acquire nor develop any of those coal reserves or any other mineral resources itself. It could be assumed that this clause had been inserted in order to provide good working relations with the Western Coal & Coke Company, the entity destined to develop the coal resources at Beaver Mines.
Should these optimistic transportation plans have gone well, it also was hoped by the Company that its rail line would extend further westward where it would cross the North Kootenay Pass, and travel south along the Flathead River in British Columbia at least as far as the International Boundary. Kootenay & Alberta Railway Co. promoters also speculated that yet another line would continue southeasterly from the CPR Line to Pincher Creek, Fishburn, the Kainai Reserve, Cardston, and into the Milk River Country. This latter line was of particular interest to railway interests residing in Pincher Creek itself. A third line was to travel north, presumably through the North Fork country & beyond to Edmonton & the Peace River District. All of these "pipe dreams" would have accessed rail lines and potential coal markets on the American side of the border & in the urban centres to the north. Economic circumstances associated with the K&A Co., including the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, prevented these latter two lines from becoming a reality.
The Company’s head office was set up here in Pincher Creek but its orginal shareholders – L. B. Ferguson, John Hendry, James Jeffrey, George E. MacDonald, J. B. Seymour, & A. E. Woods – all hailed from Vancouver. The capital stock of the corporation was pegged at one million dollars that was to be divided into shares worth one hundred dollars apiece. The rest of the legislation dealt with such issues as ensuring that the Company’s railway construction be commenced within two years, that the gauge of the line be no less than four feet and eight & one half inches wide, the use of Dominion Land Surveyors, and the power of the Company to ensure that its railway construction & operation be of a well planned out, economical, and safety conscious nature.
The legislation provided the legal framework for what promised to become a very exciting railway project for southwestern Alberta. The physical work on the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line was about to begin.
SURVEYING THE LINE
Riding high on an adventure of railway and coal development speculation, initial surveys of the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line apparently were undertaken during the summer of 1910. The laying of grading stakes was commenced on Tuesday, October 18th at a point one mile west of Pincher City. This was the point where the new K&A Line was to join the C.P.R. Line, and henceforth, this Y rail intersection was known as the Kendary Junction. A company office, very small in size measuring about four feet by six feet, was established there at this pivotal point. From there officials oversaw the construction work. It even included a telephone from which they could keep in touch with the outside world, a novel set up for those long ago days on the frontier. Many years later after the building had seen a wealth of active duty, it was purchased for five dollars by Fred Robbins, and moved to his property in nearby Pincher City where it served as an outhouse. Family members joked that the stately building “…must have been the only biffy in existence to ever had a telephone in it.” The building’s subsequent use proved that railway structures indeed could have unusual applications.
From there the surveyors' work indicated that the line would travel the ten miles southwesterly to Beaver Creek. The route would remain out of range of the right bank of the South Fork of the Oldman River, and for the most part, follow an easy uphill grade into the foothills. However, two challenges would face the surveyors and the construction contractors to follow: Lang's Coulee which was located just a few miles southwest of the line's eastern start, and Mill Creek, two thirds of the distance along the route. Both geographic features were noted for their deep canyons, steep slopes, and from the requirement of the railway itself, two massive trestles that were required to span their breadths.
The initial survey work was of significant interest in the local press, primarily The Pincher Creek Echo & The Lethbridge Herald. The countryside was being rapidly developed for farming, and the already well-established ranching industry was flourishing. The economic potential that a new railway could bring to the area was met most favourably. It was through this press fever during October & November 1910 that locals from the Pincher Creek area first learned of the name of "The Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line" and of its plans to connect those coal reserves on the remote Beaver Creek with the outside world.
Within a month's time of the line’s survey, construction of the K&A Line began at a feverish pitch. By early November, there were two teams of horses engaged from Robbins Livery Barn in Pincher City. These beasts of burden were used over a six-week period to aid the grading work that had been started at that eastern terminus. Aiding the local speculation was the arrival in Pincher Creek was one Charles Fergie, the General Manager of the Montreal based Western Coal & Coke Co. He let it be publicly known that his Company was behind the financing of the line's construction.
Only the onslaught of winter precluded any further work that season. Given the often-empty promises of the other railway giants, Pincher Creek locals had become concerned when the initial work of the K&A stopped due to the winter weather conditions. Kootenay & Alberta Railway officials informed The Lethbridge Herald that work on the line would continue as soon as the weather cleared up.
