Tuesday, February 4, 2014

[Geography in a Photograph] The End of the Line

A photograph of the train station (foreground, right) in St. Paul, Alberta; year unknown; taken by Ron Brown, and published in the 3rd Edition of The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore: An Illustrated History of Railway Stations in Canada (Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2008): p. 41.NOTE: This post was originally featured in my non-academic blog 'The Organic Intellectual', on February 16th, 2011. 

Sometimes, ordinary photographs have an uncanny ability to capture our attention. This one (above) captured mine. I was leafing through Ron Brown's The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore: An Illustrated History of Railway Stations in Canada, and came across this image, and my brain stumbled upon the caption: "The station skyline in St. Paul, Alberta, is typically dominated by the grain elevators. Photo by author." Grain elevators and a train station in St. Paul, Alberta!? I have been to St. Paul many times, yet I have never seen any grain elevators there. Nor had I ever seen or heard of a train station in town - this would imply passenger service. But here was a photograph of a typical prairie town, showcased in a book about abandoned train stations, chosen specifically because of its iconic prairie 'skyline' - dotted with not just one, but five of the multistory beasts! Was it possible that, despite the dozens of visits to the town, I had never come across the rail station and somehow failed to see the town's tallest edifices? Surely, a story was hiding behind this photograph, so I have spent some time trying to brush off some of the dust.

St. Paul, located about 200km Northeast of Edmonton, was settled by the Oblate missionaries in the late 19th Century as a mission for Métis peoples. The settlement was originally known as St. Paul des Métis (shortened to St. Paul in 1936, when the settlement gained 'village' status). In 1909 the settlement was opened up after the original mission project was abandoned, and the doors were opened for French-speaking families from throughout the region and Québec, as well as other European settlers (mostly from Ukraine and the United Kingdom) to move in and break ground. However, like many prairie locales, it was the arrival of the railway that really facilitated the growth of St. Paul into a town...

In the early decades of the 20th Century, even getting between Edmonton and St. Paul was a struggle. From St. Paul, one had to travel some 105 kilometers by horse and buggy to Vegreville, where one of the oldest railway lines in the province was situated, owned at the time by Canadian Northern Railways (CNoR). CNoR was started in 1895 in an attempt to compete with Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR) - the company started building track in Manitoba and thereafter spread its network East and West. By 1905, CNoR tracks had reached Edmonton through a southern route (see Figure 1), offering an alternative to the CP's route. In 1914, CNoR began construction of a more Northern route to Saskatchewan, but as the Alberta Heritage Community Foundation notes, the war effort stalled progress:
"... railroad officials claimed there was a shortage of labour, and construction stopped at Spedden in 1919, 48 kilometres short of St. Paul. As did many communities on the Canadian Prairies, they banded together, and recognizing the importance of the railway to the town’s economic prosperity, the citizens of St. Paul volunteered to complete the last stretch of track that would join their town with North Edmonton. In 1920, the first regular service train arrived in St. Paul. J.A. Fortier was the first Station Master and lived with his family in the station building, which was to become an important economic and service centre. Trains not only allowed passenger travel, they also brought mail, equipment, and merchandise. The railway also meant farmers could transport cattle and crops to larger urban centres more easily." 
Figure 1: Map of Alberta Railways, from the Waghorn Guide, 1941
This railway map from the 1941 Waghorn Guide shows an extensive passenger (and freight) rail network, owned by a number of distinct railway companies. For emphasis, I have highlighted two sections of the CNoR lines in red, and one of the competing CP lines in green (the dark black line is the North Saskatchewan River). The town of St. Paul is highlighted in yellow; Vegreville in orange; and Lavoy in blue; Edmonton is at left. Today, the tracks of the more northerly CNoR route AND the highlighted CP route have been torn out, while the southern route is still maintained (now owned by CN) and used as a major trans-continental freight line.  

