After surmounting many obstacles — environmental, financial and circumstantial — a small group of volunteers that’s laying train track north of Stettler is within eye-shot of their first target.
The Stettler-area non-profit group is within a kilometre of reaching Red Willow. The hamlet of 40 residents is expected to be connected to the town of Stettler by rail sometime next summer.
The aim is providing a choice of destinations for Alberta Prairie Steam Tours, which now only has 40 km of track south to Big Valley, currently the tourist train’s only run.
When the remaining one kilometre of track is laid north to Red Willow, “there will certainly be a celebration,” promises Norma Leslie, chair of the non-profit East Central Heritage Society.
Although the hamlet is only the half-way point to the group’s longer-term goal of getting the rail line all the way up to Donalda, (which is another 16 km north), laying even the first 15 km of track was an onerous process.
Leslie said some of the work can be done by machine while the rest is done by hand. The half-dozen labourers are often constricted by weather — “it’s often too wet or too frozen.” As well, there are environmental hurdles.
According to provincial regulations, Leslie said train tracks can’t be laid from May 1 to July 31 because endangered birds, such as turkey vultures, woodpeckers and hawks, nest in the area.
The East Central Heritage Society actually owns the railway right-of-way all the way to Edberg, near Camrose, to the north, and Morrin, near Drumheller, to the south. But, since most of the rail line along this stretch was pulled up for metal salvage in the 1990s after the Central Western Rail line was discontinued, Leslie doesn’t want to think about how much effort would be needed to re-install it all the way along this 160-kilometre route.
“If we get to Donalda I’ll be too tired to go any further. It will be up to someone else to take over,” she said, with a weary chuckle.
A lot of fundraising was necessary to complete the work done so far. Leslie said a $2.6 million federal grant to generate employment in the area was obtained, as well as a half-million contributed by local businesses. She figures this will be enough to pay for track just north of Red Willow.
More than $2-million more will likely be needed to purchase enough track to get to Donalda.
Besides re-laying rail line, the group formed in 1997 has also created five popular public access parks along the right-of-way, including at Meeting Creek, Big Valley and Rumsey. Leslie said people can walk along and see species of wildflowers and other rare native vegetation. This was accomplished with $732,000 of casino funds.
Meanwhile, the last steam train of the season will leave Stettler for Big Valley on Sept. 24. The excursion will be celebrated with fireworks that are set off along the route.
Bob Willis, of Alberta Prairie Steam Tours, said the steam engine has to be put to bed until next spring because of concerns it will freeze up in colder weather.
The company’s diesel engine will continue running, however, with Halloween/Thanksgiving themed pumpkin-picking events planned on Oct. 15, and “Polar Express runs to the North Pole” aimed at tykes before Christmas.
For more information, please visit www.absteamtrain.com.