Coaches of the Prairie Dog Central – A Unique Collection
by Bill Stannard
Imagine going back to the Western Canada of one hundred years ago. It was a period of massive immigration as nearly a million settlers spread across the Prairie claiming their free quarter section homesteads. Almost everyone lived on the farm or in small towns, with railway branch lines radiating out of the few cities like spokes in a wheel, linking the farms and towns to the markets and suppliers they all needed to survive.
The trains that operated on those branch lines were the lifeblood of the country. The baggage cars carried newspapers and mail, the goods ordered from Eaton’s catalogue or other city stores, even baby chicks to restock the henhouse. In the passenger cars rode travelling salesmen out to replenish the local general stores with everything from horse harnesses and binder twine to fabric for new living room curtains and groceries. Itinerant dentists, preachers and teachers rode the trains to their far-flung customers. Of course, the trains were the means for the settlers to visit the bright lights of the cities. In the days before roads, radios or telephones everything and everyone travelled by train.
For the past forty years the Prairie Dog Central Railway of Winnipeg, Manitoba has sought to recreate those historic days by operating a train of coaches from that era over a twenty mile line built by the Canadian Northern Railway in 1905.
In 2009 there was great excitement and attention with the return to active service of the Prairie Dog’s 1882 steam locomotive. However, the story of the five wooden passenger coaches that make up the train is every bit as fascinating as the locomotive. Nowhere in North America is there another similar collection still operating in their original condition and in the same region where they spent almost their whole working life. This whole train is a real window on those early days of the building of Manitoba and Canada.
How such a collection of cars came together is a story in itself. In the mid 1950s, both the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National divested themselves of all their wooden coaches. Most were simply taken to the backtrack in the yards and burned; some were stripped and converted into work sheds or sold for cottages or farm use. But four, two from each railway, were purchased by the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway, a city-owned line running along the aqueduct to its source at Shoal Lake, 102 miles to the east. There they remained unmodified in very light passenger service until becoming part of the Prairie Dog in 1970.
Meanwhile to the northeast, another city-owned utility, Winnipeg Hydro, was operating an ex-CPR 4-4-0, Number 3, and a wooden open-ended passenger coach on a four day a week schedule to their isolated hydroelectric station at Point du Bois on the Winnipeg River. When this service was ended in 1962, the city was aware they had some historical equipment, so they simply stored the loco and coach. In 1967, prompted by Canada’s centennial and the holding of the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, they were trucked into the city with the hope of operating them as part of the festivities. Unfortunately, these plans did not materialize, but it did prompt a small group of Winnipeg rail fans to organize the Vintage Locomotive Society in 1968 and in 1970 they begin operating the Prairie Dog Central. Both the locomotive and coach were leased to the Vintage Locomotive Society by Winnipeg Hydro (subsequently Manitoba Hydro) until 2009 when they were donated outright to the Society
So, now forty years later, the PDC is still taking its passengers back one hundred years to the golden age of branch line railroading, when Western Canada was being born. The PDC has a motto “More than just a train ride” and this unique collection of coaches gives life to that motto.Each one, in its as-built appearance and configuration and its own unique history, provides different windows on the varied and fascinating story that is Canada.