Northern Alberta Railways
Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway
Building the Railway
Crossing Smoky River
Open for Traffic
Grande Prairie Branch Line
The Alberta Government Steps In and the CPR Takes Over
Northern Alberta Railways Created
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Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway

Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia
Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia
he Dominion government granted a charter for the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (ED&BCR) in 1907 authorizing it to build a line from Edmonton to Dunvegan and from there via the Peace and Parsnip Rivers to Fort George (Prince George).1 Three years later, as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway pushed west, Vancouver business interests expressed alarm that Edmonton would gain control of the trade in the British Columbia interior. The British Columbia government consequently heightened its interest in transportation into northern British Columbia and the Peace River country.2

ED&BC Railway Bridge over the Heart River
ED&BC Railway Bridge over the Heart River

The GTP had planned to build a branch line into the Peace River country and another to Vancouver. In 1911 the GTP gave up on those plans and made agreements with two contractors, J.D. McArthur and Foley, Welch and Stewart to build those lines while it concentrated on completing its main line to Prince Rupert.3

McArthur immediately acquired the dormant charter for the ED&BCR. In the 1911–12 session of the Alberta Legislature Premier Arthur L. Sifton introduced a railway policy that encouraged the development of a number of railway lines in the province. The Sifton policy guaranteed the bonds for the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway to the extent of $20,000 per mile at four percent over a term of 30 years. The guarantee covered 350 miles of line from Edmonton to the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake and then west to the British Columbia border.4 It has been suggested that McArthur’s strategy was to link the ED&BCR with the Pacific Great Eastern Railway at the Alberta-British Columbia border on the Pouce Coupe prairie.5

Building the Railway

McArthur carried out a general location for the line and on December 15, 1911 a route map was approved by the Federal Minister of Railways.6 Because the Alberta government railway expansion policy included bond guarantees to two Canadian Northern Western Railway lines that also intended to serve the Peace River district,7 McArthur moved quickly to sell the ED&BCR bonds.

Generally McArthur followed a construction pattern of grading during the period from spring until freeze-up and tracklaying during the winter months. During the summer of 1912 Dunvegan yards were laid out along a track that connected with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Alongside the yard tracks ties, rails, fastenings and switch points for passing sidings were neatly stacked in preparation for loading onto the work trains.8 At the same time grading for the first 125 miles north to the Athabasca River began.9 In December 1912 tracklaying began and by early 1913 had progressed to the end of the grade at Bear Creek near Jarvie (mile 75). Contractors then ballasted the track with material extracted from a pit at mile 66. The new railway immediately attracted settlers who contributed to the growth of Busby and Westlock.10

In January 1914 the rails reached the south bank of the Athabasca River.11 Here the railway established its first division point and named it Smith after its general manager W. Rathbone Smith. The tracklayer reached Sawridge by the spring thaw of 1914, and by July 20, 1914 trains were able to cross the Athabasca on the new permanent bridge.12 The completion of this connection enabled the ED&BCR to haul freight and passenger traffic directly from Edmonton through to Sawridge,13 which resulted in Peace River traffic being drawn away from the Canadian Northern line to Athabasca. River freighting between Athabasca and Sawridge ceased, causing the decline of intermediate rail-to-river freight transfer communities at Mirror Landing and Saulteaux. The ED&BCR had cornered the market on freight out of Edmonton to the Peace River country and would gain more control of it as construction progressed.


Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, Grouard: Capital of the North
Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, Grouard: Capital of the North

Grouard initiated a series of vigorous appeals in early 1913 when it realized that the ED&BCR route plan would have the railway passing six miles south of the town.14 These appeals culminated in a well-documented engineering report that supported having the line pass closer to Grouard.15 In May 1914 the Board of Railway Commissioners pointed out to the Minister of Railways and Canals that the Grouard proposal would subject the railway to occasional flooding. The Commission’s engineers recommended that the ED&BCR’s position to continue building the line through the High Prairie area be upheld.16 Although this decision contributed to Grouard’s downfall it did hasten High Prairie’s development. High Prairie became the first point on the line beyond the Westlock-Pibroch area to have a grain elevator.

