In February 2018, while looking through eBay, I came across a for-sale post of old black and white railway photos of a train wreck in Alberta. Curiously, I clicked on the ad and saw five or so photos of various wrecked cars, with people milling about around them.
The last photo made my jaw drop, as it had written on the back “1927 – 1 mile west of Jaydot, AB”.
I knew where Jaydot was (basically the middle of nowhere – i.e., extreme southeast Alberta), and was quite surprised to find these photos, especially since the line was completed by the CPR just five years before this derailment.
I made my bid on the photos and I won the auction, so a few weeks afterwards an envelope from a Victoria, BC antique shop ended up in my mailbox. Let’s step back a bit…
Jaydot was a cog in the wheel of CPR’s attempt to create a second mainline across western Canada, called the “South Prairie Main” to open new areas for agricultural settlement, and an alternate route to move agricultural products to market.
The line originated in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and extended to Lethbridge, AB with the eastern portion beginning construction in 1915 heading towards the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Meanwhile, on the Alberta side, the construction crews worked east from Stirling and arrive in Manyberries in late November 1916. The section of track from Stirling to Manyberries would be called the “Stirling subdivision”, while the track from Manyberries east to Shaunavon would be called the “Altawan subdivision”. The gap between Manyberries and Altwan wouldn’t be completed until 1922, due to steel and labour shortages, and the First World War that took a toll on the capacity of the CPR.
The grazing land east of Manyberries was originally purchased by a group of ranchers/investors, and one of the main persons involved in the venture, a J.L. Peacock. Peacock used a brand “J.” for his animals, so the name was carried to the ranch holdings, and later to the nearby railway siding when the CPR extended its tracks through the area.
Alongside Bare Creek there was an area of natural springs, so a log structure was built to accommodate living quarters and pumping equipment. Nearby, the federal government built a dipping vat/corral system to treat cattle.
When the CPR came into the neighbourhood, an agreement was made to extend an underground water line from the pumphouse north towards the railway track. According to records, it was at the time the longest underground water pipe installed in Western Canada, approx. ¾ of a mile (1.2 km) from the pumphouse to a modest wooden water tower along the CPR Altawan subdivision tracks. The nearest water tower was at Manyberries to the west (in Alberta) and Govenlock to the east (in Saskatchewan). A CPR employee would come out three times a week from Manyberries to fill the water tower up with the pump.
Trains that operated on this line were mixed, meaning both freight and passenger cars were part of a train, though most times the freight cars took priority! The actual “freight” could be a mixture of numerous things including grain, coal, livestock, crates/parcels, etc. and the actual “passenger” component was usually a passenger coach or a combination passenger coach-baggage car (called a combine).
Typically, each mixed train was operated by a five-man crew; the engineer, fireman, head-end brakeman, rear-end brakeman, and the conductor. At every station and flag stop along the scheduled route for the trip, the train had to stop to take on or leave passengers, baggage, freight items, and everything else. While the crew on the locomotive set-out and lifted loaded & empty freight cars from the elevators or other industries nearby, the rear-end brakeman and the conductor kept busy with the passengers and freight items.
A passenger could travel on this route (connecting through the numerous subdivisions that stretched across Saskatchewan and into Manitoba) but it would take at least four days to travel, a lot longer time than on the mainline! The Conductor collected tickets from newly-boarded passengers at points where there was a Station Agent who sold them. At smaller points and flag stops along the line where there was no station, the Conductor collected cash fares from a passenger.
Between Lethbridge and Manyberries, a twice-weekly mixed train operated, and a tri-weekly mixed train operated from Manyberries to Shaunavon. On a side note, the average time it took a mixed train to go from Lethbridge to Manyberries in the fall of 1952 was around 7.5 hours, and from Manyberries to Shaunavon was 9 hours!
With the diesel locomotives entering the scene in the mid-1950s, the importance of the pumphouse was reduced. By the early 1960s, CPR began cutting and trimming its branch line operations, particularly the money-losing mixed train operations. Sometimes the federal government agreed to their case and some service was dropped in areas, but sometimes the locals rallied in support of the mixed train service and the government then denied CPR the chance to drop the service in that area. But then even if they lost the case, CPR still had to deal with most times an empty or near-empty passenger coach on the mixed trains.
With the reduction in some of the freight operations (including the closure of some of the older, less efficient wooden grain elevators), the writing was on the wall. In the spring of 1965, the last mixed train operated out of Lethbridge, heading eastwards to Shaunavon. After this, CPR was content on operating freight assignments and grain train extras “as needed” with the crews operating out of Assiniboia in the east or Lethbridge in the west.
With freight traffic again decreasing, and with the required substantial investment required to keep the lines running for another long term period, CPR began its cutting process again by the mid-1970s – early 1980s. By the late fall of 1989, they made their case to the National Transportation Agency (NTA), and they approved the abandonment of a portion of the Altawan sub between Consul, Saskatchewan and Manyberries, Alberta with the tracks and rail infrastructure being removed not long afterwards. Then from Manyberries to Orion in 1990, Orion to Etzikom in 1999, and Etzikom to Foremost in 2002 fell to the cutting board. The eastern end of the Altwan lives on, however, under the ownership of the Great Western Railway, a Saskatchewan shortline operator.
Today the ruins of the pumphouse still stand at its original location, though the water tower and railway tracks are long gone. The land has gone through various owners since and now is controlled by the provincial government as a grazing lease.
The Forgotten Corner: A History of the Communities of Comrey, Cathem, Hooper-Pendland, Onefour, and Wild Horse (1981)
Manyberries Chinook: A history of the communities of Glassford, Manyberries, Minda, New Home, Orion, and Ranchville (1985)
Galt Historic Railway Park / Great Canadian Plains Railway Society Archives
University of Alberta, “Atlas of Alberta Railways” – https://railways.library.ualberta.ca/