FRONTIER ADVENTURES: CHRONICLES OF THE KOOTENAY AND ALBERTA RAILWAY
Researched & Written By Farley Wuth.
PINCHER CREEK’S ATTEMPTS TO OBTAIN A C.P.R. SPUR LINE
During those early days of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Pincher Creek area, our frontier ranching settlement indeed had a very tenuous connection with the rail industry.
True enough, the construction of the Crowsnest Branch of the C.P.R. did traverse this district and the line's use did forever change the local countryside. The line's arrival brought with it a new wave of immigration and settlers into the area.
Ironically, neither the CPR nor any other rail company ever came directly to the settlement of Pincher Creek itself. Pincher Creek has remained without a rail connection throughout its entire history, and this issue remained a sore sport with local residents for over a full century. That first generation of post railway pioneers fought hard, abet unsuccessfully, to have those transportation connections secured.
THE CPR'S CHOICE OF PINCHER CITY
In the CPR's mindset of the late 1890s, there were rational reasons for building their local rail line & accompanying stations elsewhere than through the Village of Pincher Creek. The Company appeared satisfied with the economic possibilities of the Lethbridge to Nelson, B.C. line -- it would open up the ranching and mining markets on both sides of the continental divide, resulting in the CPR receiving most if not all of the marketing & transportation business. Yet there were costs to control & business advantages to ensure. Geographically, the surveyors had determined that the most direct route for the rail line would be a point two miles north of Pincher Creek. This choice also offered a fairly level approach in what otherwise was becoming an increasingly hilly terrain. The alternative route directly through the ranching settlement of Pincher Creek also meant an elevation loss of one hundred feet which would have been a challenge for CPR engineers given the elevation gains that the rail company had to make as it traveled west.
Perhaps the most significant reason for the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. avoiding the Village of Pincher Creek was, as was the case with most of its competitors, the fact that the rail giant wanted to control the location of its stations and the corresponding real estate boom. This would ensure a higher profit for the Company. Such development could only take place in those areas that had yet to see the establishment of a settlement. Pincher Creek already had a history dating back 20 years to 1878 (the founding of the Mounties' Horse Ranch) so there was less real estate for the CPR to acquire & develop. Economically, it was upon that basis that Pincher Station (initially known as Pincher City) was established by the rail giant as our closest rail link.
PINCHER CREEK BELIEVED IT WAS RAILROADED BY THE C.P.R. ROUTE
The CPR's decision never sat well with the people of Pincher Creek. Feeling ignored, they soon launched a decades long campaign for a rail connection of some sort -- either that the main line be re-routed or that a spur line into the Village be constructed.
Initial lobbying took place during the construction period itself. Once the pioneers of Pincher Creek were informed of the surveyors' choice to bypass the settlement, they immediately tried to convince the CPR to change its mind. A flurry of no less than four letters bombarded CPR headquarters during the spring & summer of 1897. The last, dated August 18th of that year, requested a meeting with Company Vice-President T. G. Shaughnessy, who planned to be touring through the neighboring community of Fort Macleod shortly. Pincher Creek locals were vocal in advocating the re-routing of the line through the settlement as this would have brought them new business, driven up real estate prices, and most importantly, provided them with a direct transportation & marketing link with the outside world. The correspondence also noted that settlers were prepared to offer the CPR the required right-of-ways to build the line through the community. A vast array of local community builders worked on this local campaign – that August 1897 letter sported the signatures of no less than 29 Pincher Creek settlers. Those most active in the early campaign included ex-NWMP Constables Charles Kettles & John Herron (the latter particularly was politically powerful as a few years later he served as our local Member Of Parliament), ranchers Albert M. Morden & Walter Faithorn, homesteader & early stage coach driver George LeVesseur, businessmen James Schofield & Henry Hyde, and Mountain Mill lumber baron Peter McLaren. Alas, their efforts were in vain as the Company stuck to its guns & kept firm with its "northern" route. Apparently engineering difficulties with the Pincher Creek route may have been cited as the reason avoiding a line within the settlement.
