Perhaps St. Albert and Edmonton will have commuter rail service between them … again. One hundred years ago, that dream was a reality courtesy of the Edmonton Interurban Railway.
The Edmonton Interurban Railway was born with the same prolonged deliberation as the potential future LRT line, and with as many hopes riding along too, including the birth of a village in between the two municipalities.
“The importance of it was great. It was a good connection between Edmonton and St. Albert at a high time when immigration was just starting. They had quite some plans at one of the stops for developing it into a new community,” said Hans Huizinga, the historical director at the Alberta Railway Museum and former director of heritage sites at St. Albert’s Musée Héritage Museum.
Getting the railway up and running would involve cutting-edge technology, a squadron’s worth of physical toil and an eccentric businessman. Shutting it down involved much, much less.
In the first several years after the turn of the century, Edmonton’s commissioner John Chalmers remarked on the importance of improved transportation.
“We are getting now to be a city of nearly 75,000 people and we have not a place within twenty miles where the people can spend an evening in the water,” he remarked, as quoted in Raymond Corley and Douglas Parker’s book on the subject, Interurban to St. Albert.
“Out at St. Albert, five miles from the city limits is a beautiful stream, suitable for canoeing and motor launches, with 16 miles of unobstructed navigation. We thought the time had come when some provision should be made to give the people of Edmonton that privilege.”
The unpaved road between Edmonton and St. Albert was known for being so muddy as to be impassable in wet weather, especially the hill up from St. Albert’s downtown.
To its proponents, the railway would be a godsend for passenger service and potentially for the transport of goods, but the feat would take much perseverance. It would also involve the service of the first hybrid vehicle in the province, a gas-electric streetcar built by the Drake Automatic Company of Chicago. The vehicle would tackle the weather and the terrain with very few drawbacks or safety concerns.
One city, one town, one village
St. Albert was already thought of by many to be a bedroom community because Edmonton (namely Fort Edmonton) was a workplace and St. Albert was practically a resort community: rustic, picturesque and fertile land with a river and a lake.
At the time immigration was high and Edmonton couldn’t accommodate its growing citizenship fast enough. It went from a bubbling 700 in 1892 to a boiling 8,350 by 1904 and earned city status two years later. Already forced to accommodate rapid growth, it then nearly septupled to well over 67,000 by 1913 with another 5,000 moving in the following year.
By comparison, St. Albert had already reached 700 citizens by 1870 but was barely over 1,000 souls in 1913. It still hasn’t matched Edmonton’s population of a century ago.
This meant that Edmonton was where the action was. St. Albert was, well, Quaint Albert. Many affluent Edmontonians had moved to scenic St. Albert, a town with a fine river and rich riverlot lands ripe for the taking even though everyone was still looking south. That included a fateful French expatriate.
Raymond Brutinel was an early 20th century man of industry. The wealthy French-born financier was “a very entertaining character,” observed local historian and author Tony Cashman.
Brutinel deserted the French army to immigrate to Canada in 1905 and his charisma was as legendary as his desire for progress.
“When he arrived back in France in 1915 with a machine gun company, he was arrested for desertion. The court found him quite charming, fined him something like five francs and that was it. He was a very lively character,” Cashman said.
The ranking military man moved to the area and brought his industriousness along with him. He was the editor of Edmonton’s Le Courrier de l’Ouest, the first French language newspaper west of Winnipeg. He also invested well in coal mines and made a good deal with St. Albert town council to install the first electric streetlights.
Railways were the future for both the people and Brutinel’s bank account. The Interurban was first proposed in 1908 but no one could get it going until Brutinel came along.
“The extension of radial systems of railways from Edmonton to points such as St. Albert is one means towards building here a great city,” said an editorial in the Edmonton Bulletin of Sept. 25, 1913.
