Canadian Pacific Railway’s Crowsnest Route through the Crown of the Continent rewards railfans with expansive mountain vistas, extraordinary engineering works, and some of the world’s heaviest trains hauled at speed by the most powerful locomotives ever made. And if chance (or good pre-trip research) is on your side, you might see an entire train of luxury private cars from the 1920s trailing a pair of purring, cat-faced diesel locomotives liveried in their original 1950’s grey, maroon, and gold.
The ultimate treat is the sight and sound of what must be the most beautiful operating steam locomotive on the planet, CPR’s exquisitely restored 2816, stepping as carefully as a mountain goat between the high cliffs of the Continental Divide and the deep waters of Crowsnest Lake. You can check the schedule for the Royal Canadian Pacific private car train at www.royalcanadianpacific.com and watch for steam train excursions at www.cpr.ca and www.gwtravel.co.uk.
Best Places to Go
The Crowsnest Route was completed in 1897 through a low pass first “discovered” by Europeans only 24 years earlier. The ancient trading route of the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) First Nation was soon coveted by railway builders on both sides the border for its tall trees—good for making ties and trestles—and huge deposits of high-grade coal to fire locomotives with a maximum of heat and a minimum of troublesome ash.
With the Great Northern already skirting the international boundary on its way from Minnesota to Seattle, Canada’s colonial government subsidized C.P.R.’s construction of its second mainline through the Rockies in a move to assert British imperial sovereignty above the 49th Parallel. In 1904, the Great Northern even punched across the border to rival Canadian Pacific’s dominion over the coalfields of British Columbia’s Elk Valley. (That Great Northern line was abandoned in the 1920s, but the fight was renewed in the 1970s when GNR tried but failed to revive its charter and compete in the hauling metallurgical coal to the Pacific Coast for shipment to Japan.)
Today, the Crowsnest Route thrives with long trains of coal hoppers on their way from the Elk Valley to an ocean terminal near Vancouver. The route also hosts overflows of container and mixed freight traffic from CPR’s more northerly main line through Banff National Park. The two lines join at Golden, B.C. from where the railway navigates Rogers’ Pass and the Spiral Tunnel on its way to the coast.
A trainwatcher’s geo-located itinerary, from East to West:
Lethbridge Station and CPR Steam Locomotive 3651 Best vantage point: Park Place Shopping Centre GPS Location: 49:41:54N, 112:50:11W
CPR Consolidation 3651 was built in 1910 by Montreal Locomotive Works is on static display at the former Lethbridge Station, now trackless and enveloped by the city’s downtown shopping core. This nicely preserved locomotive is typical of the many that fanned out across now-abandoned prairie branch lines to serve the wooden grain elevators and small towns which shrivelled with the lifting of the rails in the 1960s. Steel mesh fencing protects the locomotive from vandals but interferes with photography. Nonetheless, this is the right place to begin exploring the Crowsnest Route.
High Level Bridge, Lethbridge Best vantage point: Indian Battle Park GPS Location: 49:41:57N, 112:51:37W
It was erected a century ago, to avoid the myriad curves, stiff grades and coulee crossings that remained from the line’s original construction. Today, the Lethbridge High Level Bridge remains as much an engineering marvel as when its final rivet was banged into place in the summer of 1909. The 1,623 -metre (5,327-foot) span was so soundly designed and constructed that it carries modern heavyweight locomotives and freight cars without a groan of complaint. It remains, the locals boast, the world’s greatest railway trestle, when measured as a combination of length and height. When it was re-surveyed in the 1980s, after decades of pounding train traffic, the bridge had subsided a mere three centimetres into the flood plain of the Old Man River. Not bad for a total vertical elevation of 95.7 metres (313.9 feet). And this feat of design and calculation, which had to account for the curvature of the Earth, regular floods of the valley floor, and the force of Chinook winds, was executed thousands of miles away at CPR offices in Montreal. The bridge was pre-fabricated in Ontario and delivered in pieces aboard 645 freight cars.
Steel Trestle near Monarch Best vantage point: From Highway Three west of Lethbridge GPS Location: 49:47:02N, 113:10:29W
This little sibling of the High Level Bridge crosses the same Oldman River, but with a span one-third the length and one-half the height.
Steel Trestle, Brocket Best vantage point: CVC Farms, where Highway 3 crosses Pincher Creek GPS Location: 49:32:41N, 113:47:52W
This small, photogenic trestle over Pincher Creek provides an opportunity to see trains up close, from below. CVC Farms is a comfortable spot for a coffee and chat with members of the resident Pikanii First Nation, as well as a rich browse for wild bird seeds and feeders.
Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton National Park Best vantage point:Postcard view is from knoll north of the hotel GPS Location: 49:03:50N, 113:54:21W
Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton National Park, Alberta
This scenically superb side-trip is an essential for enthusiasts of railway history. The Prince of Wales Hotel was built not by Canadian Pacific, but by its American rival the Great Northern in 1927 as destination for tourist excursions across the lake from the company’s facilities in Glacier National Park in Montana. For many, the transboundary lure was Alberta’s early abandonment of prohibition in 1923, while it endured in the United States until 1933. From the dock near the hotel, you can still ride the original 1927 M.V. International that ferried thirsty travellers from Montana to Waterton. The Prince of Wales is a fine example of the rustic park hotels built by railways in both countries to stimulate tourism. Now owned by Parks Canada, the hotel respects tradition above modernity, even to the lack of a central heating system and a reluctance to replace original, sometimes balky bathroom fixtures. Afternoon tea is served in the lobby by a young staff brightly costumed in highland tartan.
Frank Slide Best vantage point: Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, via well-signed access road at west end of the debris field GPS Location: 49:35:60N, 114:23:39W
You can see how the CPR snaked a new path through the limestone rubble created when the north face of Turtle Mountain collapsed in 1903 and buried the town of Frank. A further disaster was averted by a CPR employee who ran down the track to meet and stop an approaching passenger express. A trail from the interpretive centre includes some of the roadbed of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway whose interchange with the CPR lies buried under the rock pile, along with 60 or so bodies deemed impossible to recover. Gruesome, but fascinating.
Main Street Mainline and Coal Mine Mogul, Crowsnest Pass Best vantage point: Sidewalk benches of the Stone’s Throw Café GPS Location: 49:36:28N, 114:26:14W
The Crowsnest Route runs right alongside Main Street in the former town of Bairmore, now a mere neighborhood in the municipal amalgamation collectively called Crowsnest Pass. Enjoy coffee and fresh baking while you watch teams of CPR’s huge GE AC4400CW locomotives glide through town as they catch their breath before hefting long freights over the Continental Divide. Then, take a stroll westward along the track to the displayed, but sadly neglected, Hillcrest Colliery 2-6-0 #11, built by Montreal Locomotive Works in 1914. Unlike many early locomotives disfigured over time by successive modernizations, this old Mogul retains its original high domes and stack and a sharply rounded cab roof.
Fireless Mine Locomotive, Flumerfelt Park, Crowsnest Pass Best vantage point: Flumerfelt playground in the Coleman neighbourhood of Crowsnest Pass GPS Location: 49:38:13N, 114:30:15W
From 1904 til 1954, this fireless, open-cab 0-4-0 built by H.K. Porter Company worked underground for International Coal and Coke. Coal or oil-fired locomotives would inevitably spark methane explosions in mine tunnels, not to mention poison the air needed by miners. The solution was the “air dinky” whose “boiler” was in fact a pressure tank recharged as needed from pipes connected to above-ground air compressor stations.
Continental Divide Vista Best vantage point: Highway 3 pullout at west end of Crowsnest Pass GPS Location: 49:38:07N, 114:32:21W
IMAX crews setup a camera here to capture CPR 2816 steaming out of the Crowsnest Pass and along the Crowsnest Valley bottom. You can enjoy the same vantage point, sometimes against a backdrop of weather systems battling each other across the Continental Divide. There is also a great view of Crowsnest Mountain, which was formed by erosion, not volcanic activity. However, just opposite the pullout is the region’s only surface extrusion of volcanic rock. Everything else is sedimentary.
Crowsnest Lake Best vantage point: Large parking area at west end of lake GPS Location: 49:37:29N, 114:39:10W
The line squeezes between the opposite shoreline of Crowsnest Lake and a massive bluff of limestone. Look carefully for the cave which, in spring, contains a waterfall. The cave walls are decorated with ancient native pictographs, sadly disfigured by layers of contemporary graffiti.