In spite of the unfavourable construction route, Pincher Creek community leaders did not give up. During the winter of 1900-01, they petitioned Superintendent Osborne of the CPR in regards to "exorbitant freight rates" which the locals were being charged, and the situation could be corrected, the petitioners argued, if the railway station at Pincher City was moved to a better location: that of Pincher Creek itself. Osborne responded favourably, and initially, there was optimism that something positive would be done. However, words were easier said than actions done, and the company shelved any chances of change.
ARGUMENTS OVER RAILWAY SERVICES & ROUTES
This contentious railroad issue continued to fester for nearly another ten years. During the spring of 1909, the lack of railway services associated with the closest station being two & a half miles distant was raised by The Pincher Creek Echo. It was alleged that the CPR believed it was supplying adequate service to the town folk by maintaining an express & telegraphy office in town. Yet the Echo believed that a freight office was a requirement for both incoming & outgoing merchandize. The ardent press supporter of this western settlement concluded that “it is up to this bommerang of a railway system to do something decent for Pincher Creek before it its compelled to do so by the construction of other lines, as already surveyed, right into town.”(88) In spite of the good intentions of the local paper, these efforts apparently once again fell upon deaf corporate ears.
The following spring, a proposal came in from the Canadian Pacific Railway that caused a great deal of consternation within southwestern Alberta. Company officials were seriously considering re-routing that portion of the Crowsnest Line in the Pincher City District to a point five miles further north. The rationale for such a path through much more hilly & rough terrain was never publicly discussed in any detail but the route, much closer to the Oldman River itself, may have been chosen as a much more direct line between the sidings at Brocket and Cowley.
Municipal officials were not informed for some time of these proposed changes but acted quickly in the community’s defense once word had been received. Mayor Scott secured from Ottawa blueprints of the proposed changes, and called a well-attended public meeting at the Town’s Council Chambers for the afternoon of Monday, April 18th 1910. There were local concerns, particularly from business members of the Pincher Creek Board of Trade that it was too late for the community to effectively act in this matter. However, the gathering did enthusiastically pass a resolution calling upon our Member of Parliament John Herron to represent Pincher Creek in securing “adequate railway service from the C.P.R. on the present line when the new route has been established.”
Within days of this public meeting, The Lethbridge Herald waded into this issue(91) by advocating that if the Dominion Railway Commission had the power, it should intervene on behalf of the community of Pincher Creek. The proposed route change would put this ranching settlement a full seven or eight miles from the railhead, and the CPR should be compelled “to supply Pincher Creek with railway facilities.”
This time, local protests may have had an impact. By late May, the CPR was making significant improvements to the existing line between the Stations at Brocket & Cowley. New trestles over both Pincher Creek and the South Fork were promised, and cement was delivered almost immediately to those two work sites. Ballasting work was completed just west of Pincher City, and the new siding at that Station replaced the old one, noted for the awkward angle at which it had been constructed years earlier. Company officials categorically denied that the previously considered route changes of that spring were being considered any further. What precipitated these planned alterations, now composed of construction improvements rather than a more northerly route, is unclear but at least Pincher Creek was to partially benefit from them. Although the community understandably still wanted a direct rail link, at least the existing line was not more distantly removed than it previously had been.
Some ten weeks later, public speculation that the CPR was actively considering a spur line into Pincher Creek was again raised within regional circles. Observers had seen the Company accumulate several loads of lumber at its station at Pincher City. Further speculation called for the construction of an addition to the depot there and that a second, although unspecified structure, would be built adjacent to it. Locals thought that the preparations were being made for a Y rail intersection just a mile west of Pincher City, and that since the CPR was to be in charge of this work, it must have meant that a spur line was to be built into town.
Informed public opinion then called for a railway station in Pincher Creek to be built, likely on the N.W.M.P. reserve located adjacent to the east end of town. It was said that with this site, the station would be situated less than a ten-minute walk from the west end of town. The CPR indicated to the Town Council that the route would go through provided that local officials “secure the right of way through a certain property now used as a poultry ranch.” Which property this was is uncertain but three survey parties already were at work when the public news of this “new development” broke, and it was thought that only another week’s worth of survey work would be needed before the grading could begin.
Yet within a month’s time, there was more bad news. Approval by the Sifton Government in Edmonton for these plans appear to have been put on hold due to the protests of the Alberta Railway & Irrigation Co. which was planning a local railway system of its own. Locals were once again disappointed that a rail connection appeared to be as elusive as ever.
