RAILWAY TRESTLES A CHALLENGE!
Researched & Written By Farley Wuth.
In many ways, the geographical conditions facing the construction crews for the Kootenay & Alberta Railway to Beaver Creek were contradictory. In spite of traveling westward into the foothills, the overall terrain was noted for its gentle features. Even those portions of the track that went through the few hilly areas truly were blessed by relatively easy grades. For the most part, few geographical challenges faced the engineers, surveyors, and labourers along this route.
There were two major exceptions, however, which made this route very memorable geographically: the two big wooden trestles for which the K&A Line truly became feared. The route had to cross two major watersheds: Lang's Coulee located just southwest of the line's eastern terminus, and further west at Mill Creek. Both of these provided special terrain & construction challenges to be overcome in order to complete the line. They were significant engineering feats in their own rights, and were claimed at the time to be the highest wooden railway trestles in western Canada.
The first trestle, over Lang's Coulee, posed special considerations. The line's route had to stay far enough south to avoid the river valley of the South Fork yet not go so far south as to lead into the more rugged foothills. Crossing the Coulee was the only logical route to follow. But, as was documented in an old photo possibly taken by local rancher George Cox shortly after the trestle’s construction, the eroding watershed not only left a coulee that often changed courses at near right angles but developed a set of banks that were high & steep, and the trestle had to leave an opening for the water flow below.
Kootenay & Alberta Railway engineers settled on a trestle of a wooden fabrication, believing this method to be the most economical yet sturdy option. Initial plans called for a structure to be 165 feet in height. Yet the completed trestle was much more massive, measuring an astounding 203 feet high, & locals claimed it was the highest wooden railway trestle in Western Canada at that time. Its length was noted as being more than sixty spans with measurements of close to thirty feet to the span. Seven spans were required to bridge the water opening below. At least forty per cent of the spans required extra bracing. Those archival images to speak a thousand words: the trestle was a most eye-catching structure indeed!
Another unique feature about this crossing was the use of the place names to identify it. Most people have known it as Lang’s Coulee, the name that has withstood the test of time, but some of the early press reports labeled this deep canyon as “Craig’s Coulee” and “Lee’s Coulee”. It would be only from the description of this geographical feature that one could determine that the names all refer to the same spot. Geographical features often are named after people associated with it. It is likely that this coulee currently is named after the Robert Lang Family but it would be equally interesting to find out what role “Craig” & “Lee” played in our local history.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE MOUNTAIN MILL TRESTLE
The proposed trestle over Mill Creek posed even more difficulties in terms of terrain and weather conditions. The most logical spot for the railway to cross the deep canyon with its steep cliffs was at a locality known as Mountain Mill. This tiny settlement had dated back to 1879 when a major logging operation had been established there.
Also in place at this important cross road was the Mountain Mill Presbyterian (now United) Church. This well-utilized and picturesque building was constructed three years following the Congregation’s 1903 inception, thereby pre-dating the arrival of the railway by a full five years. But the official plans for this high trestle called for it to cross the canyon at precisely where this historic country church stood. Thanks to the generosity of one of the trestle contractors, a solution soon was at hand. Historical research had shown that Grant Smith & Co. arranged at his own expense to have a new concrete foundation constructed for the church & to have the structure moved to its new location. This was several hundred yards to the south of its original location, and the completed trestle dwarfed the place of worship on the valley floor below.
It appears that the Mountain Mill Congregation was pleased with the contractor’s generosity but not so satisfied with the subsequent inactions of the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line itself. Starting in late 1913, Church officials made repeated requests of the Company to keep up its right of way payments as the Trestle actually ran through church property. Although some of those records are not complete, there is no written indication nor recollections from local oral traditions that these payments were ever made. The financial problems that the rail company ran into as the First World War broke out were the reasons for which these non-payments were blamed. The community relations of the K&A Railway obviously were running amuck.
