Before the High Level Bridge

The original line of the Crowsnest route of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began where Mayor Magrath Drive now goes under the CPR in Lethbridge. It ran southward on what is Mayor Magrath Drive.

The line followed the route of Highway 5 nearly to the airport, continued southwest to Whoop-Up Station (the site of the original Fort Whoop-Up), then worked its way down the coulee banks through a series of deep cuts, high fills and many wooden bridges, leading to the crossing of the St. Mary River just above the river’s junction with the Oldman River (then called the Belly River). St. Mary Station was located in the river bottom where a half-mile-long wooden bridge was built to cross the St. Mary River.

The bridge was about 60 feet high, of wooden construction and crossed the river on two or three cement supports. The line ascended the river banks on the west side, again through a series of cuts, fills and wooden bridges. In all, 20 bridges were required to get the line down to the St. Mary river crossing and up the other side.

The line then ran northwest across the Kainai Reserve and crossed the Belly River over a single-truss bridge eight miles east of Fort Macleod and seven and one-half miles south of the present Monarch bridge. At Fort Macleod, the station, yards and shops were located south of the town, in a location known locally as Haneyville after Michael J. Haney, a contractor of the construction project.

By 1907, many of the 20 wooden bridges were in bad shape and needed to be replaced. There were fairly steep grades on the line, especially where it went down to, and ascended from, the St. Mary River crossing. All this led to many operational and maintenance difficulties. It was decided that a new route must be found.

The decision was made to eliminate the 20 wooden bridges by building a single structure near Lethbridge. This bridge was to be built of steel and extend from one prairie level to the other, thus eliminating the need to go down to the river level to make a crossing. The new bridge also eliminated about nine miles of track between Lethbridge and Fort Macleod and rerouted the line so it ran to the north of the Kainai Reserve instead of across it.

A steel bridge was designed by J E Schwitzer, the engineer who also designed the spiral tunnels at Field. The contractors were the Canadian Bridge Company (Walkerville, Ontario) and John Gunn and Company (Winnipeg). Construction started in November 1907. When completed, this new bridge was 1.6 km long and 100 meters high at the highest span. It cost $1,334,525.

The original Lethbridge to Fort Macleod railway line and bridges were removed in 1910 but in preparation for taking them down, bolts were removed from these bridges. Somehow a switch engine, cars and a caboose got onto one of these partially torn-down bridges: the engine fell 11 meters, the caboose over 12 meters. George Munro, the engineer, died in the wreck. The names of the crew were: George Munro, engineer; Don McKillop, conductor; Tom Chapman, trainman; “Duck Creek” Smith, trainman; and Fred Summer, trainman.

Material from the dismantled bridges was used in building projects across southern Alberta and in Lethbridge.

You can learn more about the history of Lethbridge and the High Level Bridge at the Galt Museum & Archives.