Rapid Rail to St. Albert

Edmontonians have been talking about extending the LRT system for a while now. The completion of the Metro line as far north as NAIT is the first segment of a planned extension past the city limits and into St. Albert. It’s still on the drawing board, but it’s worth remembering it’s been done almost a hundred years ago. Yes, believe it or not, there was a commuter rail line to St. Albert before the Great War.

In 1910 Financier Raymond Brutinel, who had a home on the St. Albert Trail and an eye to make a buck in real estate along the route, acquired a charter for the all-electric Interurban Railway. The company reorganized in 1912 through an agreement with the Franco-Canadian Corporation; the vice president was well-known Edmontonian J.H Picard. The Interurban Railway thought big—not only was there to be a line to St. Albert, but other lines to Beaver Lake and Tofield, Pigeon Lake, and Namao.

Construction to St. Albert began in 1912 and by late summer, seven miles had been graded. The Interurban track was nearing completion by mid-summer 1913. Sidings were constructed every mile or mile and a half, to be used for the loading and unloading of freight, and to provide passing points for the cars. A car barn was erected at Queen Mary’s Park near 137th Avenue and 124th street. By the time the company was ready to go into operation it could not afford the electric grid. Instead it ordered a number of unusual hybrid-drive rail cars.

The first of these was a Drake. Built in Chicago, it was a gas-electric trolley car with its own gasoline engine and generator. It ran at about 35 miles an hour. Passengers could expect a deluxe experience as it was panelled in oak, and the seats upholstered in dark green plush. A second type of car, designed by McEwan Pratt and Company of London, England, was ordered from Baguely Cars (who took over McEwan Pratt in 1911). This gas hydraulic-drive car was reported to use the innovative Hele-Shaw hydrostatic transmission. It was 33 feet long and 8 ½ feet wide with a seating capacity of 36, “provided in rattan covered cross seats, with central aisle.”

Interurban railway, ca. 1913-1915 (Musée Héritage Museum, St. Albert Historical Society fonds, 2003.01.795).
Interurban railway, ca. 1913-1915 (Musée Héritage Museum, St. Albert Historical Society fonds, 2003.01.795).

The Drake arrived in August 1913 and its initial runs included carrying prospective real estate buyers to their Summerland subdivision located along the route. Although the second car had not yet been shipped from England, by December 1913 the Interurban was running on a full schedule of 5 round trips a day, with 5 stops along the route. From the Hill Top Stop south of St. Albert, according a newspaper report, “a wire cable handled by a donkey engine [a steam-engine powered winch] is attached to the car for the greater safety of the passengers on the off chance that there might be at some time be a failure of the brakes to work perfectly and on the car’s return the cable is again fastened to the car at the foot of the hill for the same reason.”

The route, which took 45 minutes each way, connected with Edmonton Radial Railway street cars at 24th Street and Alberta Avenue. One could get on the interurban in St. Albert, travel to the terminus at 124th Street and then transfer to the Edmonton Radial Railway’s red and green line, whose route eventually went over the Low Level Bridge to Whyte Avenue and returned over the High Level Bridge.

The Interurban Railway was touted as the key to the vision of St. Albert as a bucolic suburb, complete with its scenic vistas, historic buildings, and recreational possibilities on the Sturgeon River and Big Lake. As the St. Albert News noted April 1912 “this ideally located dreamy hollow [is] in our mind’s eyes, the thriving suburb of what is believed will be one of the West’s greatest cities—Edmonton.”

Unfortunately, the Interurban was destined to be short lived. The service was not profitable: the hybrid car suffered breakdowns, making the schedule unreliable. Passengers transferring at 124th street often had a long wait. Soon after it was up and running Edmonton plunged into economic recession. The Interurban limped along until a fire on April 1, 1914 destroyed the Drake in the barns at St. Mary’s Park. The Twin City Transfer Company saw an opportunity and quickly offered auto bus jitney (taxi) service from Edmonton to St. Albert. The Interurban Railway Company, still without a second car, talked about rebuilding to operate with electricity, but the economic climate and war precluded such a vision.

In 1916 the Edmonton Radial Railway took over a portion of the tracks to serve the Calder yards. Plans to get the Interurban running again were last floated in 1917, as the Franco Canadian Corporation was in a better position to bargain with the City of Edmonton. “The city council is likely to be quite tractable and reasonable. Our main lever in securing an advantageous agreement is the fact that we are now renting to the City 1.4 mile[s] of our track, where the development of the traffic to Calder has been so great that the city would not now interfere with a service that has become a public necessity.” Nothing ever came of it and the remainder of the line was torn up. St. Albert commuters still rely on the bus, their eye on the future when electric rail will finally be realized.

An interesting post script to this story is that while the Drake burned in the 1914 fire, the McEwan Pratt car, when it eventually arrived in Alberta, ended up on the Lacombe and Blindman Valley Electric Railway (like the Interurban it was never electrified). The details of this transfer of ownership are a little mysterious, but it was hauling passengers to Gull Lake by 1917. Evidently not very successful on that line, it was replaced by 1919. It resurfaced in the historical record in 1928—in the Canadian Pacific Railway Ogden Yards in Calgary on its way to be scrapped. Unfortunately, although CPR workers noticed its unusual design, no one thought to preserve it as an Alberta rail anomaly.

Written by: Judy Larmour.