Capital Foundations: All aboard for a look inside Edmonton's railway history

Restored to her former glory, the Edmonton High Level Streetcar gently rocks as it makes its daily voyage from Old Strathcona, across the North Saskatchewan River valley, to downtown.

Riding the rails was an integral part of life in Edmonton's past

Bob Hynes with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society says he loves bringing the city's streetcar history to life. (CBC)

The following story is part of Capital Foundations, an ongoing series exploring Edmonton's architectural history.

Listen in weekly on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM for the latest episode, and for a little excavation of Edmonton history with architect Darrel Babuk.

Restored to her former glory, the Edmonton High Level Streetcar gently rocks as it makes its daily voyage from historic Old Strathcona, across the North Saskatchewan River and into downtown.

The old relic is a symbol of Edmonton's rich railway history, said Bob Hynes, a motorman with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society.

'Living museum' 

The city has long had an affinity for trains, and their ability to keep commerce and people moving.

"It's a living museum," Hynes said as he stood at the controls of the creaking wooden streetcar.

"The floors get scratched, the paint comes off and things break."
The streetcars in city's historical fleet were salvaged and restored by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. (CBC)

While many of the streetcars were sold for scrap or relegated to the landfill when rail travel lost its lustre in the early 1950s, a few of them survived.

The Edmonton Radial Railway Society has sought them out over the years, lovingly restored them and assembled one of the largest historical fleets in Canada.

While the streetcars now ferry tourists over the picturesque river valley during the summer months, trains and tramways were once the preferred form of travel for throngs of city workers. 

"I think a lot people don't even know what a streetcar is," Hynes said. "Most streetcar services in the world that are trying to do this don't have a run like we have here. It's fantastic. 
The Canadian Pacific Railway train station in Old Strathcona, is a relic of Edmonton's rich railway history. (University of Alberta Libraries )

"It's good to bring back not only the history of Edmonton, but the history of lots of places and you know, it was a different era."

And it was a different era.

In the heyday of Edmonton's train, tramway and rail system, hundreds of freight and passenger cars passed through the city each day.

'A marvellous building' 

Another surviving relic of Edmonton's once bustling train and tramway system is the Strathcona Canadian Pacific Railway Station, constructed in 1907 by the Calgary and Edmonton Railway on 103rd Street, just south of Whyte Avenue.

The building initially served as the northern terminus of the C&E, serving Strathcona and Edmonton.

Canadian Pacific later expanded the line north across the North Saskatchewan River, on much the same route the streetcar still travels today.

While the station is now a restaurant and bar, it was a once a bustling hub for travellers.

"This was a very busy place," said Darrel Babuk, an Edmonton-based architect with Boreas Architecture & Civic Design.  

With its deep bracketed eaves, prominent octagonal tower, and stone, brick, and timber detailing, the sandstone building  is a fine example of C.P.R. station design, Babuk said.

"It's a marvellous building and it really marks a great part of Edmonton's history."
The old Canadian National Railway station was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for construction of the CN Tower building. (City of Edmonton Archives )

A forgotten station 

Edmonton had three functioning inner-city train stations up until the 1970s, Babuk said, including the old Canadian National Railway station.

The long forgotten station, opened in 1928, served as the terminus for a 20-track rail yard that once stretched to 116th Street. 

The elegant, chateau-like station once stood prominently on 104th Avenue at the centre of its intersection with 100th Street.

The building, constructed by C.N.R. architect John Schofield, was a product of its time, with all of the stylish, modern amenities of the era. 

According to the Edmonton Historical Board, the building featured a central two-storey high waiting room lit with skylights, a dining room, a restaurant, a smoking room, and  ladies' waiting room — all adorned with white oak benches and terrazzo tiles.

A one-storey west wing featured a milk and cream distribution area. A coal-fed power plant down the block provided heat for the building, while natural gas heated the water supply. 

"It was a very neoclassical building," Babuk said. "It had a freight shed, it had a big waiting room. Very impressive. It's where the royal couple came and were welcomed into town [in 1939].

"Apparently the Boy Scouts had a giant bonfire to welcome them to town and that's around the same time the last remaining logs from Fort Edmonton disappeared."

Even after the building was torn down to make way for the CN Tower, the basement continued to serve as a passenger station until 1998, when the tracks were finally removed. 

Babuk is a wistful about the forgotten station. There is little to mark its once-formidable presence in downtown Edmonton.

"Even the security guards at the CN Tower have no idea about it."

With files from Clare Bonnyman