The railway. It played a defining role in Canadian history and helped ignite Winnipeg’s boom times of the early 1900s.
The Winnipeg Railway Museum and the sprawling rail yards near downtown help remind us of the golden era of train transportation, but there’s nothing like riding the rails behind a huffing steam locomotive to bring the past back to life.
That’s part of the attraction of the Prairie Dog Central Railway. Run by the non-profit Vintage Locomotive Society, the short track railway located northwest of Winnipeg features one of North America’s oldest operating steam locomotives and a vintage train that offers weekend excursions throughout the summer and fall.
I recently took a ride on the Prairie Dog Central along with my wife, our two kids and some family visiting from Ontario. It had been many years since I’d last taken the trip, accompanied by a wide-eyed six-year-old bursting with excitement about the opportunity to be travelling on an actual train.
My now teenaged son has outgrown his obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, but he had a great time on our Prairie Dog outing along with rest of our gang.
We caught the train at Inkster Junction Station, located about three kilometres west of the intersection of Inkster Boulevard and Route 90 in the RM of Rosser.
In keeping with the day’s theme of trains, planes and automobiles, there were dozens of model airplanes and classic cars on display alongside Prairie Dog Central’s pride and joy, the 130-year-old Steam Engine No. 3.
The ride itself — 45 minutes each way, rolling through picturesque prairie at a leisurely 25 km/h — was very relaxing. The seating was surprisingly comfortable, and a cool breeze wafting through the gently rocking rail cars helped temper what was otherwise a very hot day.
The end of the line was Grosse Isle, a small community 18 kilometres northwest of the Inkster Station. Here, passengers disembarked for an hour or so to have lunch and stretch their legs before heading back to the Inkster Station. There were the standard hot dogs and smokies for sale but also some tasty homemade pastries and other treats.
The Grosse Isle stop had a little something for everyone. There were more vintage automobiles on view, and a small museum welcomed those wanting to learn more about the area. A kiddie train and a small petting zoo were also set up for the little ones.
There were a few tables put up by vendors — including one enterprising fellow who was there with his pet python and some tiny frogs for sale. My daughter was smitten with the frogs (we bought one), but not with the python fortunately.
What made the trip memorable for me were the people on board. Prairie Dog Central is run by volunteers who clearly love their railway, and enjoy showing it off. And it doesn’t hurt that these train aficionados are a really friendly lot.
Porter Sean Lyon provided an affable welcome upon boarding, and it wasn’t long before we were greeted by historian Bill Stannard. He was dressed in period costume and his job on board is to regale passengers with tales of the steam engine era and the history of the Red River Valley, something he clearly relishes.
Trainman Jeff Keddy (or semi-conductor as he likes to describe himself) was particularly congenial. He’s been volunteering on the train for several years but will soon have to say goodbye to his Prairie Dog friends.
"I’m definitely going to miss this," said Keddy, who’s moving to Calgary. "It’s like family here."
Conductor Bob Goch is also president of the Vintage Locomotive Society, which has about 60 active volunteers. He echoed Keddy’s sentiments about family.
And I found more evidence — literally — when I was invited to ride up front in the locomotive for a stretch. Engineer Philip Shaw and fireman Stephen Shaw (the person responsible for shoveling coal and tending to the massive steam engine) turned out to be father and son.
Stephen has to do a lot a shoveling — the locomotive’s massive boiler consumes up to two tonnes of coal on each trip — and believe me, it gets plenty hot up there. But both he and his dad don’t mind the heat because what they’re doing is so clearly a labour of love.
As Stannard puts it, "We have fun… we get to play with trains — big ones."
If you’d like to take a ride on the Prairie Dog Central Railway, tickets can be purchased online at www.pdcrailway.com.