The Great Northern Line


The Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson's Bay Railway, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway from the U.S.,offered service from Brandon to the small town of St. John's, North Dakota where it made connections on the Great Northern lines south to Minneapolis, east to Duluth, and west through Montana to the coast.

The line, born as it was in the optimistic times of expansion, was perhaps doomed from the start, but it did have its impact for a few short decades on several communites south of Brandon, and in a limited way, on the city itself.

Where is Bunclody?

I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever heard of Bunclody, someone was making fun of the name. It was Vince Dodds, the morning man on our local (Brandon) radio station, and he had a running bit involving checking in on the exploits of the Bunclody Bridge Marching Band. Something like that, a gentle comment about small town life at a time when small towns were rapidly disappearing. It's a pleasant name, Irish in origin, and, yes, perhaps a bit fanciful when compared to the nearby communities - with their stolid, sensible names like Hayfield, Carroll, or Brandon.

In any case, the name must have impressed me enough to remember it, but not enough to prompt a visit for many years.
It wasn’t until decades later while scouting canoe trips on the Souris River that I made my first visit. Bridges are all-important when planning short river excursions, that's where one finds the most user-friendly access to the river, and I soon became acquainted with all such points in western Manitoba.

What a treat it was to finally see the place. Yes, you could see why the radio jokester had singled it out. By the sixties many former prairie villages were that in name only. It was as if we were reluctant to take down the road signs, change the road maps and admit defeat. Bunclody turned out to be just a shady roadside park nestled alongside a gravel road near the river where it brushed against the southern rim of a wide valley. It barely qualified as a ghost town! At first glance only the two cairns in the park gave evidence of any past settlement.

It's funny how you can miss things, and odd that in driving through the valley I didn't notice the way the road southward up out of the valley cut through a narrow ridge running along the hillside. Not so odd perhaps that on several trips up the gentle slope northwards from the river, I failed to notice the signs of a substantial embankment approaching the river a kilometre to the east; unmistakable evidence of a railway line. It's obvious if you know what you're looking for, but a quite unobtrusive element of the rolling valley landform if you don't. And its quite understandable that later as I paddled downstream from Souris to where our vehicle was waiting by the Bunclody Bridge, I failed to notice the same embankment curtailed on either side of the river. The constant erosion of a riverbank over a few decades had erased much of the evidence.

Can you spot the rail line embankment, along the
centre of this photo?

So what I missed seeing in my first visits to Bunclody was the evidence of a rail line that had once crossed the river at that point. It was another few years before a friend from the area told me about the rail line, and took me out to a neighbour's farm to see the huge concrete culvert at the base of what looked like a dam across a steep ravine. It is now almost plugged with debris, but he remembered playing in it as a child, taking the dare to pass through its 100 metre length to the other side. What looks like a dam is actually a bridge, timber-framed then stabilized by earth fill that hides the framework – a common way of crossing the deep cuts running towards the Souris River. On another trip to the area my wife and I climbed the cut bank along the roadside and followed the overgrown rail-line path, first south for a few kilometres, and then north for a ways until it abruptly ended, leaving us looking across the Souris River to where it continued on the other side. Knowing that, it was easy to recognize the signs in the river below, a small island that once served as a footing the center support for the bridge.

The old line is quite visible from the air. The elevator and station were about half a kilometre to the right.

And that's how I first learned about the oddly-named Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson's Bay Railway and its American parent company the famous  Great Northern Railway.
We all know about the importance of the railway in the development of the west. Those two venerable Canadian institutions; Pierre Berton and the CBC, have made it hard to escape the role the building of the C.P.R. played in our history. Railways have been romanticized, eulogized, and demonized, but never ignored.

Equally true however, is the fact that in much of rural Manitoba, and across the prairies, the rails are being abandoned, torn up and inevitably forgotten. The railway boom lasted only a few short decades before retrenchment began. For rural communities the presence of a rail link went from being indispensable to being inconsequential in a less than forty years. We had barely completed criss-crossing the land with lines when we began taking them up. Sometimes we built too many.

