Time - Space - Equation - Valemount train wreck site today

Leonard Lea Frazer

On a recent visit to Valemount, I walked around the site of the infamous 1979 train wreck that took place just east of the railway crossing near the Valemount Hotel. I observed the changes that have transpired on that section of track.

Today, looking east, at the site of the big CNR train wreck of 1979.
Today, looking east, at the site of the big CNR train wreck of 1979.
The train wreck site at the time of the accident.
The train wreck site at the time of the accident.

Back when the incident took place, nearly 40 years ago, the rails in that part of the mainline were in 50 foot lengths, held together with angle iron and large bolts. The railway ties were factory-milled treated wood. On one side of the tracks was an endless row of telegraph and hydro poles that supplied power and communications for the Canadian National Railway.

A crumpled boxcar deposited on the side of the tracks.
A crumpled boxcar deposited on the side of the tracks.
ine of the CNR, on the right, with the big curve in the tracks at the top right-hand corner. This photo was featured in the 1959 Mortenson’s General Store calendar. Courtesy of Joan Nordli.
ine of the CNR, on the right, with the big curve in the tracks at the top right-hand corner. This photo was featured in the 1959 Mortenson’s General Store calendar. Courtesy of Joan Nordli.

Today the power poles have been replaced with a fibre-optic cable, buried along the railway right of way. The eight-foot wooden ties have been replaced with six-foot reinforced concrete ties. The short pieces of rail in that section used to be 120 lb stock in 50 foot lengths and have since been replaced with 132 lb ribbon-rail.

CNR officials helping to salvage packages and parcels of Royal Mail scattered at the train wreck site.
CNR officials helping to salvage packages and parcels of Royal Mail scattered at the train wreck site.
Two large caterpillars involved in the cleanup operation.
Two large caterpillars involved in the cleanup operation.

The rail weight in pounds is determined by weighing one yard of steel track. Today each piece of the heavier ribbon-rail track is a quarter mile in length and joined together with other ribbon-rail in a thermite welding process, which employs molten metal to permanently fuzz two rails together. There were no visible signs of there ever being a train wreck on the site.

A massive pile of steel rubble confronts railway worker at the 1979 wreck site.
A massive pile of steel rubble confronts railway worker at the 1979 wreck site.

During the 1979 derailment the rails, at one point, had been torn from the roadbed, and some were broken into two-foot lengths. Other rails were split open lengthwise. Flat deck-cars loaded with large train wheels, a boxcar loaded with rolls of newsprint paper, more flat-deck cars loaded with highway truck trailers, and a massive pile of debris on both sides of the roadbed were the sight that greeted me back at the time of the derailment. There were metal railway cars piled up and strewn all over a quarter mile area right before and around the big curve just outside of Valemount. I took black and white photos back in 1979 and, on my recent revisit, colour.

 Part of a highway truck trailer suspended in an upright position.
Part of a highway truck trailer suspended in an upright position.
Looking down the track towards Valemount (2018). Note the concrete ties, buried in the roadbed, end and wooden ties continue towards Swift Creek and the Dogwood Street crossing by the Hotel.
Looking down the track towards Valemount (2018). Note the concrete ties, buried in the roadbed, end and wooden ties continue towards Swift Creek and the Dogwood Street crossing by the Hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following front-page story was written by George Ives for the May 30, 1979 edition of the Canoe Mountain Echo newspaper.

$2,000,000 derailment

Sunday, May 27th (1979) - At approximately 5:30 p.m., a rendering crash was heard by residents living on the north side of Valemount, as thirty-five cars of the C.N. express freight telescoped into a pile less than 150 yards long, less than a half mile from the Village.

The accident was close enough to block the towns’ north crossing, forcing traffic to cross at 5th Avenue.

Engineer Jerry Edwards, a former resident of Valemount, stated that there was no warning but when he looked back and saw what was happening, he wondered how close the telescoping cars were to a car that was parked at the crossing waiting for the freight to pass.

An educated guess by several members of the C.N. estimates the damage to be in excess of two million dollars. Several entertain theories as to what may have caused the derailment but no definite cause can be determined at such an early stage.

A train was heard approaching Valemount as the Echo was leaving the scene and it is presumed that it will clear the north crossing for the benefit of traffic. The progress of the clean-up and any events that may take place will be followed closely by the Echo in one or two future issues.