Winnipeg - To say the ambience at the Winnipeg Railway Museum is authentic is an understatement.
Not only is the museum located on old railway tracks at Union Station, the grand Tyndall limestone building that has welcomed innumerable immigrants and tourists over the last century, but it sits directly beside tracks still used to transport people and goods across the vast Prairie landscape.
Open a door in the museum to the outside, and you may see VIA Rail's "Canadian" sitting there, at a rest point on its three-day, 4,400 kilometre journey between Toronto and Vancouver.
Inside the museum, there are more than 20 engines, baggage cars, maintenance cars, and more along one kilometre of track, surrounded by old railway signs and mock station buildings that can make you feel like you've stepped back in time.
Signs indicating now-fictional departure times to faraway towns are lit up.
And in many of the cars, visitors are invited to pull levers and turn dials.
"It is touch-friendly and it really displays the equipment and how it works," says Douglas Bell, president of the non-profit group that runs the museum.
"This is a hands-on museum."
Railways and Winnipeg have a special connection.
Just over a century ago, a booming Winnipeg was the largest city in the West and a gateway for immigrants who helped develop the region.
A long train ride from eastern Canada, across a seemingly endless stretch of northern Ontario, led to the Manitoba capital and points west.
The museum goes back even further.
One of its star attractions is the Countess of Dufferin, a steam locomotive built in 1872 in Pennsylvania.
It was brought by barge to Winnipeg in 1877 and was used to connect Winnipeg to points south, east, and west.
"She laid the first rail track in western Canada, and that was linking Winnipeg up with St. Paul, Minnesota," Bell said.
"She was basically building the railroads and worked west as far as Golden, B.C."
Posters of advertisements from the ensuing years adorn nearby walls, urging men to come west and find work in the booming region.
Behind the Countess of Dufferin lie other locomotives and passenger cars built in the early 20th century.
Stepping inside one car allows you to see the small comforts of rail transportation circa 1920, some padded seats, and a stove for warmth.
Another car houses a large display of communications and signal equipment used throughout the decades.
Made before the space age, the huge panels with sparse dials and buttons look almost prehistoric now, but managed to keep trains running across the country.
There are also rail cars that were used to fight fires, pull spikes, and inspect the tracks.
One display that is popular with kids is a simulator, complete with video screen, buttons and levers, that was used at the CN training centre in Gimli, Manitoba.
Visitors can also climb aboard a 1958 diesel-electric locomotive built by General Motors and put themselves to work.
"People can go up into the cab, see the controls, and actually get a feel for what it's like to operate a locomotive," Bell said.
Another section of the museum is devoted to women who broke into the male-dominated industry.
On display is an old 35 kilogram knuckle coupler that was used to link trains.
Some women had to prove they could lift a coupler before being hired.
In the more modern section are posters of train routes that were made obsolete by the rising popularity of the automobile and more affordable airfares: "The Saskatchewan", an overnight CP train between Winnipeg and Regina, and "The Dominion", which went to Vancouver via Calgary.
Bell and his colleagues work to ensure the older equipment looks ready to work.
Their next project is the restoration of a 1916 snow dozer, which was used to clear snow off the tracks so that trains could continue to crisscross the vast and often-barren landscape.
"There's lots of work to maintaining the equipment and there's lots of work in terms of restoration. We've still got lots of projects ahead of us."
If You Go...
The Winnipeg Railway Museum is on the second floor of Union Station at 123 Main Street in downtown Winnipeg.
Adult admission is $5.
Kids aged 6-15 are $3 and children under 6 are free if they're accompanied by an adult.
From April to October, the museum is open daily from 10:00 to 16:00.
Winter hours are 10:00 to 14:00, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 11:00 to 16:00, Saturday and Sunday.
For more information, visit wpgRailwayMuseum.com.