Central Alberta is very rich in railroad history. Most of the communities in this region began as townsites or sidings on a rail line. One of the most spectacular heritage railroad landmarks is the huge Alberta Central Railway bridge across the Red Deer River, south west of the City, near the old railroad hamlet/siding of Mintlaw.
The origins of the Alberta Central go back to May 1901 when a charter was granted by the Federal Government to a group of Red Deer and Ontario businessmen. Originally, the rail line authorized to run from Coal Banks, near modern day Delburne, to Rocky Mountain House. However, over the years, the A.C.R.’s charter was amended to allow it to run its line from the Fraser Valley through the Yellowhead Pass to Moose Jaw, with extensions to Saskatoon and the Hudson Bay. In short, it was planned that the A.C.R. would eventually become a “transcontinental” railroad extending across the whole of Western Canada.
For a long time, very little happened with the A.C.R. Action finally came in April 1909 when the Federal Government offered a subsidy of $6400 per mile to a railway constructed between Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. Soon crews of surveyors were laying out a rail route. Some brushing and grading commenced in the spring of 1910.
Work began on the major bridge across the Red Deer River in November 1910. It was to be 2112 feet long, with 15 quadrilateral towers and a large centre pier of the bent rocker type. The concrete substructure was to be built some 3 to 4 feet about the highest known water mark. The bridge itself was to rise some 110 feet above the main pier.
Hence, the A.C.R. bridge across the Red Deer was to be one of the largest railroad bridges in Alberta.
In order to facilitate the work of the contractors, Robert Dawe, the local resident engineer for the A.C.R., had a 445 foot long suspension bridge constructed alongside the work site. This was accomplished by having a strong swimmer, Clarence Markle, swim across the river with a light line. Heavy rope and then cables were pulled across the river to create the suspension bridge.
In February 1911, the contract for the concrete substructure was let to Jackson and Goldie, a firm from St. Boniface, Manitoba. Other work was given to a large number of local contractors and businesses.
In late 1911, the Canadian Bridge Company got the contract for the construction of the steel superstructure. However, work continued very slowly as the A.C.R. was short of funds. Eventually, the A.C.R. fell into bankruptcy.
In 1912, the C.P.R. took over the work on the A.C.R. line. By March 1912, ten of the quadrilateral towers were erected. By the fall of 1912, work on the bridge was completed.
Unfortunately, there were two fatal accidents during the construction of the bridge. Hewson Anderson was killed when he fell off the scaffolding around the centre pier and was swept under the river ice. In April 1912, Edward Garrett was killed, on his second day on the job, when one of the temporary trestles gave way and he received a fatal concussion to the brain.
In 1981, the last train went over the A.C.R. Mintlaw bridge. In 1983, entire A.C.R. branch line of the C.P.R. was abandoned. However, in 2009, Red Deer County purchased the rail bridge from the C.P.R. for $1, plus a tax receipt for $8.8 million.
Thus, a remarkable heritage landmark may be saved for future generations.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.