Tragedy on the Red Deer River

In Alix, Alberta on May 17, 2017 at 4:55 PM

Tragedy on the Red Deer River – by Jean Bigelow

I still have a very vivid memory of a tragic occasion on the Red Deer River while the railway bridge was being built south of Alix.

We often went for a picnic at a place where the river was fordable at low water.  This day, my father, Edward Parlby, drove my cousin, Jack Arbuthnott, my two brothers and myself to the river for the first picnic of the season.  The river was in flood, with cakes of ice whirling down the swift current.

We were enjoying our lunch while watching the men working on the high railway bridge when we saw a big wagon drawn by four horses, with more horses in their harness tied in pairs behind the wagon.  I believe there were twelve teams in all.  The horses were to be used for work on the approaches to the bridge, hauling gravel, etc.

In those days, there were no bridges between the old one at Red Deer and the Content Bridge east of Alix.  The men in charge of the outfit decided to try and ford the river, rather than go around by Content Bridge, which would have meant another twenty-five miles.

We watched while the driver hesitated for a time before starting down the steep bank into the swift river. About half way across we could see they were in trouble.  The swift current carried them sideways, with the unfortunate horses tangled in their harness and unable to swim.  The wagon turned over, throwing the men into the rushing water.  One man was drowned, as were thirteen horses.  A few horses managed to break loose and swim ashore.  I remember watching one big grey horse swimming for the far shore, and finally scrambling out, much to my relief.

The men on the high bridge were scrambling down and running to where we stood to try to reach the overturned wagon as it was being swept downstream, close to a sandspit on our side of the river.  My cousin, Jack Arbuthnott, ran back to where our horses and the democrat were for a long rope which my father always carried with him, and running out to the end of the sandspit he was able to lasso the wagon as it was being swept past.  With the aid of the railway men the wagon was pulled ashore, saving the lives of the men.  I believe it was the driver who drowned.

I can still see all the poor horses with their legs in the air, tangled in their harness, lying drowned.  I was a small girl at the time, and was so upset at the sight that I ran and sat in the democrat, which was behind some bushes.

A year later on another picnic, when the river was very low, my mother came across a leather wallet with money still in it.  We often wondered if it had belonged to the drowned man.

Gleanings After Pioneers and Progress Alix-Clive Historical Club, 1981

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