For those of us who were living in and around this friendly community during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond we will never forget the constant hustle and bustle day and night at the now historic Ponoka CPR Station along the busy main Canadian Pacific Railway line between Edmonton and Calgary. As young boys and girls we always looked forward to hearing the shrill train whistle, often waking us up at night or warning local motorists at the north and south crossing, but always letting everyone know that another long and noisy passenger or freight train was approaching our community. As they grew closer with the smoke billowing out of the big black steam engine, we always had great expectations as to whether they were going to roar right on through or stop beside the long platform next to that always bustling Ponoka CPR station on 50 St.
If we happened to be hanging out around town with our parents or friends we always just loved to dash over to the station and watch the passengers carefully stepping off the cars with their suitcases and parcels and children in hand. Then we stood back and patiently waited for the congenial conductor to come out and holler “All Aboard” as the outgoing travellers were welcomed to shuffle into the cars for their next exciting adventure and north or south destination down the line and across the rugged Alberta prairies. As the departure whistle blew we watched the train slowly pull out of the station, and what a treat it was to be able to wave at and maybe even get an extra toot from the engineers or from the conductor waving his lantern from the back door of the colourful red caboose way up at the other end. On many gala occasions over the years those long and brightly lit passenger trains would host such rowdy celebrations as our local hockey team coming home with a Western Canada Championship, political rallies, troops of our dedicated soldiers, hometown bands competing in provincial competitions, as well as colourful travelling circuses and midway companies heading for the next show.
It was also fun and exciting to see what was being loaded or unloaded several times a day from the trains freight and flat-cars, and whether it was farm machinery, vehicles, cattle from the stock pens, or hardy farmer’s precious grains from our ominous and dusty row of elevators along Railway Street. There was always countless vital supplies destined for the local stores and citizens of our Ponoka town and county, and whatever items appeared on the deck it always brought lots of cheers and awes from the crowds looking on. Back in those days a common sight at the old station was Dick Slater with his mighty and reliable “all weather” horse drawn drays, which on most arrivals and departures could be seen loading or unloading parcels, mail bags, and all sorts of items on and off their wagons just in time for the next train as well as for delivery to the local post office, to customers around town, or even up the long road to the Provincial Mental Hospital.
As the years progressed the scenery would change quite a bit along the double set of tracks next to the popular Ponoka Station. Those noisy old steam engines were eventually replaced by powerful diesel units, which could pull many more cars, including those filled with grain, oil, chemicals, and much more. The passenger trains later became sleek two car steel units known as dayliners, which travelled between Edmonton and Calgary several times a day seven days a week at amazing speeds.
Our original Siding 14 Village Depot
This whole colourful, exciting, and eventful Railway era for our urban and rural community began way back in 1890 when Siding 14 was established next to the tiny Village of Ponoka. It was a solitary railway depot that was inhabited by a Canadian Pacific Railway section crew and a caretaker, whose initial wages were $1.50 a day for labourers, while those with work teams were paid $2.50 a day plus room and board. To accommodate the expected ongoing flow of north and south trains an octagonal wooden water tower was built on the east side of the tracks from the posh Royal Hotel, which was fed by a windmill driven pump from a small reservoir at the Battle River dam, and would later also be used by our first Ponoka Volunteer Fire Department to extinguish the countless early fires that ravaged the growing community. These modest beginnings would become a vital supply point for a quickly growing schedule of huge steam locomotives that would come into the local station on a 24-hour basis, and would welcome hundreds of railway workers, settlers, labourers, professionals and businessmen that were looking to begin a new life in these sprawling rural and urban districts.
Our first official and big brown CPR station was built in 1891 and included a long loading platform outside and spacious facilities inside that were used as a waiting room with long wooden benches as well as the accommodations for the railway workers and Station agent. Whether it be staff, visitors, or passengers they were all kept comfy and warm all night long and throughout the day by a huge stove, which was really appreciated during our long and frigid Alberta winters. Our old-timers and history books claim that our traditional old station always enjoyed a hectic but friendly atmosphere, with the ticker-tape clicking out the arrival of the next train, the agent selling roles of tickets, the biffys always busy, and the coffee pot percolating an aromatic tune on top of that popular pot-bellied stove. Most of the CPR crew who were building the new line lived in local rooming houses or in tents along the track and loved to swim in the Battle River in their spare time. At the beginning of the construction there was a massive stack of railroad ties piled 50 feet and 300 feet long near Morningside, which were used as the base for the miles of tracks in this area.
During the mid-1900s the local passenger and freight traffic on the CPR main line would decline steadily as our provincial highways and by-ways improved and it wouldn’t be long before just about everyone had their own reliable vehicle or two. After 77 years of faithful service that historical Ponoka Train Station at the centre of Railway Street was demolished in 1968 to make way for a new Shopping Centre. Today of course those massive rows of stately but dusty wooden grain elevators are now also just a memory of our rugged and traditional prairie past across the nation, and at one time Ponoka had 10 of them standing stately along the busy tracks. Despite the fact that Ponoka’s colourful, sociable, and thrilling early railway saga of power and progress has long since passed, the massive freight trains will always continue to roar through our community 24-7 into a bold new future, and our town and county will make every effort to continue to thrive.