Forgotten Alberta Revisited: The C.P.R’s Suffield Subdivision

I was honoured this past year to be asked to submit several pieces to the recently-released Lomond and District history book. I have written several articles about this are since starting the Forgotten Alberta project, many of which are based on previous compositions and columns now buried within the deepest, darkest recesses of this blog. One such article was the following history of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Suffield Subdivision. Originally a two-parter, I have combined both articles into a single essay, which hopefully is an improvement.

I am also grateful to Jason Paul Sailer, Alberta heritage hero, founder of the Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society, and editor of the Galt Railway Museum blog,  for his assistance editing this article, and for adding the recent history of the both Suffield / Lomond and Kipp /Turin CPR Subdivisions. Read on, and let me know what you think!

Bridge over the Bow west of Cecil siding along abandoned Suffield subdivision, 2004.

 

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, barely a week passed by without somebody floating a proposal for a railroad running from one far-flung corner of Alberta to another. While the vast majority remained dreams and schemes, by 1930 about a dozen rail lines crisscrossed Alberta’s south-eastern corner. Branch lines, such as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)’s Suffield subdivision, served as lifelines to vast spreads of barren grassland that proved largely unfit for anything on two legs.

In November 1910, the Lethbridge Herald reported that a survey for a long-rumoured rail line, running from Kipp west of Lethbridge to Suffield, was underway. It proposed line would run through the soon-to-be-irrigated lands of an Anglo-Canadian consortium called the Southern Alberta Land Company (SALC). The Southern Alberta Company proposed to irrigate 500,000 acres of prime Alberta grassland, including about 250,000 acres east of the Bow River.

Seeing the possibilities for increased trade and access to services, several parties agitated for a Lethbridge connection to the Suffield branch. These included the Lethbridge Board of Trade, and the long-suffering farmers of the Sundial, Barney and Alby districts, which were located north and east of Lethbridge, who at the time faced a 40-mile haul to the nearest grain handling facility.

Subsequent media reports seemed to confirm that an agreement was in place between SALC and the CPR to construct two new branch lines; one running from Shepard, just east of Calgary to Medicine Hat; and another running from Kipp to Brooks. In May 1912, the CPR dispatched two crews to begin construction on the Suffield subdivision – one working eastward from the Barney district (later Retlaw), and the other westward from Suffield, with both to meet at a point along the Bow River before year’s end.

In the fall of 1912, the Lethbridge Herald confidently predicted that the Suffield line’s western terminus would be Kipp and it would hook up with the CPR spur line to the Chinook Collieries at the former village of Commerce, just to the northwest of Lethbridge.

Many in the public, still none-the-wiser about the CPR’s actual plans, began engaging in land speculation along the proposed route of the Suffield-Kipp line. The Southern Alberta Land Company, lending credence to the Kipp rumours, began promoting, “150,000 acres of dry lands in an irrigated belt” for sale along with eight town sites along the “new Suffield-Kipp Branch of the CPR” Some hypothesized that the Suffield-Kipp line would become the southern branch of the proposed Hudson’s Bay Railway, which was projected to run north through Bow City and Brooks, on its way to Saskatoon.

Everyone involved seemed certain that a branch line from Suffield to Kipp was a given: All except the CPR…

While rumours continued to surface about possible links to Lethbridge, the final destination of the Suffield subdivision remained a mystery well into 1913.

In April 1913, any hopes of a link up with Kipp were dashed when the Lethbridge Herald reported that the Suffield line would be veering northwest from the new community of Retlaw, towards an eventual link with Blackie on the Aldersyde subdivision. Retlaw, the community formerly known as Barney, was renamed to honour Walter R. Baker, the Secretary of the CPR (“Retlaw” is “Walter” spelled backwards).

However, the CPR assured the farmers of the Alby and Sundial districts, and the vested interests in Lethbridge, that the Kipp-Suffield line would be built, once the Suffield-Blackie line was complete.

In 1925, a 27-mile branch line from Kipp to Turin was constructed, to serve the area which had recently been brought under irrigation by the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District.  The line, the first 7 miles of which was built on the railbed of a former railway spur line that served the Diamond Coal Mine at Diamond City, AB., was originally intended to cross the Little Bow River near Turin and to continue to Retlaw to join the Kipp-Suffield line. However, the proposed link-up never happened, as construction on the line stopped at Turin, a good 20 miles short of Retlaw.

Crews continued to work through the spring and summer of 1913, with the first trains running from Suffield to the Bow River at Terrace siding (now Cecil) in September. Two months later, construction on a bridge across the Bow was completed, just north of the Southern Alberta Land Company’s proposed headquarters at Ronalane (so-named for Major-General Sir Ronald B. Lane, chairman of the SALC), and the first locomotives steamed into Retlaw by mid-December 1913.

