Want to join a historic movement? How about volunteering with the Prairie Dog Central?

You can climb aboard, or more likely help maintain, one of North America’s oldest steam locomotives.

A facsimile of the venerable steam locomotive pulling the "Prairie Dog Central" weekends from May to October.

A facsimile of the venerable steam locomotive pulling the “Prairie Dog Central” weekends from May to October.

By John Jackson

The founders of the Vintage Locomotive Society wanted their train’s name to celebrate a local sight. Somebody thought of gophers. “Gopher Special”…nah. OK, how about “Prairie Dog Central?” The name lives on.

The VLS is a registered charity whose primary function is to maintain and operate the vintage steam train, pulled by steam locomotive #3, one of the oldest such locomotives in North America.

Once owned by the City of Winnipeg Hydro
In July, 1970, we started with the locomotive and three old wooden coaches (we now have five), the CNR let us store them on the land now known as The Forks. We did repairs in what is today the Children’s Museum. Our first track ran along the southern edge of Charleswood along Wilkes Boulevard. It is now the Harte Trail east of the Perimeter, and west of it the Grand Trunk Pioneer Trail.

Initially our ridership was just in the dozens per train. In 2012 we averaged 244 riders on our 44 trips (on top of seven chartered runs), and our ridership continues to grow. This year we broke through the 10,000 mark for annual ridership.

We evolve and grow by maximizing service to customers and fun for families. Seat reservations can be done by phone or through the Internet (our home page: http://www.pdcrailway.com). We put a “theme” to every ride, such as our spring and fall supper trains, and our new lunch trains to the Hitchin’ Post. Our favourite theme: robberies! You lose your loose change to Bonnie and Clyde gang, or cowboys gone bad (your money does go to charity, so maybe they’re not so bad).

For about 20 years, up to 1996, the CNR let us run the “Dog” on their tracks through Polo Park. You know the Manitoba Hydro block building; the mural on its side has two small girls looking at clouds shaped like appliances? The Prairie Dog Central trains started on the other side, from the old St. James Station, and went up to Grosse Isle and back.

We were highly visible, but the track around Polo Park was pulled up after 1996 and we had to move for the second time.

Through negotiations with governments and fundraising in the community we raised enough funds to buy most of the track we presently run on. We erected our own storage shed on land leased to us out by Inkster and Sturgeon and moved the old St. James Station out there. The society renamed the station Inkster Junction Station – it’s now been declared a heritage building – and our trains start from there and still run to Grosse Isle and we plan sometimes to Warren, every weekend from May through October. The trip lasts about 3 ½ hours.

After all that, we had to do more fundraising to replace the steam locomotive’s old boiler. It runs well now, and has been joined by two diesel locomotives donated to us by the CNR and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line.

If you’ve ridden our train, you’ll remember the faces of your fellow passengers. They have fun reliving history on the move! Where else can you do that around here?
The Prairie Dog Central Railway is one of the oldest regularly scheduled vintage operating trains in North America.

But we need volunteers to keep the train going. You can be one of them: no railroad experience is required. We have an in-house training program that progresses a new volunteer through increasingly high positions of responsibility, emphasizing safety while ensuring they learn what they need to know, and have fun in the process.

Our most urgent need is for porters during the operating season and other volunteers to help maintain our coaches, equipment and facilities. We provide guidance and training, and a safe working environment.

We are also looking for anyone with experience in sales, computers, track maintenance, painting, welding, gardening, electrical and woodworking. We are a varied bunch of happy people who are always welcoming to anyone interested in preserving—and running—history here in the ’Peg! Come on board!

If you would like to help, please contact me (John Jackson) by phone at 204-807-2500 or email at membership@pdcrailway.com.

John Jackson is in charge of membership with the Vintage Locomotive Society Inc.

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