October 21st, 2020

Mystery of the fallen rail


By Lethbridge Herald on July 21, 2020.

A historical piece of rail sticks up from its place buried under the trestles of the High Level Bridge after falling from the above railway decades ago. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Dale Woodard
Lethbridge Herald
sports@lethbridgeherald.com
Madeleine Kurtz and Chelsea Phinney had to venture off the track to find what they were looking for.
Thanks to a little hiking tenacity — and right before a downpour no less — the grandmother and granddaughter found some history that fell from the train tracks on the High Level Bridge nearly a century ago.
That bit of railroad history came in the form of a fallen railway track that plummeted 130 feet above between Piers 15 and 16 and wedged itself into the soil, at least 90 years ago.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to locate the fallen rail, Kurtz recruited her granddaughter for the June 24 trek into the coulees.
“I asked Chelsea if she was up for this and she said ‘Sure let’s go.’” said Kurtz. “We left the house at about 12:30 p.m. and we went down to Indian Battle Park. We parked right beside the Helen Schuler (Nature Centre) entrance and we started walking.”
As it turned out, they had to walk off the beaten path to find what they were looking for.
“We couldn’t find a trail to go towards it,” said Phinney. “So grandma and I decided we were going to make our own trail. So we went down into the bushes and we eventually found it. It took a while. Once we found it we took some pictures and then it started raining.”
A recent magazine article about the mystery railway track caught Kurtz’s attention. She immediately showed the story to her husband, Blair, a railway buff.
“I thought he would enjoy the article so I gave it to him,” she said. “I remember reading about it in the Lethbridge Herald. So he phoned The Herald and he said they don’t keep copies (from that far back). So they said to phone the Galt Museum and they sent us the picture.”
The standalone picture of the rail jutting upward toward the High Level Bridge from the Aug. 18, 1971 issue of The Herald suggests the rail fell from the bridge top during its construction in 1909 by a worker named J.C. Hendrickson, who hailed from High River and returned in July of that year to find it still stuck in the spot it landed 62 years prior.
In 1993, Peter Dzioba — who worked in Lethbridge as a roadmaster from 1978 until his retirement in 1992 — and local conductor Timothy Finley ascertained the rail may have fallen in August 1930 when the bridge rails were upgraded from 85 pounds to 100 pounds.
The length of the rail, however, remained a mystery with suggestions the fallen rail was up to 36 feet in length.
But according to Carly Stewart of the Lethbridge Historical Society, the rail in question is actually about seven feet and buried roughly four feet into the surface and that the rail was actually pulled from the earth about eight years ago before being put back into the ground.
What is clear, however, is the location of the rail.
“The article said it was on pillar 15,” said Kurtz. “The foundations have numbers on them. Some don’t have numbers on them because they’ve been weathered away. We looked around and found cement pillar number 25. We counted from 25 until we got up to 15 and we kind of eyeballed it from where we were and we started climbing.”
Interestingly, some of the long-time residents Kurtz and Phinney chatted up were unaware of the railway track nearby.
“I talked to quite a few people and there was quite a few that said they had lived in Lethbridge for a long time and had never heard anything about it,” said Kurtz. “One lady said she just lived up the hill and she had never heard anything about it. So that made Chelsea and I more determined to find it.”
“We were really excited,” added Phinney. “It was quite interesting because in the article it said it was five feet above the ground. But my grandma is five-two and she was at least a foot over it. So we think it was further into the ground, which is even more interesting.”
No matter what the size of the rail or when it fell, Kurtz and her husband also pondered the physics of the hunk of steel falling 130 feet.
“I said to Blair ‘That thing must’ve really come down with a force’” she said. “And it’s right underneath the pillar, which makes sense, because the tracks are down the middle of those pillars. Before I was looking on the outside of the railway bridge. It’s on the inside. If you look straight up you can see the tracks going above you.”
Kurtz and Phinney hoped their excursion would encourage other hikers in the area to visit the historic chunk of steel.
“I hope so, because Chelsea and I had such a wonderful time and now with the social distancing it’s fun to grab your granddaughter or your daughter (and go for a hike),” said Kurtz. “First of all, it’s very pretty down there right now because it’s also green. I want people just to get out and say this is a neat thing. It’s not going to make or break your life, but it’s just a fun thing to do. It’s a part of our history. It’s just a railway track, but it’s fun.”
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