Lost in the land of living skies.

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.

View from a road crossing looking west towards the transfer track (used by both Forty Mile Rail & Canadian Pacific). The Stirling, Alberta Richardson Pioneer high-output grain elevator is in the distance.

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!

Deer crossing 85 pound rail in front of the grain 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.

Long hood forward!

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.

Going up the hill towards Judson.

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.

Grain train by an abandoned farmyard east of Judson

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.

Power is supplied by a former Southern Pacific GP9 locomotive (3877), rebuilt by J&L Consulting (JLCX 4004) and delivered to Forty Mile Rail in the fall of 2016.

Another wave to the crew as they headed east, and I was back into the car.

A classic prairie scene!

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.

Looking towards the Wheat Kings in the hamlet of Wrentham, Alberta.

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.

The grain train approaching the 1925 Ogilvie Flour grain elevator in Wrentham. This particular elevator is the last Ogilvie Flour branded wooden elevator left in the province of Alberta.
The grain train heading east past by the former 1968 Alberta Wheat Pool elevator in Wrentham.

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!

Prairie Lines
A friendly train crew on this trip!

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.

Looking east towards Skiff, Alberta with a spring thunderstorm in the background. Farther east is an private built wooden grain elevator in a farmer’s yard.

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.

The grain train going past the 1929 Parrish & Heimbecker grain elevator in Skiff. Originally an Ellison Milling elevator, P&H purchased it in 1975. It was sold off in the early 2000s to a local area farmer who continues to use it.
Heading east – thunderstorm clouds on the horizon!

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 SailerText and photographs Copyright 2017

10 thoughts on “Wheat Kings and Pretty Things

  1. I know I would love to chase this train! Great photos and text, Jason, and it was a pleasure to explore this line a few years ago before it was reactivated.

  2. Nice little adventure story. I knew from the start you did not give yourself enough time. :o) But you did well and got some great shots. I visited the line in Oct 2016. The unit was at Foremost. Oh how I wished I could have had the ‘chase’ that you did.

    1. Thanks Arnold. Understandably, but since it was in Mother’s Day I didn’t want to push my luck 😉 Like the old saying “happy wife, happy life” – I have been lucky to chase the train twice since they have been running.

  3. Wow you have some of the most spectacular prairie scenery out there! That’s a great story tied together with great photos, well done!

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