That may well be the case with the much-anticipated route from Brandon south to the U.S. Border, seen at the time as a forward-thinking link with the extensive Great Northern Railway. But to rural people in southern Manitoba at the end of the 19th century, there couldn’t be too many rail lines. Many of the first settlers had waited patiently for the first lines, which in many cases were delayed by the infamous “monopoly clause” in the governments deal with the syndicate that built the CPR.  Even after the Greenway government was able to end the 20-year monopoly in 1888, many farmers still had a long haul to get their grain to the nearest elevator and many complaints about the service they received, specifically6 the availability of an adequate number of rail cars in peak periods. Anything that would reduce the length of those trips, plus add an element of badly-needed competition was welcome. (Minnedosa  Telegram Nov. 17, 1906

It wasn’t just farmers who wanted this railway. There was a lot of boosterism associated with railway building. There was profit to be made in the building of the infrastructure and in the establishment of related services. The arrival of a rail link seemed to secure the fortunes of any small settlement and enhance the prospects of existing towns. This line was destined for a short life span, but in that short time it certainly did provide a much-need service, and made quite an impact along its route.

As early as 1898 Brandon's City Council was hearing proposals and rumours of proposals for a north-south line that would allow a direct link with the Great Northern Railway in North Dakota.[1] Such a line would provide a direct link to Minneapolis, the economic heart of the American mid-west. Brandon, having established itself early as an important stop on the CPR, was facing the possibility of being bypassed by other east-west lines and was determined to maintain its position by capturing a north-south line.

Rail lines as of 1900

The whole operation reflected the optimism of the times and the fact that no one could predict the path development would take on the Prairies. In particular, no one predicted the impact that the newly-invented automobile would have on transportation, and that it would quickly render passenger service unprofitable. Perhaps the most interesting, and perhaps slightly ironic aspect of the unknowable future was that the productivity allowed by better movement of farm products allowed farmers to expand their holdings, in turn sowing the first seeds of the rural depopulation that would be a contributing factor in the demise of rail service.

But that was all in the future. The present required growth and expansion, all facilitated by better transportation.

While the first plans failed to materialize, by 1903 the seeds of a workable proposal were being sown and spurred on by prominent local businessmen. Brandon's own Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, was likely a factor in the parliamentary approval for a charter for a line from the U.S. border to The Pas. That charter lapsed and had to be renewed in 1905, this time with the behind-the-scenes support of American J.J. (Jim) Hill of the Great Northern line for an operation to be known as "The Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson Bay Railway." [2] That catchy title certainly reflected the frontier optimism of the age of railway expansion. The first and, as it turned out, only stage of the project was to be a 115 kilometre track to a border crossing south of Boissevain where it would continue to connect with the Great Northern's well established U.S. network. It turns out that Hill had no intention of heading either to Saskatchewan or to Hudson Bay under Great Northern ownership. [3]

There were several issues that the city fathers had to confront. Of course the C.P.R. objected, that was to be expected. Some objected on the grounds that it was an American intrusion into the market that would divert trade from Canadian routes. Others had reservations concerning the ownership of the Great Northern. Jim Hill had been invol
ved in the original development of the C.P.R. and at one time had hoped that the eastern portion of the new line would pass beneath the great lakes through the U.S., facilitating easy links with his other holding and providing the basis for a North American rail empire. When the decision was made for an all-Canadian route he withdrew from the project. Some said his main motivation in establishing this North South link was to get back at the C.P.R. It is more likely that Hill simple wanted to expand his operations in a most logical fashion with another Canadian link. [4]

There was a necessary and habitual attempt at secrecy, mainly to forestall land speculation that would drive up the prices of required stations and related property, and also because of local opposition to the American ownership. The local promoters tried to maintain pretense at first, to a Canadian component to the corporation, but it turned out to be totally a Great Northern operation. After witnessing the orgy of land speculation and townsite swindles that preceded the C.P.R. on its pathway west, the railways had learned a lesson and regularly went to such lengths as to develop secret telegraph codes. Thus a communication from R.I. Farrington to Louis Hill on August 7, 1905 read: "Duchy Jame Alfred anything dwindle about reasoning for brusher outlive loquacious." Translated it meant, "Do you wish anything done about rail for Brandon line" [5]

Most Brandonites were all for the new line. And those along the proposed route could see the possibilities. For many farmers it would cut the distance they had to haul grain. Aside from the historical reason fro distrust of the CPR, there had been some widespread dissatisfaction with that railway, amid concern about inefficient grain handling and allegations of collusion with elevator companies to the detriment of producers. For all rural people along the proposed line it mean greatly increased options for convenient travel.

Once the deal was struck the line was started without delay, beginning in 1905, and decisions were made quickly regarding the route and placement of stations. Despite the best effort of the rival lines to stall the establishments of the necessary crossings at Wakopa, Boissevain and Minto, the line worked its way northward at an astonishing pace. Rights of way were purchased. Established communities of the Boissevain, Minto, and, of course Brandon would be on the route. New sites of Bannerman, Bunclody, Hayfield and Heaslip were surveyed, although not all developed into villages. A deal was struck with McCabe Elevators for grain handling facilities and Great Northern cash was provided up front to build the twelve facilities. Even the sites of Fairburn, Alcester, Griffin, Healip, McKelvie and Roseland would have elevators but even in those optimistic times villages were not anticipated.

