Many of the communities in central Alberta owe their existence to the politics and realities of building the railroad. When the Macdonald Government approved the development of a railroad that would reach the British Columbia coast they knew that the interior would have to be populated in order to financially support the railroad companies. This resulted in granting large land tracts to the railroad company involved in building the railway, a homestead act that encouraged development of the west, and an immigration policy that encouraged people to settle in the west.
Once the main line had been completed in 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) quickly realized that there was a need to develop branch lines to other established communities. With a major north-south stagecoach line already in existence between Calgary and Edmonton it did not take the railroad long to see the obvious advantage of building a branch line to Edmonton.
After several failed attempts the Calgary-Edmonton Railway Company was formed in 1890 to lay the tracks to Edmonton and then lease the railway to the CPR. A year later the railroad had reached Strathcona and the first passengers where travelling the line by 1892. A four-day stagecoach ride had been reduced to 12 hours and would later be reduced to five hours. In 1913 the High Level Bridge was completed and Calgary passengers could now step off in downtown Edmonton for the first time.
For the most part the line followed the established stagecoach route, but the railroad could be swayed to alter the line, from time to time, if they were given an incentive to do so. The best example of this was when Rev. Leonard Gaetz offered the railroad a half interest of 1200 acres of land to build the railroad on his land. This decision resulted in the development of the City of Red Deer occurring on Rev. Gaetz’s land and the end of a community located near Fort Normandeau called the Crossing.
Some of Alberta’s earliest communities were created, disappeared, or relocated based on the railroad’s decision where to build. A railroad line, in progress, is a living organism, it needs workers, supplies, and an income. Many communities would pop up on the very practical approach the railroad took to build a line. The railroad companies realized that approximately every 8 to 10 kilometers they needed to establish a siding to accommodate material and workers. Here they would encourage homesteaders and small businesses to assist in supplying the needs of the railroad both in the short and long terms.
The railroad would pull in a boxcar, put a peaked roof on it and establish a railroad way station. Most way stations like Kavanagh would remain as a hamlet or would disappear never seeing the growth like the principal stations. Nisku and Ellerslie were two way stations that would grow and be absorbed into a larger community.
Approximately every 20 kilometers the railroad would expand the station to accommodate an expanded demand. Here communities would flourish. Wetaskiwin, Millet, and Leduc were three such examples of communities that would develop and be able to adapt to conditions as the railroad took a smaller role in the community.
Today citizens go about their jobs and life not realizing that the events of the 1890’s have had an affect on where their communities are located and how the communities acquired their names. It is hard for people today to realize, in the beginning, that the railroad was the prime employer, customer, and supplier for most communities. This is part of the legacy the railroad has provided the citizens of central Alberta.