Message told train crew of ‘huge snowstorm coming’

From our DEC 2012 issue

By George Rose – Calgary, Alta.

Six months after I joined the CPR at Medicine Hat, starting as a wiper cleaning the train engines, I was a student fireman travelling from there to Swift Current, Sask.

I took a few trips where I was taught to shovel coal on the coal burner and how to control the coal on the stoker – a very complicated manoeuvre.

I was promoted to fireman and sent to the Crowsnest subdivision, what used to be the CPR’s second transcontinental crossing of the Rocky Mountains.

My trip went west out of Lethbridge to Crowsnest and back, which meant that I had to travel a long train bridge twice with each trip. The bridge, constructed between 1906 and 1909, crosses a huge coulee and is still the largest bridge of its kind in the world.

The Lethbridge Viaduct was the main feature of a line relocation across the Old Man River. It measures 5,327.6-feet long, and is 307-feet above the river. It cost the CPR $1.355 million. A good bargain, considering that repairs to the old line were estimated at $1 million.

On my first trip, I looked out and down and saw the train swaying so much that I never looked out again during the 20 times I had to cross that bridge before I was happily transferred to Empress, Alta.

Over 100 years after its construction, the CPR train crews still have to cross that scary bridge but when the line was washed out at Coquihalla in 1959, CPR terminated the passenger service, called “The Crow,” on this southern route. No CPR passengers today have to endure the breathtaking trip across that shaky bridge.

I spent over 10 happy years in Empress–despite the tons of coal I shovelled for the steam engines that picked up cars of grain, cattle, and coal in that area–before I was sent back to work out of Medicine Hat.

One winter in the late 1950s, I was fireman on an engine that went to Dunmore, six miles east of Medicine Hat, where we switched trains to go to Lethbridge. A message in Dunmore told of a huge snowstorm coming, but when the engineer and the conductor requested permission to return to Medicine Hat, the dispatcher refused. So, off to Lethbridge we went.

Just nine miles out, the dreadful storm hit and within a few miles, the train was stuck. The engine was unhooked from the cars and the crew on the engine headed southwest for Bow Island, leaving the conductor and the tail end brakeman behind in the train caboose because it was impossible for them to get to the engine through the high drifts.

The visibility was dreadful and finally the engineer detected a faint light and discovered it was the Bow Island station. From there we slowly advanced to the water tank and coal chute where we filled up with water and coal.

The whole crew worked to uncover the switch to turn to allow the engine to back down to the CPR bunkhouse where we rested and took turns looking after the engine. We were snowed in for more than two days. Finally, snow ploughs came from Lethbridge to dig out the big drifts to get the cars rolling again and pulled up to Bow Island, where we hooked on our engine and went on to Lethbridge three days late.

With our mild winters lately, it’s near impossible to believe that there was once a snowstorm in Alberta that could stop a train.