While stations were located at most of the villages even stops that didn't evolve into real villages got waiting rooms complete with pot-bellied stoves. Stops like Beverly (originally called Webster) and Hebron, closely spaced between Bunclody and Hayfield, and known as "sidings", got loading platforms. Several sites had dwellings for section foremen and bunkhouses for crew. Water towers, a vital part of the infrastructure in the days of the steam locomotives, were closely spaced on this line with structures at Bannerman, Boissevain, Minto, the Souris River Crossing near Bunclody, Hayfield and Brandon. Each had a pumping manager in charge. Crucial to the whole operation was a 30 year contract to carry the mail. Post offices were established along the line or in several cases moved to be closer to the line. [6]  By 1906 the trains were running, bringing an immediate benefit to local farmers, improved mail delivery, easier access to both Brandon and the point in the US, and a much improved distribution of consumer good into the rural area.

According to Great Northern records, the line ended up costing $2547281.37. [7] That price was perhaps a little steeper than they had intended. The CPR competed for contractors, offering work on its own lines and thus boosting prices. The GN countered by offering local farmers work on the easier grades with contracts going out in 1906. A story in the Boissevain Record insisted that between three and four thousand men were employed in that year. It was the only common carrier railway line ever build in Manitoba with no public subsidy of land or money, in fact, it often paid inflated prices for land. [8] The extra cost was the first in a series of circumstances that limited the profitability of the line.

A Ride on the GN Line

Let's hop on board as the train departs from St. John's, North Dakota, just a few kilometers south on the Manitoba / US border where connections could be made to points south (Minneapolis) and points west on the Great Northern Line.

In charge is St. John local, Charlie Bryant, long time conductor, well-known to folks all along the line, a man who wouldn't hesitate to make an unscheduled stop or other accommodation for a good customer.

The line stretches across flat prairie, broken here and there by a slough ringed by low willows, a low bunch of aspens in the corner of a fenced pasture, and a farmyard with the beginnings of a shelterbelt. To the left (west) in the distance is the outline of Turtle Mountain, low and thickly wooded with oak and aspen. But straight ahead lies an uneventful horizon.

Before long we're at the border and four kilometers past that is the newly-founded village of Bannerman, a place that owes its existence solely to the railway.


The site is still quite visible on Google Earth while very little evicence remains on the ground.

Of all the newly created and boosted villages along the line, the rise and fall of Bannerman was the most dramatic. The new rail line. coming as it did from our southern neighbour, required a Port of Entry, naturally the first stop after a border crossing. A spot on NE 15-1-18 was suitable and available. Settlement in the area, just three kilometres from the US border dates from around 1880 when James Henderson Sr. was the first settler to file in this vicinity. In 1905 as line approached, the town of Bannerman sprang into existence with excitement and a sense of possibility, the first and only port of entry by rail west of Emerson in Manitoba.  The Manitoba Telegram ventured the opinion that it would become “ a good live town” and that “busy little centres will be established” at all the townsite points along the route. [9]

There was of course a rush to build homes, businesses and an elevator and Bannerman quickly developed a boomtown atmosphere. A hotel with large dining room and bar encouraged visitors especially during those years when the prohibitionists won the almost annual battle with the temperance folks. During the prohibition years the bar became a dance hall. Other buildings included a feed and livery barn with sleigh and buggy for hire, a lumber yard, pool room and barbershop, a store and post office, a blacksmith shop, harness and shoe repair shop. Soon a second grocery store and additional blacksmith shop was needed, and two dealerships for the fast growing farm implement business.

The station's status as a port of entry meant that station had two offices, one for the railroad agent and one for the Customs and Immigration officer. These duties and responsibilities required other facilities and enhanced the status of the town. A detention house was soon added nearby for those who were not granted entry, and had to wait overnight for the train back. A quarantine barn was needed as all livestock was held overnight for inspection. To north of station were two section houses and a water tank.

Another added responsibility was controlling the flow of alcohol as different and changing liquor laws always seemed to keep make smuggling a worthwhile venture. Agents patrolled the border in the area. Then as now border security was an important responsibility.  Magistrate John Balfour, aided by town cop Sam Balfour kept the peace locally.

Each year the circus of the Royal Canadian Shows came by the Great Northern to entertain at Brandon summer fair. Customs agents went to Devil's Lake to start inspection of the many passenger cars and the inspection was completed at Bannerman.