Crossing Smoky River

In September 1913 the ED&BCR received approval from the Minister of Railways and the Board of Railway Commissioners for a route alteration designed to allow for a better crossing of the Smoky River.17 As a result a new railway-age community sprang up in late 1914 on the south shore of Kimiwan (Round) Lake where the ED&BCR chose to establish its second division point. The community was named McLennan after the railway’s corporate secretary, J.K. McLennan. Also as a result of the 1913 route alteration the railway passed through the centre of a large number of sections where the land had been sold or reserved prior to 1915 in the Donnelly-Fahler-Fowler area.18

Open for Traffic

Once track to this area was complete, representatives of the Board of Railway Commissioners inspected the whole line and on March 17, 1915 declared it fit to be open for the carriage of traffic as far as mile 277 (Dreau).19 The railway then became governed by freight and passenger tariff regulations set by the Board, and could no longer follow a policy of charging whatever the traffic would bear.20 However, the ED&BCR successfully argued its position to levy the higher scale of mountain tariff rates rather than the lower prairie rates. After further negotiations with the Board the railway agreed to adopt a complex schedule of rates that were primarily based on the mountain scale but gave some relief to certain commodities, particularly grain being shipped to Lake Superior.21

The ED&BCR generally passed through a combination of scrub and heavily forested country (poplar, spruce and jackpine) with only occasional short breaks across open prairie land. While constructing the line McArthur used spruce and some jackpine for ties and culverts. The railway stimulated the development of some small lineside sawmills in the Slave Lake area. The ED&BCR carried sawlogs from a spur at mile 156 near Mitsue out to McArthur’s own North West Lumber Company mill located on land adjacent to Dunvegan Yards in Edmonton. The railway also carried Lesser Slave Lake whitefish in refrigerator cars to outside markets from Wagner (mile 169.6), Widewater (mile 174.9), Forest (mile 199.1) and Indiana (mile 211.1).22

The Smoky River crossing proved to be the most significant physical barrier encountered by the railway. Here the railway approached and left the low-level river crossing on 1.4% grades, the steepest on the line. These nine-mile-long grades were called “pusher grades” as trains often had to be assisted up the hill by extra “pusher” locomotives.23 Mud-slides were a continuing occurrence on these grades.24 After traversing about 50 miles of unsettled wooded land the railway reached the well-established agricultural settlement at Spirit River at mile 357 in February 1916. In preparation for extending the track beyond mile 350 McArthur had petitioned the Alberta Legislature to pass an act in the 1914 session to issue bonds at $20,000 per mile for the 61 miles west to the Alberta-British Columbia border.25 In the fall of 1916 the contractors had completed the grade 54 miles beyond Spirit River to mile 411 on the Pouce Coupe prairie at the provincial boundary.26 However, rails were never laid down west of Spirit River, and the unoccupied, wooded, unsurveyed land never did experience the economic development that the railway may have eventually been able to stimulate. Instead McArthur’s strategy to reach the British Columbia border was altered by the political and economic realities of a need to provide railway service to the widely settled open and fertile lands on the Grande Prairie south of the ED&BCR main line.

Grande Prairie Branch Line

Settlers had taken up land on the Grande Prairie anticipating that the Canadian Northern Railway would fulfill its intention to build north from Sangudo into the area. A debate in the House of Commons in Committee of Private Bills on March 15, 1915 concluded that if the Canadian Northern Railway could not complete construction of its line to Grande Prairie, then the ED&BCR Railway should construct a branch south from its main line. The Minister of Railways and Canals subsequently asked McArthur to build such a branch and offered him a subsidy of $6,400 per mile for that purpose.27 The Dominion government passed an act authorizing the construction of the Grande Prairie Branch.28 The Government of Alberta guaranteed the securities to the extent of $20,000 per mile for not more than 60 miles,29 and in June 1915 the line was surveyed and located. The grading was completed before freeze-up in 1915 in spite of some difficulty in getting a good location through the Saddle Mountains just south of Spirit River.30 On March 22, 1916 the track reached Grande Prairie.31

Financial problems began to surface following the 1916 year end. The railway could not meet the interest payments on the government guaranteed bonds. Also, deferred maintenance of the roadbed, track, rolling stock and motive power generally compromised the safe operation of trains and often resulted in lengthy delays.

