Winnipeg’s railway heritage at the Winnipeg Railway Museum and Transcona Historical Museum
The railway is an important part of the history of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It has played a significant role in the history of all of Canada, connecting vast distances and bringing waves of immigrants seeking new lives. After construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada, Winnipeg became a major transportation hub and “Gateway to the West”. Although air travel is now more prevalent than passenger railway travel, the railway continues to play a prominent role in Canada, moving goods and resources across the country.
Winnipeg Railway Museum chronicles the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway and the many independent branch lines constructed in the 1880s and 1890s in response to Canadian Pacific’s monopoly, many with the sponsorship of the provincial government.
The Canadian Pacific Railway completed the first direct rail line from eastern Canada to Winnipeg in 1881. The “last spike” connecting Canada coast-to-coast by rail was driven in November 1885 in British Columbia. The first locomotive in Winnipeg, the Countess of Dufferin, now on display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum, arrived via steamboat in 1877.
Old photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, and details of railway history line the walls of the museum. Old train cars, pumper trucks, delivery vans, snowplows, and track cleaning equipment fill the museum. Display cases contain railway dinnerware and other memorabilia. An old luggage car houses displays of trackside communications and signal equipment.
A special display is dedicated to women railroaders. Women have been present in the railway since the mid-nineteenth century, servicing passengers, operating telegraphs, and performing non-traditional manual labour. Their history is one of struggle for equality and jobs. Old signs highlight attitudes they had to contend with.
The Winnipeg Railway Museum is located in Union Station. Union Station was constructed between 1908 and 1911. It was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of New York’s Grand Central Station. It became the regional hub of the Canadian National Railway, the railway that was incorporated by the Canadian government in 1919, and which absorbed several bankrupt railway companies. Today, it houses offices and Winnipeg’s VIA Rail station, in addition to the museum.
The other major rail station in Winnipeg, the Canadian Pacific Railway station was built between 1904 and 1905. It was designed by the Montreal partnership of Edward and W.S. Maxwell. Passenger traffic ceased in 1978 and the building closed. It has since been restored and is now the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg. It is a designated heritage building.
Before Transcona and 11 other communities amalgamated with the City of Winnipeg on January 1, 1972, Transcona was its own city, a city that owed its existence to the railroad. In 1907, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway purchased 800 acres of land 13 kilometres east of Winnipeg and built railway repair shops to service steam locomotives and railway cars. Between 1910 and 1912, approximately 2000 people moved to Transcona to work in the shops. The Town of Transcona was incorporated in 1912. The Transcona Historical Museum maintains and promotes the history, stories and community spirit of Transcona. Because of the pivotal role of the railway in Transcona’s history, the museum contains many railway artifacts.
The Shops became a community as well as a place of work. There were many sports leagues: baseball, curling, boxing, weightlifting, hockey. There was a pipe band. Sports equipment, trophies, and band music are on display at the Transcona Historical Museum along with old pay stubs, shop equipment, railway magazines, clothing, and photographs.
The Winnipeg Railway Museum charges a small entrance fee. Entrance to the Transcona Historical Museum is free. Both museums are open year-round.