Alberta could fulfill its promise for new settlers only if its natural resources could be transported to markets. The railways provided the solution. Alberta also played a pivotal role in the story of national unity becasue of the need to seek feasible routes through the passes in the Rocky Mountains and coastal ranges to the Pacific Coast. While the initial need was political, railway permanency depended on the economics of “export” of grain, coal, lumber, potash, petroleum and chemicals from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
As an economic geographer who has spent his academic career in Alberta, it is not unusual that the role played by railways, the entrepreneurs and the companies that built them would be fascinating to me. I was born at Newcastle upon Tyne a few miles downstream from the birthplace at Wylam of George Stephenson, the pricipal inventor of the railway locomotive. I was raised in the resource rich peripheral region of North East England where the sights, sounds and smells associated with the extraction of coal, the manufacturing of steel and the assembly of locomotives and other engineering marvels filled my youthful environment.
When Geoff Lester, the cartographer in the Department of Geography at the University of Alberta, approached me in the early 1980s with an idea for a historical atlas of railways in Alberta, I encouraged him immediately to research and produce it. It was an important long-term project that documented the development of the province of Alberta. The fruits of his labour are now complete for us to enjoy. This major achievement involved archival research and the careful organization, design and cartographic execution of each map and illustration.
The Atlas maps, with a sepia light-brown background relief, allow details of railway lines to be very legible for the readers. Maps provide early plans for routes across the province, including a chapter on Sandford Fleming’s proposed railway network and profiles for grade and time reckonings for Western Canada; the Canadian Pacific route of 1887, fascinating comparison between the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific grades through the Rocky Mountain passes compared with American railways. Railways wholly within Alberta are shown, including the Edmonton and Slave Lake Railway, contributing with other railways to Athabasca’s optimism of becoming a major rail town centre; the Alberta Midland Railway serving the Drumheller coal mines; the Canadian Northern Alberta Railway and the Edmonton, Dunvegan, and British Columbia lines, which allowed settlers to reach lands and livelihoods from central Alberta to the Peace River region and the far north of the province. The products they grew, logged or mined flowed east or west by train to domestic, American and overseas markets contributing to the growing wealth of Alberta.
As interesting to many will be the ancillary text and information to the maps. The physical and technological model of the construction of a typical railway including a photographic evolution provides a foundation of understading for all of the complexity of the task. Details of construction standards, engineer’s reports, bridges, the plans of grain elevators, typical railway stations and town plans, including Sandford Fleming’s ideal rail town as well as his recommended spacing of towns, are all presented meticulously. The human element is also not forgotten. The section foremen who maintained the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia line are named. Timetables used by the locomotive engineer, conductor and other employees, giving the regualtions that they had to follow, provide a glimpse behind the scenes of operational procedures. The ancillary textual information written by carefully selected contributors provides the essential context for both the maps and the technical material.
This wonderful Atlas of Alberta Railways presents a historical geography of the railways in the development of Alberta and the role the railways played in unifying Canada. It will prove a document of lasting significance to our youth and all those who understand that these railways were an essential ingredient in the development of the economic and human settlement fabric of our province.