The Alberta government in early 1919 paid the bond interest on the railway’s behalf. McArthur appealed to the federal government for assistance. They revoted $258,797.16, representing the balance of the 1916 Grande Prairie Branch subsidy and allowed the railway to expend this money on any portion of the line. McArthur’s access to the 1916 subsidy had lapsed as he had not met prescribed standards in building the Grande Prairie Branch.32 He made the first of several appeals to both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the federal government to purchase the line. Due to the deplorable condition of track and heavy rains, the Grande Prairie Branch saw no train service for most of the summer of 1919.33 Grande Prairie and Peace River farmers formally complained as crops sat in lineside elevators unable to move south. In early 1920 the Board of Railway Commissioners ordered the CPR to lease locomotives and rolling stock to the ED&BCR to help move the crops while the ground was frozen,34 and this work was completed at considerable expense. The farmers were among many who made formal complaints to government about poor train service that winter.35 For the second time the provincial government paid the interest charges and covered the financial loss reported at the 1919 year end.36

The Alberta Government Steps In and the CPR Takes Over

Premier Stewart refused to vote any further money to the McArthur lines until he had gained full management and control of the lines.37 With permission from the legislature to borrow $1,000,000 for the purpose of repairing the railway Premier Stewart struck an agreement with McArthur and the Union Bank. The Alberta government would hold a first mortgage on all McArthur railway properties in Alberta with priority over all other claims. This mortgage provided security on the $1,000,000 already available and on another $2,500,000 to be made available.38 Premier Stewart then engaged the CPR to manage and operate the ED&BCR for five years effective July 21, 1920.39

The United Farmers of Alberta formed a new government following the election of 1921. Premier Greenfield began responding to considerable pressure from the north to have the railway lines in that area extended, and legislation was passed in 1922 to raise money to loan to the ED&BCR to extend its line west to Wembley. After some deliberation about whether the line would run north or south of Saskatoon Lake, the southerly route was chosen because it served a more settled farming area.

McArthur and the Union Bank held up proceedings over technicalities.40 A late start in construction in 1923 further delayed the extension,41 but in September 1924 grading to Wembley was finished and on November 17, 1924 the completed line was turned over to the CPR for operation.

During the period of CPR management of the ED&BCR service reliability improved markedly but northern shippers did not have access to a single through freight tariff. As the economic depression lifted in 1925 and the five-year agreement with the CPR was about to terminate, people in the north country had expected that the CPR would build an outlet to the Pacific Coast. As it became obvious that this would not happen, people began to voice their support for the ED&BC to be operated by the Dominion government with the hope that it would build a line south from Grande Prairie to Brulé east of Jasper on the CNR line.42

In 1925 Premier Greenfield became more aggressive in his efforts to dispose of the railway as his government held some $18 million in debt charges related to the ED&BCR and the Central Canada Railway.43 Efforts to obtain a Dominion government subsidy failed, as did efforts to have the federal Cabinet approve the prairie freight rate structure on the ED&BCR and CCR. Since the Union Bank had amalgamated with the Royal Bank, the government reopened negotiations with the bank.44 In November 1925 Premier Greenfield resigned, and his successor Premier Brownlee continued negotiating with the bank. In June 1926 Brownlee called and won an election, and at a special session of the legislature in August announced that the government had settled with the Royal Bank to purchase their securities held on the ED&BCR for $1,275.000, a successful conclusion for the Government of Alberta as the Union bank’s original claim on the ED&BCR was $2,400,000.45

Brownlee also announced that he had given notice of the termination of the 1920 operating agreement with the CPR.46 In spite of proposals from both the CNR and the CPR to operate the line and the CPR voluntarily lowering the freight rates to one-line prairie rates in November 1925, the province decided to operate the ED&BCR through its Department of Railways.47 On November 11, 1926 the Government of Alberta took full operational control. It purchased new motive power and good second-hand passenger rolling stock and regularly maintained plant and roadbed. In 1928 it extended the line another 25 miles to Hythe. By then the CPR expressed interest in acquiring the ED&BCR. The northern farmers thought that the CNR would be more interested in the area and pressed the Premier to conclude a purchase arrangement with the CNR.

