The arrival of rail transportation in the late nineteenth century was one of the most important developments in the history of modern Alberta. The Canadian Pacific Railway, the first of many competing railways to establish lines in Alberta over the next several decades, reached Calgary in 1883. These rail systems were crucial to the early development of Alberta: they connected the province’s livestock and agricultural resources to national and international markets and served as transportation for the settlers claiming homesteads.
Railways were a modern, technologically advanced transportation system, but one that still very much depended on the muscle power of human energy to function. Railway construction required extraordinary amounts of human labour, often in very unsafe conditions. This was especially true for immigrant workers, who were regularly assigned the most dangerous tasks. In addition, railway maintenance depended upon a simple vehicle powered entirely by human muscle—the railway handcar. The design typically consisted of a seesaw-like arm positioned atop a very basic flat base.
Riders moved the arm up and down while standing atop the base, thus propelling the cart along the rails. There were many slight variations to this basic model, as railway companies often designed and built their own, but all were powered by human energy. These vehicles were common throughout the world wherever railways were built and were known in other parts of the world as pump trolleys, pump cars, or jiggers.
Railway handcars were most often used by maintenance teams travelling up and down the tracks to conduct inspections and make repairs. Since handcars weighed so little and were small in size, they could be put on and taken off the rails at any point in order to allow trains to pass. In some cases, they were also used as mining cars, and, very rarely, they were even used for passenger service. Handcars have since been replaced by self-propelled vehicles that do not require the use of manual power. In the early days of the province’s modern development, however, the railroad, like so much of Alberta’s infrastructure, was built primarily with human muscle power.