Soaring above the Oldman River and the Indian Battle Park in Lethbridge, the high-level railway bridge looms over the landscape. The city, local businesses and the Canadian Pacific Railway collaborated on a massive project to light the bridge in September 2009 to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
The CPR bridge is the longest and highest trestle bridge in the world reaching 5,327.625 feet (1.6km) in length and 314 feet in height
The 1909 completion of this bridge was designated by the Canadian federal government in 2005 as a "National Historic Event"
Travelocity has dubbed this a "must see" attraction.
The original construction was completed in 1909
The railway was a critical component of the settlement and development of Canada, and particularly for Western Canada. Vast distances had to be traveled across the open prairies. At first, travel was only by horseback and Red River cart, then the railways helped open up the daunting landscape with much faster, safer transportation. The railways carried eager young families, settlers and transportation of trade goods and raw materials as industry began to develop.
The discovery of coal in the river valley forged a new townsite. “Coalbanks” started as a small mining community in the river bottom. Later, after several floods the settlement moved up to the top of the coulees and ultimately became the thriving city of Lethbridge.
Coal was a very important industry for the area. Initially coal was transported by barges navigating the Belly River (now called the "Oldman River"). The new railway was key to providing efficient shipping of the coal safely year-round.
However as the rail lines expanded, there were still numerous difficulties to face. The geography posed significant barriers. While one often thinks of the prairies as vast flat expanses, the glaciers (and subsequently the rivers) carved deep winding paths across the prairie. Rainfall and groundwater from the flat lands above etched out deep scars in the riverbanks, known locally as "coulees". These wide deep river crossings required numerous, and expensive bridges to be built. These were initially constructed of wood, and required ongoing maintenance and repair as they aged. The rail line to Fort Macleod had many twisting curves which also put limitations and mechanical strain on the rolling stock, adding further maintenance costs and delays.
To alleviate these issues it was determined that a large bridge through the river valley at “Coalbanks” (now Lethbridge) could create a more direct and stronger connection to the East and the Western slopes.
Planning began in the late 1890's. Engineers worked several years and special equipment was designed and brought in. Construction began in August of 1908. The engineers and construction crews faced many challenges including a severe flood in the first year of construction. But the crews persevered; this new line with this viaduct across the Belly River, would eliminate the need for 20 wooden bridges that had been previously used. At the time the bridge cost an incredible $1,334,525.00 to build, and was dubbed one of the construction wonders of the world, and hailed as “the longest and highest bridge of its type in the world’.
In 2005, the federal government designated the construction of this bridge a "National Historic Event."
2009 marked the centennial of the completion of this venerable structure; celebrations that year commemorated this modern marvel of engineering.
… and on September 5th. the city partied! The Allied Arts Council staged a day-long event in Indian battle Park, “In the Shadow of the Bridge”. Del Allen of D.A. Electric was the business leader responsible for the mammoth project to “light the bridge”. An enormous task in itself, it reflected the time and efforts that went into the original construction 100 years earlier.
In no small fashion his vision and his efforts to “light the bridge” were a monumental undertaking itself. It was indeed costly in terms of his time negotiating with the CPR, the special equipment rigging and cables, the manpower to set up and meet the stringent criteria demanded by the railway for safety. To secure the site for the thousands of visitors Del again contributed staff from his business and enlisted hundreds of additional hours from scores of volunteers. In October of 2009 Del Allen and D.A. Electric received the Spirit of Lethbridge Award during Small Business Week. He continued to strive to have the bridge lit on special occasions, with the cooperation of CP Rail.
The lights were also turned on for Remembrance Day 2009, and a Piper from the Royal Canadian Legion, General Stewart Branch played the Bagpipe atop a lookout tower perched high above the river valley. A chilling experience it was, as the sound of the pipes filled the frosty night air just after the sun set. The stars began twinkling in the indigo skies above, and the lights gave an eerie glow above the bridge.
On an even colder frosty night that year (minus 14 degrees Celsius), the CPR’s "Christmas Train" travelled to our city on its bi-annual visit. The CPR, with Del Allen pitching in again, made special arrangements to have this festively lit train stop in the middle of the bridge, all lit up for a delightful spectacular photo opp!
Other special celebration dates were negotiated with the owners of the bridge, Canadian Pacific Railway. The bridge was alight once again for Christmas through til New Year's Eve, and then again for Easter and a final time Remembrance Day 2010. The lighting of the bridge gave our city and visitors one more way to experience this marvel.
The Allied Arts Council of Lethbridge manages a trust fund that was set up to honour Del Allen with the hopes of developing enough capital to someday again set light to the High Level Bridge.
Indian Battle Park is also home to Fort Whoop-up (A notorious whiskey trading post- more details on this National Historic Site can be found elsewhere on this web site - ) recently declared a National historic Site.