Museum Musings: The railway comes to Prince Albert

Photo from the Bill Smiley Archives. The turntable under construction at the Prince Albert Railway Station on Third Avenue and 16th Street West. Photo taken in the 1890s.

Have you ever been posed a question to which you knew the answer, but then when you came to think about it you started wondering if it was really the correct answer?  I had that happen to me a few days ago.

A friend with deep family roots in Prince Albert and area suggested to me that his father had told him that the first train had arrived in Prince Albert from the east.  I had always thought that the train had come in from the west, and that was what I told him.  He did not argue the point, but suggested that I should try to determine which point of view was correct.

I was certain that I was correct – well, fairly certain.  As far back as I could remember, trains arriving from the south (such locations as Regina, Saskatoon, and Duck Lake) had always come in from the west.  But then, my memory only goes back 70 or so years.

Anyway, the first station was on Third Avenue West at about 16th Street.  So, it made sense that the first train would have come in from the west.  Or did it?

I could see that I would need to do some research if I was to prove which answer was correct – from the east or from the west!  But where to start was the major question.

I knew that the first train had arrived in Prince Albert on Sept. 4, 1890.  The track had been laid for the Qu’Appelle and Long Lake Railway.  I knew that noted local photographer had taken a photograph of its arrival.  I also knew that there had been a woman as a passenger on that train, Ruth Child, who had come from England to work at Emmanuel College.  She was, as a result, the first woman to arrive in Prince Albert by train.

In his book, Prince Albert The First Century 1866 – 1966, Gary Abrams described the scene as being a “colourful occasion” when Joseph Royal, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories drove in the last spike on Oct. 22, 1890.  Abrams goes on to indicate that the Canadian Pacific Railway operated the Prince Albert branch line from its completion until 1906, when the Canadian Northern Railway took it over.  There is no explanation from Abrams regarding the difference between the map he provides in the book (a map which is unattributed) which lists the line as being the Qu’Appelle and Long Lake Railway and his contention that its was the Canadian Pacific which operated it.  Nor does the map provide much information about the rail lines direction into Prince Albert, although it does appear to come in from the west.

So, further research would be required.

Although we have a significant number of newspaper issues from the 1890s, unfortunately we do not have access to a newspaper which covered the arrival of the first train.  So, some other source material was required.

I knew that Lucy Maud Montgomery had come to Prince Albert in August of 1890.  She and her grandfather had travelled by train to Regina, arriving there on Aug. 18 where they were met by her father, Hugh Montgomery.  They travelled as far as Duck Lake by caboose on the new branch line, finishing their journey by buckboard.

I had hoped that the arrival of the train in Prince Albert might have been sufficiently significant for Maud to mention it in her diary, but apparently it was not sufficiently impressive.  I also reviewed her diary to see if any mention had been made about the train’s route the following year, when Maud returned to Prince Edward Island, but she chose to concentrate instead on the emotions leaving her father and friends had upon her.

Having had no success thus far, it was time to turn my attention to the lack of success in Prince Albert’s attempts to attract rail transportation.

The first discussion of a potential rail line into Prince Albert occurred in 1872 when surveyors for the Canadian Pacific Railway began work which suggested that a line would be laid to the young community.  The very future of the Prince Albert district was seen to rest on the arrival of the railway and the communications it would provide to eastern Canada. In 1881, there were no concerns or apprehensions noted as the rail line moved steadily west from Winnipeg towards Moose Jaw; nor were there apprehensions in 1882 as the southern route became a definite direction.  The CPR had already indicated a willingness to lay a branch line from an area near Fort Ellice to the community of Edmonton.

Even if this branch line were to be delayed pending the completion of the southern line across the prairie, by June of 1882 two other railways had received charters to build through the Saskatchewan Valley.  One of these, the Rapid City Central Railway planned to run from Fort Ellice to Fort a la Corne.  The Saskatchewan and Peace River Railway planned to travel through Prince Albert to the Peace River country, thereby enhancing the vision of the local populace to have a line of settlement between Prince Albert and the northwest.

Later in 1882, Hamilton’s Senator Donald McInnes had secured a charter for the South Saskatchewan Valley Railway.  This included a land grant of 3,480 acres for each mile of track.  This was later revised to the standard 6,400 acres per mile.  His company pledged to have track laid between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers by Aug. 1, 1884, with the completion of the entire line no later than 1889.  Some 50 acres on River lots 65 and 61 had already been chosen for a railway station and rail yards.  By mid-February of 1883 conveyancing of the property had been completed, and terms had been agreed with the farmers occupying six sections of land around the proposed crossing of the South Saskatchewan River and the future townsite of Halcro.  On April 15th 1883, the first contract had been let for construction to start at the north end of the rail line, with 500 men expected on the site by the beginning of June.

It is unclear what happened to the grandiose scheme proposed by Donald McInnes; nor to the other companies which had proposed joining in what had seemed to be a guaranteed success both for them and for the citizens of Prince Albert.  What had happened to the Portage, Westbourne and North-Western Railway, or to J.B. Scarth’s announcement that the CPR would be building north from Regina to Prince Albert?  To where had the Souris and Rocky Mountain Railway gone, or the Wood Mountain and Qu’Appelle Railway?  What is known is that the failure of these companies to meet their announced objectives led to depression and discontent in the town of Prince Albert.

And when, in 1890, the railway finally neared completion, uncertainty continued.  Failing to have learned its lesson after the debacle resulting from the placement of Prince Albert’s telegraph office, the railway officials planned as late as May 1890 to place the station in the east end of the town.

I have been unable to locate irrefutable proof that the first train into Prince Albert came in from the west, rather than from the east.  However, I would argue that it most likely did.  The line ran through Duck Lake, and was therefore on the north side of the South Saskatchewan River, and on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River.  Had it come from the east, it would have meant that the line would have had to detour past the town of Prince Albert and then swung back.  The only other alternative for the line to have come in from the east would have been for it to cross the South Saskatchewan River at some point.  The proposed crossing at Halcro never materialised, and the other crossings would likely have to have been at St. Louis or at Fenton.  The Fenton bridge, a timber bridge, was not built by the Canadian Northern Railway until 1906.  The St. Louis bridge, built for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, was not built until 1914-15.

Although I am certain that my initial belief was correct, as I have been unable to prove it, I am open to any evidence to support either argument.