Construction of the Mountain Mill Trestle began in March 1911. Because of the dirt removal required, the grading operations on both sides of Mill Creek were known to the Company & its workers as "the big cut". Initial plans by Ganse & Smith called for two steam powered shovels to do this heavy dirt work but it is uncertain how this technology fared. Within a few weeks, they had been replaced with two massive graders being pulled by 16 mules each. This appeared to get the dirt work done but there were continuous challenges due to the cuts filling with water. The extreme grades of the canyon slopes made the danger of equipment & men falling to the canyon floor below a very real possibility.
By October, the actual trestle construction began. Rather than utilizing cement footings, wooden planks which had been laid flat on the ground, were favoured as a type of foundation for the entire structure. The trestle also was being constructed of wood, and soon a massive matrix was inching its way across the valley. At one point during its building stage, it contained over a million & a half feet of timber. Significant progress appeared to be in the works. It also was said that although Ganse & Smith oversaw the Trestle’s actual construction, it was Merriam who designed it.
WIND STORM DISASTER
Yet a near disaster was about to take place with the Mountain Mill Trestle. As fate would have it on that traditional bad luck day, a strong windstorm blew through on Friday, October 13th 1911. More than a quarter of the structure blew over, thundering to the valley floor nearly 200 feet below. The ear splitting crash could be heard a mile away. Fortunately, there were no reported injuries resulting from the massive crash.
Some locals had feared the overwhelming size of the structure, believing it to be very fragile. These individuals were not surprised to see this white elephant blow over in one of those strong winds to frequent the Pincher Creek area. Many of our pioneers traveled to the site to see the destruction.
Wishing to calm public opinion and ensure that the remaining structure was indeed safe & sound, Messrs. Dibble & Kelly, one of the contracting firms for the Trestle, arrived on the scene within 48 hours with the promise of giving the bridge a thorough inspection. Within a week, a report had been submitted to Charles Fregis & L. B. Meriam. It determined that the structure “…as designed and built was perfectly safe and would undoubtedly carry any load that was ever likely to be taken over it…”. Their biggest concerns, however, were placed at the very foundations of the impressive beast: concrete footings would have to be utilized to prevent another collapse, particularly if the soil showed any sign of movement.
This report seemed to sit well with Chief Engineer Merriam who approved the continued work on the Trestle. Merriam’s did lament, however, about the possible public relations damage that had been caused by the press reports on the collapse, and by what he considered to be unfounded rumours in regards to its safety. By the end of October 1911, he had spoken to The Echo, expounding his virtues & nearly quarter century career as an outstanding engineer. Merriam also noted that the plans for the Mountain Mill Trestle had been approved by the Railway Department of the Dominion Government, and that it virtually met the standards used by the K&A’s competitor, the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Work did re-commence shortly. The impressive trestle, completed in early 1912 with cement footings and a massive wooden matrix, stood proudly over the massive Mill Creek valley. Its height reached 198 feet. It had eighty spans, each of which measured thirty feet across. Upon completion, area pioneers claimed this structure was the longest wooden railway trestle in Western Canada. Similar in design to that of its Lang Coulee counterpart, this one too boasted a system of seven spans bridged the open gap over Mill Creek below. Many of its spans also had additional bracing, thereby securing the structure. It also made it a very visually memorable matrix, an image that obviously caught the attention of George Cox. He too took a black & white photo of this trestle shortly after its completion. As eye catching as the structure was, little did he know that his sister Millicent, known to her family and friends as “Millie” was about to have her own adventure – with a safe ending – way up on top of those wooden spans.
MOUNTAIN MILL TRAGEDY
The second fatality to take place during the construction phase of the Kootenay & Alberta Railway occurred in March 1912 when a worker fell off the wooden trestle at Mountain Mill. Andy McLean had been working as the bridge contractor for one of the contractors, Dibble & Kelly, for several weeks leading up to the accident. Early one Sunday morning, McLean had been removing some of the false work under the big deck span of the trestle. He had been standing on a 12 by 12 beam when he slipped, and fell to the rocky valley floor some fifty-four feet below. He survived the fall but was critically injured. Fellow workers loaded him onto a rig in order that he could be brought to the hospital (again, the Memorial) in Pincher Creek, the closest medical centre. Unfortunately, the poor fellow passed away before the party had reached town. He had no family locally, the closest relatives residing in Ontario.
