In the early 1880s, the Government of Canada put in place a policy of granting land subsidies to small railway companies in the hope these companies would build rail lines into areas of the Prairies distant from the Canadian Pacific main line and so open these areas to homesteaders.
One of these so-called “colonization” railways was the Great North West Central Railway (GNWC). The GNWC built and operated a rail line from Chater, which is just east of Brandon on the CPR main line, to Hamiota.
The original plan for this railway was more ambitious. The railway was to be called the Souris and Rocky Mountain Railway and the route to the Rockies to be taken was roughly the same as what the CPR main line follows today. The Souris and Rocky Mountain came into existence in 1880 when the CPR was considering a route farther to the north, however, the CPR changed its mind and proceeded to build its main line where it is today.
In 1880, the knowledge of the Prairies indicated that farming on the southern Prairies was going to be a difficult proposition but the northern Prairies were wetter and farming was feasible there. So the changing of the CPR main line route was a momentous decision.
One result was that the Souris and Rocky Mountain was pushed off its original route. However, it was then awarded a route to Battleford along with a 6,400-acre land grant for every mile built. Considering it was projected that this rail line would be 450 miles long, the land grant would have been substantial. At this time the railway’s name was formally changed to GNWC Railway.
- Read more: The Manitoba and North Western Railway
English money was behind the GNWC and construction began in 1887. One source indicates that construction of the line did not begin from Chater but rather from Gautier which is a location west of Rapid City. A railway called the Saskatchewan and Western Railway had built a line from Minnedosa to Gautier in 1886 and probably brought in material for the GNWC. The Saskatchewan and Western Railway is very much unknown and appears to have been connected to the Manitoba And North Western Railway (M&NW) which was in the process of being built from Portage to Yorktown. Just why the M&NW would choose to build a branch line to Gautier when its main line was unfinished, is an interesting question.
GNWC began building west from Gautier in 1888 and reached Hamiota in 1890. In 1889, the GNWC began to build south from Gautier to Chater where the GNWC connected with the CPR main line. The GNWC appears to have finished construction on this line in 1890. The GNWC also built a 3.5-mile line from Gautier into Rapid City in this period.
During this time, the GNWC came into dispute with the M&NW Railway. The GNWC wanted to run its line in the vicinity of Birtle and the M&NW objected to the GNWC being located close to its line. This may account for why the GNWC took two years to build from Gautier to Hamiota.
It appears the GNWC’s charter stated that the GNWC line to Battleford had to pass by the “mouth of the Qu’Appelle River” which appears to mean where the Qu’Appelle River empties into the Assiniboine River. No information is available as to why the change was desired. The GNWC may have wanted to move its line to the north to obtain a better crossing of the Assiniboine.
However, by 1890, the GNWC was in financial trouble. The English owners of the GNWC wanted the completed mileage turned over to them, however, the contractor who built this mileage was declining to do so. While the owners had advanced the contractor 100,000 British pounds, the line had cost the contractor 200,000 British pounds.
To complicate matters the line was not constructed to the agreed-upon standards. Litigation ensued on this matter. However, until the law case was settled and the line turned over to the GNWC, the bonds the GNWC had hoped to float in the market to finance construction of the remainder of the GNWC could not be sold. The GNWC went into bankruptcy in 1891, was reorganized under new management and began operations in December of 1891.
It would appear the GNWC was not a terribly profitable operation given the length of line it operated. Today there is no definite information as to the cars and locomotives the GNWC owned and there is no information as to whether the railway even owned a shop to service the equipment.
The GNWC was leased in 1900 by the CPR. The CPR extended the line west to Miniota in 1900, built a line from Forrest to Lenore and a line from north of Forrest to MacGregor.
In the early years of CPR operation on these lines, all had daily passenger service to and from Brandon along with freight train service which was probably on an “as-needed” basis. The effects of the Depression in the 1930s was to reduce the service on each of the lines to twice-weekly “mixed” trains.
These trains left Brandon around 7 a.m. and returned to Brandon in the late afternoon. The train was called “mixed” as it consisted of passenger equipment and freight cars. Probably the passenger equipment varied according to demand and could consist of an express car, baggage car and a passenger car or a “combine” which was a car outfitted with a bulkhead in the middle with one half equipped to carry passengers and the other half equipped to carry baggage. The baggage could consist of passenger luggage, mail-order parcels, cream cans, egg crates, shipments of poultry, beer and about anything else the CPR could get into the car through the side doors of the combine or baggage cars used on these mixed trains.
If traffic volumes were large enough, then an additional express or baggage car would be added to a train. The passenger equipment used on mixed trains was usually wooden equipment retired from main line service.
Heat in the passenger cars could be supplied by steam taken off the engine, however, the cars probably were also equipped with pot-bellied stoves. Freight cars were usually marshalled in a mixed train between the engine and the passenger equipment as railways had found that it was safest to handle cars carrying passengers at the rear of the train wherever possible. As most freight cars did not come equipped with steam lines, when in a mixed train with freight cars, the passenger trains would need stoves for heat. Probably in the wintertime, there were few freight cars on these trains so steam heat could often be used.
The freight cars on the mixed trains on these lines were largely boxcars hauling grain but could also be tank cars hauling petroleum products, stock cars and flatcars hauling farm machinery. As the mixed train made its way down the line, it would stop at the stations on the line to pick up and drop off passengers and less than carload shipments.
While at the station the train crew would do any necessary switching of freight cars at grain elevators, dealerships and other locations around the station. So mixed trains were leisurely affairs. If a loaded stock car was included in the train then it could be quite a smelly one as well!
Stations along these lines served a number of purposes. As the stations were linked by telegraph the stations could aid in train control. While individual trains on these lines were probably governed by written train orders issued before a train left Brandon, changes to these orders did occur and could be telegraphed to a station or stations which would pass the revised order to the train crew.
The station and the agent would also handle less than carload freight such as mail-order parcels, cream cans and so on. The station agent also kept the car order book which grain elevators at this location had to use to order boxcars for the loading of grain. The agent would also notify the train dispatcher when cars were loaded and available for forwarding to the Lakehead. The agent would also notify the dispatcher when tank cars and other cars unloaded at a location were available to be picked up and returned to where they were needed for loading.
In the days before the modern telephone system appeared, the railways operated a public telegram service using their telegraph systems and the station agent was largely responsible for taking down the message, sending and receiving it and forwarding on to people any messages sent to them via the station. If a train was passing through a station without stopping, the agent was expected to inspect the train as it passed by to watch for anything that may be out of order.
With the development of modern roads in the area by the early 1960s, passenger service came to an end and mixed trains on these lines were discontinued. Freight service resumed, however, over time all of the lines were abandoned. The bulk of the trackage was gone in the first round of branch line abandonment in the early 1970s with the remainder gone by the early 2000s.
While few traces of the GNWC can now be found, this trackage should not be seen as a failure. It opened up a sizable slice of west-central Manitoba to settlement in a time period when the only transport alternative was a wagon which was slow, limited in capacity and hindered by poor or non-existent roads.
While settlers often did move into areas of the Prairies well in advance of the building of a rail line into the area, they often struggled with long hauls to market for the commodities they did produce. These long hauls were not only expensive but gave rise to bitter claims by the settlers that grain buyers would offer lower prices to them as the buyer knew the producer was not likely to haul the grain back home.
When rail lines appeared, so did competition to purchase producers’ grain along with the opportunities to produce other commodities such as cream, hogs and so on as transporting them to market was now possible. In addition, the people in the areas enjoyed more competition for the sale of inputs, supplies and services to them as merchants followed the rail lines into various areas.