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Museum of rail love

Thu., Nov. 20, 2008

B.C. attraction offers trip through history

There is a train museum just across the Canadian border in Cranbrook, B.C., that will leave visitors who love trains with an irresistible desire to return again. Train companies like the Canadian Pacific Railway used to spare no expense in building luxurious passenger cars.

Now, the museum staff and volunteers spare no expense or time to rebuild and restore cars to their magnificent, original newness. The history and the labor of love found here is amazing.

The option of five different tours of groups of historic cars at the entrance gives visitors the first appreciation of just how big this train tour is going to be. A sixth option is the grand tour where all the cars are viewed. Passing and walking down the covered, wooden entry ramps with lines of old railroad cars standing on three 800-feet-long lengths of track is the start of an hour plus of train nostalgia.

There is a wooden panel and window frame in the waiting room of the museum center that shows in volumes the painstaking task of restoring just one small section of a train car. The wood panel and window frame were salvaged from cars that were too damaged to be restored. But pieces of the car were used in restoring other similar cars and for demonstration purposes. For example, the exotic wood panel has been stripped of the consecutive layers of varnish and paint that were applied over time. The time-consuming work eventually reveals the luster and beauty of the original wood. The demonstration wood panel shows the various layers as if a deck of cards were spread out on a table with the refinished wood on the bottom and the newest, painted surface on top.

While passing through many of the cars, the luxurious interiors of stained and beveled glass, brass and bronze fixtures, wool carpets and plush upholstery are found. Some of the cars have been restored to their historic, opulent condition. In other cars, the tedious job of restoration has just started and rain and melted snow damage is present. Sagging roofs, broken wooden interior supports, missing light fixtures, and painted-over wood panels are obvious. The work seems almost impossible to complete.

Tour number one of the five possible choices is a complete 1929 seven-car set called the Trans-Canada Limited. This first-class sleeping car train was considered a “Deluxe-Hotel-On-Wheels.” The almost completely restored cars are the centerpiece of the entire train car collection. The set of cars was the fastest train across North America in the “Roaring ’20s.”

The first car closest to the steam engine was the crew-baggage car. Needless to say, the sleeping accommodations for the crew were not luxurious. A parlor car was placed on the train between large cities for day-service passengers. The “Argle” was the dining car, with seating for 35 passengers.

Three sleeper cars, “Somerset, Rutherglen and Glen Cassie” followed with a total of 30 bedroom sections or compartments. At the end of the train is the solarium-lounge car named “River Rouge.” The car, with large windows and comfortable lounge chairs with a rear deck, was used also for smoking, playing cards, providing buffets and including bath and shower facilities.

One of the other tours of interest to U.S. citizens is the “Soo-Spokane Train De Luxe.” The train cars were built in 1907 to run between Minneapolis and Spokane. Although the cities are in the United States, the train crossed the continent on Canadian tracks.

The train was specifically built to compete with the U.S. train companies, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. While the train traveled north into Canada it had fewer stops and could reach Spokane at a much shorter time than the U.S. railroad companies.

Consequently it won the U.S. Mail contract, which infuriated the U.S. companies and forced them to lower their rates.

Certainly one of the outstanding features of the Soo-Spokane is the inlaid wood. Cuban or Honduran mahogany panels in one of the cars have beautiful, intricate colored wood inlays. The inlays, as you search the cars, are everywhere.

Also, there are 1,200 pieces of colored glass on either end of the car, the glass placed overhead in a dome with light coming from behind. The cars were built with wood and as the much heavier steel car construction took over in the 1930s they were taken out of service. The reason was safety. If the train came to a sudden stop, the heavier steel cars would crush the lighter wooden cars like an accordion.

There is much more to see, from authentic train china to flatware, to original fabric used to cover the chairs. There are sleeper beds made up with original linens and blankets and dining room tables with flowers in vases, ready to accept passengers.

Even those who are too young to remember steam locomotives can appreciate a time in our history when train travel was the best way to cross the continent. If you had enough money it was a very special way to travel.

Contact correspondent Mike Brodwater by e-mail at mbrodwater @aol.com.

 

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