Since the rails between Stettler and Donalda were ripped up for scrap more than a decade ago, a group of history lovers and railway enthusiasts has dreamed of restoring the line for steam engine tours.
The East Central Alberta Historical Society’s efforts paid off recently when the group landed a $3.9-million federal grant to go towards the project to lay 30 km of new line and build parks in Donalda and Big Valley.
“My first reaction was disbelief,” said society president Norma Leslie of the unexpected windfall.
She had hoped, at best, to land the $700,000 requested for the parks projects.
“That’s been our original ambition from the beginning. But we knew a little organization would have a slim chance of ever accomplishing it unless we got some government funding of some kind.”
In the late 1990s, the society managed to raise $825,000 to buy the tracks to Big Valley owned by Central Western Railway, which had donated the right of way and offered to sell the track at salvage value. But no more money could be raised and the track on the northern leg was dismantled and sold off in 1998.
If all goes well, it is hoped track can be purchased and laid in time to run Stettler’s Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions trains to Donalda in 2011. The company already runs popular tours between Stettler and Big Valley and is a big tourist draw for the area. Leslie said Prairie Steam Tours has agreed to lease the line to run its trains.
But the work isn’t over yet. The society must raise about $400,000 to qualify for the federal funding. It is hoped some of that can be covered through donations of equipment or labour. The major railways will be approached to see if they can offer any help.
The federal funding came through the newly formed Canadian Badlands Tourism Centre, which submitted an application for 23 projects in 19 rural communities. The group received $6.2 million through the federal government’s Community Adjustment Fund, which is meant to bolster communities in the economic downturn by creating jobs and permanent tourism-based infrastructure.
Leslie said Canadian Badlands will meet in a couple of weeks to discuss how best to move forward on the rail project.
Restoring the rail line would be a major tourism boost for Donalda.
“It’s very visitor friendly,” she said of the artistic and scenic community that boasts a giant lamp and a museum of 900 kerosene lamps. “It’s kind of died since the train quit going there. This is a real asset to that community.
“I mean it’s not going to hurt Stettler either. The more people that come here to ride that train, the more it benefits other business that’s here as well.”