A hotel with large dining room and bar appeared, but bar closed with prohibition and the building became to a dance hall. Other buildings included a feed and livery barn with sleigh and buggy for hire, lumber yard, pool room and barbershop, store and post office, blacksmith shop, harness and shoe repair shop. [10]

On to Desford and Fairburn...

Pulling out of Bannerman, we are just nicely getting up to speed when another fledgling village appears on the horizon. But we pass by it to the west. The village of Wakopa, the first in the southwest corner of Manitoba is, a well-known fixture on the rival CN line that we are about to cross. But not for long.

Wakopa had its beginnings as a stopping place on the Boundary Commission Trail, that well-rutted trail first etched by the expedition sent in the 1870's to survey and describe the border region from eastern Manitoba to the Rockies. The store established there by a Mr. Lariviere who served those hardy early settlers who arrived before the big rush of the 1880's and the site continued to be a landmark and supply depot until the arrival of the a spur line branching off of a more northern line at Greenway a kilometer to the north. The town moved to the line and continued, enhanced by the new rail service, but limited by competition from the Great Northern line passing it just a kilometer or so west. Even in boom times this region could only support so many towns! [11]

With Wakopa bypassed we soon pull in to in an even smaller place!

This village also sprang up overnight as it were, although an earlier post office and store were in place to the west and had to be relocated. But it lacks Bannerman's boom-town vibe, just a station an elevators and a few scattered buildings.

Rail lines are a vital service to any community. To the owners, they are a business like any other: they will survive if they are competitive. On the prairies, that means competing for grain delivery. To do so elevators or loading platforms have to be spaced closely enough to ensure that farmers will choose them over competitors. The Desford community began in the late 1870's along the Old Commission Trail about 12 kilometres south-southwest of Boissevain, and was, like Wakopa, one of the first trading centres in the area.

In those first days of settlement, 1878 and 79, settlers came by the Boundary Commission trail from Emerson. By 1880 the preferred route was by way of the Assiniboine River to Millford, then south to Langvale and via the Rowland Trail to the Turtle Mountain area. The first stores in the area were at Desford, Wakopa and Waubeesh. The first general store and post office in "Old Desford" was owned by E. Nichol and Son.

Fred Johnston, and early resident of Boissevain, before the town even developed, recalls the choice in 1884 between shopping at (Old) Desford and Rowland (16km NE). Another pioneer recalls Sunday Church service in the Jimmie Burgess home at "Old Desford". But as with so many of the first settlements, the location had to be reconsidered when the railways came. For Desford the change began in 1906. First the CN line was extended through Wakopa, Adelpha and Horton, just narrowly bypassing Desford, The that same year The Great Northern Railway bypassed to the east and a new town started to grow on that line about six kilometres away.

The store at Adelpha, owned by Mr. Crummer, was moved four miles to Desford. They used sixteen team of horses to drag it and the path was still visible in the 1970's. In no time a McCabe elevator was built. Next came the section house, a few residences, a station, and a bunkhouse . Qualified help was in short supply and the station master had to imported from the U.S. Both Anglican and United Churches followed, and other buildings included a large storehouse and garage, an oil station, and a blacksmith shop. The population exploded to near thirty and a community hall was deemed necessary. [12]

A cairn marks the location of Desford - all traces are gone.

A few kilometres out of Desford we come to Fairburn. These "sidings" as they were called were put in place to accommodate local farmers, and were never intended to become villages.

It may seem odd to the modern urban-dweller, that a place like Fairburn rate identification on a map, being no more than a lone elevator on the open prairie. One has to understand that in the early years of the settlement era (1878 to 1885) few towns as we know them existed. When settlers moved in, a neighbourhood would be identified in government records, and thus on maps, by its post office (usually established in the home of a settler) and it's name became the community's identity. For instance in a map by DeVille dated 1883 Fairburne (original spelling), Desford, Adelpha, Alcester, Wakopa and Hayfield are identified, while Boissevain, Killarney and Minto have yet to may an appearance. [13]

A quick stop and we're off to the bustling commercial centre of the region.


By 1906 Boissevain was already a well-established town on a busy C.P.R. east-west line. It origins date to 1885 when, in anticipation of the arrival of the tracks,  several settlers congregated on the site. One of those was George Morton, a well-established businessman with several ventures in the region,  who moved his general store building from the earlier settlement of Wabeesh (near present-day Whitewater) which was to be bypassed. By 1886, with the tracks in place, the little town inlcuded a grain-loading platform, a post office, two more general stores, a few boarding houses, two hotels, a blacksmith and a grain warehouse. Originally known as Cherry Creek the name Boissevain was chosen to honour A.A. Boissevain, a Dutch financier whose investment had helped finance the C.P.R. I guess one could say that really makes Boissevain a "railroad" town.  In a way Boissevain brought as much to the GN line as the line brought to the community.  It was the first link with the established Canadian routes, expanding the opportunities for each line and for the people of the area.

