The Bergen Cut-Off

Some 100 years after it was constructed and 80 years after it was abandoned, the Bergen Cut-Off rail bridge remains spanning the Red River. The photo shows clearly the swing portion of the bridge which has been left in the open position so as to allow vessels on the river to move through. However it has been a number  of years since any vessels big enough to warrant  the bridge being open have operated in this area of the Red River.  Given it has been probably decades since the bridge saw any maintenance, it appears to be in good condition and is a tribute to the contractors who build the structure.

While crossing over the Kildonan Settlers Bridge in Winnipeg, if you look south, you catch a glimpse of a disused railway swing bridge perched on its pier in the middle of the Red River. At this point, many readers will be thinking “My sainted aunt! Writing an article about an abandoned bridge in Winnipeg! How does this relate to agriculture? They must have lost their minds at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum! What is next?

However, you may be astonished to learn the disused bridge has an agricultural connection. It is a remnant of the CPR’s Bergen Cut-Off which was a rail line meant to re-route grain traffic around the CPR’s yards and main line in Winnipeg as these facilities were quite congested in the pre-First World War era.

The rapid expansion of cultivation on the Prairies in the period 1895 to 1910 posed huge problems for the CPR, Canadian Northern Pacific (CNoP), and Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP) railways which struggled with the grain traffic these railways were expected to handle from the prairies to the Lakehead in the fall. This congestion continued as the railways, after the freeze up at the Lakehead in the late fall, were then faced with a winter movement of grain to the ice-free ports on the St. Lawrence River and on eastern seaboard. The three railways added more boxcars and locomotives in order to handle the exploding grain traffic.

As well as western grain traffic, the Canadian railways in this time also enjoyed a substantial “bridge” traffic resulting from the need to move goods from Pacific ports to Atlantic ports and vice versa. The Canadian railways were the only railways in North America to run from the Atlantic to the Pacific and so were ideal to handle the substantial volume of goods moving between Asia and Europe. While some cargoes moved by vessel from Europe to Asia and vice versa, for various reasons European / Asian shippers felt it was advisable to move a significant volume of goods by vessel to a Canadian port and then move it by rail to the other coast for reloading on to a vessel and its final destination. This route was probably faster than an all-water route at the time. But whatever the reasons this traffic was considerable in volume and was very profitable to the CPR,  CNoP and GTP.

The CPR faced enormous pressure in 1911 as a result of the above factors. Winnipeg posed problems for the CPR as its main line, railyards, and facilities in the city were congested with traffic but were also surrounded by a rapidly growing city which constrained the CPR’s ability to improve its facilities. The CPR came up with an ambitious plan that would see the CPR bypass Winnipeg to the north with a rail line plus the plan would also result in a thoroughly modern rail yard by 1910 standards, set up to handle large numbers of box cars every day. This plan would ease greatly the CPR’s problems in Winnipeg with its congested Winnipeg facilities. Work on this plan actively began in 1911.

The Bergen Cut-Off ran between a point called Norcan on the CPR’s Keewatin subdivision, east of Winnipeg, and Woodman Tower on the CPR’s Carberry Subdivision which is west of Winnipeg. The line was well north of Winnipeg at the time and ran through what was largely farm land in 1911. The new rail line required a bridge over the Red River which, being a navigable river at the time, meant the bridge had to include a swing section to allow vessels to pass. The line was double tracked including the bridge.

Just east of Norcan, the CPR constructed the North Transcona yard. The yard was a complicated affair which can be best described as double sided. One side consisted of an east-bound receiving yard with 20 tracks and a east-bound classification / departure yard with 20 tracks. Each track could hold 72 cars. A 35-foot high hump track separated the receiving yard and the classification / departure yard. Cars in the receiving yard were pushed over the hump and rolled down into the classification / departure yard and were directed to various tracks in this yard to make up trains going to a single destination. A “car rider” rode the car down the hump to operate the car’s brakes and prevent the car from rolling too fast into the cars already in the track. The other side of the yard was identical except this side handled the west-bound traffic. In between the east- and west-bound yards were repair, icing, transfer, caboose storage, and coal storage tracks. This area also held a “ready for service” locomotive yard, a 44-stall roundhouse, a coal dock to fuel locomotives, water tower, and other locomotive servicing facilities.

The facility could be expanded in a second phase to a total of 30 tracks in both receiving yards and 40 tracks in both classification / departure yards. The capacity of the yard in the first phase was 7,500 of the standard 36-foot boxcars with an ultimate capacity of 13,136 boxcars with the addition of the seconnd phase. An early one-day record for the North Transcona yard was the handling of 2,000 boxcars during a fall grain “rush”.

However, the second phase of the year was never built for several reasons. The opening of the Panama Canal resulted in the CPR losing the “bridge” traffic moving between the Atlantic Coast and Pacific Coast as the canal substantially eased vessel movement between Asia and Europe and made vessel movement more economical than the previous vessel-rail-vessel route. The CPR experienced a substantial downturn in traffic as a result. As well, the First World War resulted in a substantial decrease in grain moving through the Lakehead to Europe. After the war, Vancouver opened up as a grain export port resulting in a long-term declining demand for grain movement to the Lakehead.

A further problem surfaced with the soil conditions in the area of the North Transcona yard proving unable to support large structures. The CPR improved its facilities in Winnipeg which, when combined with the reduced traffic through Winnipeg, resulted in the Bergen Cut Off seeing much less traffic than expected. The economic depression of the 1930s resulted in a severe down-turn in traffic with the result that the Cut Off was surplus to needs. The CPR removed the line sometime after 1933 but left in place the bridge over the Red River. The yard was not completely removed at the time with the remnants serving as a storage facility; however, at this time, little remains of the yard.

For some reason, the rail bridge was left spanning the river other than having its heavy creosoted timber deck removed.

We acknowledges the material for this nugget was obtained from the book “The Railways of Winnipeg, Volume Two” with the permission of the author, Fred Headon.

Page revised: 12 December 2022