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McArthur's railway: the Cold Lake Branch.

Along abandoned, but partially discernable railway grade runs south easterly from near Hylo, Alberta towards the confluence of the Little Beaver and Amisk rivers, and some distance beyond towards St. Lina, Alberta. (1)

Rails were laid down from the commencement point near Hylo, known as Dewar Junction. (2) It was located along the Alberta & Great Waterways Railway (AGW & R) main line which ran from Dunvegan Yards (then outside Edmonton) to Lac La Biche.

Although plans were drawn up, a railway trestle was never built across the Beaver River. However, the grade was constructed along the south side of the Beaver River, from a location immediately east of where Secondary Highway No.866 crosses the fiver to a point near St. Lina. This rail line was apparently intended to run at least as far east of Cold Lake, near the Saskatchewan border.

The following news item appeared in the Edmonton Bulletin in 1917:
 The Cold Lake Branch of the AGW
 railroad turning off about ten miles south
 from Lac la Biche will be under
 construction during the summer. Already
 the steel reaches to Egg Lake and the
 completion of this feeder will open up
 very valuable country to the A.& GW
 railroad. (3)

The "valuable country" in the eyes of J.D. McArthur, (4) who was not only one of Canada's foremost railway builders, but also a lumber magnate, were the large stands of white spruce that existed along this rail line. The North West Lumber Company Limited, which he also controlled, acquired a number of timber berths in the Lac La Biche region. This was at a time when loggers were required to leave spruce trees smaller than 14 in. at the stump. There were apparently many trees south of Missawawi (Egg) Lake which exceeded 24 inches in diameter.

The Lac La Biche Detachment diary written by Constable Fred G. Moses of the Alberta Provincial Police, noted, among other things, that "the construction gangs on the new branch of railway are all still busy working in the Beaver River vicinity." (5)

Logs were transported by rail from along the initial stretch of the Cold Lake branch, the main line and nearby spur lines to North West Lumber's sawmill at Dunvegan Yards. As stated in an article in Edmonton Bulletin, under the by-line, "Development of the North is of Amazing Proportions--Lumber Industry of Tremendous Importance:"
 The extent of the lumber industry of the
 north is scarcely appreciated in other
 parts of the country ... On the Waterways
 [now part of Fort McMurray] Railway
 near Lac la Biche, the North West Lumber
 Co. has a cut of eight million feet of logs.
 These logs will be hauled to Edmonton by
 rail and cut at the company's mill at
 Edmonton. In all a log cut of nearly forty
 million feet on the McArthur railway
 lines employing men during the winter
 and supplying during the summer. The
 prairie farmers need lumber. The railway
 alone makes possible the bringing of this
 vast amount of needed building material
 within the reach and means of the prairie
 farmer. (6)

The timber from the Lac La Biche region in large measure also supplied McArthur's needs for heavy beams, railway ties, and bridge pilings.

Shay locomotives were often used on the spur lines. These geared steam locomotives generated a distinctive squealing sound instead of the "chuff-chuff-chuff" of a conventional locomotive.

Apparently a good man could hack 50 ties a day with a broad axe for 10 cents per tie. (7) Wages were 10 cents per hour, and 25 cents per hour if a man had his own team of horses and fed them. These logging operations provided considerable employment during the winter months, particularly for the predominantly Italian settlers in the Hylo-Venice district.

According to a local history book, Hylo-Venice Harvest of Memories:
 From 1914-19, the Northwest [sp]
 Lumber company had 1000 loggers
 working out of five camps in the Burnt
 Lake area. (Twp.65-55-15-W4) during
 the winter. Logs were laid on the ice and
 floated to the South side of the lake in the
 Spring. They were then loaded onto flat
 cars and carried to Dunvegan Yards
 where they were sawed. (8)

This bustling activity came to an abrupt end when the Great Fire of 1919 (9) swept through the region, and far beyond, on May 19, 1919. There was so much smoke and consequent darkness that many thought there was an eclipse of the sun. This cataclysmic fire roared unchecked from west of Lac La Biche to north of Prince Albert. Copper telegraph wires melted from the intense heat. This forest fire consumed an estimated 7 million acres (2,833,000 hectares). (10)

Constable Moses has the following entry in his Detachment diary for May 19, 1919:
 Cold, fine, Eclipse of the Sun. High wind.
 Thunder and Lightning. Fires all over.
 Lac La Biche burnt out. Big fires at Mile
 128 and 130. Dark in afternoon. (11)

In addition to the great loss of standing, merchantable timber, the North West Lumber Company's loading platform at Camp 4, south of Hylo, was consumed by this fire together with a number of flat cars loaded with logs. There was also considerable damage to the rail line as the terrific heat burnt many ties.

The Moses diary noted on August 27, 1921, that: "Seven Miles of steel are to be picked up from the Cold Lake Branch near Hylo in the near future." (12) This diary also noted on September 17, 1921, that: "Const. Moses by hand speeder to Hylo. Dinner at Mile 100 and down Cold Lake spur and by foot to Bouchards and Catalano's Beaver River and returned late [and that] The work of lifting the rails on the Egg Lake spur being already lifted, it will take a little over two weeks before 7-miles in all to be lifted." (13) Apparently the steel was all up for the week ended September 24, 1921. (14)

An article in the Edmonton Journal (15) almost five years later reported that the Minister of Railways said, "No" positively to a resolution by Joseph Dechene, the Liberal MP for Beaver River Constituency, to complete the railway line to St. Lina.

Thus ended the railway line for which a railway plan was never filed. (16)


(1) Ena Schneider, Ribbons of Steel, Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Limited., 1989.

(2) Place Names of Alberta, Geographic Board of Canada, King's Printer, 1928

(3) Edmonton Bulletin, April 17, 1917.

(4) There are references to McArthur in "Ribbons of Steel," op.cit. Alberta History supra, (1981) vol.29, no.4, and Gregory A. Johnson, ed.: Lac La Biche Chronicles: The Early Years, Lac La Biche: Portage College, 1999.

(5) Lac La Biche diary, Alberta Provincial Police, July 31, 1917. Glenbow Archives.

(6) Edmonton Bulletin, April 10, 1917.

(7) The late Joe Bonifacio, personal communication.

(8) "Hylo-Venice Harvest of Memories," by Cecile Kirkbride, Rose Country Communications, 2000.

(9) Peter J. Murphy, History of Forest and Prairie Fire Control in Alberta. Alberta Energy and Natural Resources, ENR Report No. T/77, 1985; Joseph F. Dion, My Tribe the Crees, Calgary: Glenbow Archives, 1979.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Lac La Biche Detachment diary, Alberta Provincial Police, for the week ended May 19, 1919, Glenbow Archives.

(12) Lac La Biche Detachment diary, Alberta Provincial Police, for the week ended August 27, 1921, Glenbow Archives,

(13) Lac La Biche Detachment diary, supra, for the week ended September 17, 1921. Glenbow Archives

(14) Lac La Biche Detachment diary, supra, for the week ended September 24, 1921. Glenbow Archives.

(15) Edmonton Journal, March 26, 1926.

(16) "Ribbons of Steel," op.cit.

The author is a retired lawyer living in Lac La Biche and served as mayor there from 1990 to 1995. He was the recipient of an Emerald Award in 1998 for Preservation and Conservation, and a Canadian Environment Awards Conservation Gold Medal in 2003.
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Title Annotation:J.D. McArthur
Author:Maccagno, Tom
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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