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Full Steam Ahead

West Coast Railway Association
Don Evans, West Coast Railway Association

Trains and love have at least one thing in common: everyone remembers their first experience.

For some, that first taste of rail might have been labouring over a scale model – Tyco HO or Lionel O Gauge – and many hours of careful assembly in the basement. Others will never forget seeing the real thing for the first time. For many on the West Coast, those memories are often linked to one iconic train – the Royal Hudson.

Some remember seeing the belching steam or hearing the almost mournful whistle. Some lined the tracks, with thousands of others, just to catch a glimpse of the train. They remember the low rumble in their stomach, and the chatter of earth and rail as the train approached. Some may have even slipped a penny onto the track, just to see what happens. Or stood rooted, fingers stuffed in ears, looking up in childlike wonder as 365 tons of steel, steam and brass thundered out of the past, impossibly huge, obscuring everything else, then chugged magnificently around a corner, on its way up Howe Sound.

From 1974 to 1999, the Royal Hudson thrilled hundreds of thousands of people as it snaked its way from North Vancouver to Whistler, pulling a train of railcars filled with tourists and curious locals, showing many, first hand, a bit of Canadian history, and for others, kindling a lifelong affair with trains.

Don Evans is one of those people who never really got over his first train experience. He’s been a rail enthusiast for more than 30 years. What was once a hobby is now a full-time preoccupation – some would say an obsession.

Evans is the president and CEO of the West Coast Railway Association. He and a dozen full-time staff and more than 100 volunteers are building Canada’s second-largest train set, on 12 acres of bush in Squamish. And just like any serious builder, they’re creating a town to go with their train set. But this is no model: these are full-size trains and a full-size turn-of-the-century town, complete with railway station, Main Street and houses filled with period furniture.

Since 1961, the WCRA has amassed a collection of 95 pieces of heritage railway rolling stock and countless railway-related artifacts. Evans and the volunteers are painstakingly restoring the railcars and accurately creating the town, right down to the china and napkins that adorn the cottage kitchen tables. In the process, they are re-creating an important era in Canada’s past.

One of the prize pieces of the WCRA collection is the Royal Hudson. After a long and varied career, a close brush with the scrap yard, and a number of restorations, “2860” is now on permanent loan from the B.C. government to WCRA.

Evans and the rest of his crew speak with great affection (and great detail) about the black behemoth that rests delicately on two rails in a new facility on Government Road in Squamish. “She was built in 1940 in Montreal,” says Evans. “She is 92 feet long (including the tender, which carries 12,000 gallons of water and 4,000 gallons of fuel oil) and she weighs 365 tons.”

The interesting story behind this steam engine is especially timely for a couple of reasons. First, this Hudson has a new 22,000-squarefoot home: the CN Roundhouse and Conference Centre was officially opened in Squamish on June 30, 2010. Earlier this year, a gala event marked the 50th anniversary of the WCRA.

Second, there is a connection to the recent movie The King’s Speech. In this Oscar-winning film, Colin Firth plays the reluctant monarch George VI. In 1939, George VI became the first King to visit Canada. He and the Queen travelled across the country by rail. A bit of a rail buff himself, George apparently spent as much time as he could in the cab. The Royal Train was pulled the entire journey without incident by two sister engines of 2860. The King was so impressed that he agreed to have the Hudson class of steam engine designated as “Royal.” Thus, we have the Royal Hudson 2860 – one of only four such engines in the world, and the only one still running.

But 2860 is only one of many jewels in the collection, and it’s far from the oldest. The oldest pieces are a luxurious business car from 1890, and a rare Canadian Pacific Colonist sleeping car from 1905. They represent both extremes of rail travel at the turn of the century: first class and no class. Over the last decade, both have been lovingly restored, literally from the wheels up, by volunteers.

The detailed inlays and exotic woods used in the cabinetry of the business car speak volumes about the craftsmanship and the attention to detail of the era. They are also a testament to the skill of those who have restored this time capsule on wheels. The bare necessities of the Colonist car contrast with the richness of the artifacts, the posters, and the information it contains.

The restoration work (virtually all of it is done by volunteers) goes on day after day, and two cars are typically restored each year. Vancouver Foundation is helping with that process.

“We’ve received three grants from Vancouver Foundation over the years,” says Evans. “VF gave us a grant of $20,000 in 1997 that enabled us to hire our archivist. The second grant was to build the big train doors on our 1914 car renovation shop. They’re about 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide. And they finish off the preservation of the shop. The most recent VF grant was in 2004. We put about $800,000 into the restoration of the Royal Hudson to get it back into operating condition. VF gave us $25,000 toward that.

“Probably the most important part of our relationship with Vancouver Foundation is the establishment of our endowment fund, which is about $1.4 million,” says Evans. “The West Coast Railway Endowment Fund is part of our long-term sustainability plan to make sure the society is funded in the long haul.

“We are delighted that the fund is held and managed at the Foundation. The advice, the professionalism … they have been wonderful to work with. And the income from the fund helps us continue our restoration work.”

So, the next time you are driving on Highway 97 near Squamish, and you want to see history being made literally before your eyes, or if you’re a student of Canadiana and want to spend a little time learning about the importance of rail in the development of this country, or you just want to see a really big train set, visit West Coast Railway Heritage Park, where Don Evans and his crew are lending new meaning to the term “full steam ahead.”

Story by: Paul Heraty
Photos by: Tiffany Brown Cooper

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