RAILWAY CONTRACTORS & PERSONNEL
By mid March of 1911, a full contract for the construction of this ten-mile line had been signed in Montreal. This legal formality showed the influence of the Western Coal & Coke Company in influencing the chain of events with this railway, & allowed the construction work to barge ahead full force.
A wide variety of local & non-local contractors & individuals successfully sought work with the construction of this railway heading out to Beaver Mines. It is unfortunate that with some of the non-locals, we have only a smattering of historical information on them. One such individual was that of Charles Fergie who, although not being on the Board of Directors nor the payroll of the Kootenay & Alberta Railway, had a significant role to play in the line’s construction. As the Manager of the Western Coal & Coke Co., it was in his best interest to see the line completed as quickly & economically as possible. On a fairly regular basis during the height of the construction (Fergie was in town both in mid-March & late October of 1911), he was on site overseeing the progress of the line. His presence here earned him the local title of being “…practically the head official of the line…”
Fergie’s ever faithful sidekick was that of T. B. Meriam who had been retained as the Chief Engineer for the K&A Line. His extended attendance at the construction work sites was even more frequent than that of Fergie – reports indicate that he was somewhere along the K&A Line at least five times between March & October of 1911. Supervision of the entire construction process of the line, including the survey work, safety & construction staffing, and many of the nuts & bolts details were Merriam’s responsibility, and spoke of why his work brought him so frequently here. However, Meriam’s engineering work was complimented by “…a staff of engineers [who] are continually on the ground…”. Who those staff members were, unfortunately, have lost from the pages of history.
The chief sub-contractor reporting to Meriam was the J. Tobin Construction Ltd., an American firm hailing from south of the International Line. Tobin was responsible for most of the “dirt work” associated with the Kootenay & Alberta Railway, an often-filthy job required from the construction’s start to finish. The Company looked after building up the rail bed, including the grading of the line where fill was hauled away from the many high points & placed in those frequent low spots. It is said that Tobin “…was assisted in the office by his two daughters, nicknamed Short Change Kate and Trapline Jane.” These names truly bespeak of the colourful nature of the Pincher Creek frontier!
The firm contracted to build those massive trestles so famous on the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line was known as Ganse & Smith. Also working on the project was a contract identified only as "Larson" who primarily worked on the eastern portion of the line adjacent to Kendary Junction.
One of the locals who attained work on the line’s construction was that of John Babin, a brother of Mary Bucar who was indirectly a relative of the Robert Lang Family. The Langs had ranched in the Beauvais Lake District since the year 1900. Babin was instrumental in the construction of the Mountain Mill Trestle.
Additional Pincher Creek & area help came through the road building & grading efforts of Earl Cook, also noted for his agricultural & political endeavors. His horse-pulled equipment was a common site between Pincher Creek & Beaver Mines during the building of the K&A Railway. Another local contractor was that of Emerson Allison who hauled in the timbers required for the trestles. The timber was said to have been fir from the Oregon coast. Allison had nine men & their teams of horses working on the Line.
During the height of the construction process – the summer of 1911 — just over 160 men were employed in building the line. Chief Engineer Meriman told investors & the press at one point that that number would have to increase to 5,000 men should Company officials want the railway completed by the September 1911 deadline then sought. It would appear that those numbers were exaggerated & never attained but the need for extra manpower showed the pressure under which construction officials were placed. A variety of trades & skills were required, including those who did the bed work, brought in & lay the ties & rails, and those involved in the construction of the trestles themselves.
The men were housed at construction camps temporarily erected along the rail line's route. Initially, the camp was located at Pincher City, near the line’s eastern end, and it was only when progress was made en route that the camps were moved. Whenever possible, the camps were situated close to water sources. Camps generally included a bunkhouse & boarding place for the men.
It would appear that Company executives & engineers were put up in finer accommodations. Some of them may have stayed at the King Edward Hotel in Pincher Creek itself. A stage line service, under the name of Alberta Livery Stables, was offered by local business partners Robbins & Chaput. It transported workers back & forth along the line, leaving the King Edward Hotel early in the morning & heading west. Later each day, it made the return trip back to Pincher Creek, leaving Beaver Creek at 4 p.m.
