Last month, during my time in Edmonton, I went on the Alberta Prairie Railway excursion with my family, from Stettler to Big Valley. Shortly after I arrived in Alberta for my month-and-a-half long trip, I heard from my family as well as a few others that the Railway Excursions were a must-see while I was in town. With it only being a several hour drive outside of the city, we decided that this would be a really cool thing to do as a whole family. In fact, my cousins’ boyfriends came along with us, too.
When I arrived at the Stettler train station and saw the massive locomotive parked out front, I was floored. The front engine looked like something out of the Harry Potter films, and the colours of the train were the perfect fit for the gorgeous rolling plains that we would soon be moving through on our way to a buffet dinner.
Normally, this particular excursion involves a steam train, but with a $500 000 price tag on fixing the steam engine, the company is using their diesel trains in the interim. For this trip, the AP 1118 Diesel Road Locomotive was used. This beautiful locomotive was built by General Motors Diesel in 1958 and weighs a whopping 228,000 pounds (114 tonnes) on drivers. How amazing is that?
With our train tickets in hand, we boarded our coach — no. 6603 — as we were ushered onboard with a helping hand from the passenger service staff. Inside, I instantly fell in love with the old feel of the space; the panelled wooden walls and ceiling, the Roaring ’20s-esque light fixtures, and the reversible train seats stamped with patent dates between 1904 and 1916.
We easily found our seats, as passengers’ last names are printed in capital letters above each pair of seats on a bright orangey-yellow card. This is ideal to avoid passenger confusion as to who sits where, as well as being separated from other members of your group (that being said, it’s important to book your group in advance, so as to avoid the people in your group being separated amongst various coaches, especially is it’s a larger group of people like we had).
Once all were aboard, we began the 21.2 mile trip to Big Valley, going at speeds of about 4 miles per hour. This sounds like it’d feel pretty slow-moving, but while you’re on the train (particularly while leaning against the sill of the wide open windows of the observation coach), it’s the perfect speed to enjoy the leisurely trip into town.
The first half hour or so spent on the train was listening to our ‘host’, Canadian Métis Gabriel Dumont. He told us the history of the various towns we made our way through, all the while having the passengers of the train introduce themselves. For people visiting outside of Canada (and there were several groups, including people from New Zealand, England, and Finland on our trip), Mr. Dumont announced it over the train’s PA system and had all aboard applaud them in welcome.
When the announcement was made that the train’s bar was open, a couple of my cousins and I got up to go explore the rest of the locomotive on our way toward the train’s centre. As I moved from coach to coach, I took my time admiring the different styles of chairs and panelling in each of them. They all brought the warmth of times long gone by; that nostalgia you often only feel when visiting a museum, a period house or building, or a historical working village (like Toronto’s Pioneer Village, or Edmonton’s Fort Edmonton Park).
When we made it to the bar, we each got a drink and then moved to the coach directly after it. We then found ourselves in the observation coach, perhaps my favourite on the entire train for the sole reason that I could lean against the open pane-less windows and stare dreamily out into the prairie lands stretching beyond us in every direction. I absolutely fell in love with the rolling green fields of Alberta, speckled with the yellow flowers of rapini plants, grazing horses, brown cows, and the occasional white-tailed deer bounding through the grass.
I spent the rest of the train ride taking photographs and admiring the view while chatting with my cousins. The ride was smooth, the air was fresh, and the breeze was just perfect on the hot summer’s day we had.
All of a sudden the train stopped, and we heard the faint sound of hooves galloping in the distance. Coming closer and closer, a gang of bandits approached the train with (cap) guns firing into the air and startling the passengers aboard. Shouting while riding up beside the stopped train, the Reynolds Raiders (as we learned they called their group) came up to the windows and demanded us to hand over all our money. As a side note, I had read up on the train robbery beforehand and knew that all money ‘stolen’ during the robbery would be collected and donated to various children’s charities. Therefore, when the first robber came around, I handed him some money and begged for him to spare my life (ha ha ha).
After a very harrowing experience of being robbed, our host and hero, Gabriel Dumont, ran off the train and took down the entire gang of Reynolds Raiders in what was an extremely dramatic showdown.
When all the Raiders were shot and lying ‘dead’ on the ground, Mr. Dumont boarded the train once more and we continued forward on to Stettler. Moments after the train began moving again, we arrived at the train station in Big Valley.
There are shuttles waiting at the station to drive you up to the Big Valley Community Centre where the buffet dinner is held, but it’s a short 5 minute walk for those that choose to make their way uphill by foot, like we did. Along the way, we even spotted an iced tea stand held by a group of young elementary school kids; of course, we all happily bought a cup from them, drinking the sweet tea as we made our way toward the community centre.
Dinner was absolutely phenomenal. There are various dinner themes for different excursions, and we opted for the Alberta Roast Beef Country Dinner. The buffet line moved very quickly, and there was tonnes of food for everyone. Coleslaw, salads, fresh buns, mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and of course, the roast beef (among other items). Then, there were three different cakes to choose from — you could get just one, two, or all three! I grabbed the triple chocolate cake, which was phenomenal. For drinks, you had the option of water or fruit punch.
We had no problem getting a section of table all in one spot for our group of 7, and when we finished eating, we took to exploring the village of Big Valley and seeing what it had to offer before having to return to the train for the ride back to Stettler.
We then walked back along the path toward the train station. I loved the small western feel of the village, and the cute shops in the main area of Jimmy Jock Boardwalk. We walked in and out of different stores, picking up little things here and there. The most interesting thing that I picked up was local cherry-flavoured honey in a squeeze tube. I did a taste test and it was too delicious to leave behind!
Some other cool things to check out while in Big Valley are the tiny jail cell (which was used between 1914 and the 1940s for cowboy, miners, and railroaders to “cool their heels” — pictured above), the provincial heritage site of St. Edmund’s Church (a beautiful little blue Anglican church on top of the hill overlooking the village), and the railway museum right at the train station that you arrive in.
By the time we were done exploring, we also neared the time to return to the train. My cousins and I boarded once more and took our seats, waiting for the train to begin its trip back to Stettler. This time, my cousin, her boyfriend, and I walked over to the one coach we hadn’t yet been to. In here, there was a larger bar with tables and seats, as well as live entertainment. The entertainer (who I regretfully can’t recall his name) was absolutely hilarious. He had us all laughing and singing along with him, swaying to the music and the rhythmic lull of the moving locomotive.
When we arrived back in the station at Stettler, I was reluctant to disembark from the train. I had had such a lovely time, enjoying this incredible experience with not only my family, but also with the friendly people aboard the train. Before I even touched the ground of the platform, I was already thinking of how my family back home in Toronto need to come visit out west, so I can bring them to the Alberta Prairie Railway excursion to Big Valley. It’s a trip I would definitely do again!
Have you ever been on a historical train ride? What was your favourite part about it? Have you been to the Canadian Prairies (and if so, which parts of it)? Let me know in the comments!