The whistle blows. All aboard the Prairie Dog Central Railway and prepare to step back in time! Owned and operated by the non-profit Vintage Locomotive Society, the Prairie Dog Central steams its way down the tracks. With every progressive year getting busier, they thought they had seen its peak in 2019. That was their busiest year on record.
However, with record-high gas prices, Manitobans were taking the time to explore their province. The 2022 season surpassed 2019 and they look forward to an even better 2023 season.
The volunteers and employees (sometimes they are both) dedicate many hours to its success. Sometimes the stories of the lives of the volunteers entwine themselves with the agencies to which they donate their time.
MEET Lorna Nelson who has a special connection to the Vintage Locomotive Society and the Prairie Dog Central Railway. That special connection was her husband Ron. Ron was an avid model railroader. Specifically, it was the smaller-scale train models that Ron enjoyed. His interest in model railroads was born 49 years ago when he and Lorna were married. His passion grew and eventually, the whole basement was transformed into one large scenic railway.
For hours at a time, Ron would disappear into the basement. “He would build buildings, he would build ravines, all sorts of things…” Lorna recalled. Hours would be spent on the tiniest piece. “He built the actual railings, the ladders on coaches so that they were really realistic” she shared. Ron would combine bits from various model kits into one item or create his own model parts from photographs for higher accuracy. From time to time Lorna would join him and paint various pieces.
As Ron was nearing retirement, he was invited by a friend to volunteer with the Prairie Dog Central Railway. Ron would get to play with the BIG trains! While Ron was still employed, he was only able to volunteer his time on Saturdays. He first became a porter, assisting people in getting on and off the trains when they ran on the weekends. When Ron retired, he became a lot more involved. He became a brakeman and then a conductor. He also took on the role of fireman on the steam engine, shovelling coal into the engine.
When Lorna retired in 2004, she joined Ron in volunteering with the railway. She now has a hybrid volunteer/employee role that she plays at the Prairie Dog Central Railway. She began in the gift shop, then became the ticket agent and also does the gardens. She is also part of the marketing committee, and in talking with her, you can feel her excitement. In discussing the past year, she was excited that “(they) have never sold so many tickets in such a short amount of time!” as they made their way to surpassing their 2019 sales record. Now that’s called ‘Passion’!
Ron and Lorna enjoyed numerous years of volunteering with the Prairie Dog Central Railway, but in 2014, they felt something was wrong with Ron. It took a year for the test results to come back. Ron was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a fatal motor neuron disease that attacks a select group of nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord.
Nevertheless, Ron and his love of trains continued to persevere. He kept up his role as a fireman on the steam engine until he could no longer climb the steps. Ron passed away from ALS on August 11th, 2018. He loved to research the trains and share his knowledge of them – a love that still shines through in Lorna’s exuberance for sharing the history of the railway.
The train departs from the Inkster Junction Station and strolls across the prairie for about an hour before pulling into Grosse Isle. There you will find a lovely picnic area and maybe some food vendors, but remember, we are stepping back in time, so it is cash only.
The steam engine, built in Scotland, was constructed in 1882 and was one of the first 25 engines purchased by the CPR. Last year was its 140th birthday which was celebrated on Canada Day. The train coaches all date from 1901 to 1912 and the diesel engines date to the 1950s.
As with any business, you have to constantly maintain your equipment. “there is a lot of maintenance to keep them (the trains) on track … and we’re trying our best” Lorna says. A lot of work and love is continuously poured into maintaining and operating the trains and coaches. Over the winter, volunteers comb through them, painting and repairing pieces that have broken over the previous season.
There are some challenges in running a historic train line. One is when a train engine reaches the ripe old age of 140, it starts to get a little more challenging to repair. Some parts may no longer be available or the steam engine may decide that it does not want to run today. For that reason, the backup diesel trains are there to save the day and give the old steam engine a rest.
Ron’s engagement in volunteering with the Prairie Dog Central (PDC) Railway lives on through Lorna. The PDC Railway is an annual supporter of the ALS Society of Manitoba and this year they raised just over $900 for the Society. These funds will be put to work assisting those living with ALS/MND (Motor Neurone Disease).
So how do they raise the money? By a Great Train Robbery!
What? A train robbery? On horseback, in 2023? Yes, indeed – the Great Train Robbery! Somewhere between the Inkster Junction Station and Grosse Isle, pesky cowboys and gals on horseback will pull up alongside the train. Of course, there are a couple of sheriffs on board, they reassure people that there is no need to worry. However, then the engineer thinks that he sees a blockage on the tracks ahead. But never fear, the sheriffs are here.
Gradually the train slows down to investigate the obstacle on the tracks. Uh oh – before you know it, the valiant sheriffs are subdued and the friendly bandits are making their way through the coaches. At this juncture, you may contribute to the charity being supported by placing
your donation into the train robber’s saddlebag. This is completely voluntary.
The saddlebags are then taken to the baggage car where the funds donated are counted. On the trip home, the crew on the train announce to the passengers the amount of the funds that were raised.
If you are lucky and the weather is good, sometimes the train robbers ride all the way to Grosse Isle. If this is the case, you can have a chat with them and see their horses up close in the park.
It is the love that the volunteers pour into the railroad that helps to make it a wonderful experience. Ron and Lorna understood that. What goes around, comes around.
When Ron passed away, the miniature railway he had worked on for years was taken down. Trains were lovingly packed away. Beautiful vistas and train stations were boxed up, waiting for their moment to shine again. A new light is shining and Ron’s son has begun to reconstruct the railway. Not only that, he is updating it to operate on the latest wireless technology. Lorna’s eyes light up “God bless my husband’s friends, he had many, and many on the model railroad side, and they are all willing to come over and help my son get that part up and running”. It’s a large investment, but passions do not come cheap. That is why they are a passion and not a fleeting moment. They require dedication.
For Lorna and Ron, the Prairie Dog Central Railway was a special place. A place of happiness, friends and everlasting memories. A passion for trains and everything revolving around them. “Up until three weeks before he (Ron) passed away, we were still going in the car and chasing the train down the gravel road and all the engineers knew him. They’d be hanging out the edge, honking the horn at him” Lorna reminisced.
If you find yourself travelling down Highway 6 and the railroad bars come down, you are in for a big treat. Get your camera ready to snap a photo of a train chugging along out of history. Loosen up that wrist to start waving to all the lucky people riding the Prairie Dog Central Railway and thank them for helping to make this world a better place. Thank you for supporting the ALS Society of Manitoba.