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August 10th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 31
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Preserve, Restore and Repurpose - The Hanna Roundhouse
Looking Back
John Kinnear and internet photos
The fabulous roundhouse interior
This July I had occasion to tour the amazing train roundhouse and turntable at Hanna, Alberta, where the important tenants of preserve, restore and repurpose 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. And 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.
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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. In other cases like Fort MacLeod we find a little more evidence like the roundhouse foundations for ten bays and the actual turntable steel frame.

At Hanna they have both the massive ten 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 fifteen 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 5 stall sections added at a time.
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It was typical of all roundhouses that they were expanded as traffic out west increased. 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 2 by 8’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 & a visiting area for visitors & volunteers, with old photos to take the place of equipment until equipment is located.
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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 & abundantly available.

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.

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.
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August 10th ~ Vol. 85 No. 31
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