Until 2008 Boissevain had the distinction of being the home to the only surviving GN station, which saw decades of service as a Highways Department garage. There is some evidence that the station also featured a garage complete with track so that the engine could be brought in for service. Unfortunately, when no use for the building could be found, the costs of preservation dictated that the building be torn down, but the stayionmaster's house still exists as a concrete reminder of the Great Northern's presence.

Boissevain in 1908.

Elevators along the East-West CN line, The GN line would have run left to right  near the bottom of  this image. The station was  a few blocks to the right.

The GN Station at Boissevain was refitted for use by the Highways Department (2007)

To an established centre one immediate benefit was the work available in construction. There were contracts and jobs available, and the lucky landowners who found their farms on the right of way no doubt enjoyed the compensation. Even when the line was surveyed right through a house as it was to a Mr. Henderson, he happily moved. [14]

A construction gang near Minto.

After a short stop the whistle blows and we're off again, on our way straight north to Minto, with a stop at Alcester, another siding and elevator that didn't become a town. Alcester had existed as a post office and as one of the original "districts" of the settlement era, and the improved communication offered by the rail line probably hastened its demise. The post office closed in 1907. It was just too close to Boissevain and Minto.


Although the surrounding area was well settled, Minto wasn't established until the Canadian Northern line in came through in 1898 and a village sprouted on the northeastern corner of Section 19-5-10. When a few years later this new line, with its links to points north and south, was indeed a shot in the arm. The local history is full of examples indicating how happy the residents were to get this additional service, allowing convenient day trips to Brandon the main trading centre of Western Manitoba.

When that first train came through in June of 1906, with daily mail freight and passenger service to Brandon, life changed. For that period of a few decades, the brief but important prairie railway age, there were four express trains daily, with the CN going east and west and the GN north and south.  Added to that was the economic spin-off from the two new elevators and coal shed built to serve the line. It was an amazing leap forward from the pioneer times when the horse and buggy was luxury travel and people thought nothing of walking fifty miles if it had to be done.

Eagerly awaiting the train for an excursion to Brandon Fair, 1917

It was exciting, as Sylvia Sprott indicates in her memoir in the Minto History; "A trip to Brandon on the Great Northern train was indeed an event to remember." Many adventures are associated with the railway are reported in the local history. In some winters heavy snowfalls interfered with the schedule. Snow clearing equipment wasn't as powerful and fast as it is today, and the portions of the line called cuts, where excavation had been used to smooth a grade into a valley or over a hill, filled in quickly in a storm. In 1916 heavy snow cancelled trains for six weeks. In March 16 of 1920 a blizzard brought 10-15 feet of snow, closed both lines for a week.

And there were other perils. A daughter of John MacDonald reports that, "One year a spark from the Great Northern train started a fire that burned most of the crop, all the buildings, and a great deal of hay." [15]

The GN line crossed the CN line at Minto, a tower overlooked the crossing. 


Before the arrival of the railway the settlement in the Minto area was defined by a series or rural Post Offices and the pre-railway cart-trails, rather than by a village centre. Samuel A. Heaslip (Pronounced hays-lip) came from Ontario in 1881 and homesteaded 32-5-19. just south of the Souris River and close to an established route between Brandon and points south. Mrs Heaslip was first white woman in district that soon bore their name. Mr. Heaslip drove mail after railway came to Brandon in 82. The trail crossed Souris at Sheppard's Ferry, passed the Heaslip's home, on to Sheppardvillle at 3-5-20, then to the Turtle Mountain area. The route soon became known as the Heaslip Trail. The Heaslips well known and their home was a stopping place on the trial to Brandon. Mrs. Heaslip, widely known as a kind motherly person, served as deputy post mistress of the first Post Office of the district.  

It got another big boost when the Great Northern began operations in 1906 and the Heaslip community also developed into the beginnings of a village, with a station and general store. At the village's apex in the 1920's the store was bought by Otis Vig who moved his family from Bannerman to these greener pastures. The direct rail line came in handy for the moving of household effects and the family was soon comfortably established in the residence above the store, across the tracks from the McCabe Elevator and the one other residence, that of Heman Bales the grain buyer, and less than a kilometer south of the station and loading platform. Mr. Vig expanded, opening a Case Implement Dealership.