THE PERCEIVED IMPACT OF RAILWAY COMPETITION
In March 1911, Pincher Creek & District Chamber Of Commerce took up the local cause, and established a committee to lobby hard for a rail connection. Members of the committee were soon to be Member Of Parliament Dr. David Warnock, Mayor William Dobbie, businessman Walter Jackson, and local farmer A. N. Mouat. The Chamber’s actions were spurred on by an earlier communication from the C.P.R. which had stated that the Company would never build a spur line into Pincher Creek until they saw competitive interest from other rail companies to do the same.
Taking a bite a the bait, the committee approached the newly formed Kootenay & Alberta Railway Company to see if they were interested in providing that much sought after rail connection. Folklore indicates that there may have been initial interest from this newly established company but that the construction costs of putting in the spur line to Beaver Mines, accompanied by the events of the First World War, precluded the additional line into town from becoming a reality.
Even as a result of these preliminary talks with its Beaver Mines area competitor, the C.P.R. was not immediately moved to consider that spur line into Pincher Creek. It was not for another six months that the railway giant appeared to move on the matter, and that was only when the Canadian Northern renewed its interest in coming to our ranching settlement. Noting the increasing interest by other railway companies, The Pincher Creek Echo argued that “clearly, if the C.P.R. intend to get into Pincher Creek before their rivals get here they have to move in the near future.” It was said that CPR officials in Winnipeg were closely watching the progress of the Canadian Northern in the Pincher Creek District.
The rumour was that the CPR’s spur line would connect with the Crowsnest Branch at a point west of Brocket. From there, it would travel directly to town, perhaps establishing a station near the flourmill on the north hill. The line’s exit to the west would tie it back with the main line at a point just east of the trestle spanning the South Fork. Promoters of this particular spur line pointed to the fact that the old wooden trestle over Pincher Creek had yet to be replaced, and it only would be with a steel structure when the much needed spur line was completed.
By Christmas, the situation was again stalled. Pincher Creek’s solicitor A. C. Kemmis reported back to the Town Council from a series of charter & legal meetings that he had had with Dominion & railway officials in Ottawa. The Minister of Railways had some concerns about the age of the survey maps used by the C.P.R. to indicate the route of its spur line. As a result, the Company withdrew its immediate plans for the line through Pincher Creek with the promise of updated maps sometime down the road.
In August 1914, there was increased speculation that perhaps the C.P.R. had changed its mind & that the locally desired spur line could be built. This was based upon an engineering report that resulted in bed & gravel work being done at the Maunsell Crossing four miles east of Pincher City. The rumour mill was that the spur line would access the main line at Maunsell Crossing and end at Pincher Creek. It was thought that the renewed interest of the Western Dominion Railway Co. was spurring the C.P.R. into seriously pursuing this old question. Unfortunately for the local community, nothing ever materialized of this effort as well.
LOCAL APPEALS TO THE RAILWAY COMMISSION
The next local appeal to have the Canadian Pacific come through on its spur line promises came a full year into the First World War. Mayor R. O. Allison and Town Engineer J. E. Woods made a trip up to Calgary in an attempt to talk the Company into building that badly needed spur line. Allison made the political pitch for the project while Woods provided the technical details. The pair left the meeting empty handed in terms of concrete promises but returned home optimistically & with the feeling that a spur line might be forthcoming. Yet once again their efforts were for naught as no such construction materialized.
Finally, this simmering railway issue came to a head during the summer of 1916. The community took its concerns before the Railway Commission Of Canada that was hosting sessions in Calgary. Pincher Creek's application requested what was thought to be a legally binding order requiring the C.P.R. to construct & maintain a spur line between Pincher City and Pincher Creek. This request was one of the best organized lobbying efforts the community had ever mounted on the spur line question. Backed by both the Town Council & the Local Improvement District No. 39, the process brought out some big hitters to speak on behalf of the community on this important issue: Mayor R. O. Allison, Town Engineer John E. Wood, and businessman Henry E. Hyde represented the Town, and local ranchers James Hillier & Samuel P. Hunter spoke on behalf of the rural municipality.
