Visiting Alberta’s Past :
Stettler to Big Valley by Train
by John Althouse
The history of the Canadian railways has, at times, assumed almost mythic proportions. It certainly has served as artistic inspiration for an iconic folk song, a television docudrama, a popular history book, and even epic poems. Our nation was in part forged on a promise of a rail link extending from Atlantic to Pacific. This venture helped cement Canada’s destiny.
Over a few decades, this initial promise was not only achieved but grew to greatly exceed its initial scope. By the 1920s, an intricate spider web of iron rails had been laid criss-crossing much of settled Canada. These lines played significant roles in the areas along them and the countryside as a whole. They birthed many new settlements, provided their names, shaped their character and even the physical appearance of many of them. In time, most settlements contained the tracks, the station, and sundry other structures related to the line.
Once, it was possible for a train passenger to board a train at any station and travel anywhere the rails went in Western Canada. However, it was essential for these passengers to have patience as passenger rail travel was not swift. This was at least in part because passenger trains in the past stopped at every station along the route. A journey across much of Alberta from Wainwright to Jasper might take most of the daylight hours to complete during the summer. At the stations along the line, the arrival of a passenger train was a significant daily event. It had a siren’s power drawing an array of the town’s curious citizens to the station platform. Regretfully, passenger train travel has changed greatly since the early 1950s. Not only has the experience lost much of the romance connected to it, but the experience of traveling from community to community by train at a leisurely pace has virtually vanished.
However, it is still possible to duplicate the experience passenger train travel much as it once was right here in Alberta. Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions provides ‘old style’ passenger train service between Stettler and Big Valley, a distance of about 22 miles, one-way. Along this route, there were once three other stops Warden, Fenn, and Caprona. Little remains to attest to the existence of any of these places today.
On one such trip that I recently took, passengers boarded the train at the Stettler station at 11:00 a.m., settled into their seats in the passenger cars, and readied for the adventure ahead. A costumed interpreter, Gabriel, provided a running commentary of the details of the landscape along the way as well as information pertaining to the operation of this particular line and railways in general. The journey was leisurely with the train travelling at 12 to 18 mph along the route. Passengers were able to get up, move about along the way, and take photographs. There was even a special car with no window glass that was well suited for this.
Unfortunately, as our train approached Big Valley, it was overtaken by a band of armed and masked horsemen who stopped and boarded the train demanding cash from the terrified passengers. The situation would have been much worse had it not been for the efforts of our travelling companionGabriel who engaged these desperados in a gun battle and eventually drove them off. However, while none of the train passengers was injured in this robbery, the robbers netted over $500 (for major children’s medical facilities in Alberta).
The train arrived in Big Valley at 12:40 p.m. Big Valley is a village of 351 people. It was incorporated in 1911. The passengers exited the train at the original Canadian Northern Railway Station which was erected there in 1912. The inside of the station house contained period artifacts and an excellent pictorial history of this rail line and the stops that once were dotted along its entire route from Dinosaur near Drumheller to Vegreville. Big Valley was an important divisional point along this line. To the south of the station was a lone grain elevator and the ruins of the old round house.
As many travellers wished to take photos, the crew backed the train up and did a run passed the station that provided an excellent opportunity for the photographers. There were a number of museums and displays at the site, some housed in old baggage cars and one in an old North Star garage. (These museums were free of charge to the train travellers with the exception of the Creation Museum, which charged a small fee.) As well as these, there were a few interesting specialty shops along the town’s Main Street where visitors browsed and purchased wares. A large tent was set up where a buffet meal was available for all the passengers on the newly arrived train. There were opportunities to take a tour through the village. St, Edmund’s Church, a stunning blue building, sat regally atop a hill gazing down on the village. While in Big Valley, those who wished could tour the engines and the caboose. A local singer provided enjoyable entertainment along with a good measure of audience participation on the station platform. Our three hours in Big Valley flew by and were full of wonderful discoveries including a Model A Ford and a Singer treadle sewing machine.
Our return trip covered the same route. A new commentary was provided as we wound our way back to Stettler. We even learned why standard rail gauge is 4 feet 8 ½ inches. The entertainer also put on a twenty minute show in our car (he covers all cars during the two way trip). We arrived back at the Stettler station at 5:10 p.m. This was a wonderful experience, providing recreation of the experience of passenger train travel much as it was in its glory days and an experience that I would dearly enjoy repeating again soon. The excursions take various forms including a murder mystery format. Prices vary according to the type of trip registered for. Further information is available on the Alberta Prairie Train excursion website at http://www.absteamtrain.com/
This venture is operated by volunteers. It is wise to book a trip on the Alberta Prairie Railway Excursion train well in advance. The trains are pulled by either diesel or steam driven engines on specific trips. Our trip was scheduled for a steam train but a problem with the engine’s boiler has temporarily removed it from service and a diesel was used instead. Replacement steam engines are difficult to find today!
Originally appeared in Relatively Speaking, v.42 #4 (Nov 2014)