It’s Train Day at Aspen Crossing! Come join in on the adventure and ride the rails in an eclectic mix of of old-school passenger cars sourced from all over North America. The consist, pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive, travels across the rolling prairies not terribly far from of Calgary, at a relaxed pace. Take in on-board entertainment, dmusicians and magicians, enjoy a refreshment, or just sit back and watch the world slowly pass by. But keep an eye open for train robbers.
For each trip there’s a theme, some are for the adults, others the entire family (today was wine and cheese – they had me at wine).
Team BIGDoer won’t just ride the train. No way! We’ll chase it, explore stuff up and down the line, take in the action, take in the quiet moments, look at the equipment of course, ’cause you know that’s what we do, and touch on the experience as a whole. Do it all, or do nothing. To borrow a horribly cliched phrase, it’s all aboard (can’t believe I sad that).
The Aspen Crossing venue is located near the tiny community of Mossleigh Alberta. It’s right along the highway…there is no way you can miss it. In addition to the excursion trains which will be documented here, they have a fine dining restaurant (go figure, in an old rail car), train station gift shop, garden centre, campground, cabins (not just any cabins but caboose cabins!)…lots of stuff here! Whether you come for the train excursion or just a causal visit, it’s well worth a stop. The people here will make you feel welcome.
Let’s look at the equipment for the run…
Powering the train is a vintage model General Motors, London Ontario, GP-9. Built waaaaayy back in 1955, from the time it was new and until very recently it worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Yup they got their money’s worth out of this one. It’s still painted in CPR colours. Acquired just this year, it replaced a succession of smaller locomotives used by Aspen Crossing, which are now stored on a siding down the line.
Outside the chopped nose, in appearance it looks pretty much as built. Under the hood, it had some major work done in the 1980s, but that’s about it. In the 1950s-1970s period could be found pulling passenger trains as well as freight across the CPR system. That railway had hundreds of similar locomotives, the last being stricken off the roster only recently.
Providing electricity for everything is a specialized car housing a “Head End Power”, or HEP, generator. Built by General Motors for Canadian National Railways in 1959 it once housed a steam generator, used to heat passenger cars back in the day before electricity was used. Later owned by Via Rail, who took over CNR’s (and later CPR’s) passenger runs, it was used by that firm until the 1990s. It last worked for the the now defunct Okanagan Wine Train out of Kelowna BC and still carries their old markings. In their possession, they converted form steam to electrical power.
Other cars once used by the Okanagan Wine Train are stored on Aspen Crossing’s track further down the line. They are owned by a collector. Former CNR, later Via cars, they’re still in the latter firm’s recognizable blue paint.
The next car came from the Ontario Northland Railway (in fact many here did). Like many here, it’s had a long and storied history, under many owners. Built in 1947 by the Budd Company in Pennsylvania, as a diner, it originally belonged to the New York Central Railway. Later making it’s way up north of the border in the 1990s it spent time in BC (at British Columbia Rail for one) before heading east to Ontario for a time. Aspen Crossing acquired it recently. Like all Budd cars, it’s made of stainless steel (very tough and durable). It carries the name Milo after a town in the area – all cars used by Aspen Crossing are named after local communities.
Up next is another diner. This one has an “observation end”, windows at the rear that allow a nice view out the back if the car if it’s last in the consist. This one was also built by the Budd, but in 1948. It once worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, later Amtrak (the US equivalent to Via Rail) and later still BC Rail before finally heading east to the Ontario Northland Railway. It carries the name Lomond.
Farrow is the next car. It was built for the CPR by Canadian Car and Foundry in 1947. Later it worked for the Algoma Central Railway, in Ontario, headed down south for a while, was repatriated back to the CPR for time, and recently was acquired by Aspen Crossing. It was built as a coach, but now works as a dining car. It’s in the paint of a previous owner (Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern).
An an old baggage/postal car follows. It dates from 1950, came from the firm American Car and Foundry and once worked for the Union Pacific Railway. Seeing a good number of owners over the years, it last came from the CPR. Old passenger cars bounce around!
The jewel of the collection is the dome car. Built in 1950 by Pullman Standard, it was one of six supplied to the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in the US. They were known as Pleasure Domes (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately Pleasure Dome decree…). Later conveyed to Amtrak, they went through a series of owners after their gig there, including BC Rail and Ontario Northland before making their way here. This is a rare and special beast indeed. Interestingly, some reports say most if not all the six domes built still exist. There is a lounge/concession in the lower level. Given the name Glenview, an early name for the town of Farrow just down the tracks.
Up next is Queenstown. It’s a sister car to Farrow and has an almost parallel history. The two have been hanging out for some time and where one goes, the other follows.
An open air gondola allows train riders the outside experience. The well beaten sides remind us the hard life freight equipment must bear.
The caboose is the final car. As it should be. Built in 1949, it was owned by the CPR from then until the 1980s. It later sat in front of the Ogden Legion in Calgary.
