We spent 4 leisurely days enjoying the sun and warmth at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park south of Brooks, Alberta. The spacious, grassy campground sites – complete with electricity – and close to Lake Newell were absolutely wonderful (see below). The Bear enjoyed daily swims and hikes through the grounds.
Then it was off to see the nearby Brooks Aqueduct, otherwise known as ‘The Giant Centipede of the Prairie.’ Having done a bit of research, the Brooks Aqueduct was billed as an engineering marvel in its day, so we thought we’d check it out. In 1912, the Canadian Pacific Railroad began construction on a major irrigation project to help expand agricultural lands in southern Alberta. Diverting water from the Bow River, it would transform 55,000 hectares of semi-arid rangeland to farmland suitable for settlement. By 1914, construction of the 3.1 kilometre aqueduct was completed. In all, it consumed 19,000 cubic meters (25,000 cubic yards) of steel-reinforced concrete, making it the longest concrete structure in the world. It featured a catenary-shaped flume mounted on 1,030 columns and an inverted syphon under the CPR railroad line. The aqueduct began operation in 1915.
So we were wandering around the base of the aqueduct, reading all the information boards, duly impressed with this century old engineering feat, when we got to the final plaque. Having read about the political struggles to get the project funded, all the man-hours that went into the construction, the complexity and all the effort and people it took to keep the system running, we were shocked to read the final story board. While the structure was built to carry water, at the time, the closest water source was 65 km (40 miles) away in a town called Suffield. As such, trains brought 136,000 litres (30,000 gallons) of water to the site every day. WTF? They built a 3 km concrete ‘river in the sky’ – a project that took 3 years and 38 construction crews to complete – 65 clicks away from the river? Who came up with that bright idea?
Now we’re not trained engineers, but this seems totally bizarre. Why would you build a 3 km elevated structure in the middle of the Prairie, then transport huge amounts of water by rail on a daily basis to fill it up, only to spread it out via a patchwork of canals and ditches. Hmmm, maybe it’s not so bizarre if you’re the railroad company. It seems like the CPR convinced the Federal Government that this was good use of taxpayers money. But why wouldn’t they have just extended the railroad track another 3 kms and dump water into canals along the way?
The answers to all these questions are probably available by analyzing all the historical records, which we didn’t. But standing there, looking at this massive elevated derelict trough in the middle of the Prairie, you really had to wonder – what were they thinking? There’s no bloody water around! Why would you build this megalith here? Interestingly, the Brooks Aqueduct was declared a national historic site in 1983 and in 1987, it was designated ‘one of the outstanding engineering milestones in Alberta.’ Wow, guess if enough time goes by, anything can seem like a good idea…