|9 August 2017.||Champion Railway Park Okotoks Alberta.||Jason Sailer.|
Last week on Saturday, my wife, daughter, and I had the opportunity to check out an "Open House Event" at the Champion Railway Park, located just 5 kilometres northeast of Okotoks, or 7 kilometres straight north of Aldersyde off Highway 2 on the way to Calgary. We, along with countless others, have passed it numerous times and often thought driving by "what is this place?" and "Boy I'd love to get inside to check it out!" Since its inception in the late 1970s and early 1980s it was owned by realtor Gerald L. Knowlton and his family and was just recently donated to both the Municpal District (MD) of Foothills and the Town of Okotoks. But first some background about this neat place.
The Champion Railway Park was a private collection of Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) equipment, artifacts, and structures wide ranging from a lowly bunkhouse to the Champion, Alberta, railway station. The whole idea of the Park began in 1979 when Gerald Knowlton wanted to build something as a homage to the Canadian Pacific Railway (partly due to some of the rural train stations being demolished), and also as a family tribute to his parents, Frederick (Ted) and Faye Knowlton. Ted was the station agent at Standard, Alberta, for some forty years. Considering the Standard train station was lost to the wrecking ball, Gerald and some friends went around to five other remaining train stations left standing in southern Alberta to find a replacement for his idea. Out of all left standing, the Champion station was in reasonably good shape and closest to what Ted worked in as a station agent (and what Gerald grew up in as a child). He was able to work out a deal with CP to purchase the former station. While this was occurring, his family scouted around for land to relocate the station onto, and the current 54 acre site of the Champion Railway Park was obtained in late 1979. The Champion station was then relocated to the recently purchased property and left on blocks for a year until a proper foundation could be built. Then the station was moved onto its new supports and a lengthy restoration job began. Gerald's vision was to recreate the environment that his dad was familiar with at Standard, that would mean additional buildings would be needed for the site.
Collecting railway buildings (or railway cars for that matter) wasn't easy, but Gerald took advantage of every opportunity CP presented to collect the necessary items for the Railway Park. Using contacts within the industry, additional items and some volunteer labour was obtained to help move the project along. By the mid-1990s the site was mostly developed and an interesting collection of railway equipment was obtained. A section of track, approximately 1/2 mile long, was built out front of the station allowing either the Inspection Car or the 1960s era diesel locomotive to move along the track giving family and close friends rides on the rails. In June 2014, a "Grand Finale Work Party" was held at Champion Railway Park, I had tickets to attend, but couldn't make it to the event. I then gave the tickets to close friends Chris Doering and Connie Biggart, who were itching to get onto the site to document it. They had a great time at the work party, and were able to take some photos. You can read their report here, www.bigdoer.com.
By the late 2000s Gerald and his family wanted to slow down and relax a bit so a discussion of the future for the Park came into question. They felt the Park needed a stable future to continue and that the public should have access to it. Discussions with the local municipal district and the neighboring town of Okotoks took place, and by the late summer of 2016 a deal was in place. A handing-over ceremony took place at Champion Railway Park on 16 Sep 2016. The deal called for a joint 50 percent ownership between the MD of Foothills and the Town of Okotoks, with the deal coming into effect on 1 Jan 2017. A non-profit society "The Friends of Champion Park" (comprising former volunteers of the Park, representatives from both municipalities, and interested members of the public) will be formed to take on the maintenance and operation of the Railway Park on behalf of both the MD and the Town. Additionally, the Society will be tasked on the creation of a five-year plan for the transformation of the private park to a public event space. Mind you, transferring land from a private family ownership to a public entity is a lengthy process in its own right with its own set of hurdles to overcome. As well, operating the Inspection Car and locomotive in a public park requires additional Alberta Transportation certification and regulations to be met. I was told at the event that the Town of Okotoks is working with Alberta Transportation on setting up the required paperwork to allow the rail items to be operated by trained volunteers. Both municipalities spent the majority of 2017 evaluating the park to ensure certain standards (i.e. health and safety regulations) are upgraded to allow the public to use the Railway Park. It was also decided that an open house to the public be arranged over the long weekend in August as a "sneak peek" to what the Railway Park can offer. It is hoped that more public events, tours, and educational opportunities will be added over the next five years. But now for the Open House Event.
Surprisingly, I found out about the open house on Facebook on the day before the event was to take place. Reading the event description, it talked about RSVPing for a seat on a bus that would take us from the Okotoks Recreation Centre over to Champion Railway Park. (There isn't enough parking on the site). It also mentioned the bus seats were already 75 percent claimed, so I quickly found the phone number of the Town of Okotoks and after talking to a representative, she walked me through the online booking process and I was able to secure 3 tickets (all free of course) for a 11:45 trip. Awesome! Saturday morning, we left Lethbridge early enough to make a 2 hour drive to Okotoks. At the Recreation Centre we loaded onto school buses and took a 15 minute drive over to the Railway Park where we were dropped off and then left to tour.
