It looks like a giant centipede striding across the southern Alberta prairie. But the Brooks Aqueduct is a rather unusual tourist attraction left behind by a much earlier prairie drought.
When it opened for business in 1910, the aqueduct was the world's longest elevated concrete structure. Construction engineers from Canadian Pacific Railway built the three-km aqueduct to carry water across a valley that interrupted one of its long earthen irrigation canals. CPR had to divert water from the Bow River to irrigate semi-arid lands in southeastern Alberta where it was trying to attract settlers.
The aqueduct was an engineering marvel near the start of the last century and even today it's an awe-inspiring sight for those who dare venture a few kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway. The huge structure is more than 18 metres high and marches off across the empty prairie to the distant horizon.
It took eight years to build, often employing up to 600 men in the summer. For nearly 70 years, it carried water for the seed crops that farmers planted east of Brooks, which is 225 km east of Calgary and a few kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway.
At one point, the irrigation canal encountered a railway track, so the engineers built a siphon to suck the water through a tube, 12 metres under the railway and back to the surface. Over the years, several local daredevils tried to swim through the siphon under the tracks, but none survived. They didn't necessarily drown, but were crushed in the tube, which narrows down to give the water more push back to the surface.
By 1979 a new earthen irrigation system, which carries 50 per cent more volume of water, was opened to bypass the aqueduct and the federal and provincial governments made plans to demolish it.
Ian Clarke, an Alberta government historian, pointed out the millions in cost difference between demolishing it and erecting a secure fence around it and letting Mother Nature deal with the structure in her own good time.
Clarke still couldn't persuade the right people to preserve the aqueduct until then-federal agriculture minister, Eugene Whelan, came to visit in 1981 shortly after he had seen the aqueduct in Nimes France, built by the Romans in 19 BC. "As soon as he saw the Brooks aqueduct, Whelan said there is no way we are going to tear this down," Clarke reported. It has since been declared a national and provincial historic site. Clarke says the aqueduct played a major role in the settlement of southeast Alberta.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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