Northern Alberta Railways Created

Finally in November 1928, Premier Brownlee carefully and skillfully negotiated the sale of the ED&BCR to a new company jointly owned by the CNR and the CPR.48 The agreement forming the Northern Alberta Railway “was dated January 29, 1929 and ratified by the government of Alberta on March 20, 1929. ... [and] incorporated June 14, 1929.”49

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. Dominion, 6–7 Edward VII, Chapter 85, 1907.
2. M. Zaslow, “A History of Transportation and Development of the Mackenzie Basin from 1871–1921” (Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1948), p. 260.
3. Ibid., p. 282. See also G. Taylor, The Railway Contractors: The Story of J.W. Stewart, His Enterprises and Associate (Victoria: Morris Publishing, 1988), pp. 79, 88.
4. L.G. Thomas, The Liberal Party in Alberta (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), pp. 122–23.
5. Zaslow, “A History of Transportation and Development,” p. 310.
6. Ibid., p. 288.
7. Thomas, pp. 122–23.
8. J. Judge, “Early Railroading in Northern Alberta,” Alberta Historical Review 6.3 (Summer 1958): 15.
9. J.D. Williams,“A History of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway, 1907–1929” (Thesis, Dept. of History, University of Alberta, 1956), p. 30.
10. Judge, p. 16.
11. Canadian Railway and Marine World, February 1914, p. 69.
12. Ibid., September 1914, p. 418.
13. Edmonton Daily Bulletin, 19 September 1914, p. 2.
14. Williams, pp. 43–44.
15. Public Archives of Canada, RG 43, Vol. 497, File 14635.2, Report of survey of proposed main line location of the ED & BCR via town of Grouard. R.W. Jones, 23 April 1914.
16. Ibid., Letter from G.A. Mountain, Chief Engineer, Board of Railway Commissioners for Canada to the Honourable Minister of Railways and Canals, Ottawa, 7 May 1914.
17. Ibid., Report of survey of proposed main line location of the ED & BCR via town of Grouard, R.W. Jones, 23 April 1914.
18. Department of the Interior, Map of Northern Alberta corrected to 1 January 1916.
19. Board of Railway Commissioners for Canada, Order No. 23458.
20. Williams, p. 89.
21. Ibid., pp. 90–91.
22. PAC, RG 43, Vol. 556, File 17773A, Part 1., A. Ferguson Inspecting Engineer BRCC to Major G.A. Bell, Deputy Minister, Department of Railways and Canals, April 26, 1920.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., Report of Turnball and Burns C. November 1918 attached to correspondence to D.B. Hanna, Canadian Northern Railway, 27 November 1918.
25. Ibid., Public Archives of Canada, RG 43, Vol. 556, File 17773A, Part 1.
26. Williams, p. 71.
27. PAC, RG 43, Vol. 555, File 17773, Part 2, Fisher, Wilson, Hamilton and Thompson, Barristers, Winnepeg, Manitoba, A Brief History of the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway Company, and the Central Canada Railway Company, 12 April 1920.
28. Dominion, 5 George V, Chapter 42, 1915.
29. Thomas, p. 168.
30. Williams, p. 70.
31. Ibid., p. 71.
32. Ibid., p. 92.
33. Ibid., p. 108.
34. Ibid., p. 104.
35. PAC, RG 43, Vol. 556, File 17773A, Part 1, Letter Griersbach to Reid, 28 February 1920.
36. Williams, p. 105.
37. Ibid., p. 107.
38. Ibid., p. 108.
39. Alberta, II George V, Chapter 5, 192. Statutory Confirmation.
40. Williams, p. 124.
41. Ibid., p. 125.
42. Ibid., p. 157.
43. Ibid., p. 150.
44. Ibid., p. 162.
45. Ibid., pp. 168–69.
46. Ibid., p. 169.
47. Ibid., p. 164, 169, 172.
48. Ibid., pp. 186–89.
49. Ena Schneider, Ribbons of Steel: The Story of the Northern Alberta Railways (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1989), pp. 145–46.