By Carson Ellis
For the Independent
Alberta Prairie Steam Tours began in 1990 when a group of local investors purchased the tourism side of the Central Western Railway (CWR).
In addition to the steam locomotive, which was originally number nine, Alberta Prairie Steam Tours also purchased a tender car, a 10,000-gallon water tank car, two passenger coaches, a caboose, and a VIP car that CWR had acquired the year before. The company would continue to provide a nostalgic train ride with stops between Edberg and Rowley.
When the company was first formed, efforts to expand capacity were slow due to the train cars being in the 70-year-old range, like what it was operating, being hard to find.
The company had also planned on moving the Legal train station to their site. Once restored, it would add to the nostalgic experience.
Alberta Prairie Steam Tours has seen a lot of changes in the last 33 years. The Legal station never happened, but they have built their own station office. They have also seen much of the track on the former short line be pulled up, preventing them from travelling north, thus making Big Valley their southernmost destination.
Despite this, they continue to make each excursion as enjoyable as possible for their passengers.
Company president Don Gillespie says that over the years, they have seen passengers from over 43 countries, many of them have ridden before and come back to ride again. This includes a passenger from Amsterdam who had ridden the train 20 years ago and recently returned to ride it on his birthday.
There are also passengers who have ridden the train nearly every year since the very beginning; Gillespie says that many customers rode the train as kids and are now returning to take their own kids on the train.
During the summer the steam train employs around 40 staff members, many of whom have been with the company for 25-33 years. In the winter, they often employ 16 staff. The Gillespie family themselves have three generations involved in the train operations.
When asked what it’s like to work for the steam tours, the staff say they like the variety as they often do different jobs on different days.
They could be working on the Lone Star Saloon car near the front of the train one day and the souvenir/snack car in the centre of the train the next. They could work as car attendants one day and operate the games at the Hideaway stop the next day.
In addition to the variety, the staff agree that the passengers are what makes the job great.
“We love our passengers,” says Sarah Bourdon, who has been with Alberta Prairie for three summers.
One of the popular draws of the train is the robberies by the infamous Reynolds Gang, led by Karen Reynolds.
Reynolds herself has been robbing the train for 30 years. When she started it was known as the Bolton Gang.
The train robbery is a traditional part of the experience where passengers are robbed of their change; however, the famous Gabriel Dumont often appears in time to save the passengers. When the famous Metis leader isn’t on board, the Reynolds Gang is stopped by Sherriff Popovich.
Funds ‘robbed’ are donated to one charity each year; Gillespie says that they have donated a large percentage of funds raised over the years to both the Stollery and the Calgary Children’s Hospitals.
The excursions cover 21 miles of track between Stettler and Big Valley, travelling between 15-19 miles per hour. Trips to Big Valley feature live performers, which Gillespie explains are from a pool of performers that they schedule for different excursions. Performers include Rosco Krawece. Better known as Rosco the Clown. Krawece also provides musical entertainment. Richard Popovich is another regular performer who says he has performed in a variety of ways for 34 years.
The Alberta Prairie Steam Tours season runs from May 15 until the first weekend in October. During that time, several different excursions are available that either stop at Big Valley or near the Warden switching area known as the Country Hideaway. Excursion meals range from roast beef dinners to steak and lobster special excursions. This year will even include a Murder Mystery excursion where passengers will be able to help solve a murder mystery that starts on the train and ends in the Big Valley Community Hall.
In addition to the regular season excursions, special seasonal excursions are also held. The first is a pumpkin patch excursion where passengers can choose their own pumpkin to bring home. There are four of these excursions this year with different meals and activities on each one.
November will also see the return of the Polar Express. This excursion includes music from the hit Christmas movie while guests are treated to hot chocolate in collectible mugs for the adults. Santa Claus also joins the excursion and visits with passengers. The train stops at the North Pole and children receive the ‘first gift of Christmas,’ a silver sleigh bell.
Due to dry conditions in the county this year, the annual fireworks show at the end of the regular season has been cancelled. Instead, a company from Calgary has been hired to present a drone show on the last regular season runs.
The laser light show is a new experience for Alberta Prairie, and they are very excited to present it to their passengers.