By 1918, CNoR and other railway companies were consolidated into the new crown corporation, Canadian National (CN). The roaring twenties were a time of prosperity in Northeastern Alberta.At the time, CN and CP rail lines criss-crossed the countryside like the arteries of the nation. Indeed, the growth of the railway network deeper into Canadian territory facilitated the growth of the nation long into the second half of the 20th Century. As Tom Murray's Rails Across Canada notes, "in the decades after the [Second World] war, Canada became a supplier of resources to the world - lumber, grain, sulfur, potash, petroleum products - and CN [and CP] carried them."

The first half of the 20th Century is perhaps the heyday of Canadian passenger rail service. With automobiles and fossil fuels still largely commodities of the elite, trains were a necessary aspect of keeping people and communities connected. The train line between Edmonton and St. Paul, which the community members had helped to complete, was by no means quick (see Figure 2), but it was nevertheless reliable and, arguably, the common person's primary connection to the outside world. In 1946, the train was upgraded to daily service, and was by then fast enough to allow those from small lineside communities such as Bonnyville to come to the service town of St. Paul for the day, and make it back home in time for early evening.

Figure 2: Passenger Rail schedule from Edmonton to St. Paul, 1925
The schedule, from the 1925 Waghorn Guide, tells us that four return trips per week connected St. Paul and Edmonton. The train took an astonishing 10 hours to traverse 200 kilometers!

Vehicular Homicide: Killing Passenger Rail
The 1950s and 1960s marks a dramatic decrease in rail passenger demand (and supply of services) in North America, notably correlating with the post-war boom and the rise of the family automobile as the primary means of mobility. With each successive decade from the 1920s to present, a map of Canada's passenger rail service would get thinner and thinner (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Canadian Passenger Rail in the 1920s and 2000s compared
Compare the images above and below: The above 1921 map [digitally stitched together] shows CN's passenger rail service lines stretching throughout much of the country and into the United States. The map does not even include the competing service by CP, which also provided passenger service in the first half of the 20th Century. The present-day map below shows VIA Rail's only passenger service lines. Today, passenger rail does not pass through many major Canadian cities such as Calgary, Fredericton, and Regina.
The passenger rail service between St. Paul and Edmonton continued to be offered by CN into the early 1970s, but it was then quietly discontinued; the age of cheap oil had facilitated the rise of the automobile - and today the automobile is the only functional means for people to get in or out of St. Paul (aside from the Greyhound bus, which travels twice a day).

From Tracks to Trucks
For the meantime, freight services would take over as the main function of the St. Paul railway. As Brown's photograph attests, freight played an extremely important role in this largely agricultural region's economy. It is only after speaking with my partner's uncle Wayne, a longtime farmer from St. Paul, that I have come to begin to understand the centrality of the freight rail service (and the corresponding grain elevators) to the rural way of life: First, the rail service provided an efficient and cheaper way of bringing important farm inputs, ranging from fertilizers to heavy equipment, to the region. Second, the local grain elevators (and the agglomerations of farmers who owned them) provided local farmers with a sense of ownership and control over their product. They had a say in the local wheat pools, or at least knew who was serving on the regional board, and could make important decisions about their produce based on the buyer, the going price, and it's final destination (farmers like Wayne were even involved in loading their own rail cars with their own goods, for which they were paid a higher share of the product). Third, the elevators served as a rallying/ meeting point for local farmers. As Wayne put it: "We would come together and meet there, share ideas, discuss and network with other farmers." But as the past tense tone used here suggests, these important socio-economic functions of the regional freight railroad (and the grain elevators) are no longer available... they are no longer available because, within the last two decades, CN began to discontinue its freight services in parts of the region. Today, the evidence of a former era has been removed: The grain elevators have been torn down; the rails have been ripped out.

Covering Their Tracks
Now, it's one thing to discontinue passenger and freight rail service; it's quite another to rip out the tracks and dismantle the infrastructure! But this is precisely what would eventually happen in St. Paul, in a decision that Wayne describes as "beyond shortsighted". Today, the iconic prairie image captured by Brown's photograph is completely obliterated in St. Paul and many small agricultural towns like it. The previous landscape has literally been erased: The rails have been removed, buildings torn town, and power lines replaced (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: No more prairie skyline
It may be hard to believe - but this present-day photograph is taken from roughly the same vantage point as Ron Brown's original photograph above. The train station is gone; the five grain elevators are gone; the tracks have been uprooted and shipped away (by truck); new power lines have been put up to service the new housing developments; and as the photo shows, the municipality now piles excess snow where formerly there were train tracks. Photo by Laurie Krekoski, 2011.

