|Photo courtesy City of Edmonton Archives|
CNR Station festooned for the Royal Visit, 1939, EA-160-835.
When the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) crossed the Clover Bar bridge in 1909, Edmonton's dominance over Strathcona was solidified. The GTPR originally intended to cross the North Saskatchewan River where the High Level Bridge now stands, but the rail company was unable to reach an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
With some monetary inducement from Edmonton, the railway decided instead to cross the river at Clover Bar, where the river was at its narrowest, at modern day 120th Avenue, east of 34th Street. Construction on the bridge, 1,655 feet long and 138 feet above mean low water level, commenced in 1907.
Materials were transported on a spur built eastwards from the Canadian Northern Railway (CnoR) main line near modern day 66th Street and 125th Avenue. The Clover Bar Bridge was completed in 1908, a year before track was laid from the east.
Rather than crossing at grade, the GTPR decided to traverse the CNoR main line (near today's 125th Avenue and 66th Street) on a wooden trestle, approached by a 0.4 per cent grade from the east. The trestle, completed in May 1909, was 1,819 feet long and 42 feet high - and so it became known as "the high line." It was removed in 1923 after a complex crossing and junction at grade, the East Junction, was completed.
When the first Grand Trunk Pacific train pulled into the CNoR station in downtown Edmonton at 8:15 pm on July 4th, 1910, it was a huge event. "Two thousand people cheered arrival of first G.T.P. Train" read the headline in the Edmonton Bulletin. Edmonton's total population at the time was about 20,000 and so that means about 10 per cent of the populace turned out for the momentous occasion.
The train, Edmonton Express No.1., had taken just over 30 hours to travel from Winnipeg. As the train steamed to the platform, "the band played and the crowd led by Mayor (Robert) Lee and President McGeorge, of the Board of Trade, cheered the new arrival to the echo," the Bulletin reported.
As it travelled towards Edmonton, the train attained speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour (60 to 80 kilometres per hour) and, as a Bulletin reporter observed, "glided along as smoothly as a rubber-tired vehicle a concrete pavement." The GTP. railbed had been constructed with particular attention to detail and the Edmonton Express No. 1, along with four other trains fitted for the Winnipeg to Edmonton service, featured seven coaches including a baggage car, mail car, two first class cars, a sleeper car and a parlor car.
To commemorate the event, Mayor Lee and President McGeorge of the Board of Trade climbed onto the roof of the Windsor Hotel bus and called for the attention of the crowd. "The arrival of the first through passenger train of the G.T.P service," said his worship, "marks this as one of the red letter days in Edmonton's history."
The worldwide depression in 1913 and the world war in 1914 severely impacted markets for passengers and the availability of cheap labour to build railways. As a result of the downturn, several Canadian railways went bankrupt.
The Dominion Government, which held bonds for these railways, found itself the administrator of a number of separate rail lines under a loose association called the Canadian Government Railways. When the CNoR developed financial problems in 1916, the federal government purchased 85 per cent of its outstanding shares.
A new board of directors was appointed in 1918 and the CNoR was merged with the Canadian Government Railways into the Canadian National Railway (CNR), which became a legal entity in 1922. The 1919 bankruptcy of the GTPR gave the federal government another railway to include into the Canadian National mix and by January of 1923, all the operations of the GTPR had been absorbed in to the CNR.
Edmonton became one of the pivotal cities on the CNR line, ensuring the continued existence of the second national Canadian railway in the lives of Edmontonians for decades to come. As business prospered, the railway recognized the need for a new terminal and on St. Patrick's Day, 1928 opened a spacious new brick and tile station on the east side of 101st Street (see photo).
The station lasted just 36 years and was demolished in 1964 to make way for the CN Tower. The 104th Avenue yards, which had played such a part in the growth and prosperity of the city, were phased out of operation in 1988. By 1996 the last of the freight sheds was demolished.
Now only the CN Tower speaks to the company's long and historic association with downtown Edmonton. Trains no longer travel into downtown; Canadian National has built a new terminal northwest of the Municipal Airport.
The traces of the historic association of the railways have been largely erased from the heart of the city. But without the ribbons of steel and the people and goods they brought Edmonton wouldnt be the city it is today.