The Iron Horse Trail is a 300-kilometre long trail across North Central Alberta carved from an abandoned railroad right-of-way. It is the longest completed section of the Trans Canada Trail. It’s history dates back to the era of steam locomotives that carried train cars with people and supplies across the continent.
There were several types of engines and the railroads purchased new locomotives and train cars with each major improvement. The locomotive was referred to as an Iron Horse since it was capable of pulling a variety of heavy cars.
Without railways, there would be no Canada,” wrote historian George Stanley. The 1867 constitution that created the Canadian Confederation included provisions for coast-to-coast railroad travel. British Columbia joined the Confederation in 1871 when the province was promised a transcontinental railroad within 10 years. The Canadian Pacific Railroad was finally completed in 1885 with service from Montreal to Port Moody, BC. The tracks were later extended to Vancouver.
The original line was actually built through parts of Northern Ontario and the Canadian Shield with the CPR given a right-of-way for 25 million acres of land. This included land in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Part of the route crossed land that belonged to First Nations tribes, including the Blackfoot and Metis in Alberta. Chief Crowfoot was given a lifetime pass to use the trains when he allowed the tracks to pass through his tribal land.
CP added special Colonist Cars to the trains in the 1890s to carry new immigrants from Montreal and Toronto west to the prairies where land could be purchased for as little as $2.50 per acre. Many of these immigrants disembarked in Alberta and helped to establish the some of the farming communities east of Edmonton that are now part of the Iron Horse Trail.
The Canadian National Railway
The success of the Canadian Pacific inspired many different railroad lines through Canada that carried people, livestock, and supplies. But most of these smaller lines did not survive and they were incorporated into the Canadian National Railway, now Canada’s largest freight line.
The Canadian National Railway was not incorporated until 1919 after assuming ownership of the bankrupt Canadian Northern Railway in 1918. That was the company that built a railroad line between Waskatenau in Alberta north of Edmonton. The line ran east from a point near Smoky Lake to Cold Lake near the Saskatchewan border. Another line was built south to Elk Point and Heinsburg from the town of Ashmont. The original trestle built by CN near Waskateneau is part of the Iron Horse Trail.
CN continued to use the 300 km line that connected the Smoky Lake area with Cold Lake through most of the 20th century. The line was eventually abandoned and the tracks were pulled up in 2000 since there were many highways through this region.
Iron Horse Trail Development
The track beds that were left were flat and good for use by ATVs, snowmobiles, and horses for exploring the trail. Automobiles and trucks are not allowed on the trail but hikers, people on bicycles, ATVs and snowmobiles are welcome. Staging areas with campgrounds are located along the trail with parking areas for vehicles, including RVs. The old rail trails are now used for year-round adventure.
The actual Iron Horse Trail was not developed until 2002. Much of the work maintaining the trails is accomplished by volunteer groups in various communities once served by the trains. This includes civic organizations, ATV and snowmobile clubs. Some of the lands along the trail belong to Alberta’s Provincial Parks.
Restored Sites Along the Trail
Every effort was made to save and restore the old railroad stations and other historic buildings in the towns along the route. Elk Point has created an Eco-centre from the old train station with a display of the town’s history. This was once a fur trading fort on the North Saskatchewan River. The town features a statue of Peter Fidler, the first fur trader and mapmaker in Alberta Province.
Other historic sites along the trail include Alberta’s oldest pool hall and barber shop in Vilna and an interpretive centre at Metis Crossing. Costumed guides explain the history of the nearby Victoria Settlement and its importance to the old railroad line. The hamlet of Heinsburg has preserved the CN water tower and train station dating from 1928.
Check out the Iron Horse Trail on Facebook and add your stories as a trail rider or hiker. Rolling hills, many lakes and beautiful boreal forests await visitors to this historic area of Alberta all year.