In 1883, the Qu'Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railroad and Steamboat Company (QLSRSC) commenced building a line from Regina towards Prince Albert but it had financial problems and by 1886 had completed only 25 miles of track. James Ross, who had been in charge of much of the construction of the CPR line through the Rockies and Selkirks, formed a company with Herbert Holt, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann and they completed the line to Prince Albert. In 1889, the line was leased to the CPR but it was not very profitable and in 1906, Mackenzie and Mann rolled it into their Canadian Northern Railway.
The team of Ross, Holt, Mackenzie and Mann formed the Calgary and Edmonton Railway Company (C&ER) in April 1890 and on May 16, 1890 were authorized by the federal government to construct two branch lines “from Calgary to a point at or near Edmonton ... a distance of about 190 miles, and ... from Calgary to a point on the international boundary between Canada and the U.S.A. about 150 miles.”1 The railway was also given the right to extend towards the Peace River area but this was not exercised. To facilitate the construction, the company was awarded 6,400 acres of land for every mile of track constructed. Although it was a nominally independent company, the act gave the C&ER the right to lease or sell the line to the CPR. The relationship between the CPR and Ross’s team was then close, and at the 1890 Shareholders' Meeting, the CPR’s president, W.C. Van Horne, referred to the QLSRSC and the C&ER as being “of special importance to your company, from the fact that they will make accessible large areas of your lands now too far away from railways to be available.”2 The relationship between the C&ER and the CPR proved most beneficial to the CPR.
This was the time of company directors who were involved directly in the organization’s operations and Ross looked after the company’s financing, Holt served as the Superintendent of Construction, Mann was in charge of line grading and Mackenzie supplied timber. Surveys for the route north from Calgary began before the act was proclaimed and the line to Red Deer was surveyed in 18 days. No major bridges other than those across the Bow and Red Deer rivers were required. The formal commencement of construction took place in Calgary on July 21, 1890 when the Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories, Edgar Dewdney, did the necessary honours at the junction of the Calgary and Edmonton line with the CPR’s mainline in East Calgary.
The 93+ miles to Red Deer were constructed by late November but the Red Deer River had to be bridged and track laying ceased for the winter. Both the Bow and Red Deer rivers were crossed with two truss spans of 150 feet each and the second bridge was completed by the end of January 1891. Track laying could not begin again until after break-up but the 95.6 miles to Strathcona (South Edmonton) were completed by July 1891. This became the railway’s terminus on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River. The line opened on August 23, 1891 and was operated by the CPR. Full scheduled service began in 1892.
The southern branch to Mekastoe (Macleod West) was opened on November 1, 1892. The two branches made it possible to settle lands immediately east of the foothills and for the 295.07 miles of track laid, the C&ER was granted a total of 1,888,448 acres that, after deducting surveying charges, became a net of 1,820,625 acres.3 It was one of the last land grant railways and is also unusual in that apart from less than 13,500 acres in Saskatchewan, all its holdings were selected in the region where the lines were built.4
In 1898, the C&ER was authorized to build a connection with the Crowsnest line, then under construction from Lethbridge into B.C. Mekastoe was 1.14 miles north of the Crowsnest line and the connection was inspected on behalf of the federal government on August 30, 1898 with authority thereby granted for the line to be opened providing trains operated at a maximum of 10 mph until, “... some little works, which are to be done, are completed.”5 This extension enabled coal from the Crowsnest area to be brought northwards to Calgary for domestic and railway use.
By the beginning of the new century, the CPR was no longer friendly with Mackenzie and Mann who were building up a large number of railways that would eventually become another transcontinental system. The arrival of their Edmonton Yukon and Pacific Railway in downtown Edmonton in 1902 was seen by the C&ER as a threat to its influence in this area. Until then, it had faced no competition in Alberta and in 1903 it reluctantly began surveys to construct a bridge across the North Saskatchewan River into Edmonton. Under an act of June 25, 1903 it received authority to extend its line “from Strathcona to the town of Edmonton providing the North Saskatchewan River is crossed by a high level bridge ... .”6Also included in the act were branch lines eastwards from Wetaskiwin and Lacombe—both for a distance of 100 miles. Permission for the extension into Edmonton was provisional on 50 miles of each branch line being completed within two years and so construction began immediately. On January 8, 1904 the C&ER was leased by the CPR for 999 years.
Other branches extending from the C&ER were constructed by other companies. The Alberta Central Railway was chartered in 1901 to serve Rocky Mountain House and the Brazeau area coalfields. Unable to complete the line from Red Deer to Rocky Mountain House because of financial problems, the line was leased to the CPR in 1913 for 999 years and it was completed in 1914. By this time, the Canadian Northern Railway had already reached Rocky Mountain House and although Alberta Central Railway helped develop the area west of Red Deer, it was abandoned in 1981.
Another line that developed the area west of the C&ER was the Lacombe and Blindman Valley Electric Railway Company that received its charter from the provincial government in February 1909.7 Because of a lack of funds, construction did not commence until 1913 and the line only reached Bentley, 17 miles west of Lacombe in 1917. The following year, the Alberta government took over the financially desperate railway and in 1928, it was sold to the CPR. The central portion of the line has now been abandoned.
In the early 1900s, the Town of Strathcona became concerned that when the High Level Bridge into Edmonton was opened it would become a mere whistle-stop on the extended main line and, in 1906, it worked out an agreement with the CPR making Strathcona the railway’s chief divisional point in northern Alberta. In return for up to 70 acres of land, free from taxation for 15 years, Canadian Pacific completed a $50,000 extension to its yard in Strathcona, constructed a 12-stall roundhouse, built a 280-ton coaling plant and agreed that the town would be the terminal for the lines via Saskatchewan and Wetaskiwin.
Construction of the High Level Bridge commenced in 1910 and the final steelwork was in place in mid 1913. A work train is thought to have crossed the bridge on June 3, 1913 and it was opened for traffic on June 20, 1913. The bridge was unusual in that it was used by the CPR, the Edmonton Radial Railway and also carried highway traffic on the lower deck. The streetcar service from downtown to south Edmonton, via the High Level Bridge, commenced on August 11, 1913 and ran on tracks on the upper deck, laid on either side of the railway track. In order that the streetcars' doors were not on the outside of the bridge, left-hand running was adopted for this part of the journey.
The last streetcar ran over the bridge on September 1, 1951. Rail passenger service across the bridge ceased on October 28, 1972 when CP Rail trains were cut back to the Strathcona Station. Passenger service between Calgary and Strathcona was withdrawn by VIA in September 1985, but the Calgary and Edmonton line remains a part of CP Rail System’s core network.