The local application included no less than eight affidavits from area residents and municipal officials pointing out the advantages that a spur line would bring. Railway advocates included Fred Pelletier, John Thibodeau & Thomas Williamson, all of whom were local farmers & ranchers grieved by the lack of a spur line; John Cameron, Harvey Bossenberry & J. H. Frankel who were shippers of livestock & grains; L.I.D. Secretary-Treasurer James E. Hillier, and Mayor R. O. Allison. The breadth & width of these applicants, representing a significant sector of this ranching settlement, was a strong indication of the seriousness of this issue, and of the efforts of this particular campaign to rectify it.
Most of the affidavits featured several well thought out arguments in favour of a spur line. One noted that eight-five per cent of the current railway traffic handled at Pincher City either was town traffic or farming & ranching traffic that had to pass directly through town on its way to or from the station. The logic was that most of the agricultural traffic came from points east, south, or west of Pincher Creek, and that as the bulk of Pincher City’s freight came from or through its neighbor to the south, business would remain strong by utilizing such a spur line.
Spur line proponents further argued that the hauling of freight the extra two & one-half mile distance to Pincher City was a significant hardship for locals, particularly when poor weather & bad roads prevailed. The District always has been noted for its changeable weather patterns, particularly during the winter seasons, and given the technology of the time, bad road conditions were prevalent during the pioneer era. Locals therefore believed that it only made sense to have the spur line come into town.
The economics of a spur line were argued in the belief that there would be sufficient traffic over it to make it a paying proposition. Considerations such as operating, maintenance & interest costs were factors that proponents believed could be covered through local usage. They pointed back to that heavy traffic through Pincher Creek itself.
Pincher Creek promoter J. E. Hillier argued strongly “that better transportation facilities would bring an additional large area under cultivation, will develop industries, will increase general business, resulting in an increase in traffic.” His colleague Mayor R. O. Allison took the cause further by pointing out that “the industries started in town have been crippled for want of [effective] transportation…” and that the further “…development of industries in town is at a standstill pending railway transportation.” The Mayor was able to provide several illustrations of this unfavourable economic situation. He noted that most of a large brick making plant in Pincher Creek had to be torn down several years earlier due to the lack of easily accessible markets further a field. On the north hill sat idle for some time a flourmill with adjoining elevator. It had a capacity of one hundred barrels yet was not in production anymore due to a lack of shipping facilities. A Pincher Creek based creamery was operating at only partial capacity in 1916 due to there being no rail connection in town. A spur line would have allowed the business to accept on an economical basis product from such westerly points as Cowley, Lundbreck, and Burmis. Only with the completion of a spur line, Allison concluded, would the local economic situation improve.
Ever eager to promote Pincher Creek interests, our weekly newspaper also had the pro-spur line arguments published within its pages & published a forcefully written editorial highlighting the need for such a rail connection.
Compelling arguments these were. The Railway Commission carefully deliberated over a twenty-four hour period yet it could not rule in favour of Pincher Creek’s application. It found that under the terms of the Railway Act, it could not order the C.P.R. to construct a spur line. Only a commercial or industrial business could apply to have a spur line constructed – provided that they have the publicly disclosed financial resources to undertake such a project. The business also would be responsible for the operation & maintenance of the line. The ruling noted that third parties, such as communities with grievances against railway corporations, could not apply to compel these companies to build such spur lines.
The CPR did offer to supply the gravel required to maintain the two & one-half mile road from Pincher City to Pincher Creek “…in the hope that that will do away with the necessity of a spur…” Furthermore, Company Vice President George Bury noted in a letter to Mayor R. O. Allison that the use of a spur line into Pincher Creek would not be time effective in terms of passenger nor freight service utilizing the Crowsnest Line itself. Once again, local officials went home disappointed: their request for a much desired spur line seemed as allusive as ever.
Most of these early lobbying efforts with the Canadian Pacific during that first generation of railway history appear to have fallen upon deaf ears. Either the rail giant thought its rail route of 1897-98 was the most economical one to follow, or it did not share the same transportation concerns as did that ranching settlement just to the south of Pincher City. As a result, Pincher Creek has historically remained one of the few major communities in southern Alberta to not have a direct link with a rail line.