The early history of the development of this vibrant district is an exciting and colorful story, which all began in earnest in 1875 when construction on the rough and winding Edmonton/Calgary trail was completed, and then in 1891 when the first noisy work trains arrived at Siding 14 near the tiny Village of Ponoka. At the same time settlers were already moving into the area to start a new life among the barren expanse of forest, rich soil, and rolling hills, and it was during this early period that the quick momentum of the growth and successes of Ponoka and surrounding districts began to roll on with great gusto.
Our first real road
The main credit to opening the rugged Edmonton/Calgary trail should go to Reverend John McDougall and his brother David, who cut the northern half in 1873 as a cart path from Fort Edmonton to Morley. This route, which eventually became Highway 2A many decades later, was likely the same as the old fur trail made by the North West Company way back in 1803, which followed an old Indian trail past the Bear Hills, across the Battle River at Ponoka, over the Red Deer River at the present city, then turned south-west to travel in a straight line to Morley.
By 1881 the trail had developed almost to the point where the local citizens were demanding mail service along the way from Wetaskiwin to the station at Ponoka, which at the time had a population of three whites and 300 Indians, but would eventually offer a complete postal service from Calgary to Edmonton by 1883. One of the surveyors George P. Roy predicted great things for the future of this new route, which was used in the days of the pioneers for only wagons and stage-coaches. And how straight it was, going over small hillocks, through corduroyed patches of muskeg and across small streams, but following the route by doing a little ditching, adding a small culvert or slight cut, or throwing a few branches on the soft spots to make it passable.
Once the automotive era arrived on that steadily improving road it was always claimed that the farmers along the way were usually present to help improve conditions for the public travellers, offering repairs where needed, or water-food and even accommodations during often present inclement weather or road conditions.
Welcome to Siding 14
Siding 14 began in 1890 as a solitary railway depot, which was inhabited by the section crew and a caretaker for the nearby octagonal wooden water tower, which was fed from a small reservoir in the Battle River by a windmill driven pump. As a vital supply point for the huge steam locomotives, these structures would be our modest beginnings, and soon welcomed hundreds of railway workers, settlers, labourers, professionals, and businessman looking to establish their homes, their farms, and their livelihoods here. Due to the demand on the facility and the event of the steel rails reaching the Ponoka siding from both directions, the community’s first official building, the big brown station was built in 1891. The classic ‘B’ type train depot included a long loading platform and a waiting room, which in the winter was heated by a stove all night long to accommodate incoming railway travellers or locals looking to get warm. A landmark at the end of Chipman Avenue, the water tower also supplied a nearby hydrant to assist our local fire department with the dousing of many fires that occurred in the countless wooden buildings now being built in the community. It became obsolete with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s conversion to the powerful diesel locomotive in the 1950’s, then was dismantled and rebuilt as a granary on a farm north of town, and still stands to this day.
The men working on the tracks with wagon teams and heavy equipment in those days had no easy life, facing backbreaking tasks, long hours, sickness (influenza and other maladies) unpredictable conditions, and low wages of just $1.50 per day. Those with teams were paid $2.50 a day and board, while teamsters received $25.00 a month and board in the village. Most camped beside the river as they moved along with the crew, while some stayed in the station with the Agent and family, and only a few could afford the $4.00 a week room and board in Ponoka. Early historians claim that during the construction of the railway a massive stock pile of wooden ties near Morningside stretched a half a mile were piled over 50 feet high, with some remnants still remaining to this very day.
It wasn’t long before three daily trains were arriving in the Ponoka station, quickly setting the daily rhythm of this now bustling town (1904), with a steady influx of freight, mail, and passengers, who may either make this community their new home or move on down the line. While Dick Slater and his dray were delivering supplies throughout the community, freight and grain cars would rest on the siding while they were loaded from elevator row or with livestock from the stock yard. Mail was sorted on board the train, so service was prompt, and passengers could now reach Lacombe in comfort in just 20 minutes. That busy train station was the ‘heart of Ponoka’ for many decades, the centre of heavy traffic and supplies, a friendly place to pop in and purchase a ticket, and on many occasions the spot where hundreds gathered to greet the arrival of their hockey team, a celebrity, or family and special friends.
Rail passenger and local freight traffic would steadily decline as highways improved and car and truck ownership grew. The historical train station was demolished in 1968 to make way for a new Shopping Centre development, while the speedy Calgary/ Edmonton day liner service was discontinued several years later. The main C.P.R. line is now very busy day and night with long freight trains hauling every type of cargo, but the fond memories will always remain of those shrill whistles blowing both day or night or of the long plumes of smoke that billowed from those big black steam engines as they lumbered into and through town 24-7 with their precious cargo, always followed very closely by that now long extinct old caboose.