Winnipeg Railway Museum

November 24, 2019
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Locomotive and other rail cars on display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
A museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada showcases railway history

The Winnipeg Railway Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada contains locomotives (steam, diesel, and electric), railway cars, rail maintenance equipment, and delivery trucks. There are displays of railway memorabilia. Old photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, and details of railway history line the walls. Given the important role the railway played in Winnipeg’s history, it seems fitting there is a railway museum in the city.

The railway played a pivotal role in the creation of Canada. Its most western province, British Columbia, agreed to join Confederation after being promised a transcontinental railroad within 10 years. In 1880, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) received the contract and in November 1885 the “last spike” was laid in British Columbia connecting Canada coast-to-coast.

As the railway began pushing west, the growing city of Winnipeg became a hub for immigrants seeking to settle in Canada’s west and for the distribution of goods to the west. Winnipeg was known as the “Gateway to the West.”

Late 1800s steam locomotive, Countess of Dufferin, on display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Countess of Dufferin Locomotive

The first locomotive in Western Canada is on display at the museum. The Countess of Dufferin was a wood-burning locomotive built in Philadelphia in 1872. Named for the wife of the first Governor General of Canada, it served in western Canada from 1877 to 1907. It was restored in the 1970s at CPR’s Weston Shops in Winnipeg and now sits in the museum.

Winnipeg’s role as a gateway to the West declined after World War I due to a variety of factors, including a depressed economy, fewer immigrants, and the opening of the Pan Am Canal, but the railways remained important to Winnipeg’s economy employing thousands of railway workers in yards and shops.

Prior to the creation of the CPR, there had been other railway companies servicing parts of what is now Canada. Another railway expansion began in the early 1900s with numerous branches sprouting in the West after an immigration boom. One of the companies was the Canadian Northern Railway which grew by leasing and absorbing other lines. It wound up with links from British Columbia to its terminus in Montreal and also operated mileage in eastern Quebec and the Maritimes. Another company, The Grand Trunk company also offered transcontinental service.

By the end of World War I, the railways were heavily in debt. A 1917 royal commission recommended all railways except for the CPR and American lines be brought into one system owned by the people of Canada. The Canadian National Railways (CNR) was incorporated in 1917. Between 1917 and 1923, five railways became part of the CNR: the Grand Trunk and its subsidiary the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Intercolonial, the Canadian Northern, and the National Transcontinental. The CPR and CNR continued to be the two major railway companies in Canada for decades, in spite of challenges from other forms of transport. The CNR became the Canadian National/Canadien National (CN) in 1960 and was privatized in 1995.

Wooden passenger waiting bench and railway history information on the wall behind it at the Winnipeg Railway Museum

Passenger traffic declined significantly over the years and the Canadian government provided subsidies to the railways from 1967 to 1977. In 1977 VIA Rail was created for passenger traffic. It became a Crown Corporation in 1978.

Truck and luggage on carts at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Trucks on display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum

In addition to locomotives and train cars on display, there are maintenance equipment, switching equipment, and delivery trucks.

Red 1941 CN Pumper Truck on display at Winnipeg Railway Museum
1941 Chevrolet Pumper Truck
Yellow Spike Puller on display at Winnipeg Railway Museum
Spike Puller
Communication equipment displayed inside a railway car at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Communication equipment displayed inside a railway car

You’ll find displays about engine components and communication devices as well as assorted memorabilia used in train service.

China on display at Winnipeg Railway Museum
“Churchill” china pattern
Look Listen Stop railway sign on display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Railway signs and signals are found in several places throughout the museum
Morse Telegraph display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Display by the Winnipeg Chapter of the Morse Telegraph Club
Railway art at the George Hunter Art Gallery in the Winnipeg Railway Museum
One of the rail cars house the George Hunter Art Gallery featuring railway art
Display about women railroaders at the Winnipeg Railway Museum

I found a display about women railroaders particularly interesting. Railway history may be male-dominated, but women have also shaped the history of railways since the mid-nineteenth century. They serviced passengers, operated telegraphs, and performed non-traditional manual labour. The display highlights their struggle for equality and jobs. Although the display focuses on the railway, old signage and information about changing roles over time reflect attitudes and changes within general society.

Historical anti-suffragette display at the Winnipeg Railway Museum
Rail Cars on railway tracks at the Winnipeg Railway Museum

Although only a small percentage of passenger travel across Canada today is done by rail, both CPR and CN remain important carriers of bulk commodities and finished goods in North America, which is no surprise to anyone who has waited for what seems like an eternity at a railway crossing for a long train to pass. Rail is a cost-effective option for transporting goods across long distances.

The front of Union Station in Winnipeg, Manitoba

The Winnipeg Railway Museum is operated by volunteers of the Midwestern Rail Association Inc. It is located in Union Station on Main Street. The Beaux-Arts-style railway terminal was constructed between 1908 and 1911 and was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. It became the regional hub of the Canadian National Railway. Now a National Historic Site, Union Stations houses Winnipeg’s VIA Rail station and a number of offices.

The museum is located on tracks 1 and 2 in VIA Rail’s station. A stairway at the west end of the VIA Rail lounge takes you up to the Railway Museum. (The museum is not wheelchair accessible.) Locomotives and rail cars sit on the tracks and various other displays are located on either side of the tracks.

Plan to spend about an hour in the museum. Train enthusiasts will want to allow more time. Guided tours (running about one-and-a-half hours) are available, but need to be booked a couple of weeks in advance.

The museum is open year-round. Hours vary by season so check the website. Be aware that the museum is built around railway tracks. Although it is walled in and roofed, it is not completely sealed and it will be cold in the winter. Leave your parka and gloves on.

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  • Reply
    Ken Dowell
    November 25, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    Looks fascinating. Love the old locomotives.

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