|Work details history of railway|
|Local Content - Staff blogs|
|Written by Trevor Busch|
|Wednesday, 13 February 2013 18:09|
Growing up in Canada’s Prairie provinces, even in the cities, one is never far away from the sharp blast of a horn, the bass rumble of a diesel engine throttling up, and the clatter of rusty rolling stock floating through a given community. Although the glory days of the railways and rail travel in Western Canada have come and gone, many communities still bear witness to these vital shipping arteries on a daily basis.
And while freight trains are not an unfamiliar sight in the West, passenger service by rail has all but disappeared, except for VIA Rail, which travels on Canadian National Railway lines. Along with the disappearance of passenger service, a lot of other aspects of early rail travel and shipping on the Prairies have also vanished — roundhouses, water towers, elevators, train stations, even whole communities — gone from a landscape that was once populated by hundreds of steam-powered behemoths, and where a shrill whistle marked an exclusive link to the outside world for isolated communities and their rugged settlers.
In Rails Across the Prairies: The Railway Heritage of Canada’s Prairie Provinces (Dundurn, Toronto, 2012) author Ron Brown explores the remaining examples of railway and early settlement history, cataloguing significant historical examples of train stations, elevators and other railway-related architecture throughout the Prairies.
Unfortunately, very little of these reminders of the past are still extent in small Prairie communities that dot our western provinces. Most stations have been demolished, removed from their original sites, converted to private homes, or simply abandoned to the elements and forgotten.
Rarer still are water towers, such as what once existed as Taber’s Tank 77 — very few examples of this vital railway infrastructure still exist in the west.
What was once known as an “elevator row” and was once visible in almost every Prairie community, has also disappeared except in a few notable locations — such as Warner, which still sports an “elevator row.” Perhaps rarest of all are the roundhouses — almost exclusively, these essential structures have been demolished, as they were not easily retrofitted for other uses once diesel eliminated the need for steam engines. One example, still on its original site but in a severely dilapidated state, remains in the community of Hanna.
Focusing mostly on existing examples of railway heritage, Brown’s Rails Across the Prairies covers a wide range of material, detailing everything from towns, stations, railway hotels, grain elevators, roundhouses, water towers, and railway bridges. Written in a topical chapter form, with individual headlines and paragraphs covering each individual example of railway heritage, the work does not flow with long-form narrative style chapters, but reads much more like a historical reference work, albeit collected in chapter form for easy reference.
Although Brown’s knowledge and grasp of the material is extensive, and obviously the product of some exhaustive research and travel, the overarching history of rail development and settlement history in Western Canada as background to Brown’s research could have been better handled. Although Brown touches on aspects of this throughout Rails Across the Prairies, those looking for a more comprehensive history of rail development in Western Canada would be better served by looking elsewhere. Still, for those readers more interested in the specific architecture of rail travel, Brown’s work is an excellent example.
Detracting from this overall excellence, however, are unfortunate instances of poor copy editing throughout Rails Across the Prairies. A bit more attention to the red pen of the editor would have done wonders in eliminating literally dozens of mistakes in punctuation and spelling, which tends to cast a pall over a book for any competent reader, no matter how interesting the source material or how well crafted the writing.
Brown writes in a rather matter-of- fact manner, without much embellishment, getting to the point succinctly. For some, a less flowery writing style is often an attractive departure for the average reader, especially when dealing with history written for the lay person. As for this reviewer, Rails Across the Prairies could have been well served by a bit more polish and salted with a few more adjectives before it went to press to make it a truly singular work.
The work does touch on some examples of local significance, including references to Retlaw, Vauxhall, Warner, and the construction of Lethbridge’s High Level Bridge.
A well-balanced work, Brown is not focused on one province’s architecture over another, with Alberta’s railway history featured as prominently as Manitoba’s or Saskatchewan’s.
Although suffering from some minor faults, Rails Across the Prairies is not your average populist history of railway architecture in Western Canada, but goes beyond to detail elements which would please the amateur architect or draftsman, while still remaining comprehensible enough to be entirely readable for those with no knowledge of such things. A good read for railway buffs and enthusiasts.