It is great what neighbours and friends of Countess share with us. This intriguing piece of history is literally out of the Royal Line (the train line that connected Bassano to Empress, and went through Countess, Duchess, Rosemary, Gem and Patricia).
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In the Fall of 2005, a few years after my parents had purchased the historic hamlet of Countess, I began seeking out more information around the history. A touch point at then was CPR to gain more information, and some was furnished by the corporate Historian, which follows:
Before the Great Depression, immigrants and settlers flooded the
Prairies. CPR developed immigration and colonization programs, including
irrigating large portions of southern Alberta, setting up experimental
farms, and building ready-made farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan that
settlers could move right into and start cultivating. CPR also expanded
its hotel and resort chain and its fleet of Pacific Ocean ships. CPR
acquired a fleet of Atlantic Ocean steamships and ferries on both
coasts. CPR doubled its track mileage and double-tracked most of its
western main line. CPR was also locked in deadly competition on the
Prairies with Canada’s two other transcontinental railways – the
Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific – railways that eventually
went bankrupt and were rolled into the huge Canadian National Railways
supported by the public purse until the early 1990s.
CPR embarked on its major mainline double-tracking program on the
Prairies between 1911 and 1914. This is where Countess and its
importance comes into play.
Most double-tracking took place as track twinning, except through
Countess. CPR opted for a “kinder, gentler” route with better grades
west of Swift Current, Sask. The second mainline single track that
served as a double track in western Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta
took a bit of a circle route. It branched off the original mainline
just west of Swift Current at Java, Sask., ran up to Westerham, Sask.,
skirting the Red Deer River into Alberta, at Empress, and back down to
the original mainline just east of Bassano, through Countess. CPR
twinned the first four-and-a-half miles of mainline east of Swift
Current. And then the second track diverged northwest at Java toward
Empress, Alta. The first 33 miles out of Java went into operation on
November 2, 1911. The small gap between Mile 33 and Cabri saw traffic on
June 25, 1912. The section between Cabri and Westerham, Sask., went into
operation on September 29, 1913. In the meantime, construction crews were
busy building northeast off of the CPR mainline at Bassano, Alta.,
through the “regal” communities of Countess, Duchess, Princess and
Majestic toward Empress and the Alta./Sask. border. This whole 126-mile
section was completed before World War I and put into operation, from
west of Countess right through to Empress and eight miles beyond across
the provincial border, on June 12, 1914. There was only a missing
16-mile link left to hook it up at Westerham with the secondary main
line out of Swift Current and Java. This went into operation on November
Empress was the divisional point on this line. East of Empress to Java
(Swift Current) was called the Empress Subdivision. And west of Empress
to Bassano, through Countess, was called the Bassano Subdivision.
But the world changed after World War II. Passenger and small break-bulk
freight traffic went over the road. CPR dieselised its operations in the
1950s to cut operating costs. And CPR’s secondary main line through
Countess toward Empress and the Saskatchewan border became less vital.
CPR abandoned from Leader, Sask., to Empress, Alta., in 1990. And, in
December 1997, CPR closed down the 115.4-mile Empress to Bassano line
through Countess. Only a small stub of this former secondary main line
in Alberta exists today. It juts northeast from near Bassano pointing
toward the former hamlet of Countess and serves as a storage siding.
It was 1957, when a young man named Jim and 3 friends were searching for work, and had bused down from Edmonton to Calgary. In 1957, Jim had just fled the revolution in Hungary the year before and come to Canada at just 20 years old.
Luck struck on April 15, 29157 their first day at the unemployment office, when a gent named Mr. Curb came looking for 2 helpers, one of the 4 replied all of them or none as they wanted to stay together, to which this man took them up on the offer of the 4 workers. Mr. Curb, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormon colloquially) was one of 3 millionaires that own Vee Bar Vee Ranch. Jim would spend 6 months working the ranch. Mr. Curb on the way in would radio ahead to have chicken prepared for the new workers, which filled their bellies now that work had filled their hope. It is also noted the workers would get to know Mr. Curb’s son, Lloyd.
Within a few months of Jim starting his work, the millionaires would sell the 78,000 acre ranch. The 78,000 acres was split in half-half ranch, half farm land for wheat, barley, and corn. The new buyers were Hutterites who would come to see how to run the operation, learning the big diesel combines which Jim describes as massive closed cabin tractors with wheels larger than a man. Most notably draft dodgers from the USA would be hired on to run the combines, and the Hutterites took time to explain the farming practice where the outer ring of wheat would form a protective crust for the interior grows from wind and rain. Jim most notably remembers the kindness and generosity of the Hutterites in running the operation.
Thank you to Andrea Szakos for sharing her Dad, Jim’s memories with us (and hope for many more to be shared), and for the following update:
Medicine Hat News Newspaper Archives
January 26, 1959 Page 10
V Bar V Ranch Sold The sale of one of Alberta’s largest cattle ranches has been reported in Calgary. The ranch is the V Bar V holdings at Ward-low, north of Medicine Hat. Although the transaction has not been confirmed it is understood the ranch was sold to Los Angeles interests for a reported $1,400,000 by Cliff Walker and his partner Sam Hanen, both of Calgary. Hr. Hanen is the owner of the Betty Shoppe’s in Alberta. The V Bar V is one of the largest of the early ranches in southeast Alberta and figured prominently in the news two years ago, when its sale to Alberta Hutterites was forbidden by the provincial government.
What follows is a poem that incorporated history of the area with creative flair. I would like to encourage the writers, poets and musicians out there to send their historic creative pieces in for publishing. If it is music I ask for a link to a YouTube video we can reference too, otherwise make submissions in word.
