|Photo courtesy of City of Edmonton Archives|
CPR station, 1919, celebrating the return of the 202 Regiment. EA-10-809.
Look around the heart of Edmonton these days and you won't see much evidence of the historical importance of the railway to the city. But for several generations, the railway was the lifeblood of the community and, without the trains, Edmonton would not have grown the way it did.
The Canadian Northern Railway (CnoR) arrived in Edmonton in 1905 and built a station at the northwest corner of 104th Avenue and 101st Street. That goaded the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to create its own presence on the north side of the river and make Strathcona a divisional point.
The CPR's Strathcona Station was erected on the east side of 103rd Street, just south of Whyte Avenue. It was also south of the original Calgary and Edmonton Railway depot, a wooden structure that began life when the rails arrived in Strathcona in 1891.
Built by Peter McDermid, a Winnipeg contractor renowned for prairie railway station construction, the Strathcona depot was similar in design to ones in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. CPR built them between 1905 and 1910 - a time of fantastical expansion on the prairies.
The architecture of the station leaned to the Queen Anne style with elements from French and Scottish schools of design. The large two-tiered hipped roof with wide bellcast eaves owed much to French architecture, while the octagonal tower was derived from Scottish sources -- perhaps in recognition of the Scottish ancestry of high-ranking CPR officers.
Not only the style but the materials set the building apart -- then and now. The Tyndall stone, red decorative brick and timber were all high quality, exquisitely detailed. The original construction cost for the 135 feet long by 38 feet wide structure was $24,382.
A story in the January 18, 1908 issue of the Edmonton Bulletin reported that the ground floor of the station included express offices, separate ladies' and mens' waiting rooms, ticket and telegraph offices and gentlemen's smoking room. In the upstairs, it goes on to say, arrangements have been made for superintendents, engineers and dispatchers' offices.
The same year it built the Strathcona depot, CPR purchased 6.6 acres of land between Jasper and McKenzie (104th) Avenues and 9th (109th) and 11th(111th) Streets to build its Edmonton rail yard. Negotiated rights allowed freight trains to use the Edmonton Yukon and Pacific Railway tracks across the river and CNoR tracks to access the property. A large freight shed was built on the corner of 10th (110th) Street and Athabasca (102nd) Avenue.
In just a few months, plans were underway for a bridge across the North Saskatchewan River. In 1909, the CPR purchased the property along 9th Street and Jasper Avenue for $102,000. The Edmonton Journal reported railway officials promised a handsome railway station and spoke of building a large hotel at the corner of 9th and Jasper.
The total cost for a bridge built from the top of the bank on one side to top of the bank on the other side of the river was to be almost $1.5 million. The CPR and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway committed $843,000 leaving $586,000 to be split amongst the municipalities of Edmonton and Strathcona, the province of Alberta and the federal government. According to a January 4th, 1910 story in the Edmonton Bulletin, the City of Edmonton had voted $246,000 toward the project, the Dominion of Canada contributed $100,000, the province had committed $175,000 and the balance of $65,000 expected from the City of Strathcona
The design, by Phillips B. Motley, CPR Engineer of Bridges, called for two decks, 39 feet wide and 20 feet apart. Construction, which began in 1910, was overseen by John Gunn and Sons of Winnipeg.
Four massive reinforced concrete piers, each 125 feet tall, were set in the river bed and 62 smaller piers to support the steel legs were erected on land. The work was dangerous and several workers lost their lives in construction mishaps. Legend has it that one of the workers was entombed in a concrete pier, but I've never been able to uncover a newspaper clipping that substantiates the story.
Steel for the superstructure was fabricated at the Canadian Bridge Company plant in Walkerville, Ontario and shipped by rail to Strathcona. Working from the Strathcona approach, a large steam-powered traveller crane lifted and held the steel components in place for riveting.
"People used to gather to watch the construction," recalled Edmonton resident Alfred Want, who was in elementary school then. "Most folks had never seen anything like it - the columns were so large. And I remember some people being upset about the bridge construction interfering with logs coming down the river for Walter's Mill," (in what is now Walterdale).
The massive structure - some 2,550 feet (a half mile) from one end to the other and 152 feet above the mean river level - was completed in May 1913. The final materiel tally included thousands of tons of steel, thousands of yards of concrete and millions of rivets.
Unique for its time, the High Level was the first in Canada to carry four different modes of traffic - rail, streetcar, automobile and pedestrian. The first passenger train, seven cars long and carrying 200 passengers, crossed the bridge from Strathcona to Edmonton on June 2, 1913. The entire structure was declared complete on September 12, 1913.
Mr. Want talked about the excitement the new bridge created, especially the street car across its upper deck. "A lot of people wouldn't ride it because they said it was too dangerous. Some folks figured a gust of wind would sweep the car off the side."
When Henry Ford, talking about his Model T automobile, said, "You can have any colour you want, as long as it is black," he could well have been speaking about our High Level Bridge. It has always been black.
On September 2, 1913, the new permanent north side station on Jasper Avenue and 109th Street was opened and the first train arrived to pick up passengers for Wetaskiwin, Camrose, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Built of reinforced concrete the completed two storey main structure had an immigrant waiting room, a smoking room and a women's retiring room in its basement along with storage and offices.
The main floor had its waiting room finished in marble with terrazzo flooring, ticket offices, telegraph and telephone departments and an information bureau. The second floor was dedicated to offices.
In 1972 passenger service to the north side was discontinued and six years later the historic station was demolished. The CPR closed most of its downtown operations by 1984 when the South Edmonton Terminal at 39th Avenue was completed. In 1992 the bridge over Jasper Avenue at 109th Street was dismantled and the pieces shipped to Fort Edmonton Park.
The downtown CPR site is now occupied by residential and commercial construction. The last remaining remnant of the CPR's early days in Edmonton is the Strathcona station, now a restaurant.
Next week: When Canadian National came to Edmonton.