Main routes, before and after the days of the railway.

During this time the bridge we now call the Old Riverside Bridge was built, changing the road transportation patterns substantially. Until this bridge was built the main road from Brandon south followed the rail line south from Brandon, through Hayfield and Bunclody. In the 20's what we know as Highway#10 was developed and became the main route bypassing those villages. The age of the auto was upon us and as the railway had dictated which townsites survived in earlier times, the highway was now the key.

Perhaps seeing this writing on the wall, Mr. Vig sold his store in 1930 and soon relocated to Brandon. Even had the railways continued to operate, as roads improved and cars became popular, Healsip was just one town too many on a busy highway. [16]

Heaslip from the south


Pulling out of the Heaslip Station the track bends slightly westward and passengers who look to the east will see the first real change in scenery.

The landscape of Southwestern Manitoba is dominated, perhaps defined, by the Souris Plains, a wide expanse of relatively flat country stretching from the base of the Turtle Mountains west and southwards towards the Souris River Valley. Early settlers speak of climbing out of that valley at Millford, near where Treesbank is today, and noting the Turtle Mountains to the distant south. That's how flat the plains are, it's a distance of nearly 100 kilometres and to call those turtle-shaped hills mountains was a bit of a stretch. Today a drive from Minto west to Elgin, essentially through the centre of the Souris Plains, gives one and understanding of the term "wide open spaces".

And then, as now, the traveler new to the area, and on a trek from Boissevain northwards to Brandon, whether on the rutted ox-cart path known as the Heaslip trail, or on the smoothly paved Highway 10, might be surprised when, out of nowhere, appears the valley of the Souris, a kilometer wide / 70 metre deep channel cut over ten thousand years ago as the last of the glacial lakes drained.

Scenic it may well be, but to the railroad builder it holds no romantic charms. It is an obstacle to be crossed. A challenge perhaps, a nuisance, definitely.

When building a railway over hills or through valleys it is often advisable to the travel a few extra kilometers to avoid a steep grade and the expensive construction costs associated with difficult terrain. Trains don't do well on hills, and keeping the grade or slope of the track as gentle as possible is a priority in construction. As far as the prairies go, the northern portion of the Souris River valley is a major challenge. The surveyors for the Great Northern had rejected a crossing straight south of Minto where the valley is both deep and wide, and had selected a site near the hamlet of Bunclody where the southern lip of the valley, although steep, brushed right up against the stream, while the gentle slope on the north side could be crossed with a modest embankment. To get there, the line bends westward at Heaslip, following the curve of the river and crossing a series of deep cuts where ravines enter the valley.

This was the major construction site of the whole project. Three work camps were quickly set up, one at the deep ravine 3 kilometres south of the crossing, one at the townsite on the south side of the river where the station house was built, and one on the north side of the river. Each camp had a steam shovel, (“of the largest size”) modern technology not available a mere 25 years earlier when the CPR crossed Manitoba. Dinky engines were used to haul and dump cars as the grade was built up. It was a major engineering project undertaken by, “one of the largest railway outfits in America.” [17]

The ravines south of the river were crossed by building temporary trestles and dumping fill to create a road-level earthen dam, complete with huge pipes designed to let the runoff through. The pipes soon broke and had to be replaced with concrete tunnels two metres square - still quite visible today,  although somewhat clogged with rubble. One resident told me about boyhood adventures that included a dare to go through the tunnel.

Crossing a ravine between Heaslip and Bunclody

The site in 2016

Bunclody Station

The bridge over the Souris was the biggest undertaking. The span was 132m. long and 26m. high. Timber for the trestles, including 30 metre long cedar pilings had to be hauled from the CN Rail stop at Carroll, about 8 kilometres away.

The elevator and station, along with a bunkhouse for some of the the many full time employees required to maintain the line, were situated halfway up the southern ridge of the valley, half a kilometer from the bridge. The water tank was on the far side of the river slightly north of the bridge, with pumps and pipes to draw river water for the steam engines.

Taken from the hill, SE of the elevator.

Preparing the grade towards the crossing of the Souris near Bunclody.

Bridge construction

Today, standing on the old rail line where it abruptly ends atop a steep cliff at the river's edge, having followed it from that site through a pasture as it curved towards the former crossing, one can look northward across the river and see one of the few remaining obvious signs of the old line. Directly below you, in the centre of the river is a small gravel bar, once the base of the central bridge support, and across the river where the valley wall slopes gently away from the water's edge, is the high embankment built to carry the line gently across the wide valley.