Keeping the Ontario Northland theme, Aspen Crossing also owns a former steam generator car, now also converted to supply electricity, that once belonged to the ONR. It is very similar to the power car on the excursion train, and has a similar lineage, earlier belonging to Via Rail and Canadian National Railways. It was built by the firm National Steel Car, Hamilton Ontario, in 1960.
Let’s take in the experience…
The train departs right from Aspen Crossing and travels a stretch of line running from a point just west of the venue to a point just east of the town of Arrowwood (so about 20 clicks each way). The track dates back to the 1930s and just meanders across the prairies. The train backs up half the trip account of no run-around track at each end.
Part way along the line, and the only town passed though, is Mossleigh Alberta. The most prominent structures in the tiny community and towering over everything are three grain elevators. These date from 1930. Two have been unused since the early 2000s and are owned by an historical society connected to Aspen Crossing, while the other belongs to a farmer and is used to store grain. To read more about them go here: Prairie Sentinels – Mossleigh Alberta.
A string of equipment is stored on the Mossleigh Elevator sidings. These include a couple of their earlier locomotives (Read about them here: Aspen Crossing’s new locomotive gets delivered), and miscellaneous rail cars acquired from here and there (we wrote about some of them before, see: DeWinton – De Winton – Dewinton). Also seen are those Okanagan Wine Train cars spoken of earlier. Lots to keep a train-nut drooling.
The rest of the trip passes thorough rolling prairie. Outside the occasional farm or lonely remote crossroad, there’s nothing much in the way of human activity seen. If you come in the fall expect to see fields being harvested.
On runs, depending on the theme, anywhere from a light meal to full on gourmet dinner is provided. Our trip, recall, the theme was wine and cheese. Other popular themes include Ales on Rails and a Champagne Brunch run (I see a pattern here which I like). There’s also a Dinner Theatre outing, one that’s circus themed and many others. In the winters there’s the Polar Express. For the adults who like a little scary fun, check out the Halloween Train of Terror. They let us in for a moment.
Later, as the train continues to amble along, people are invited to leave their tables and wander about the historic cars. Each is appointed differently, some done up in warm tones, others brighter colours. All are stunning. While modernized in many ways the cars are in many ways much as built. Remember the old days, when people actually rode passenger trains to get somewhere? These cars are from that time. They’re the real deal.
The open air gondola is a popular spot to hang out. Ditto the dome car (there’s a concession there too). On runs where children are allowed, the candy store in the caboose is no doubt a noisy, busy place.
Give the leisurely pace the train takes a couple hours to complete its journey. Entertainers wander about amazing patrons with feats of illusion or charming them with homespun music. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s a friend. The stress of day to day life, for a time, is out the window. Train Robbers make an appearance relieving patrons of Loonies and Toonies, which then go to charity.
Sadly it has to end. The train backs into the siding at Aspen Crossing and the people disperse. Given all the ear-to-ear grins seen, it was a fun ride for all.
The train now quiet, we take some time explore it in an intimate way. It’s all ours. The setting sun lights each car in a special way, casting a warm glow over everything. It’s our quiet time – but we’re invited to dinner, by Aspen Crossing’s Jason Thornhill, so we can’t doddle long. Still, there’s time for a beer in the dome car, the Pleasure Dome, what a perfect name, and a bit time more to reflect. How many bums have sat in this very spot over they decades? Who were they? What’s their story?
Aspen Crossing excursion trains have been ruining for a couple years now. Initially a couple cars in length, the train size has grown with each passing season. If they keep it up at this pace, they’ll either run out or of space or needed a bigger locomotive to handle it all. Aspen Crossing itself goes back a decade or so and is a popular destination year round.
The rail line seen here once belonged to the CPR and was their Lomond Subdivision. The section here dates from 1930, and was one of the last prairie branch lines built. Abandoned, save for a stub running from a junction with their Calgary to Lethbridge Line, to just outside Arrowwood, around the turn of the century, the west half of the line is still retained by the CPR for temporary car storage. This makes getting new rail equipment into Aspen Crossing a challenge. They have to time it when there’s no cars on the line, or hope the CPR moves them aside for a time, while they’re delivered. One time they had to truck a locomotive in.
A bit west of Aspen Crossing beside the tracks, is a old trains station, formerly of Unity Saskatchewan. It dates from 1909 and was built for the Grand Truck Pacific. It’s privately owned and sits on blocks for the time being while plans, hopefully, are made to place it somewhere more permanent. Maybe at Mossleigh?
Coming to Aspen Crossing in October is the Train of Terror, a rolling haunted house. We got a sneak peek, but can only share a couple teaser pics. It’ll be fun scary. For adults only, if you’re interested in checking it out, go here: Aspen Crossing (click the Train of Terror icon). Space is limited.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2016.
Location: Mossleigh AB and area.
Article references and thanks: Aspen Crossing, Jason Thornhill, Canadian Trackside Guides.