That year, a real estate and insurance office had opened up in town. There was so much interest in the suburbs that even a new community, Summerland, was proposed near the Calder area. The railway line would connect all the dots across nine miles of unpaved bare earth from what was then Piron Street (now Perron Street) to the Calder district of Edmonton around 127 Avenue and 124 Street.
“Brutinel saw his railway … as part of a larger overall plan which would have St. Albert serve as a fashionable suburb of the city,” was the synopsis found in The Black Robe’s Vision, the most comprehensive book on St. Albert history.
“He anticipated that wealthy businessmen would erect palatial homes in the quiet, scenic community … and then commute to work in Edmonton via the railway.”
It took years to iron out the details of the Edmonton Interurban Railway’s pathway and permission between the two stops. Rather than construct a power plant to keep a purely electric car going, the company bought a hybrid streetcar for the 30-minute route.
“The cars are of gasoline-electric type and seat 44 people,” wrote Corley and Parker in Interurban to St. Albert, quoting the St. Albert Star newspaper of 1913, describing the vehicle.
“The present engines develop 90 horsepower and these run the electric generator which in turn is used to move the cars. The cars move much more quietly than a railroad train, but are capable of running 35 miles an hour.”
It was practical and luxurious. The vehicle still was finely appointed with dark oak and green plush upholstery to give riders the ultimate in comfort.
Service began on Sept. 30. For 25 cents a trip, you could ride one of three departures a day back and forth on EIR #1 and enjoy five stops along the way from St. Albert to Edmonton, with Summerland right in the middle.
An unscheduled stop
The railcar received its last paying passenger exactly six months after its first one.
On the night of March 31, 1914, a company employee was filling up the tank of the railcar while it was stationed inside its car barn. The gas ignited somehow and the resulting fire destroyed everything inside, car and all. The man escaped along with another night guard but the Edmonton Interurban Railway was out of commission, forever as it turned out.
Brutinel did not have full insurance. At the same time, the real estate boom was faltering and Summerland quickly faded away. The long-held dream of prosperity in real estate and in commuter rail service all went up in smoke. It was the end of the line.
The cause of the fire was never fully determined but Bob Clark, the founder of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, speculates that it was another case of careless smoking and of poor planning.
“They made the stupid mistake of not electrifying the system in the first place,” he opined, “and of course, if they had, they would never have had that fire. Some stupid idiot smoking while the other guy was filling the gas tank. If they’d gone for electricity in the first place, the same thing would have had a different history altogether.”
He speculates that, in that alternate reality, St. Albert would likely have had LRT service for years now.
Politicians and businesspeople went back to the drawing board immediately after the blaze, trying to renegotiate the return of the rail but it was never again to be. After three years of debate, everyone gave up.
Most of the tracks were dismantled and sold off for scrap on the wartime steel market. Without commuter rail service, people were right back to figuring out how to traverse the muddy path of St. Albert Road.
The Twin City Transfer Company set up bus service to pick up where the railway left off but it lasted only till 1917.
Brutinel didn’t hang around. In 1914 he had already moved on to develop and lead the Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade, the first fully mechanized unit of the British Army. He was a pioneer in the field of military mobility and is credited with developing the concept of indirect machine-gun fire.
The final ride on the last remaining segments of the Edmonton Interurban line took place in 1949. Several companies operated bus service in the ’50s and ’60s before St. Albert itself took over operations and resumed commuter service.
Some people suggest that the last vestiges of the Edmonton Interurban Railway can still be seen along Grandin Road and just south of the Holy Cross Cemetery along St. Albert Trail.
It’s not enough for some.
“I’d have liked to have seen something done to celebrate it,” Clark said. He said the Edmonton Interurban Railway hardly even registers in the history books anymore.
The St. Albert resident recalled perusing a local Franco-Albertan history book, one that he describes as a “day-to-day diary” of St. Albert, including an account of the accident on the Perron Street bridge just one week before service started on the Edmonton Interurban Railway.
“They had no single mention of the Interurban which, to me, was a vast oversight. It must have created some kind of a furore in the city.”