ST-CONSTANT, Que. — The iron and steel titans in Canada’s biggest railway museum are scuffed in some spots with the effects of an honest day’s work and they reek with the history of the country in its formative years.
No matter how charmingly quaint some seem compared to today’s technology they were marvels of innovation in their era.
Each has a story to tell — be it ferrying average folks packed into a streetcar for the first time, bringing a new king and his queen to Canada for their first visit, or carrying a titan of industry to a ceremony to drive the last spike in the railway that would link the country from sea to sea.
And they’re all at Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum, which is almost a tiny village itself with its own rail lines nestled in St-Constant near Montreal.
Railways were thrust into the public eye this summer when a runaway freight train loaded with fuel oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Que., killing 47 people and destroying a chunk of the town.
All that attention didn’t affect the volume of visits, Exporail says, although there were myriad media requests for people to talk about trains.
There might be a future exhibit on the tragedy but nothing is planned for now.
The museum has in fact seen a steadily increasing number of visitors since it was founded in 1961 on 10 acres of land. It now occupies 55 acres and has 160 vehicles, 1,000 model trains, extensive archives, and 10,000 artifacts including dishware, clothing, signs and gear.
“It’s one of the largest collections in the world,” says Stephen Cheasley, president of the Canadian Railway Historical Association, of the museum’s impressive acquisitions. The association founded the museum and runs it with a core of staff and volunteers.
Visitors can travel aboard a vintage Montreal streetcar or a small train on a section of outdoor tracks. As well, there are a couple of stations dotted along the route that give people an idea of what it was like to wait for the train in olden days.
Located near Canada’s very first railroad — the Champlain and St. Lawrence Rail Road of 1836 — the site boasts several buildings.
Within them, Exporail manages to track a fair chunk of social and technological history with its exhibits.
“Two-thirds of everything that moves on land in Canada is moved by rail,” noted Cheasley. “Even your box of cornflakes that are showing up on your breakfast table — some part of that is going to be moved by rail.”
Forty-four trains and cars are on exhibit and visitors can climb aboard several in the Grand Gallery building, where a train whistle sounds periodically in the distance like a ghostly call from the past.
Arranged in long, hulking rows, the jewels of the collection on display include the locomotive that pulled the royal train in 1939 that carried King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their first visit to Canada.
There is also the plush “Saskatchewan” coach, which was built in 1883 for Sir William Cornelius Van Horne’s use during the construction of Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental line and ferried him to the ceremony for the driving of the fabled last spike in 1885.
There’s a “school car,” a rolling classroom that brought education and a live-in teacher to remote communities as recently as 1967.
And some sleeper cars that whisked the Montreal Canadiens to out-of-town games before they switched to jets. Wooden freight cars and other workhorses such as snow plows are also there.
Vintage streetcars from several cities including Montreal and Toronto are also represented.
Among them is the ornate “Golden Chariot” open observation car used for trips around Mount Royal, which is a stark contrast to a sleek 21st century subway car loaned to the museum by the Montreal transit authority in advance of it going into service.
Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways have provided a lot of material to the museum, and sharp-eyed association members are credited with scouting out treasures such as the Dominion of Canada steam engine, which was spotted in England just as it was headed for the scrap heap.
Built in 1937, the engine type holds the world speed record for steam engines at 126 mph.
It was restored for Canada’s centennial year in 1967 and is a sought-after piece by British museums. The engine is currently on loan in Britain and is one of a handful of that type remaining in the world.
Cheasley, who is a fountain of facts about railroading but never worked for one, says Canadians have a strong connection to trains.
He noted that railways were not only major employers but also revolutionized society as they introduced a cheap, relatively fast way to overcome long distances that made the world a bigger, more interesting place.
“It’s like the Internet today,” said Cheasley. “It’s facilitating a whole lot of things that we didn’t think we could do before.
While the trains are the stars, the museum offers plenty of activities to keep people entertained, such as its exhibit of vintage railway-related postcards.
As the fall progresses into winter, a number of theme events are planned, including culture days on Sept. 28-29, with free admission between 10 a.m. and noon.
Amateur photographers will get some interesting subjects during the Illuminated Trains day on Oct. 5 when trains are specially lit from 6-8 p.m.
Ghosts, skeletons, bats and spiders will take over Exporail as of Oct. 19 to give the museum a Halloween theme where children will also be able to make their own masks.
For two weeks starting Nov. 2, visitors will also be able to play detective and hunt for clues left behind by 19th century train robber Bill Miner.
Youngsters will then be able to go to a craft workshop where they can share what they’ve found and make their own police badge.
The Christmas spirit will infuse the museum from Nov. 23 to Jan. 5, with storytelling, craft workshops for children, stocking hunts and even a visit from Santa himself on weekends until Dec. 22. Children can mail their letter to St. Nick from Exporail’s vintage mail car.
Cheasley says the museum reflects the connection that people of all ages feel for the railways. “It’s family friendly,” he says.
“People love the railway. They really do. And it starts at a very young age. Even my own grandkids, right from the time they were able to toddle they would go over and they would enjoy it.”
IF YOU GO:
LOCATION: 110 Rue St-Pierre, St-Constant, Que.
HOURS: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. until Oct. 31, then open weekends from Nov. 2 to May 11, although group visits during the week can also be arranged by appointment. Goes to a seven-day-a-week schedule later in May.
DAILY RATES: Children 4-12 get in for $8; students 13 to 17 for $9.75; adults for $16.50; retirees 65 and older for $13.50. There is also a $43 family rate for two adults and two children.
ON THE WEB: http://www.exporail.org/en/