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Brandon CPR yard a snapshot of history

Close examination of this photo reveals much of early life in the Wheat City


In the photo collection of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum there are several photos of the CPR’s Brandon rail yards taken around 1912. The photo of the Brandon yard you see here appears to have been taken off the First Street Bridge looking to the west.

On the left side of the photo, the first building is a coal shed used to store heating coal. Brandon had a number of coal sheds at the time. Coal was brought in by boxcar, shovelled by hand out of the cars and into the sheds through doors such as seen on the side of this building.

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The dark-coloured building beyond the coal shed is the Massey-Harris warehouse. In 1913, Massey-Harris purchased a newly built multi-storey concrete and brick warehouse farther to the west between Pacific and Rosser Avenue.

The building to the west of the original Massey-Harris warehouse is one that is unidentified at this time.

However, across Pacific Avenue from the unidentified building is the Dominion of Canada Immigration Hall where new immigrants to the Brandon area could come, obtain housing for a few days and get organized before either moving to a homestead or obtaining work.

Families and single women were accommodated in rooms, with single men being housed in a dormitory. Cooking facilities were provided, but in a separate building to reduce the threat of fire. While the facility was spartan, the Dominion of Canada provided it free of charge. The immigrant halls also served, to some extent, to protect immigrants from con artists and hucksters who preyed upon them.

The Brandon Immigration Hall was built in 1904, to a standardized plan used by the government. The building had three floors, however, the dormers in the roof and a window in the peaked end wall indicate that the attic was also in use.

The Dominion of Canada operated a system of immigrant halls across Canada. At the height of the system, 50 were in operation. Initially they were called immigration sheds and were located at ports such as Montreal and Quebec City. Sheds were also built at inland points such as Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. In 1872, sheds were constructed at London, Ont. and Winnipeg.

The initial Winnipeg shed was in the area of The Forks and had a capacity of 250 people, however, within a year a second shed was added, bringing capacity to 500 people. With the arrival of the CPR, a new immigration hall was built close to the Winnipeg CPR station.

However, immigration was such that in the next 10 years, two more halls were built in Winnipeg close to the CPR station. In 1906, a brick and stone immigration hall was built beside the CPR station in Winnipeg with at least one of the earlier wooden halls being retained. At some point in time an immigration hall was built close to the CNR station in Winnipeg.

The larger immigrant halls at major centres such as Winnipeg provided advice to immigrants to Western Canada about land and jobs and then the immigrants could travel on to halls in the smaller centres close to where they had determined they wanted to go to.

On the right side of the photo is the Western Canada Flour Mills Company Brandon operation. There are a number of CPR boxcars visible beside the low warehouse next to the mill, which are probably loading bagged flour. The boxcars of the time were not suitable to load with bulk flour, as leakage would have been substantial with such fine material. Contaminant would have been another issue.

In between the mill complex and the yard is the CPR’s ice house where ice for refrigerated cars was stored. When a car needed icing the car was spotted beside the building and ice blocks were brought out onto the second-storey deck, which was at the height of the car roof. Often the ice blocks were broken up into chunks and salt was added before the entire mass was shovelled through the car’s roof hatches into the ice bunkers. Salt improved the ice’s ability to cool.

On the immediate right of the photo is the ramp which accessed the side of the First Street Bridge in between the Assiniboine River and the CPR yards. It allowed traffic to more easily access the area north of the yards including the Western Canada Flour Mills operation, an important consideration for wheat being teamed in from north of the city.

There is a tie-in between this photo and the photo used in the earlier Manitoba and North Western Railway article. That photo showed a steam shovel loading fill material onto several flatcars. In this photo we see the flatcars with fill material being brought into the Brandon yard.

It is quite noticeable in the photo here that the yard is being redeveloped as the tracks to the right of the flatcars simply end a little further, there are stacks of ties and rails and there is an uncompleted switch in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo. It appears that the CPR was significantly altering the yard, probably to accommodate the significant increase in rail traffic the CPR was experiencing at the time.

The tracks to the west of the bridge comprised the passenger coach yard, where passenger coaches were stored when unneeded. The CPR station was beyond the Eighth Street Bridge, which can be seen spanning the passenger coach yard in the distance.

Behind the photographer was the freight yard where freight cars were stored, sorted and assembled into trains. Also in this area was the CPR roundhouse where steam engines were serviced. Railways did not like to store the passenger equipment close to the roundhouses, as the smoke and cinders resulting from the engines dirtied everything in the area.

The flatcars are transporting fill that was needed for the yard redevelopment. To dump the material off the cars the railways used a plow. At the head of the flatcars is another car and in front of this car is a steam locomotive which is running tender first. The car was equipped with a very large winch powered by a steam engine which is why the engine is running with the nose of the engine against the winch car. Steam was taken off the locomotive to power the winch so avoiding the need for a boiler and fireman on the winch car.

One can see in the photo a heavy cable running on top of the piles of material on the cars. One end of the cable was wound around the winch drum and the other end fastened to a plow sitting on the last flatcar of the string. Iron plates were fastened with hinges to one end of each flatcar in the string and spanned the gap to the next car. The plate just laid unfastened on the deck of this car so allowing lateral movement in a curve. These plates prevented material falling on the tracks between the cars which potentially could derail the cars. When the cars reached the area where fill was needed then the train was halted and the winch hauled the plow forward pushing the material off the cars.

When you look at the left side of the photo you can see fill has been dumped to the right of the coal sheds. Given the volume of fill needed, it is likely flatcars were used to accomplish this. Given at times the railway would want to dump material off either side of the cars or both sides, the railways probably had left-handed plows, right-handed plows, and V plows, available to accomplish this.

It is known that often when the rail line construction came to a ravine or similar depression, to speed construction they would build a trestle over the area rather than attempting to build an embankment using horses and fresno scrapers. At a later date they would fill the trestle in with fill using flatcars unloaded by a plow. So if you wonder how the high railway embankment over the ravine just south of Binscarth and similar embankments were constructed, you now know how they did this.

About the author

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Alex Campbell is a dedicated volunteer and Member of the Interpretation Committee at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. http://ag-museum.mb.ca/

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