1945 Diesel train engine at the Southern Prairie Railway station in Ogema, SK.

1945 Diesel train engine at the Southern Prairie Railway station in Ogema, SK.

The CPR [Canadian Pacific Railroad] line first crossed Saskatchewan early in 1882, reaching the settlement of Moose Jaw in July of that year. Now, one hundred and thirty years later, less than 90 miles southeast of Moose Jaw, in the small town of Ogema, you can still experience what it was like to ride the train back in “the day.”

If people are the life blood of a land, then in Canada, trains were its veins. Settlers came on the trains. Goods and materials came on the trains. A new way of life emerged in Saskatchewan as the rail lines expanded.

Train travel was a way of life for decades–if you had family down east or in Alberta, you simply bought your ticket and boarded the train. In the 1970s there were more than 10,000 miles of rail lines in the province. Now, in 2012, there are around 1250 miles of provincially regulated railroads–all of them for moving freight.

VIA Rail’s trans-Canada service currently crosses central Saskatchewan with 15 stops for passengers and Saskatoon as its main depot–there hasn’t been a passenger train in the south for a few decades or so.

Engineer on the Southern Prairie Railway in Ogema, Saskatchewan.

Engineer on the Southern Prairie Railway in Ogema, Saskatchewan.

Until now, that is. The Southern Prairie Railway opened its restored train station on a private rail line in the summer of 2012, bringing back that experience to southern Saskatchewan.

I’d heard about the Southern Prairie Railway through a news interview on our local t.v. station and immediately been excited! The last train ride I’d had in Saskatchewan had been with one of my sons’ third grade year-end class trips and that had certainly been awhile.

Indeed, it had been at least 25 years since other kids could have this experience and truly be able to imagine what it was like for their ancestors to chug thousands of miles across this enormous country to reach their new homes.

FAQ about the Southern Prairie Railway [SPR]

  •  The train ride is part of the heritage experience for visitors to historic Ogema, Saskatchewan.
  • The train station is situated in Ogema, Saskatchewan.
  • The 1912 Canadian Pacific Railway station used by the SPR was originally in Simpson, SK, although it is exactly the same style/design as Ogema’s original station.
  • The 1945 diesel locomotive used by the SPR is a GE 44 Toner purchased from Conway Scenic Railway in New Hampshire.
  • The Pullman coach 70-passenger car was built in 1922 for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in New England–it took 5000 volunteer hours to fully restore the car.
  • A number of additional cars are being added to the train to expand the experiences it can offer visitors, including such things as a dinner tour.
  • The rail line belongs to a local consortium that bought it in 1999 from the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
  • The rail line runs just over 60 miles (106 km) from Pangman, SK, to Willows, SK.

The Southern Pacific Railway experience, like the land where it’s located, is ever-changing. It isn’t just a simple “board the train” and “take a ride,” rather, it provides a number of unique opportunities for visitors.

Interior of the Pullman train car on the Southern Prairie Railroad with astronomer, Mike Klancy, talking on the inaugural Star Gazing Tour.

Interior of the 1922 Pullman train car on the Southern Prairie Railroad with astronomer, Mike Klancy, talking on the inaugural Star Gazing Tour.

Some of these include such things as a heritage train and tour of an original grain elevator, a Farmers Market train tour to a neighboring community where visitors could buy fresh produce and local products, and a pitchfork fondue with an amazing dinner meal outdoors on a prairie evening.

The trip I took, however, wasn’t any of these. I selected the inaugural star gazer tour–where else could be better to see the night sky than from a dark, quiet spot in southwest Saskatchewan? According to stargazers, this is one of the most accessible, darkest skies still reachable by mankind.

Our guide for the night was Mike Klancy, a Saskatoon member of the Royal Astronomical Society. While we clang-clanged down the tracks he not only told us about the society and night sky, but also entertained us with recitations of some of the poetry of Robert Service, starting with The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Ogema train station for the Southern Prairie Railway at the end of the Stargazing Tour.

Ogema train station for the Southern Prairie Railway at the end of the Stargazing Tour.

Once we’d left the lights of small town Saskatchewan behind, all that remained was a few distant farmyard lights and the darkest night you could imagine. Binoculars and small telescopes in hand, we stepped from the train into a “red light” area–red LED (light-emitting diode) flashlights that is, that let us find our way around, but didn’t interfere with our eyes’ abilities to see in the dark.

While clouds covered a lot of the sky, we were able to see a number of constellations. As Mike told us, “The night sky is the thing that connects us over time.” Indeed, the sky we were viewing above us was thousands of years old, since it had taken that long for the light of these stars to reach us. I went away with a collection of new stories and factoids, as well as an appreciation for the dark skies and lack of light pollution I take for granted.

On our return trip to Ogema, I had a chance to visit with Cheryl Generous, CEO for the Southern Prairie Railway. We talked about the railway project that was bringing an old experience back to life for new generations, along with new opportunities for Ogema and neighboring communities. As Cheryl said, “Rail lines originally connected communities, and now it’s happening again.”

 

Ride the Southern Prairie Railway

 

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