This adventure were at Champion Park, near Okotoks. No doubt if you’ve travelled the #2 highway south of Calgary you’ve seen it. You know the place, the yard with the full size “train set”, located on the east side of the highway? That’s it! We’ve passed by it countless times and have often wondered, what’s it all about and how do we get inside? I’ve heard it’s only open by invitation and even then only if you know someone. We didn’t, or so we thought…
Imagine our amazement when we were presented with tickets, rather unexpectedly, to an event at the park. Hmm, I guess we had the right connections after all.
“All Aboard!” you are invited to: “The Grand Finale Champion Park Work Party.”
What? We get to go inside? We get to sweat a little and help clean up and maintain things? We’ll get fed? How can we refuse? The event was still a few days in the future and I felt like a kid eagerly waiting for Christmas morning. It was agonizing.
First a little about the place…
Champion Park is home to private collection of railway themed equipment, artifacts and structures. Included in that is an operating 1960s era locomotive, several old cabooses and freight cars, and the showpiece of the rolling stock collection, a private passenger car that once transported railway officials around. Also here are a number of historic buildings, including a nicely restored CPR train station. The park is celebrating it’s thirtieth anniversary this year. Wow, has it really been around that long?
Reminder, this facility is not normally open to the public.
I am pretty certain we’ll have plenty of time to photograph things in the park. First order of business on arriving however is to grab a quick breakfast and then get to work. There is a large pegboard with a list of jobs available and we simply pick ones that we’re qualified to do.
For our first task, Connie and I decide that the railcar Saskatchewan deserves our attention. She’ll vacuum the entire car from end to end, which is no small task. Myself, I’ll polish and oil all wood surfaces, And believe you me there is a lot of them – the walls, the ceiling and most of the furniture is made of wood, incredibly beautiful wood. It takes a couple hours to complete that job, but when done, does it shine! Sunglasses are recommended.
Saskatchewan was built in 1929 by the railway’s Angus Shops in Montreal. It is a “business“ car, that was used to transport CPR big-wigs around. No expense was spared building it, officials need to be pampered after all, and for the time it’s quite opulent and well appointed. There are several bedrooms, a full kitchen, a central eating area and a business lounge at the trail end. A rear observation deck allows one to view the passing scenery. This car has been at Champion Park since the 1980s.
Next we spend some time tidying up a former CPR bunkhouse. A building like this would be located at strategic places along a railway line and would be used by train crews for overnight accommodation between runs. I forgot to ask the people who run the park about its history. Oops!
Mixing things up a bit, in the afternoon Connie and I spent the rest of our working day doing touch-up painting to the many buildings in the park. We each picked a specific colour (me CPR Brown, Connie CPR Red) and went at her. All the while we did our job, others were kept busy gardening, mowing lawns, painting as we were, and even laying some track. There is a lot to do here! The atmosphere was very party like and time passed quickly…and before we know it, it’s dinner time.
While the meal gets prepared, we spend some time checking out the equipment and buildings seen in the park.
First up is the locomotive, CPR #19, a small switching engine. Built by the Canadian Locomotive Company in Kingston Ontario in 1960, she was one of five in that order. It’s known as a model DTC-2 but is sometimes called a 44H44A1, a DT-2 or simply DTC. My official CLC book calls them DTC-2 but the locomotive builder’s plate says 44H44A1. Instead of the typical diesel 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. This sort of system works well for small locomotives like this. CLC built locomotives from the 1850s to the late 1960s.
In total, the CPR owned fourteen of these locomotives built in the years 1957-1960. Interestingly this engine was from the last order the CPR ever placed with the company – they had been buying CLC locomotives since the 1880s! Several other DTC-2s still exist to this day, including two at the Fort Steele Heritage Park near Cranbrook BC.
This locomotive has two small diesel engines each driving one truck (or bogie). Power is sent to one axle and then transmitted to the other via a side rod arrangement. The motion of the these rods and counterweights is very steam locomotive-like.
Interestingly, this locomotive was once the switcher at the Angus Shops mentioned earlier. In the late 1960s it was retired from CPR service and between that date and 1987, when it arrived at Champion Park, it worked for a number of industrial firms.
There are several cabooses in the park, all of them built in the 1940s. One is a bay window style, which was only used on switching and transfer runs. Also seen is a 1920s era boxcar, a tank car also from the 1920s (it listed as being built in 1900, but I believe that’s wrong) and a stock car from the 1950s which was rebuilt form an older car. Rounding out the collection are some speeders, including one UK built Wickham track inspection car from the 1950s.
For this event a “caboose hop” (loco and caboose only) and later the Wickham car would (slowly) shuttle back and forth along the approximately one kilometre of track in the park, giving rides.
There are also lots of interesting buildings in the park including that bunk house we spoke of earlier (and attendant biffy) along with several old railway sheds used for storing track materials and the like. Also seen are two stations, the first is a tiny one from the (now) ghost town of Conrad Alberta. The second, and the park’s namesake and building showpiece, came in from from Champion Alberta, some 100km away. It was constructed just over a hundred years ago and was moved here in the 1980s. It’s stunning!
A section house, which we helped paint parts of, is also located on the grounds. I was so caught up in the moment, I forgot to ask where it came from. These buildings housed a worker and his family and it was his job to inspect and maintain a specific section of track. These were once common sight along most railways lines.
Also seen in the park is a large collection of track-side railway infrastructure – semaphores, old telegraph poles and one interesting wig-wag crossing signal. These were common in the first half of the twentieth century. As a train approached an arm (with warning light) would swing back and forth and a bell would sound, warning approaching drivers that a train was due.
While wandering the grounds, I ran into someone I’ve been hoping to meet for a long time. This fellow, Larry Buchan, is an amazing authority, no a human encyclopedia, of all things CPR. He’s been a great help to us many times and without his knowledge a number of reports we’ve written would be incomplete. It was an honour to spend time with him!
The dinner provided by the park was amazing. There was lots of BBQ beef, lobsters and all manner of yummy stuff. The hospitably of the owners was something else. Both Connie and I felt rather guilty, in fact, that we did not work enough to cover the amount of food we ate!
At various times in the year Champion Park hosts these work parties and we signed ourselves up for the next one. They also occasionally allow model train clubs to visit, and are a venue for social events and the like. In addition to train stuff, they have a lake for swimming or fishing and extensive grounds with gardens and green spaces. If you get a chance to visit the place, do it. Getting in is not that easy! Trust me, I’ve been trying for some time.
We were very fortunate to have blue skies this day and it made for some awesome pictures.
Thanks to Jason who helped us get the tickets needed to enter the park. It was an amazing day, a party, and we owe you one!
To see some other railway parks and museums we’ve visited, follow these links…
Alberta 2005 Centennial Railway Museum – what’s going on?
Canadian National Railway 1158.
Alberta Railway Museum – 1997.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: June, 2014.
Location: Champion Park near Okotoks, AB.