| It was precisely 100 years ago this month that a little railway with a big name and even bigger ambition was the first to arrive on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River. The inaugural Edmonton Yukon and Pacific Railway (EY&PR) train steamed across the Low Level Bridge and onto the Rossdale flats October 20th, 1902. |
A Canadian Northern locomotive No. 26 pulled a coach, box car and two flat cars. Such was the jubilation in the city that Mayor William Short proclaimed a civic holiday.
But the story of the railway in Edmonton goes back much further. Edmonton was supposed to be on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) mainline but a last minute decision in 1881 shifted the route through Calgary instead.
Ten years later, when a consortium of businessmen led by William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, president and vice president of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), announced the building of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway (C & ER), the hamlet of Edmonton began to anticipate great things. Unknown to the settlement, the owners of the railway never had any intention of crossing the river.
In 1892, the C & ER stopped on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River - right where the company had purchased land. Their intent was to foster a community to replace the one on the north side. A railway station, a hotel and a commercial area were built and newcomers were encouraged to settle in what was then called South Edmonton and later became the City of Strathcona.
After missing out twice, civic leaders werent going to take any more rejection without a fight. Frank Oliver, publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin, spurred on the citizens of Edmonton, and as a result, the Town of Edmonton was incorporated in 1892. An intense lobbying effort also was launched to pry some construction dollars loose from the federal government and attract railway companies here.
At the heart of the effort was a push to construct a bridge - Edmonton's first - that would carry both carriage and train traffic. In an editorial in the Edmonton Bulletin published April 27th, 1893, Frank Oliver decried the lack of such a bridge. "In times past there were no settlers coming in at this season and everybody was used to waiting so that a few days or a few weeks did not matter. But times are changed. Minutes count."
Back in those days, the only regular conveyance across the water was John Walter's cable ferries - the first of which commenced operation in April 1882. But Walter's ferry service only operated when there was no ice in the river, making it a less than reliable mode of transport year round.
Edmonton businessmen lobbied Ottawa long and hard for dollars to build a bridge. The federal government, undoubtedly fed up with the pleas from Edmonton, sent a telegram to Mayor John McDougall, stating that if the town put up a $25,000 bond towards construction, they would build it. There were just 1,500 persons living in Edmonton in those days, but a few businessmen quickly pooled their resources and sent the bond by wire to Ottawa the very same day. The federal bluff had been called and Edmonton would have its bridge.
Construction on piers began at long last in March 1898 but the project was then delayed by a lack of cement, the wait for tenders for the superstructure, and a shortage of steel. The first steel arrived August 7th, 1899 -- just as the North Saskatchewan River began to rise and eventually flood.
The water rose to 42 feet above the low water level and got so high that it submerged the piers by some four feet. Humbled by the power of the river, Edmontonians did much shaking of their heads and, within days, made plans to add eight feet to the height of the piers.
That year, Mackenzie and Mann acquired the charter and formed the Edmonton, Yukon and Pacific Railway. Originally, the EY&PR rails ended just north west of the bridge but eventually the train made its way downtown, avoiding the steep grade by taking a circuitous route through the west end.
A track was built from the west in 1905 and completed in 1908. The route took the train west by cutting through the river bank over the Municipal Golf Course and continuing to the Groat Estates, turning north in front of the Groat Bridge, going along Wadhurst Road, heading east and then crossing 124th Street at a point between 105th and 106th Avenues on its way to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) yards at 16th (116th) Street. From there, passengers were taken to the downtown station.
As its name indicated, the Edmonton Yukon & Pacific Railway had plans to build rail as far as the west coast and to points north. This was not to be. With just 13 miles of track laid in 1909, the EY&PR was absorbed into the operations of its parent company, the Canadian Northern Railway.
Two generations of Oliver residents had the EY&PR as a part of their lives. In the early years until 1929, when the EY&PR still carried passengers, a fare of 25 cents would take riders from the west end to Strathcona or downtown, four times a day. Later, in the 1930s and 40s, when its load was primarily coal, the boys in the neighbourhood would jump on as the train made its way along the riverbank and catch a free ride to the Wes t End Pool.
By 1954, most of the tracks had been removed and only the cinders on the cut through the valley were left as evidence of the railways existence. Later, in the 1970s, the train bed was paved as a hiking and bike path. This path - which now traverses the bank above Victoria Park and Golf Course - is one of the few physical reminders of the EY&PR on the north side of the river. In 1988, the Edmonton Historical Board erected a plaque in Mill Creek Park commemorating the Edmonton Yukon & Pacific Railway.
Information for this article sourced from the City of Edmonton Archives and from research completed by historian Shirley Lowe.