Thank you…and now onto the Ballad of Countess:One may catch a glimpse
Of the whisp of spectral light
As she walks down the abandoned ghostly street
In the alien’s glow a nightly
As the cows serenade the gophers
Through a thrumming mooo
Of a hamlet built on capitalist’s spikes
And Royal Line Rail Road pennies
The name bought by the Marquis,
She is the lovely wife of Bassano,
A Countess, whose money CP used to build a town.
From stage coaches
To Calgary Stampedes
To a century later,
Rolling through towns
Granting Children’s wishes
And healing sick kids
Mennonites, Buddhists, Mormons and more
Paid to settle
To farm and build
As the wind cleanses
The spectral soil of sludge
From old gas station tanks
Main Street comes alive
With Guns of the Golden West
A Cock crows
As a gator roars to life
Barn cats purr
As Dogs saunter through Tee Pee’s
And Cabins sprout from the land
One calls through ancient flames given by Prometheus
For the Fire Department of her husband’s name to rescue
As a historic Pumper Truck
Rolls through bringing cheers
From kids of all ages
For on a quiet country night
As you roll by the Caboose
Of the ol’ Royal Line
You can still see her shine
In the night light
Calling for adventure
In keeping with the topic of hotels, I am pleased to share the following story from the front page of the Bassano News publication of October 12, 1911.
October 12, 1911
Hunter Hotel Opened Today
The Finest Hotel Between Calgary and Medicine Hat
(BN) With accommodation for almost one hundred guests, with attractive and up-to-date fittings throughout, hot and cold water and all modern conveniences, the Hunter Hotel, the best between Calgary and the Hat, opens its doors today with a dance and banquet to which everyone is heartily welcomed.
It is a hotel of which Bassano may be proud and upon which Mr. T. H. Hunter, the proprietor, may be warmly congratulated. No expense has been spared to ensure the comfort of each guest and to procure the best hygienic features, and it is bound to be a paying venture from the start. The rooms fittings by the Bassano Trading Company are elaborate and cozy.
A gasoline pump provides the upper rooms constantly with water and a huge boiler in the basement provides the warm water. Every one of the 48 upper rooms are wired for electric light and are fitted for natural gas. Meanwhile, the illumination will be acetylene gas. Particular attention has been devoted to the large kitchen over which Charlie Schwab, whose cooking is well known and relished in Bassano, will reign. Inspection of this is urged. It is spacious, airy, cool, and possesses one of the most modern cooking ranges known. Adjoining it is a cool storeroom which when provided with a refrigerator will be proof against germs. The dining room is attractive in the extreme, the tables are only made for four so that there will be no crowding and are laid diagonally to one another. A plate rail runs the length of the dining room lined with expensive and attractive looking china.
The house throughout is finished with oak which gives the interior a pleasing harmonious appearance.
The sample rooms are quite a feature of the house, and the drummer will find ample and proper accommodation for his wares. A huge cool cellar running the length of the house will be cut up for storerooms.
Each floor has its own sumptuously furnished parlor leading out on to spacious balconies.
From the rotunda to the roof the same standard of completeness and comfort is maintained, even to the conveniently placed iron fire escapes.
As soon as possible it is promised that the whole hotel will be brick veneered. It is easily the largest building in town and will be a much sought after resort immediately its doors are opened.
Say What? Dollars and rumbles? Are these the Saloon Doors that would take Marshall Dillon to Miss Kitty (for those who unfortunately do not know the great Gunsmoke, listen to to Toby Keith’s Should’ve Been a Cowboy). Nope, these doors though took one to the action…Wrasslin’ and bowlin’ that is.
They are the saloon doors to Frank Sisson’s Silver Dollar Action Centre (now the Century Casino) which was once part of the landscape in Calgary, AB. As a kid, I knew of it, due to bowling and, like I said, wrasslin’ (the kind of Stampede, not WWE). Stampede Wrestling had just been bought out but the local 2&7 television station still had a Saturday afternoon contract open for a show, and Mr. Sisson was a fan…enter Canadian Wrestling Alliance which ran out of the Silver Dollar in 1990 on Friday Nights live (it concluded it’s run in 2013 through other venues), with the edited show on Saturday’ at 1 p.m. Later in the 1990’s the saloon would be open to all ages during WWF (now WWE) pay-per-view events.
But what does this have to do with the Royal Line History and Countess, AB in particular you may ask?
The answer is simple, it all started at a Bassano rodeo…with a won Silver Dollar…
(On July 27, 2019 a wind storm wiped out our storage huts for the Countess Country Museum, we are still unsure how many of the artifacts were lost).
Living in the County of Newell and on the Royal Line, one thing you get used to is the wind. What you do not expect upon returning from a day-cation is that you have entered the MGM wonderful Wizard of Oz and be Aunty Em’s farm. This is what the reality of Wayne and Sherry’s return from Maple Creek, SK to Countess Country Museum.
The Prairie History start-up was blown away by the wind. Any Albertan can share that this summer has been a cycle of heat-severe thunderstorms- tornado warnings…to windstorms. On July 27, 2019 the weather had the heat of 30 degrees, and thunderstorm warnings rolled through Southern Alberta. But a picture is worth a thousand words:
At this point we are unsure of the damage as we attempt to get the carriage and stage coach free, but there is damage.
For more information or to help, please contact Wayne (403-701-0775) or Sherry (403-701-0778) as we rebuild and renew the history of the Royal Line, with all the bumps, hiccups, and challenges of the prairie pioneers along the way.