Preserve, restore and repurpose – The Hanna Roundhouse

by John Kinnear
Crowsnest Pass Herald
These days, part of our Municipal Historic Resource Board’s focus is a lot like this article’s title and the beautiful Coleman Seniors Centre is a classic example of this tripartite approach of preserve, restore and repurpose.

So this July when I toured the amazing train roundhouse and turntable at Hanna these important tenants of saving our heritage jumped out at me in spades.

They are exactly what the executive director of the Hanna Roundhouse Society, Sandra Beaudoin has in mind for this iconic piece of railroad history.

Sandra is as driven as any passionate preserver of heritage can be about their society’s mission. She has vision and imagination and is pushing ahead along with her board with both determination and gusto on what will be a long hard battle. This is the type of insight that has surfaced all across Canada as we fight to save those special historic pieces of our industrial growth.

Roundhouses were an integral part of the development of the west and as railroads pushed into Southern and Northern Alberta, both CNR and CPR, picked divisional junction points along their routes to build these major train service centers. In Alberta, from Edson to Lethbridge to Medicine Hat and several other strategic locations, roundhouses were built to service the ever increasing number of steam trains that made their way across the prairies hauling new settlers and supplies into the newly developing lands and hauling precious commodities like No. 1 Marquis wheat back east to markets.

There are precious few of these amazing structures remaining in Western Canada.

Sometimes, like at Crowsnest on the border, which was a divisional point for CPR, we find that only the cement circle of the turnaround remains. From historic images it appears there was a small (four bay) roundhouse there along with the turnaround (turntable) on the south edge of Summit Lake.

In other cases like Fort MacLeod we find a little more evidence like the roundhouse foundations for 10 bays and the actual turntable steel frame.

At Hanna, they have both the massive 10 stall roundhouse building totally intact as well as the immense heavy-duty turntable bridge in front of that huge fan-shaped roundhouse.

According to that intrepid rural explorer Chris Doering, “The turntable itself is very interesting. It’s essentially a bridge resting on a centre pivot, with support wheels at each end, resting on rails embedded in the turntable pit wall.

“A simple and compact arrangement, this allowed an engine to align with a specific stall, or to be turned. To power them they utilized a turbine type motor using steam from the power plant (or the locomotive itself), or simply an electric motor.

“At smaller facilities, the turntable was moved by the Armstrong method – meaning the train crew pushed it. Either arrangement required the locomotive to be almost perfectly balanced on the turntable.”

(Check out Chris and Connie Doering’s amazing website: Off the Beaten Path at bigdoer.com)

At one time Hanna had 15 stalls, five were added later in 1919 – 1922 in the brick addition which was torn down in 2012 by the Town of Hanna for safety reasons.

Future plans of the Hanna Roundhouse Society is to rebuild this beautiful brick addition over the existing floor which remains.  Canadian Northern Railroad drafting of this roundhouse distinctly show a total of 25 stalls, with five stall sections added at a time.

Probably the largest roundhouse that I know of is the John Street Roundhouse in downtown Toronto, which was build in 1929 – 31 and at one time had an incredible 32 bays for engines. It now serves as a home to the amazing Toronto Railway Museum.

To tour the Hanna roundhouse was truly a humbling experience as the massive size and function of this industrial site was breathtaking. The rock solid post and beam construction inside gave great assurance to the buildings stability and usability for other purposes.

The roof covering that spans between the support beams is two by eight’s (true dimension) on edge! The massive double entry doors challenged my imagination as to what it must have looked like when one of these prairie workhorses chuff chuffed its way into the building off of the turntable and pulled up over a drop pit inside for servicing.

When it was built in 1913, the Hanna Roundhouse required a 60,000 gallon water tank that necessitated the construction of a dam on a small meandering creek nearby.

The interior has been modified somewhat as it has served several functions since it was officially closed in 1961, including a livestock auction market.

Most of the drop pits have been filled in and the interior partitioned with a giant concrete firewall that presents a 9,500 square foot area, which they refer to as the Great Hall, which can serve as a marvelous area for large special events.

Every roundhouse had an attached machine shop/ boiler house building and Hanna was no different with a 3,700 square foot building that the Hanna Roundhouse Society envisions as an interpretive center/main entrance area with a coffee bar area and a visiting area for visitors and volunteers, with old photos to take the place of equipment until equipment is located.

Being the curious coal miner that I am, the conversation with Sandra Beaudoin eventually led to the question of coal supply way out there in the prairies.

I recall discovering in 2014 that Hillcrest Coal was shipped as far as Spokane for marketing because of its superior steam heating quality.

Crowsnest Pass coals were considered some of the finest steam coal around and to my surprise Beaudoin indicated she thought that Crowsnest Coal was shipped to Hanna and was the preferred coal out at the roundhouse. In fact when it came to what coal to use for the trains, the engineers always opted for it because mountain coal would burn so much longer than flat land mined coal.

However, most often coal mined locally from mines such as the Sheerness Mine just down the road from Hanna was used and abundantly available.

It is ironic, I find, that the government is moving to shut down Sheerness which will, like it did here in the Pass, have a significant impact on the community of Hanna nearby. Westmoreland Coal operates Sheerness and has contracts to 2026.

This mine has operated for 19 years without a loss time accident (as of 2014). That is nothing short of remarkable. Are we really going to go down this road?

For the Hanna Roundhouse Society there is a long complicated road ahead as the fight to preserve, restore and enhance this truly important piece of Central Alberta railway history carries on.

As I stood in the center of this massive structure I could clearly hear the cheers from graduation classes posing for photos, music echoing out from a huge stage area at some gala event in the grand hall and see curious tourists like myself wandering around static displays and marveling at this special piece of railway history.

Repurposing of buildings is key to many communities survival these days. It protects the original heritage of the structure and ensures it will be around for future generations to understand how they came to be.

In June of 2015 the Hanna Roundhouse was designated a Provincial Heritage Resource and that August a reunion gathering of railroad retirees saw 130 former employees from as far away as Port Alberni show up.

That Port Alberni retiree came with his great grand-daughter and Beaudoin said, “He was the last machinist that worked in the boiler room of the roundhouse, which closed in 1961.”

My last word on repurposing would be to tell you this. The main span of the bridge that the CPR train passes over on the highway just south of Pincher on its way to the Shell’s Waterton sulphur plant is in fact an old turntable from either the Lethbridge or Empress roundhouse. Now that’s repurposing.

I watched sadly as the very last CPR house at Crowsnest was summarily hauled away last year. I have also watched the moving of and participated in the wonderful restoration of the CPR station in Fernie years ago.

Industrial heritage preservation is not an easy road but if ever an industrial site deserved to be saved it is the Hanna Roundhouse.

Author’s Note: For more amazing images check out the online edition in my archives.

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