Tales of the Canadian Northern Railroad

County residents will be familiar with the CNR rail line that wiggles its way into Lacombe from the southeast.


County residents will be familiar with the CNR rail line that wiggles its way into Lacombe from the southeast. However, few may know that this line began life as a branch line of Canada’s second trans-continental railroad, the Canadian Northern railroad.

The western provinces chafed under the monopoly granted by the federally subsidized CPR and they sponsored branch lines to provide local competition. Many of these went bankrupt. Thus was born the Canadian Northern railroad (CNoR) that reached into the United States. It reached Edmonton in 1905 proceeding west in 1910 through the Yellowhead Pass to develop a new town site (Port Mann) on the Fraser River in 1911. The last spike of the CNoR transcontinental railway was driven Jan. 23rd, 1915, at Basque, British Columbia.

Meanwhile, back in Lacombe the potential for growth seemed secure. Canadian Northern Railway had acquired a coalfield at Nordegg in 1910 and proposed to use this fuel source to power the steam locomotives for their rail system; Lacombe was designated as the site for their distribution system. Lacombe’s population was “1,800 and growing.” Property within the Town, including a portion of land south of Barnett Ave., was owned by the CNoR by virtue of the federal land grant policy for developing railways.

By 1910, construction of the coal storage and distribution centre was advanced at the site once marked by the sign ‘Jackson’ on the railroad right-of-way just south of Lacombe.

Application had been made to the government for the new CNoR rail line to cross the Calgary-Edmonton CPR line at Jackson.

There was foot dragging by federal officials. Then came the First World War. The work force melted away as the men enlisted and departed for the front. When the survivors returned the dream had ended. The housing scheme known as Hyde Park was bankrupt and the land was sold to the Town where it reverted to the golfing role it had served when known as McCully’s sheep pasture, becoming part of the Lacombe Golf and Country Club. Ottawa’s 1919 response to the requested CNoR rail crossing of the Calgary-Edmonton CPR line, “You may cross neither above, nor under, nor across” left no room for negotiation.

CNoR was indebted to banks and governments, and its profitable branch lines in the prairie provinces – ‘Canada’s breadbasket’ – could not generate enough revenue to service that debt let alone cover construction costs. Unable to repay those costs, the company requested financial aid. In exchange for funds, the federal government gained majority control of shares, the directors of CNoR resigned, and -CNoR was nationalized on Sept. 6th, 1918. The replacement board of directors appointed by the federal government forced CNoR to assume the management of federally owned Canadian Government Railways (CGR). On Dec. 20th, 1918, a Privy Council order directed that CNoR and CGR be managed under the moniker Canadian National Railway (CNR). CNoR and CGR did not merge and cease corporate existence until Jan. 20th, 1923, the date of birth of the CNR.