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The Lost Series: Edmonton’s Incline Railway

Edmonton Incline Railway, 1912.
Glenbow Archives, NA-1328-163.


When it began operating in 1908, it may well have been the world’s shortest railway. The Edmonton Incline Railway lifted people and teams of horses from the bottom to the top of the North Saskatchewan River valley on tracks just 290 feet long.

The funicular railway was built into McDougall Hill at the foot of 101st Street, on the eastern side of today’s Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe. It was apparently the brainchild of Joseph Hostyn, manager of the Edmonton Hotel, which was then at the bottom of the hill.

Joe came upon the idea when he saw teams of horses working hard on the 15-minute trip up the steep grade. He convinced local businessmen including Donald Ross (who owned the Edmonton Hotel), brewer William H. Sheppard, merchant Richard Secord, Cloverdale brickyard owner Pete Anderson, and coal baron H.J. Dawson to back the venture.

They approached the City of Edmonton in 1905 for permission to construct a tramway from the Edmonton Hotel to the top of the bank. But the City insisted on a $10,000 bond to protect against claims from neighbouring property owners, and that left the project in limbo.

Two years later, they had the money, and renewed their application. With the approval in hand, Joe headed off to New York and Hamilton, Ontario, to evaluate their lifts. Then a local team that included mechanical engineer Jack Nesbitt and electrical engineer Charles Taylor began designing one for Edmonton.

The early plans utilized a hoist motor powered by electricity, but the City decided that the drain on its fledgling electrical grid would be too great. So an 80-horsepower steam engine and 100-horsepower coal-fired boiler from Jenckes Machine Company of St. Catharines, Ontario, were installed instead.

The project was budgeted at $16,000, but by the time it was done, the total expenditure was just over $30,000. The First Street Hoist, as it was called, opened on May 20, 1908.

“The first of its kind in Western Canada,” said the Edmonton Bulletin newspaper. On its first run, the hoist lifted a team of Percherons pulling a red wagon loaded with beer kegs from Sheppard’s Edmonton Brewery.

The 44-foot-wide system operated on two sets of tracks installed on the 45-degree grade, each about double the width of a normal railway track. The twin cars, 20 feet wide by 30 or 40 feet long (accounts differ), were linked together with a cable-and- pulley system that worked like a counterbalance.

As one car went down, its weight helped pull the other car up, and when more power was needed, the steam engine provided it. Each car was designed to carry two teams, or a weight of 12 tons, at a time.

“The cables holding the cars are 1 1/4 inches thick and are attached to drums, each of which weighs eight tons,” the Bulletin reported. “The main gear wheel in the centre weighs four tons and the three are on a pulley 32-feet long and 10-inches in diameter.”

The system featured two additional safety cables, one per car, measuring one-and-a-half inches thick. “Under ordinary circumstances those run loose,” the story explained, “but should the other slip for any reason the safety at once stops the car by means of an automatic mechanism. There are also two emergency brakes and a working brake on the engine which afford additional safety.”

Wagons were chained to the car floor for the minute-long trip, and a barrier prevented startled horses from backing off the platform. Foot passengers were kept separate from the teams, and rode in a section four feet wide and 20 feet long attached to the side of the main cars. Brick retaining walls ten to 15 feet high held back the slope on either side of the tracks.

The new system was operated by Frank Morris, a retired Canadian Northern Railway engineer, who guided the cars from the top platform. Each round trip cost 15 cents for wagon and team, or ten cents one-way, and foot passengers paid five cents. The cars operated from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and in the evenings if there was something going on down in Ross Flats, like a baseball game at Diamond Park.

“Somebody once described it as being halfway between an outdoor escalator and a San Francisco cable car,” wrote historian Alex Mair in 1993. At first, public reaction to the ingenuity was favourable, and the Saturday News of May 23, 1908, noted that it was built to “the most modern principles” and was the only incline railway of its type west of Hamilton.

“The long hard climb up the hill to Edmonton from the valley of the Saskatchewan that has for so many years taxed the energies of man and beast is no longer a necessity,” the article observed. “Ever since the incline opened for business, it has been constantly in operation and is recognized by all who have occasion to go up and down the hill as a very great boon. To the portion of the city that lies on the flats, it will mean much development.”

Locals came to call it The Hoist and The Lift, but the good press wasn’t to last for long, and neither was the novelty. The lower platform was partway up the slope, and many teamsters just decided to keep going and save the money, especially when the weather was good. Many citizens would rather save the nickel and climb the stairs.

An inspection by the city engineer in June 1910 revealed that the hoist system was in such poor condition that if immediate maintenance work wasn’t carried out, it would be “unfit and unsafe for public service.” Deficiencies included damage to the cars, badly bent gear shafts, a fire hazard caused by a buildup of grease and oil in the engine room, and imminent failure of the retaining walls.

The Incline Railway Company disputed the findings, but there was no disputing the public’s reluctance to use the service. A report issued by the Railway in June 1910 stated it had carried 144,760 foot passengers and 76,099 vehicles since its opening two years earlier, for an average of just 200 passengers and 104 vehicles per day. The service just ran downhill financially, and the backers never did recover their full $30,000 investment.

The completion of the High Level Bridge in 1913 was the last straw and, as Alex Mair put it, “the owners were left with an inclined railway that nobody wanted. They could use the High Level for nothing, so why pay the fare on Hostyn’s Hoist?”

The system was shut down for good in late 1913. Parts of it were dismantled and hauled away. Other bits of its giant innards, including the steam engine, were apparently left buried in the bank, to be discovered whenever construction occurred on the site.

Resurrecting a funicular railway for Edmonton has been discussed many times since, but the ideas have never panned out. The City is currently evaluating the feasibility of incline railways along 104th Street and Grierson Hill to Louise McKinney Park.


© 2012 Lawrence Herzog, All Rights Reserved.


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