One day this spring,through a Facebook group, I was apprised that the local short line, Forty Mile Railway, had received empty grain hoppers from Canadian Pacific (CP) at their transfer track just east of Stirling on the former CP Stirling subdivision, and that Forty Mile would be moving the cars sometime the next day. After some text messages to my contacts in Foremost, it was confirmed around 8:00 am on Sunday (which was Mother’s Day) that the Forty Mile train would be heading east towards Foremost. After talking with my wife Becky, we agreed that I would get the morning to chase the train and then the afternoon I’d take her and our daughter Kayla out west to the Crowsnest Pass for a relaxing drive.
Early Sunday morning I got up and was out the door by 6:45 am. A quick stop at Tim Hortons and I am southbound on Highway 4 towards Stirling. The sky is overcast but the weatherman is promising blue skies in the afternoon, so we shall see if he is correct! Turning east onto Highway 61 I continued for five minutes or so and over the hill I see the blue GP9 sitting on the transfer track and nine hoppers in tow. I also see a pickup truck parked by the locomotive and the engineer is out checking things over. Great! I continue a bit farther east to park at a grade crossing, where the railway line begins its gradual ascent out of the valley. About half an hour later (just after 8:00), the pickup truck with the engineer is heading east to Foremost. (I assumed to pick up the conductor and to get the paperwork for the trip.) Knowing it takes 45 minutes to drive to and from Foremost, I will have a bit of a wait until things get underway, so I check out the track and grade crossing behind me and watch a local area farmer down the road doing field work.
Around 10:00, the pickup truck returned, heading past my location to the train, and about 15 minutes later the headlights turned on and I could see a puff of blue smoke from the exhaust – the train was about to leave!
If you don’t know about the Stirling subdivision, the track is rated at a top speed of 25 mph, though there are sections that the speed is reduced to 15 and 10 mph. The track is in decent shape, but the number of years the line sat dormant in CPR service (and with the limited maintenance on the line) has degraded the condition of the ties, etc. Forty Mile did a bit of work last fall to get the line operational, but will have to continue to do work over the next few years to get it back to top condition. But the train speed would be a benefit for me as I could get into better locations to photograph and be ready to capture the shots I want without worrying about time constraints, etc. Also, some portions of the track are farther away from Highway 61 so the slower train speed would help me drive to the next location without worrying about missing the train.
As the train headed towards me, a white-tailed doe and her baby came out of the brush and jumped across the track, well ahead of the train!
The train then headed by my location, and with a wave from both the conductor and engineer, and a horn blast, off it went eastward.
I jumped into the car and headed down Highway 61. Just before Judson the track ascends a grade, so I got to the top of the hill, parked, and ran over to trackside to photograph the train coming up the hill.
Another wave to the crew and I was off down the road to the next location just outside an abandoned farm. I sat there and took a few more photos of the puffy white clouds and towards the abandoned farm.
Not long afterwards the train appeared on the horizon and I took a few more long-range shots, including the train passing the abandoned farm.
Another wave to the crew as they headed east, and I was back into the car.
Getting closer to the Highway 36 intersection, I pulled over to photograph the distant wheat kings in the hamlet of Wrentham and also some long-range shots of the train with the puffy clouds in the background.
A bit more driving took me into Wrentham and I set up just on the northeast corner of the Ogilvie Flour grain elevator. (I am involved with a group of like-minded individuals to preserve it, the Ogilvie Wooden Grain Elevator Society.) Soon enough the Forty Mile train came into sight and a flurry of photos followed.
With another wave to the crew I was off to the next location at Conrad.
Nothing remains at Conrad except two former grain elevator agent houses. At one time two grain elevators were located here as well as a wooden octagonal water tower. Those relics are long gone unfortunately, including a vintage wooden siding sign that I’d hope to include in a shot with the blue GP9 – oh well!
As I waited for the train, I noticed to the southeast a spring thunderstorm coming up from Montana, so I photographed the darkening clouds and how the Sweetgrass Hills were being enveloped by the thunderstorm. After the train passed through Conrad, we both headed east towards Skiff. I stopped just before the curve on Highway 61 to photograph a farmer’s tractor and the darkening thunderstorm clouds in the background.
Also at this location, the remaining Skiff elevator and the private elevator of the Kuehn family was framed nicely in the distance with the dark clouds. Then I continued to Skiff, as the train at this time was going behind some low hills. As I was setting up at Skiff on the 80 lb elevator siding track, I realized I had spent about two and a half hours chasing this train, and figuring the distance left to cover, it would be another hour before it got to Foremost. With my previous commitment to Becky for a trip to Crowsnest Pass, I decided that I would have to cut the chase short at Skiff and head back to Lethbridge. Within time the headlights of the blue locomotive were in sight and I photographed it going by the Skiff Parrish & Heimbecker grain elevator (now owned by a local farmer) and gave a final wave to the friendly train crew.
It was nice to see the train heading east with the black thunderstorm clouds approaching Foremost.
A day or two later I finished editing the photos and send them off to the folks at Forty Mile Railway for their use. I am looking forward to the next chase on the former Stirling subdivision! I know a few out-of-towners will appreciate accompanying me on the next chase down a prairie branch line on Alberta’s second short line railway.
Jason Paul Sailer – Text and photographs Copyright 2017