THE PHYSICAL NATURE OF THE CONSTRUCTION WORK
The physical work in putting in the Kootenay & Alberta Railway was both difficult and dangerous. Following the completion of the survey work, crews had to build up & grade the rail beds. This was dirty & hard work as fill had to be removed & brought in to make the rail beds as level as possible. The laying of the ties & rails involved heavy lifting and required precision measurements & placements in order to ensure that the tracks be perfectly lined up. Sixty pound steel was used, perhaps considered in some rail construction circles to be lightweight. Yet it was thought to be heavy enough to withstand the planned traffic, and Company officials noted that heavier steel could be installed should that traffic become more frequent.
Even with the use of horses, and the "modern" tractors & slips available during the pioneer era, the construction work was demanding, dusty, & time consuming. One hundred & fifty teams of horses were used regularly during the grading work itself. Twenty cars of timbers had arrived by early May 1911, and this was only a quarter of what was required during the construction stage. Such large timbers, difficult in of themselves to handle, would have been used for both the rail lines and the two immense wooden trestles required of this route.
ACCIDENTS A REAL CONCERN
In spite of the best intentions of both the rail company as well as its workers, the line's construction was not without its serious accidents resulting in the loss of lives. Two of the more epic accidents were recorded in the local & regional press, providing the public with some concerns in regards to railway safety issues.
The first such instance occurred in early June 1911 when a teamster's back was broken, resulting in his untimely passing. The fatality took place at Pincher City. James Elliott, who had come up from Idaho to work on the Kootenay & Alberta Railway, received his injuries at the elevator at the Station. The story goes that he had been hauling a load of bailed hay to the elevator, and had got caught between the load & the top of the door. He was taken to the Memorial Hospital here in Pincher Creek where little hope had been given for his recovery. The hay which Elliott had been hauling was to be feed for the teams of horses working on the K&A Railway's construction.
DELAYS IN CONSTRUCTION
Following the line's survey and construction start at its eastern terminus, the Kootenay & Alberta Railway ran into a few difficulties in purchasing the rights of way for the route. It had been speculated that some ranchers and landowners held out for the highest possible prices for their land, and that negotiations with the rail company proved to be somewhat tougher than what had been expected. However, by early April 1911, most of the land acquisitions seemed to have been successfully resolved.
The only exception to the right of way issue resulted in one claim being taken to arbitration during the summer of 1913 nearly two years after that construction period. The fact that the parties agreed to argue the dispute went before a hearing appears to have prevented it from significantly delaying the building of the railway. Local ranchers C. S. Buchanan, Peter C. Hansen, and John Main, grieved by for the railway crossing their lands, sought additional compensation, and were awarded in a compromise settlement a combined award of 10,500 dollars. The parties only reached a settlement shortly before the actual hearing began, booked for the sample rooms of the Arlington Hotel in Pincher Creek. The press & the public, however, apparently were disappointed that there was not to be a formal hearing after all, perhaps hoping for a truly frontier brawl. In an ironic twist of legal fate, however, it was interesting to note that lawyer A. C. Kemmis represented in this dispute the Kootenay & Alberta Railway Co. In most other matters, the local fellow had taken a very pro-Pincher Creek stand, representing the community in legal fights with other railway giants.
The issue of when the line would be completed dominated the entire construction period. Early speculation indicated that the rail line would be completed by August 1911 – Company officials wanted an early completion date, and were under time pressure from the Western Coal & Coke Co. who sought marketing access for its developments at Beaver Mines.
Within a few weeks of the construction start, there was confusion about the impending deadline. Some Company officials still hoped to meet that late summer objective but others quickly pushed it back another two weeks.(154) By the close of the 1911 construction season, considerable lengths of track had been laid yet the Kootenay & Alberta still was unfinished. It was not until late May of 1912 that engineering & construction crews completed all facets of the line.
Indeed, the Kootenay & Alberta Railway Company was overly optimistic in its predictions of its completion date. Given the technology of the times, perhaps such construction delays could have been expected.
SIDING AN UNIQUE FEATURE ON K&A LINE
The Kootenay & Alberta Railway was uniquely designed in that it may have had fewer sidings attached to its route than other comparable lines. History has recorded that the only one constructed was that of Lang's Siding, located three quarters of a mile east of the Coulee by the same name. Here, local wheat was loaded on the grain cars when the line was in operation, and this undoubtedly pleased company officials as it diversified the line's use & economic value. Some of those early local pioneers who utilized the siding for shoveling their grain onto rail cars were George Chamberlain, Robert Lang, and John Ledingham. These were but three of the thirty-two pioneer ranching families from the Beauvais Lake District, many of whom may have utilized this nearby siding for crop or livestock marketing.