A fun excursion on Manitoba’s Prairie Dog Central Railway vintage train
The Prairie Dog Central Railway is a short-line heritage railway just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba. Owned and operated by the Vintage Locomotive Society, it is one of the oldest regularly scheduled vintage operating trains in Canada. Regular trips are offered on weekends from May through October. They run from Inkster Station, located in the northwest area of Winnipeg, to Grosse Isle, where there is a stop-over, and then back to Inkster Station. The excursions are just under four hours and have varying themes and entertainment. I took the Great Train Robbery trip.
The Prairie Dog Central Railway began operations in 1970, operating first in Charleswood, a southwest Winnipeg neighbourhood. From 1975 to 1996, it operated out of the St. James Station on the Oak Point Subdivision to Grosse Isle and back. The Oak Point Subdivision was built between 1905 and 1910 by the Canadian Northern Railway which later became the Canadian National (CN). The Prairie Dog Central Railway ceased operations for two years after being notified that the Oak Point Subdivision was to be abandoned and the CN shops could no longer support the Prairie Dog Central Railway’s operations. The Vintage Locomotive Society embarked on a major fundraising campaign. They purchased seventeen miles of the Oak Point Subdivision, created facilities at Inkster Station, and resumed operations in 1999.
The Inkster Station is the former St. James Station, which was moved under special approval to its current location. It was constructed in 1920 by Canadian Northern Railway and is designated a Heritage Building by Parks Canada.
The Prairie Dog Central Railway has five coaches. All date from the early 1900s and have been refurbished. Capacity ranges from 36 to 72 passengers. We were in Coach 106. It was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway at Angus Shops in Montreal in 1913. It contains mahogany paneling with oak accessories and tinted glass in the vent windows.
Not long after we left the station, an announcement was made about reports of suspicious activity further up the line. We were told not to worry. There were sheriffs on board and we should be safe. The sheriffs walked through the cars, chatting with passengers and happily posing for photographs.
Thirty-five to forty minutes into the ride, we slowed down because of that suspicious activity, eventually coming to a full stop. Outlaws on horseback rode along either side of the train.
“Armed” outlaws entered the car, collecting whatever change and money we could spare. Like the sheriffs, the outlaws happily stopped to pose with passengers. Money collected during the robbery is donated to a charity. That afternoon, the recipient was Helping Hands for Manitobans with Breast Cancer. We were told later in the trip that over $670 had been collected that afternoon.
We got underway again after the robbery and reached Grosse Isle within ten minutes. Grosse Isle is a community of about 500 people, located approximately thirty-five kilometers north of Winnipeg. The train ride from Inkster Station takes about 50 minutes (if you are not stopped and robbed). The train travels at a leisurely pace. It is certainly not a modern bullet train!
We spent about 75 minutes in Grosse Isle. Vendors sold hot dogs, smokies, home-baked pastries, ice creams, beverages, snacks, and handicrafts. Some passengers had brought their own picnic supplies. A shelter held picnic tables.
Several heritage buildings, part of a community museum at Grosse Isle, were open for touring. Historic buildings have been moved on-site and restored. Ridgeway House was completed by an unidentified Swiss builder in 1886. It has some interesting angles and seems more spacious inside than the outside suggests, perhaps because it has no hall. Rooms are directly off the front room. It was originally located one mile away and was lived in until fifteen years ago. It was in reasonably good shape because it had been lived in. Refurbishing involved de-modernizing. East Rosser School was built in 1889 and used as a school until 1962, after which it was used as a community centre and later a carpentry shop. There is also a quaint country church.
Steam engine number 3 was originally scheduled to pull our train. That engine was built in 1882 by Dubbs & Co of Glasgow, Scotland and used throughout western Canada by Canadian Pacific Railway. The steam engine has been completely rebuilt by Society volunteer members. Because of some problem with the steam engine, Prairie Dog Central Railway’s other engine was substituted. Classic diesel locomotive 4138 was built by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors in La Grange, Illinois in 1958 for the Grand Trunk Western Railway. Prairie Dog Central acquired it from CN in 2002 and refurbished it.
The ride back to Inkster Station was uneventful, with time to watch the scenery, visit with fellow passengers, and listen to passing entertainment.
Themes of other excursions on the Prairie Dog Central Railway include magic, fall suppers, family fun, bluegrass, and other entertainment. It makes for a fun afternoon. We left Inkster Station at 11:00 am and were back there just before 3 pm.
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Tag Along DebSeptember 10, 2017 at 8:34 am
What a fun idea to stage a train robbery for charity. Brilliant added feature to the Prairie Dog Central experience.
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:11 pm
Deb, it was a fun addition to the ride.
Susan CooperSeptember 10, 2017 at 9:12 am
That would be a blast. I love riding on a train, add additional entertainment and food and that is a winner in my mind.
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:12 pm
Susan, it’s a fun, light-hearted afternoon.
Ken DowellSeptember 10, 2017 at 10:37 am
Always nice to be fed and entertained after a hold up.
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:12 pm
Ken, indeed it is!
Anita and Richard @ No Particular Place To GoSeptember 11, 2017 at 7:32 am
What a fun way to do your own reenactment of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” How great that the the vintage locomotives and trains have been preserved and refurbished for future generations to learn about how the rail really opened up the west to settlers. I love the fact that the robbery actually netted some money for a charity and imagine that the funds collected from the tours help a lot in defraying the costs of keeping this part of Canada’s heritage a participatory exhibit. Great post, Donna!
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:13 pm
Thanks Anita. People make sure they have an amount of change on hand for the “robbery”/donation.
RoseMary GriffithSeptember 12, 2017 at 9:56 am
That sounds like so much fun, Donna! I would enjoy being robbed by the train bandits and knowing my cash was going to such a worthy cause. You make a good “Wanted” poster!
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:14 pm
RoseMary, thanks. It was fun.
Eva DueckSeptember 12, 2017 at 4:02 pm
Outings like you described are such fun. Hartley’s sister and husband took the Prairie Dog Central trip, complete with train robbery, on August 23rd this year. They really enjoyed it too.
Hartley & I took a similar train ride in Portland, Maine in October 2006. Here is the excerpt from my log:
“Sunday, October 8 we drove through Freeport and toured around Portland. The highlight was a ride on their narrow gauge railway. This weekend it was being run with a steam engine and the ride included a train robbery re-enactment. Complete with a mother and two daughters in period clothes, three Yankee soldiers in uniform guarding a box containing a payroll, Rebel soldiers holding up the train, and muskets being fired. It was well done. With some subtle humor thrown into their dialogue, the actors made a little train trip along the harbour just a little more memorable.”
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:16 pm
Eva, your train experience sounds like a lot of fun. There was a bit of humour in the dialogue on the Prairie Dog too, but no guns were actually fired.
Jeri Walker (@JeriWB)September 12, 2017 at 10:34 pm
Old trains definitely have a certain mystique. I took an afternoon ride on the Thunder Mountain Line outside of Horseshoe Bend on the Payette River years ago. On the way back, the train broke down. Needless to say, it was a long trip 😉
Donna JankeSeptember 14, 2017 at 6:16 pm
Jeri, old trains definitely have a mystique. I imagine the mystique vanishes when they break down.