THE ONGOING ADVENTURES OF THE MOUNTAIN MILL TRESTLE
Those impressive stories of this not-to-be forgotten Trestle did not end with its construction. They continued during those brief years of railway usage. When the first train inaugurated the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line that spring of 1912, the crew took special precautions on the Mountain Mill trestle. On reaching the structure, the engineer started the train slowly, dismounted, and let the train cross. The fireman, already positioned on the opposite side caught the train, and waited for the engineer. This was done to test the safety of the trestle.
Throughout its brief yet flamboyant history, the Mountain Mill Trestle continued to frighten many a train crew on the K&A Railway. Many feared the height of the crossing while others had concerns over the wooden nature of the structure. Others were particularly frightened of the potential dangers caused by the frequent strong winds. Local folklore indicates that with most crossings – particularly those when the wind was blowing strong – the train would stop at one side of the trestle & let off all the crew with the exception of the engineer. The crew would then walk across the trestle rather than take a chance on the train itself. Once across, the train would follow to the same side, and the crew would get back on for the remainder of the trip.
As a young adult, Miss Millicent (Millie) Cox also contributed to those Trestle adventures. The daughter of A. E. & Mary Cox who operated the Mountview Ranch nearly midway between Mountain Mill & Pincher Creek decided one nice day to organize a picnic with several of her friends. The top of the Trestle, likely noted for its panoramic views, was chosen as the location for this feast for the appetite & eyes. Adventure was close at hand, for no sooner had the happy party eaten their lunch & disembarked the wooden matrix, a “runaway flat car” went speeding eastward over the now unoccupied tracks. It had become disengaged at Beaver Mines, and had traveled at increasingly rapid speeds over the slightly declining elevations to Kendary Junction ten miles distant. There it came to an unceremonious stop, likely leaving some picnics a little more wary of the perils of railway picnicking. This outdoor adventurers had just missed a disastrous ending to their picnic.
SHORT HISTORY OF RAIL LINE USAGE
Once the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line commenced operation, it was fortunate to have some of its own equipment & dedicated staff. Local history indicates that the Company owned one locomotive, a Montreal built unit dating from 1913, which was used to pull coal cars from Beaver Mines. Years after this line’s closure, the ever proud locomotive was by Lethbridge Collieries Ltd. at its Number Eight Coal Mine till its closure in 1957, and from 1960 to 1965 at the Colleries’ Shaughnessy operations. That latter year, it was acquired as a museum piece by the Mid-Continental Railway Historical society based in Wisconsin, U.S.A.
The engineer who operated that engine for the K&A was Ed Joyce, and one of the firemen who accompanied him on many a return trip to Beaver Mines was Ernie Liddell who lived to be an elderly gentlemen in the 1960s.
With the line's completion, the route was used extensively in order to market the coal resources mined at Beaver Mines. The annual reports of the N.W.M.P. reported how the coal production increased once the K&A Railway was completed. In fact, the C.P.R. Station at Pincher City, only a short distance west of the Kendary Junction, reported in 1913 an average monthly freight business of 25,000 dollars. Much of this traffic was attributed to the hauling of coal along that ten mile rail line to Beaver Mines.
The Kootenay & Alberta Railway also was used for marketing local agricultural produce, and was a busy route that thrived economically. Yet its history indeed was short as the outbreak of the First World War precluded any continued success. Early in the War, the coal mines lost their contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway Co., and the subsequent traffic on the Kootenay & Alberta Rail Line was cut drastically. Three years later, in 1917, Company officials and Dominion authorities decided to terminate the line. The steel tracks and wooden ties were needed for the war effort, and were torn up, shipped to Europe, and put to use in a rail line being constructed in France.
The short yet exciting history of the Kootenay & Alberta Railway had come to a sad closure. But the railway did make a local economic contribution, and hopefully its memory continues to remain embedded within the folklore of the community.