If you have a thing for history and find yourself in North Battleford Saskatchewan the Western Development Museum is a must see. It’s a fantastic facility, good sized, well regarded, with numerous exhibits indoor and out. One highlight is a representation of a 1920s era pioneer village just like one of thousands that used to dot the the entire province. Stroll down main street, visit a farm nearby and get swept back in time.
At the edge of “downtown” is the rail line. There’s a stretch of track depicting a prairie branch, a grain elevator, train station and lucky us, the local freight happens to be passing though. Leading the short consist and what we’ve come to document is steam locomotive #1158 which at the time of our visit has taken a break from its yeoman duties and was getting a maker over.
Steamer #1158 dates from 1913 (interestingly, the same year North Battleford obtained city status) and was outshopped by the firm Montreal Locomotive Works, the nation’s largest maker from the era. One of fifty in its class (G-16-a) it was designed as a general purpose locomotive, one perfectly suited at pulling local passenger runs, “milk runs”, wayfreights, mainline or branchline and short mixed consists, freights with a coach tacked on at the end. The day to day grunt work that needed to be done, the toiling away in obscurity for which the engine was perfectly suited, was its forte. Rarely was there anything glamorous in what it did.
In the Whyte notation #1158 is a 4-6-0 – or “Ten Wheeler” with four small lead wheels to help guide it over less than perfect track, six drive wheels and none trailing. As steam locomotives go is was a pretty simple beast, straightforward and no nonsense in function and light duty in abilities. Fuelled by coal, the tender behind carried the needed supply along with water for the boiler. Regular stops had to be made to top up either.
The locomotives original owner was Canadian Northern Railways (CNoR), a firm with grand ambitions back in the day, working hard to span the country, but always financially on shaky ground. In around 1920 the CNoR along with some competing firms, all of who were that close to total collapse and bankruptcy, were merged together to form Canadian National Railways. Locomotive #1158 and all its brethren were then folded into the CNR roster.
In active service into about 1960, #1158 seemingly worked all over Western Canada based on the old photos this author has dug up showing it. That same year it was donated to the museum (which itself dates from the late 1940s) and put on display on the grounds. It dodged a bullet and was not scrapped as most steamers were.
One other locomotive from this class has been preserved and is at a museum in Ontario.
Fast forward close to sixty years, this old timer is now looking a bit worn and ragged, the weather and time taking a heavy toll. So with that a campaign was started to clean it up – $200k is needed with some $130k raised so far – the locomotive being moved temporarily under cover where work can proceed. First task, taking it down to bare metal, followed by a repaint. Labour is provided by dedicated staff and volunteers and funding from various sources including the general public. It can’t be done without help from everyone. There’s a link below where you can contribute.
Envision it some months hence, #1158 emerging from it’s cocoon, as though some great butterfly, all bright and shiney and new. Because people like you helped.
Many years ago, way back in the ’90s, Team BIGDoer, even before they were officially Team BIGDoer, visited the locomotive. The museum saw that and asked if we could pay them a long overdue revisit, and document #1158 again. Of course, we’d be honoured! Helping museums is part of what we do.
An early September afternoon, we enter the cocoon, the blinding light overpowering for a moment until eyes adjust. There it is, looking a bit vulnerable all stripped down and naked, this mass of metal. We wander about taking in the steamer, imagine where it’s been, what towns it visited, where it travelled and what its been witness too. It’s a machine, plain and simple, but we picture it as though a person with memories.
Did it ever come through North Battleford? Steam engines got around, jumping from assignment to assignment as needed, so the odds are probably yes. If not it, then some of its class, all which were ideal motive power for the many branchlines in the area.
We wonder about all the grain it hauled. And cattle. And people. How many miles did it cover – countless hundreds of thousands? Maybe a million or two over the fifty years it was in service? Something near impossible to calculate I suppose. Not like they have an odometer.
This just came to us – it’s been in retirement longer than it was in service.
And of those who worked on it? The engineers, fireman, others, what of them? We see these grizzled men in our minds, in the heat of summer, the depths of winter, doing their job. No creature comforts here. The insufferable conditions inside the cab – hot, cold, stifling and drafty all the at same time. And always dirty with coal dust and grease. No bother, there’s work to done, that unwavering resolve of train crews of old. They got it done.
And of those built the beast and worked to keep them running (and they were maintenance intensive) – nothing high tech in what they did – just wrench and hammer, fire and forge. And muscle. That was pretty much all that was need to keep it on the road.
Looking at the controls – one almost has to be a genius to figure it out, what all those valves and levers, none of which seem to be marked in any way. It looks so haphazard to an outsider but suspect it’s more orderly than we might think. All that piping leading here and there, a literal maze of them. All that heavy metal. And this is a small engine! We stand there, as we often do, in amazing and wonder. This is an Iron Horse and we’re in awe. Here, where fire and water become steam and steam becomes motion and power.
Snap back to reality, there’s more work to be done. Satisfied we’ve captured every angle, we wander about the immediate area. Take in the old Prince Saskatchewan Train Station, a fine Canadian Northern Depot (later Canadian National) from a small community north of North Battleford. The circa 1913 station was last used in 1957 and was moved to the museum in the year of Canada’s Centennial, 1967 for those who don’t know our country’s history; and subsequently fixed up. The small town train station was a social centre, witness to the coming and going of people, package freight, and a line to the outside world via the telegraph. The station agent lived in the building, in a small suite in the back.
Number #1158’s train, it will be reunited with once the restoration work is complete includes a vintage flat car, stock car (yes cattle were once shipped to market by train) and trailing, the always present caboose. Every train back when had one.
Over at the grain elevator, a boxcar awaits loading. The railways owned huge numbers of these “grain boxes” put to good use collecting wheat, oats and barley from a huge number of rural grain elevators found across the province (and the rest of the Great Canadian Plains). Most grain was eventually exported – Canada supplied the world. This particular car is from the late 1920s and would have probably lasted well into the diesel era – this author found some photos of similar cars in use into the late 1970s! The railways always got their money’s worth. Boxcars were later replaced by grain hoppers which were far more efficient.
The grain elevator dates from 1928 and came from Keatley some sixty clicks a bit east-ish of North Battleford. It used to belonged to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, the province’s biggest such firm and still wears company colours from the old days. Closed in 1983 it was moved to the museum the following year – not an easy task to do. This is a fine example of a wooden grain elevator, thousands of which all very similar in appearance, that once dotted the Saskatchewan Plains. Every town had a grain elevator or two. Few do today.
We returned to #1158 that same evening to shoot the cocoon after dark. We planned to light up the inside with strobes while stars and auroras (foretasted as strong) twinkled and danced above it. The museum grounds are close to town but still far enough away that light pollution was not a total deal breaker, meaning we would see both as long as skies remained clear. But the clouds moved in last minute and it all fell apart (sorry WDM). Too much light reflected from town. Maybe another time.
If you’d like to assist in #1158’s restoration, please go here…
Let us know you’ve helped and we’ll send a personal thanks!
We visited #1158 back in the ’90s and shot it on film…
Canadian National Railway #1158.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2017.
Location: North Battleford, SK.
Article references and thanks: Jen Pedersen, Joyce Smith, Western Development Museum, Canadian Trackside Guides.