From the day that first train came through on June of 1906, there were two passenger trains per day,  going south at 8 a.m. and north at 7 p.m., six days a week. The freight train ran every day, south on one day, north the next, except Sunday. If one were to stop at the station and swap railway stories with the locals you'd likely hear about the time in 1916 when a runaway engine from Minto stopped at Bunclody. Later in the day the Engineer and fireman came walking down the track looking for the runaway. It happened when the engineer thought that a switch was closed at Minto and he and fireman jumped ship, so to speak. A closed switch would create a dangerous derailment. It turned out that the switch was in place.

This was not as uncommon an event as one might expect, there was another incident a year or so later when a boxcar got away from the Heaslip siding and rolled  on downhill to Bunclody.

Or perhaps you'd hear about the morning in 1914 when three horses wandered onto the right-of-way. They were frightened by the approach of the frieight train and ran ahead of it to the bridge; where they jumped off and met their deaths on the frozen river 26 metres below.

Here, as at other stops on the line, you would certainly hear the winter tales.

Snow was the winter enemy. Trains were stuck often in cuts sometimes for a considerable stay! The Bunclody History relates the story of a train stuck in the Hebron cut from November until March. That was in the first year of operation and it was a work train which had its own kitchen so the crew lived there for the winter. It was on the farm of a Mr. Roger, who obliged by hauling them water. Was this during construction perhaps, because no mentions is made anywhere of that sort of interruption in service?

Apparently four metre feet deep drifts in cuts caused stoppages of up to six weeks in the winter of 1915-16.  Each winter had its share of such events. In February of 1923 a blizzard blocked the line from Minto to Brandon for three weeks. Clearing the snow was a big job, without the advantage of today's high-powered graders and bulldozers.

The worst spot was the Wilson Cut two kilometres north of Heaslip, the site of an adventure in March of 1923. A train with two engines and a snowplow was stuck and snow drifted in half-way up the windows. In such cases, neighboring farmers were often called upon to help out and the presumably patient passengers relied on the kindness of strangers so-to-speak. Supplies were brought from the Heaslip store and lunch was served.

Hebron and Griffin Siding

Sometimes plans change. On paper it looked like Hayfield was the next logical station with the potential to become a village. Sidings and/or loading platforms would be sufficient for the two stops between Bunclody and that newly established site.

Those two stops would be Beverly and Hebron.

Hebron had been an identifiable community for some time, with the school as the focal point. Between the Beverly and Hebron sidings the line was crossed by a busy east-west CP line connecting Winnipeg and Regina by a route parallel with the main line. These crossing were referred to as "diamonds" and required staffing to set the switches. Slightly west of the diamond at Newstead, a rival company established an elevator and before long the McCabe Co. and their Great Northern allies determined that they too needed and elevator at the crossing to compete. This meant having an unprecedented four elevators on a mere 12 kilometre stretch. It also meant that Hayfield which had a full station as opposed to a small shelter, would be downgraded. Its station was moved to the Diamond, named Griffin.  Later it was moved again and served the remainder of its days as a community hall in the Riverside district a few kilomtres to the south west. Hayfield received the shelter that had been at Hebron.

Hebron School

From Bunclody the line angles a bit west to skirt the western rim of the Brandon Hills, and at the western foot of those hills is the hamlet of Hayfield.

Hayfield is on the early maps, and had a post office and school serving a defined region. Although surveyed as a town during the planning of the line, it never did contain much more than the station, a general store, a hall and a few houses. Today as a traveler going south from Brandon who turns westward off of #10 Highway and proceeds down Hayfield Road will pass the unmarked and unrecognizable townsite. [19]


Downtown Hayfield

From there the rails continued straight north through McKelvie and Roseland before angling eastward into Brandon.

An on to Brandon....

From Hayfield the route takes us through a siding at McKelvie and the tiny village of Roseland then in to Brandon.

Brandoin railway historian, Lawrence Stuckey, remembered transfers between the CN and the Great Northern on a track set up on what is now 25th street. He also remembered going down the main line, which entered Brandon from the west running just south of Pacific Avenue.   The colourful refrigerator cars carrying fruit from various American companies especially caught his eye. No evidence remains of the wye about 5 kilometres west of the station where passenger trains turned around to back into the station, nor of the "diamond crossing" over the CNR line a kilometer south of that and the tower overlooking it. There was a three-stall engine house and turntable for maintenance near 26th and Pacific, a station near 11th and Pacific, and a block-long freight shed a few blocks west of that. [20]

The Great Northern contributed substantially to Brandon’s economic makeup. A promotional publication entitled “Brandon in 1913” boasts that ”Brandon has direct connection with the great railway systems of the United States…” and goes on to mention that the railway has a charter to build on the The Pas and Hudson’s Bay.  [21]

Brandon Station, train ready to depart. They were backed in to the station area.

