Historic Alberta train station returns home

Station was moved in 1971 and again in the 1980s before being moved back to Benalto, where it will be a community centre

BENALTO, Alta. — It’s common for old buildings to be moved away. It’s unusual for them to be returned. The Benalto train station is one of the unusual ones. It has come home after more than 40 years away.

The station once again dominates the former rail yard on the hamlet’s Main Street and is on track to become a museum, archives, and community centre.

“The railway was the reason the town exists,” says Dave More of the Benalto Booster Club, the force behind the Return To Benalto project.

“When it came back, it revived that energy and gave everyone a lift.”

The station was pulled back into town in April 2013, amid a flurry of excitement, ceremony, and a police escort as it was welcomed home by dozens of supporters.

Since then, fundraising efforts by the Benalto Booster Club, which have attracted private and corporate donations, as well as government grants, have advanced the project, moving the station further toward its new purpose.

“We figured on a five-year project and we’re close to that,” says More.

The iconic building sits on a side hill near its original location. Its new walk-out basement is covered with a rubber-floored, skate-change area that was used last winter. The community outdoor rink is just yards away.

An expansive wrap-around deck skirts the station’s main floor and provides scenic views southwest to the rodeo grounds and campground. The Rocky Mountains provide a scenic backdrop to the west and the old rail beds have been converted into tree-lined walking trails.

The station has retained its original window frames.

Inside, More shows off the former baggage area turned meeting room, with period picture rails. He shared the vision of didactic panelling to preserve the history of the community as well as recognition plaques, framed in train car silhouette, recognizing donors of the legacy project.

A kitchen is planned for the original waiting room.

The old ticket office is now a smaller, more private gathering place.

The Benalto train station and elevators were photographed about 1928-29. | Photo from Homesteads And Happiness history book

Wheelchair accessible washrooms have been added on the main floor. Two small rooms in the second floor cupola will become offices and archives.

Benalto was established about 1912 as a stop on the Alberta Central Railway line that ran west to Rocky Mountain House, Alta. Although the track continued to be known as the ACR line, it had since been acquired by Canadian Pacific Railway.

A temporary station was used until 1928 when the Benalto train station arrived boxed, much like the Eatons catalogue homes of that era. It was erected on site.

Benalto thrived over the next few decades with grain elevators, grocery stores, a bank, hardware store, lumber company, churches, a school, and numerous spin-off businesses and activities.

But it faced the fate shared by many smaller communities; as roads improved, people migrated to larger centres. As well, CP had previously cancelled plans to push the line through to the West Coast.

CP closed the station in 1962. The station was abandoned and sat empty for almost a decade before it was sold, and relocated several times over the years. That was no easy feat considering the building’s 64 x 24 foot size with second floor cupola. The weight is estimated between 61 and 68 tonnes.

“It’s surprisingly unscathed considering it’s been moved several times,” says More.

The station left Benalto in 1971 when it was bought by Jack and Joan Donald from Red Deer for $200 plus the cost of moving. The Donalds used it as their summer home overlooking the Red Deer River near Penhold.

“It was a project,” says Joan Donald. “It was very run down with broken windows and all the plaster on the lower floor had come down.

“The move took all summer. We didn’t have a good road. And they had to go through a field and down a hill.”

With heavy rains that year, the load sank and got stuck. Movers had to recruit three large winch trucks and a D7 cat for assistance to eventually get the station it to its new location.

“It served us very well,” says Jack Donald.

When the family decided to build a new home on the property in the early 1980s, they sold the station.

It was moved across the Red Deer River to a property on the Burnt Lake Trail on the western edge of Red Deer.

The train station had a series of owners there. The last were Garett and Brenda Cupples, who acquired the station land in an expansion of their business. They couldn’t bring themselves to demolish the historic building so they donated it to Benalto in 2012.

“When they offered it to us we jumped on it,” says More. “We’re working to make it a centre for the community. It’s a way to use Benalto’s past to create a brand-new future.”

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