How did this happen? Well, there are a myriad of reasons and forces which have come into play, some of which I will briefly touch on here. In some ways, the death of Brown's photograph is a parable of the local impacts of globalization. As mentioned above, the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of automobile-based infrastructure. Similarly, by the 1980s, freight companies such as CP and CN began to feel competing pressure from the trucking industry. The rail companies began to discontinue service in more remote areas, in order to cut back on losses to the trucking companies.

The privatization of CN in 1995 didn't help either. Thereafter, CN began looking into ways of downsizing services and increasing profit margins. In 1993, as CN eyed its future fate as a private corporation requiring new sources of finance capital, it put up secondary lines like the St. Paul rail corridor for sale. The idea was to keep servicing the area, but to raise funds by selling the valuable property to municipal stakeholders. The corridor was purchased by the County of St. Paul. Nevertheless, thanks to heavy lobbying efforts by recreational snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) groups, a plan was floated to consider turning the corridor into a 'linear park', a trail to be used for such recreational purposes. Meanwhile, the trains kept coming to St. Paul, collecting agricultural products and delivering various goods.

The final death-knell came in 1999, when CN announced it would abandon rail service in Northeastern Alberta. Two years later, the county held a referendum on the following question: "Do you support a municipally-regulated public trail on the soon to be abandoned CN railway right of way?" Three affected rural municipalities voted on the resolution, and a slight majority voted in favor - totaling the "Yes" vote to 54.1%. There was no legal requirement to obtain anything more than a simple majority, and thus the recreational park - later to be ironically dubbed the "Iron Horse Trail", began to be constructed shortly thereafter. Today, the trail is marketed as a tourist destination.

In St. Paul, the rails were removed and oddly, the grain elevators and historic station building were demolished (forget heritage status!). For Wayne, the decision to rid of the grain elevators was symbolic, and could be interpreted more sinisterly as a way to pit farmers against one another and consolidate the control of large multinational grain companies. Today, small-scale farmers do not have it easy - they are likely the ones who have lost the most from the disappearing railways and grain elevators. They have to arrange (and pay for) their own private transport of such inputs and their own agricultural output (by truck). Bringing in heavy equipment is extremely difficult and costly. Rather than have a say in coordinating the flow of their product with fellow collaborators at the regional wheat pools, they are all too often "told what to do" by the companies who own farmer's debts. This is the focus of Ingeborg Boyens' Another Seasons Promise.  As one review of Boyens' book notes:
Another Season's Promise explores the farm crisis not as a series of occasional individual losses caused by poor growing seasons, but rather as a perpetual structural phenomenon composed of many villains. Family farmers face down multinational agribusiness, pressure to grow genetically modified foods, the perils of factory farming, massive dependence on pesticides, and an increasingly distant federal government more interested in pleasing international trade bodies than supporting Canadian farmers.
The loss of the local elevators and railroad have played a small (but significant) role in this complicated process... but ironically, the way out of this mess would be much facilitated by the very infrastructure which helped build such farming communities in the first place. We must recognize that these hardships are being experienced in an era of relatively cheap oil. What will happen when the price of inputs and shipping skyrockets as a result of a higher oil prices? What will happen when we decide to take climate change seriously, and enact policies that limit the amount of fossil fuel use? How are small rural Canadian towns like St. Paul going to facilitate the mobility of people and goods when fossil fuel based automobiles and trucks are no longer a viable mode of transportation? It is thus clear why a local farmer and longtime community member like Wayne would see the dismantling of the rail infrastructure as shortsighted. This is not to suggest that a recreation trail is a bad thing (quite the contrary, publicly-owned recreation areas, and people coming together to have fun and be healthy is a good way to build community). The shortsighted aspect is that the replacement of rails and agricultural buildings clearly does not take into consideration the long-term community implications of losing such crucial infrastructure - the type of infrastructure that has played a pivotal role in the foundation of rural life in Canada.

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