The majority of the crowds on the site seemed to be around the Champion train station, so we decided to go to the south end of the Railway Park first and then go northwards. The first stop going south along the train track was a unique design steel-bodied bay window caboose with no cupola. This caboose (CP 437266) was used on switching and transfer runs but not used for mainline service. It first entered service in 1948 and was retired by CP in the late 1980s. Beside it was a classic wooden caboose (CP 437178) from 1945. And at the front of this train was a standout in the collection, a small diesel switcher built by the Canadian Locomotive Company (CLC), model DTC-2 (44H44A1) CP 19 which was built in April 1960, one of five in that order. This type of locomotive is unique as unlike regular diesel locomotives that have a single engine driving a generator, or alternator, which then powers motors connected to the wheels, this one uses a hydraulic torque converter drive, almost like a car's automatic transmission. As well, it uses two small diesel engines, each driving one truck. The power is sent to one axle and then transferred to the other axle via a side rod, steam locomotive like. In total, CP owned 14 of these locomotives between 1957 to 1960. This locomotive was from the last order CP ever placed with CLC. CP 19 was used at CP's Angus shops in Montreal before getting sold off in the fall of 1972. It travelled west working at various industrial firms until arriving at Champion Park in the late 1980s. Presently, other DTC-2s still exist in Western Canada, including two at the Fort Steele Heritage Park outside Cranbrook, British Columbia. I found a photo of a similar unit, CP 10, in my railway slide collection, used at the nearby Coleman Collieries coal mine in the Crowsnest Pass at Coleman, Alberta.
In front of CP 19 was a 1955 United Kingdom built Wickham Inspection car number M-100 with two man carriers. The man carriers included seats to take employees to the work site, now it would take visitors on tours. After looking over the railway equipment we walked over to the section house and checked it out. Afterwards we went to the Engineer Inspector Communications building (I like the pebble glass on the door!), then a bit farther along we reached the railway bunkhouse. The bunkhouse had a familiar look, as we have two at the Galt Historic Railway Park that were originally from Coutts, though the Champion examples are finished and filled to the brim with railway artifacts. A building like this would have been located at strategic points along a track and would have been used by railway employees for sleeping and living accommodations while working on the railway.
Not far away was the typical prairie outhouse, and a bit farther away a small square building situated next to the track with Conrad mounted on the side of it. I had heard that the Railway Park had obtained the original Conrad train station and here it was. Peering inside the window it was pretty basic, a stove and some benches to sit on, that's it. On a side note beside the Conrad station was a semaphore signal mounted on a tall pole. I don't think it would have been the same setup at Conrad, but without seeing a historic photo of it in operation, it's hard to say. It is interesting to see nevertheless. A bit father south of the Conrad station was a speeder shed, a general storage shed, boxcar, tank car, and stock car. The wooden metal-braced boxcar (CP 236220) dated back to 1920, along with the tank car (CP 400304) which was from 1923. The double deck wooden stock car (CP 278522) was a newer design from the 1950s.
We then walked the track back towards the train station, pausing at the grade crossing to see the vintage wig-wag. The wig-wag was a early type of warning device from the turn of the twentieth-century. As a train approached the arm, with attached warning light, would swing back and forth while the bell above the arm would sound off, warning drivers that a train was approaching. Following the paved pathway down towards the lake we had our picnic lunch. It was very relaxing sitting by the lake eating lunch and watching the ducks float on the water. Afterwards, we walked up the hill towards the restored mail-express car and a business car.
We were given a tour of the mail-express car by one of the Park volunteers. The car CP 3622 was built by Canadian Car & Foundry in January 1947 entering service with CP not long afterwards. CP sold the car off in the mid 1980s when it travelled north to the Alberta Railway Museum for a spell. It then went to the Museum of the Highwood near High River in 2002 as part of their railway display for a time, before Champion Park purchased it in June 2013. Some renovation work was done on the car after it arrived at the Park, but it was in relatively good shape. When you step inside the car you definitely feel you are in a Railway Post Office (RPO) car. After the tour, we walked back outside and down the track a bit to the business car.
The business car Saskatchewan was built in December 1929 at CP's Angus shops in Montreal, Quebec. The "Saskatchewan" was used to move CP management personnel around the country. It is well appointed and filled to the brim with high quality wood, carpet, and velvet materials. Inside includes a living area, bathroom, five bedrooms with separate bathrooms, a dining area, and a compact galley. I could imagine myself living in a railcar like this! On the end of the car is a spacious covered observation deck where people could sit and watch the passing scenery. The Champion Railway Park acquired the "Saskatchewan" in the early 1980s.
Next we walked through the vestibule into the rear of a mail-express car, where another Park volunteer greeted us and gave us a brief explanation of the car, basically a down sized baggage car. I was surprised how detailed the interior was, for just being a basic baggage car. All the correct period items were mounted inside in the right locations, no detail was overlooked, and that little bit of attention I appreciated.
We then headed towards the final spot on the tour, the restored Champion train station. Based on the CP Station Number 5 Plan, the Champion station was built for the hefty sum of $4,500 dollars in 1911. Walking in the first door was a compact waiting room complete with vintage CP posters on the wall and a ticket sellers window. Peering inside, we could see the operator's area with the telegraph key (in this case a "bug"). Through the open door on the opposite wall we could see down the hallway into the freight shed. We then walked outside on the platform, past the bay window, and stopped by another door that led upstairs to the living quarters, now occupied by people that look after the Railway Park in the off season. A bit father down the platform was a large sliding door open to the freight shed where a Park volunteer was giving demonstrations on how to "hoop" train orders to train crews.
At this time, we realized we were one of the last public visitors still at the Park. Town employees and Park volunteers were cleaning up and taking stuff down for the day so we decided we better head to the bus loading area to head back to our car at the Okotoks Recreation Centre. I wished we could have stayed a lot longer, but it was a hoot nevertheless. My friend B.J. Errson, who is one of the many Park volunteers, signed me up for future work parties, so I look forward to returning and hopefully riding in the CLC locomotive. Thanks to both the MD of Foothills and the Town of Okotoks for stepping up to take over the reins from the Knowlton family, it is greatly appreciated!
23 Dec 2016 - Railway Tribute Gifted to Community
15 May 2011 - Episode 22 of TrainTalk.TV