Continental Divide Best vantage point: Take the sharp exit from Highway Three just east of the road’s crest at the Continental Divide. GPS Location: 49:37:64N, 114:41:24W
There’s plenty of place to park along the shoreline of Summit Lake and then stroll alongside the trains waiting for their turns to cross the Alberta-British Columbia boundary at the Continental Divide. While Island Lake just to the east flows towards Hudson Bay, Summit Lake drains westward towards the Pacific. There is a quite spectacular view of the railway line balanced on a masterfully hewn stone retaining wall at 49:39:55N, 114:45:05W but the Highway 3 shoulders are narrow and stopping is dangerous. There's a safer pullout for westbound drivers just beyond the vantage point. Stopping is ill-advised for eastbound drivers.
McGillivray Loop Best vantage point: South from Highway 3 on Corbin Road GPS Location: 49:40:17N, 114:46:43W
The paved road to the mine meets several railway bridge crossings where you can photograph trains crossing Michel Creek as they loop the valley to change elevation. The apex of the loop is at 49:38:29N, 114:47:05W where a wye connects the mainline to a branch leading to Elk Valley Coal’s Coal Mountain mine. You can drive to the end of the road at 49:31:03N, 114:40:36W to see the coal-loading terminal close up and often in action. The immediately adjacent ghost town of Corbin contains several pioneer structures. Corbin is a little piece of Appalachia lost in the Rocky Mountains.
Fernie Station Best vantage point: CPR Station Square, downtown Fernie GPS Location: 49:30:14N, 115:03:32W
Built in 1908, the former C.P.R. station is the only survivor of a type designed specifically for the Crowsnest Route. Sometime after passenger service was ended in 1964, the station was donated to the City of Fernie and converted into a community arts and crafts centre. A well-intention renovation in 1986 kept the building intact but coloured the exterior a cheerful but historically inappropriate blue. This was partially remedied in 2008 when the original chocolate and cream paint scheme was reapplied. (It’s still not quite right, since some of the siding was incorrectly coated in the maroon of the mid-twentieth century.) The recent restoration also saw the station’s many windows replaced with technically modern but historically accurate substitutes. While the C.P.R. had a dark history of demolishing its stations before they could be preserved, this time the railway, under more enlightened management, contributed to the cost.
The station is once more the bustling hub of downtown Fernie. Live music and theatre enliven the former baggage room. The Ladies Waiting Room is a restaurant. The platform is now a deck where you may enjoy a snack and watch mile-long coal trains on their way from nearby mines to a shipping terminal near Vancouver.
Fernie Museum and Visitor Centre Best vantage point: Victoria Avenue, downtown Fernie GPS Location: 49:41:06N, 115:03:45W
Displays include images of Fernie in the boom years of coal mining and steam railroading. Resident Curator Mike Pennock will share the story of the Michel, Morrissey and Fernie Railway that hauled coal and miners between Fernie and the underground workings up Coal Creek Valley.
Porter Locomotive and Coke Oven Hopper, Fernie Best vantage point: Rotary Park playground, at intersection of Highway 3 and 7th Street GPS Location: 49:30:25N, 115:03:53W
Tiny Porter 0-4-0 tank engine is still link-coupled to one of the ungainly coal hoppers it trundled along the tops of the coke ovens that once fouled Fernie’s air.
Fort Steele Steam Train Best vantage point: Fort Steele Heritage Town GPS Location: 49:37:07N, 115:37:50W
Forgive the historical howler (the CPR bypassed Fort Steele, effectively turning it into a ghost town) and enjoy a ride through savannah grasslands behind 2-6-2 1077, built in Montreal in 1923 and the operated in logging service until 1969 when it was donated to the province by MacMillan Bloedel. The 20-minute train ride pauses at a viewing platform where you can look down upon CPR trains navigating a large, riverside wye where the Crowsnest Line branches off to Cranbrook and an interchange with Burlington Northern at the Canada-U.S. border. Logging Shay 115 and British 0-4-4 "Dunrobin" built in 1895 are stored in the Fort Steele engine shed which is open to visitors.
Canadian Museum of Passenger Rail Travel Best vantage point: Downtown Cranbrook GPS Location: 49:30:29N, 115:46:43W
A Belle Epoque observation car and Winston Churchill’s sleeping car bedroom are among the treasures you can enter at this rich repository of rolling stock and structures saved from the glory years of passenger travel. The interior of the 1906 Royal Alexandra Café was faithfully re-assembled here after being rescued from the demolition of CPR’s downtown Winnipeg hotel in 1971. Children, especially those alive before train sets disappeared from the Christmas catalogues, will delight in the museum’s O-gauge layout of trackage hand-laid through a formidable mountain landscape.