The Alphabet Railway of the Canadian Prairies

There was a very interesting post yesterday at Twelve Mile Circle (another geography blog you should be reading if you aren’t already) on a set of neighbouring towns in Massachusetts all beginning with the letter ‘W’. Other commenters soon jumped in with their own examples at the bottom of the page providing all sorts of alliterative appellation sequences in regions across the United States. This got me thinking about one of the largest-such naming schemes on the planet, which spans three Canadian provinces and over 1 600 kilometres in length.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Grand Trunk Railway embarked on constructing a more northern transcontinental railway across Canada in contrast to the extreme southern route taken by the Canadian Pacific completed in 1885. It was believed that having a Pacific terminal that was closer to Asia (Prince Rupert, British Columbia) would be more advantageous for shipping. To get to Prince Rupert, however, the Grand Trunk Pacific would have to cross a large expanse of sparsely settled prairie. Sparsely settled prairie that contained very few European place names that could be given to the dozens and dozens of railway stations and siding that would have to be constructed every handful of kilometres to service both trains and the influx of farmers that was about to pour into the Prairies. An unknown person or persons at the Grand Trunk offices took it upon themselves to systematically name each unnamed siding along the line in alphabetical order east-to-west.

Alphabet Railway

A close-up of a Canadian National Railways map from the 1920s showing the part of the alphabetical naming scheme straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. To view the entire map set online, visit http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~canmaps/cnr/index.htm (the AlbertaSaskatchewan, and Manitoba maps are the documents of interest for the purposes of this article, but the entire website is filled with dozens of digitised historic maps of western Canada and highly worth a visit).

93 stations were named in the scheme, completing five rounds of the alphabet and the beginning of a sixth. The only breaks in the system come where there wasn’t enough population to warrant a siding, or where the railway ran into a locality that already had a name (this was more of a issue in Alberta than Saskatchewan or Manitoba). In each case, the letter would be skipped. The Grand Trunk also cheated a tad by mostly glossing over the letters Q and X (though in the second sequence going through south-central Saskatchewan, we do get Quinton and Xena). Some sidings like Tate, Saskatchewan never really amounted to more than a sign. Some like the aforementioned Xena grew into villages but slowly faded away until they receded back into the plains. A large portion of the stations exist today as small hamlets and villages, and some like Jasper, Alberta and Watrous, Saskatchewan grew into fair-sized towns thanks to their geographic advantages. The largest city by far in the scheme is Edmonton, Alberta with a metropolitan population of over one million people (Edmonton’s placement is coincidental, however, as its founding as a fur trading fort predates the railway by eight decades). The creation of a rail grid from scratch on the Prairies and the growth of certain towns and cities over others, each starting with ostensibly the same amenities, is a rather interesting demonstration of central place theory in action.

You can view the entire list of alphabetised locales here. Of course, if you really want to have some fun, start at the beginning on Google Maps at Bloom, Manitoba (Arona, which started the first sequence, has been long subsumed by the neighbouring city of Portage la Prairie) and see if you can follow the line of alphabetically-named towns all the way west to Jasper, Alberta, where the sequence ends. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway itself never took off; the company went under in 1923 and was annexed by the federal government’s Canadian Northern Railway to form the much more successful Canadian National Railway that spans both Canada and the United States today. The legacy of the Grand Trunk, however, is intact in the unique set of place names it bestowed across the middle of the continent.


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Grain elevator along the Canadian National Line at Hubbard, Saskatchewan, part of the second sequence of alphabetical names.

Further Reading

Adamson, J. (2002). CNR Alphabet Railway: Canadian National Railway/Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Canadian Maps Online Historical Map Digitization Project, 7 May 2002. Available at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~canmaps/AlphabetRailway.html. Accessed 1 November 2010.

Boychuk, R. (1998). Write to Know: Alphabet railway. Canadian Geographic March/April 1998. Available athttp://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/ma98/write_to_know.asp. Accessed 1 November 2010.

Howder (2010). W Towns Outside Boston. Twelve Mile Circle, 31 October 2010. Available at http://www.howderfamily.com/blog/w-towns-outside-boston/. Accessed 1 November 2010.

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