Climbing onto Stettler’s Alberta Prairie train for a five-hour journey you immediately sense you’re venturing into the past, a simpler time.
Helping us board is Metis hero Gabriel Dumont (Bob Willis).
He quizzes Willow Weber, 14, of Ponoka, “Young lady can you skin a buffalo?”
The teen, raised in the 21st century, isn’t sure how to respond.
“How can we get you married off if you can’t skin a buffalo,” Gabriel Dumont shakes his head.
We find our seat on the nine-passenger locomotive No. 1118 with 218 passengers on-board from all over the world, Germany, Austria, the Philippines and across Canada.
The whistle sounds and the wheels let out a high pitch screech and the train jerks as we leave Stettler siding for our journey south into the Wild West.
Civilization fades into the distance and at 18 mph the train winds through the picturesque prairie countryside with only the rhythmic clickety-clack, clickety-clack sound on the ribbons of steel.
We pass Mile 64.3 Fenn where an abandoned general store and post office still stands, echoes of the past. The train makes its way to Big Valley, crossing a wooden trestle at Mile 67.8.
As we approach Mile 72.1 Big Valley our train comes to a screeching halt because the feared outlaw gang the Reynolds Raiders hold up the train looking for the mine payroll on board. Metis hero, Gabriel Dumont takes on the group of bandits in a loud shootout. Two robbers board the train demanding spare change from the alarmed passengers.
Gabriel Dumont prevails over the bandits and we continue to our destination, the historic village of Big Valley.
Passengers leave the train and step back in time into a bustling Wild West village, complete with historic attractions including a jail where young cowboys, miners and railroaders sat and cooled their heels in the small wooden lock-up.
If you didn’t travel in Wild West attire you could stop at Miss Patti’s Photo Parlour and Patti Marsh will help transform you into a flapper, saloon girl, cowboy or bandit.
Before heading back to Stettler passengers are fed a western cold-cut meal with smoked baked beans, cold cuts and potato salad.
To feed 218 passengers Caterer Catrina Dubitz, and her four to five staff, spend eight hours cooking the day before.
On the train trip back the tired passengers are energized by a musical comedy act by Richard Popovich.
It was rare to see anyone on their cell phones throughout the 42.4-mile five-hour round-trip back in time.
Dora Franzke, of Rostock, Germany, speaking with the help of an interpreter said the journey was “very good, very nice.”
Greg McPherson of Haynes, AB, said he particularly liked hearing about the history of the railroad.
Jackie McPherson said the “entertainment was fantastic.”
History of Alberta Prairie Railway Tours
When Stettler grocer Don Gillespie heard the trains now used by Alberta Prairie Railway were being decommissioned and headed back to Alabama, he couldn’t let that happen.
“’If we let it go we will not get it back,’ I thought to myself,” he said.
So Gillespie and a group, including Jean McDonald worked towards preserving this vital part of Stettler’s early history. Gillespie put up the money, bought the train station and trains. He sold shares, keeping the majority controlling interest.
That was 29 years ago.
Now the railway excursion has become a major tourist attraction drawing visitors from around the world.
It takes eight onboard train staff for the coach, concession and bar, and three operating crewmembers, the engineer, conductor and trainman, to run the excursion.
They also do their own track maintenance to keep the line running from Stettler to Big Valley.
“The cost of operating the train is exorbitant,” said Gillespie, CEO and president of Alberta Prairie Railways.
Money robbed from passengers goes to charities
The spare change robbed from passengers is donated to a number of children’s charities
The railway stations were the gateway to the west and the heart of many Alberta communities. They were the hub where people got their mail, news and exchanged goods.
Alberta Prairie Railways’ five-hour excursions to Big Valley runs from May to October. For more information, you can call 1-800-282-3994, or 403-742-2811 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.absteamtrain.com