Nickelback is from Hanna, Alberta. But I only discovered that when I made the road trip. It was the tale of the ancient roundhouse that piqued my interest. Darryl was hanging art in my office in Medicine Hat and we got to talking. Having recently moved, he wistfully recalled life in Hanna, his hometown. “It has the last remaining rural roundhouse in the west,” he told me proudly. I love old architecture and abandoned buildings, so I convinced a friend that we had to go and see this historic structure. On the first spring day, we hit to road to see what this slice of Canadiana had to offer.
Say Alberta and most people think of oil or cattle. I think of trains. The construction of the railroad was integral to settling the west and uniting the county. Most western cities and towns owe their existence to the railroad – so much so in the case of Hanna that the town was named after the railroad executive, David Blythe Hanna.
Hanna was an important enough stop on the CN line that a roundhouse was constructed. When engines were in need of repair or service, crews placed the cars on turntables, which allowed them to be driven into the large circular or semicircular structure built around them. Hence the name ‘roundhouse’.
Travelling by back roads, we passed through some rolling countryside. But as we reached Hanna, the topography dramatically changed. Hanna is flat. Prairie flat. You can see out for miles across the prairie grasses. Leaving the highway, we passed a Welcome to Hanna sign, which paid tribute to its most famous citizens. A stampede ground lies at the outskirts and next to it is a lovely little pioneer village, which we explored though the buildings were closed until the Victoria Day weekend. I am a sucker for pioneer villages and this one is a gem.
Hanna itself is extremely small. Around 2,500 inhabitants give or take. We drove up to the roundhouse, which is in a field a little outside of town. Proudly standing there in all its ‘not yet restored’ glory, I can only imagine that this must have been a pretty impressive building at one time. Built in 1913 by Canadian Northern Railroad, now there was a tree overshadowing the turntable and the tracks just disappear into the vanishing point on the horizon. Old railroad ties were stacked at one end.
I had some friends from university who in summer went out to work on the CPR laying track. They would have to get up at 2 or 3 a.m. and work until around noon when the steel, heated by the sun, could no longer be handled. Isolated and physically grueling, it was not for the faint of heart. They really looked forward to heading into town on their days off. No doubt the railway crew shared this feeling when they arrived in Hanna. Railway men would get off and stay in nearby hotels, which you can still see from the site.
We approached the building and entered through one of the large doors. The vast interior space is like a cathedral for the age of the railroad. There is a hall for locomotive bays for 10 engines and a large room on the other side that now had a few picnic tables.
When construction on the roundhouse began in June 1913, hundreds of men arrived in town to work on ballasting the track. They must have worked fast – the fall harvest was shipped out by rail. By November 13 the first passenger train from the east arrived and the local newspaper reported that almost everyone in Hanna went to the station to welcome it. The paper also noted a short four months later that the stagecoach had completed its final trip into town.
Though one wing has been demolished, miraculously most of the building is still standing. Over the years, various uses have been found for it, including as a Greyhound Bus Depot and a place to sell livestock. Now, a team of dedicated and passionate train loving volunteers and local boosters are trying to turn this into a viable cultural, educational, and party space. At 9500 sq. ft., you could throw one hell of a party.
“We have a lot on the go,” Sandra Beaudoin, President and Founder of the Hanna Roundhouse Society informed me when I reached out to her. The roundhouse received provincial historic designation in 2015, an important first step. Especially considering that its sister roundhouse in Biggar, Saskatchewan was torn down last year over the objection of preservationists. “A significant long-term objective for us is to get the turntable functional.” In the meantime the Society is hoping to have heritage work done on the main buildings, including much needed roof repair, work on the original windows and doors, and, importantly, securing it from vandals and robbers whose presence is an ongoing problem. The site itself is almost nine acres in size so this is no small undertaking. Money will have to be raised. Lots of it. “We are in the process of getting our information package together for investors to help us with the restoration”. Who knows maybe the hometown heros will do a fundraising concert – how ‘bout it Nickelback?
Having stood for over 100 years, it’s hard to imagine what this weather beaten prairie edifice will look like 100 years hence. As an important part of our architectural legacy, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Sandra and her Society will find a vibrant new use that pays tribute to the roundhouse’s historic past. For more information about visiting, special events or donating, visit the Hanna Roundhouse Society website or their Facebook page.