The evolution of regional highways

The QEII Hwy., the ribbon of pavement that joins Calgary and Edmonton, began life as a trail through the bush that lay between

HOWARD FREDEEN

The QEII Hwy., the ribbon of pavement that joins Calgary and Edmonton, began life as a trail through the bush that lay between the two fur trading centres known as Fort Edmonton and Fort Calgary. This trail was basically an extension of a trail that led north from Fort Benton on the Missouri River into western Canada. It was from the seat of an oxcart on this trail that Father Lacombe, en route from Fort Benton to Fort Edmonton in 1854, had his first glimpse of the area that would become Lacombe, an area known at that time as the Strawberry Plain. He returned up the Fort Benton trail in 1862, this time as the driver of a wagon train bringing supplies to furnish his new mission on the site now known as St. Albert.  Meanwhile the trail had become well used by pioneers flooding into the area from the United States and eastern Canada.

The first serious attempt to improve this trail was made in 1873 by John MacDougal and his brother David. Their object was to improve access between the two primary Methodist Missions on the western prairies, Victoria east of Fort Edmonton and Morley west of Fort Calgary. They straightened and widened the trail as required and bridged boggy spots with corduroy.

It was adopted provincially as the Calgary Edmonton Trail. In 1886 the North West territorial government engaged surveyor George P. Roy to provide the first official survey of this trail. His survey served as the basis for the CP railroad built in 1890. This rail line when completed in 1891 reduced travel time between the two cities to 12 hours from the four days previously required by stagecoach. Since the railroad also took over the mail delivery there was no longer any need for stagecoach service.

Real improvement of the trail began with the arrival of the automobile. The old C & E Trail was redesigned and graveled during the 1890s and a new graveled road was built linking the communities along the rail line. This embryonic highway displaced the C & E Trail as the primary transportation route. In 1934, under the auspices of Premier Brownlee’s United Farmers of Alberta government, a 30-mile section between Ponoka and Red Deer was paved with bitumen from Fort MacKay. This was the first major use of this product for highway construction. The entire road was eventually paved to become Hwy. 1 in the late 1930s. It was renamed Hwy. 2 when the east-west Trans Canada Highway became reality in the 1940s. It was later renamed Hwy. 2A when the four-lane expressway was built in the late 1940s to early 1960s.

The winter of 1947-1948 saw a series of record blizzards blanket the west from Alberta south to Colorado. When spring came ‘every stream a banker ran’. Several communities along the Red Deer River were accessible only by boat, and the main highways were closed to truck traffic. The snow departed; the roads opened again in mid-May and were quickly crammed with transport trucks, each heavily overloaded to make up for lost time. One week later came a sudden snowstorm, heavy wet snow, almost 24 inches in 24 hours, followed immediately by a chinook. The roads basically dissolved. Transports sank until their boxes rested on the road surface. The C & E Trail past the Experimental Station became an enforced parking lot with trucks, bellies in the mud, bogged down nose to bumper. Vic Popow’s tow truck, after many attempts, extracted the lead vehicle; then, anchoring his tow truck to a venerable cottonwood in the boulevard, he attempted to extricate the second. When he finally threw in the towel the transport had not moved but five cottonwoods lay in the mud. It was late fall before repairs to this section of the trail were completed.

Coincidentally the highway through Lacombe was being upgraded as befitted its new role as Hwy. 2A. To the north of Lacombe this upgrade paralleled the CPR railroad, crossing over Wolf Creek at a point where the CPR line employed a trestle to accommodate the flowing water. The highway engineers disdained that example and installed two 24-inch culverts. Their judgment was flawed; the high grade became a dam when the flood came in the spring of 1948 and the resulting lake engulfed the CPR rail line. Until the barrier was breeched and the highway grade washed away, train locomotives with driving wheels half submerged, were forced to creep into Lacombe through two miles of water-submerged track.