Maintaining the buoyant moods of shareholders was essential in keeping schemes like these afloat. Companies like the SALC and CPR appealed to investor immortality, offering to name town sites along newly surveyed branch lines after shareholders and company officials. According to Place Names of Alberta: Southern Alberta (Vol. II), the sidings along the Suffield branch line was no exception:

  • Agatha – The first siding west of Suffield, was named after Lady Hindlip, a major shareholder in the CPR
  • Illingworth – The next siding after Agatha, was named for Illingworth, a shareholder in the SALC, and director of the CPR
  • Cecil – Where the Suffield line crossed the Bow, was originally named Terrace, but was renamed to honour Mrs. J.M. Cameron, the wife of the General Superintendent of the CPR
  • Armelgra – Located four miles west of the Bow river crossing, was an amalgamation of the words “Arthur Melville Grace”, who was an engineer with the CPR, and
  • Vauxhall – Was named for a suburb of London, England in which one of the company shareholders resided

With Retlaw growing by leaps and bounds, and on the verge of incorporation by early 1914, the CPR began laying track on another stretch north and east of the community, adjacent to the SALC main canal. By the late spring, crews had already constructed 27 more miles of track. Needing names for the four newly-surveyed town sites, officials concocted one of their most creative naming conventions yet. Each of the sidings west of “Retlaw” derived its name from that community, starting with “R” at Retlaw, and moving on to:

  • E” for Enchant, the first siding west of Retlaw. Originally the Lost Lake Place Names of Alberta ascribes the name to a possible feeling that settlers may have been “enchanted” with their new life
  • “T” for Travers, originally the Sweet Valley: The History of Lomond and district speculates the name may have come from a railway surveyor who was present in 1914
  • “L” for Lomond, originally the Brunetta It is believed Lomond is derived from one of two sources, Loch Lomond, or the name of an early settler, Lomond Dugal McCarthy

The outbreak of global hostilities in 1914 put the brakes on any construction with work stopping at Lomond in early August 1914. This left the fate of the two remaining sidings in limbo; “Armada”, and the “W” siding, possibly named “Waldeck” (as indicated on Cummins maps from 1914), now known as Pageant.

Around the same time, the CPR began advertising the sale of lots in the new town sites of Enchant, Travers, and Lomond. Armada townsite was also surveyed in 1913, and a small commercial centre developed, persevering until the arrival of rail over a decade later. In 1925, the line was extended 40 miles from Lomond to Arrowwood, and was finally completed in 1930 when the final 23 miles was completed from Arrowwood to Eltham (which is located northwest of Vulcan on the CPR Aldersyde subdivision).

The Kipp-Turin line used a mixed train (combined passenger & freight rail cars) service up till 1955, and the Kipp-Lomond-Suffield line retained a mixed train service until October 1957.  In 1948, the passenger fare between Suffield & Arrowwood was $3.75 per person.  By 1955, diesel locomotives began replacing steam locomotives on the mixed train operations.  After the last mixed train run in October 1957, freight trains operated every Thursday and Friday to and from Lomond to Suffield.

By the early 1970s traffic on the branch lines was slowing down considerably.  Some of the older, smaller wooden grain elevators closed, which caused CPR to rethink some of its operations in the area.  The Suffield subdivision was merged into the Lomond subdivision, and by 1977 the ‘end of the line’ was at Hays, where a single Alberta Wheat Pool elevator remained. The track running east from Hays, crossing the Bow River at Cecil, and terminating at Suffield, was abandoned and removed in 1978.  The remaining grain elevators, and other agriculturally-based industries located in Vauxhall and the other smaller towns to the west kept the CPR in business for the meantime.  A portion of the line (from Eltham to Milo) was upgraded in 1979 utilizing the branchlines rehabilitation funds from the Federal Government, to allow grain hoppers to use the track.

In 1999, CPR gave its notice of discontinuation for the remaining track.  By 2002, abandonment took effect, with the Kipp-Turin line (the CPR Turin subdivision) being reduced to railcar storage, and the Eltham-Arrowwood portion of the Lomond / Suffield line being reduced as well to railcar storage.  The remainder of the track was abandoned and removed.

 

6 thoughts on “Forgotten Alberta Revisited: The C.P.R’s Suffield Subdivision”

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I couldn’t agree more with your last statement about “this region being a neglected chapter in our provincial history.”

    I wonder if I could connect with you regarding the area of Mossleigh?

  2. Hi Rochelle, thanks for stopping by! It’s been a few years since I visited Aspen Crossing, I’m looking forward to going for a ride on the train.

    I’d love to speak with you about Mossleigh history, hopefully I can help. I will connect with you offline. Have a great day!

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