It wasn’t without at least some opposition, but that was mainly related to issues about the appropriation or re-location of some homes and buildings along the route as the rails were pushed into the city. [22]

But the ongoing battle between the C.P.R. and all forms of competition was not over. The C.P.R. responded with a new station and an expansion in Brandon that some though was partially intended to ensure “for all time the exclusion of any other railway lines along this throughfare such as the continuation of the Great Northern through the city.” [23]

The End of The Line

By late 20's it was apparent that big profits for the company would never materialize. The line had been built into an area that was already served by east-west lines. Unlike the original CPR lines, the owners had been prevented from making large start-up profits from the establishment of towns and the grants of land often associated with a new line. With the defeat of Laurier in 1911, the hope of a reciprocity agreement with the US, which would have increased north-south freight, was effectively over. The population had reached its peak and the car was establishing itself as the mode of choice for personal transportation.

This possibility of reciprocity had encouraged the expansion of the Great Northern and some speculated that it would lead to a large portion of the grain harvest being transported through the U.S. Needles to say, there were many Canadians opposed to reciprocity for that very reason. The Portage La Prairie Weekly noted that “The Great Northern Railway…has no lees than seventeen different lines operating between Canada and the country over the border…: and could see that much business would go that way.  [24] That was a pretty good argument against Reciprocity from a western point of view.

Another force at play was the growth of the cooperative initiative that became The Manitoba Pool Elevators.

"Part of the problem … was that farmers were prepared to support the Manitoba Pool, even at a financial cost to themselves." McCabe had monopoly on the GN line, thus there were no Pool Elevators along its route. At one time Pool was paying 53 per bushel while McCabe as much as 75.  By 1929 losses had mounted to $74000. In 1935 grain tonnage on the line was only 16.5 % of what it had been in 1913. [25]
At the same time passenger service fell off. Although it was never intended to be the primary source of income, it was helpful to the bottom line. In 1906 travel by auto was a slow and unreliable. But people really liked the freedom the car gave them, and better roads and cheaper, more reliable vehicles developed rapidly. By 1922 a "highway" existed from Brandon to Boissevain and on to the border. By 1927 rail passenger numbers began to decline.

By 1930 a bridge crossed the Souris northeast of Heaslip at the point now known as Riverside, and soon the present day Highway #10 bypassed Hayfield and Bunclody.

The depression worsened the situation and only pressure from the government kept it open until 1936 when the mail contract ended. It was simply not a viable enterprise, if it ever was. The tracks torn up in 1937 after there were no offer for the purchase of the line. The company formally continued to exist until Dec. 12. 1963 to allow for ongoing land transfers.

The last train ran June 14, 1936. Stuckey remembered with apparent fondness the day when he and a friend waved to the engineer for the last time. [26]

So ended a chapter in the region's transportation history. The line is credited with ending the rural isolation felt by many Westman settlers and offered them an important time-saving travel option. Daytime shopping trips to Brandon were a treat, students at university could get home for weekends. But the car and the improved road conditions offered a new sense of freedom to rural residents, and the line, though remembered fondly by old-timers, was just not needed any longer.

Rail lines in southwestern Manitoba. By 1914  virtually all farmers were now within 10 km. of an elevator. Withing another 20 years the age of the auto would herald a new era, and many of the rail lines would become unprofitable.


For more images - go to our section on the BS&HB Communities

Todd, John, Jim Hill’s Canadian Railway, Canadian Rail No. 283, August 1975, Canadian Railroad Historical Association, Montreal

Download the pdf..

Everitt, John, Kempthorne, Roberta, Scafer, Charles,
Controlled Aggression: James J. Hill and the Brandon, Saskatchewan and Hudson’s Bay Railway, Brandon University, 1987, 7
Beckoning Hills Revisited : Ours is a Goodly Heritage, Morton-Boissevain, 1881-1981, Boissevain History Committee, 1981  391, 523, 524, 593, 594
Minto Memoirs 1881-1979 : History of Minto and District, Minto and District Historical Society, Inter-Collegiate Press. Winnipeg MB, 1979, 235, 42, 184,
Rose, D.F., Bunclody Community, 1879-1970, Bunclody Community, Carroll MB.,1970
Memories of Hebron and Riverview, Riverview/Hebron Book Committee