“The railway ended the complete isolation of the homesteader.”
– From Builders of a Great Land
Have passenger trains always seemed romantic? Or were they just as utilitarian and ho-hum as highways? Probably. But they seem very romantic now, especially in Saskatchewan where they have all but disappeared. There’s the Via train which connects the Pacific to the Atlantic. I journeyed to Halifax that way three years ago. To get to the train station, I had to drive two and a half hours. There was something a bit ironic about that, I thought.
Now there’s another option. The enterprising town of Ogema, population less than 500, has a tourist train. The Southern Prairie Railway allows train lovers and prairie lovers and curious tourists to rumble through the rolling prairie of southern Saskatchewan at 25 kms/hour. I finally went yesterday. It was a perk of my new job working at Ogema’s Deep South Pioneer Museum. As the train chugged out of the station, and the lush late May countryside rolled past, I had a lump in my throat. Not everyone loves trains, but I do, I really do. Even the smelly, congested trains of Great Britain which are anything but romantic were a treat for me. Even the claustrophobic, nauseating subway is something special for me. So to be on a train in my very own backyard (just 28 miles from home) was more than special.
The CNR tracks are about two miles south of my farm. They connect Radville to Ceylon, through Hardy and then on to Bengough. From any of those stations you could get on a train that would take you somewhere with more tracks that could get you on a train that took you anywhere, even to the sea where a ship could take you across it, back to the homeland perhaps. It’s been at least a decade since I last saw a train go by on those tracks south of my farm. Even when I was a kid, when the elevators were still in Ceylon, it was a rare enough sight to be noteworthy. But my school bus driver always stopped at them and opened the doors to look both ways down the track. There’s no need for that now.
Before the tracks came to Ceylon in 1910, the homesteaders had no transportation but their own two legs or horses. The nearest station at first was Yellow Grass, about thirty miles northeast of my farm, as the crow flies, or the horse and wagon ride. Many would have pressed on for Weyburn, about forty miles east, since it was bigger and had more amenities. They had to lay in enough supplies to get them through to the next trip. They had to make sure they had enough food and fuel to get through the winter. Sometimes they did not. There are stories of homesteaders surviving on nothing but flour for weeks. Once a homesteader near Ogema ran out of coal to fuel his stove, so he moved into his sod barn and took his newly built frame house apart, using the wood for fuel. There are stories of people braving extreme weather to walk or ride to a neighbour’s house to ask for food.
Now the tracks that run through the Gap are growing weeds. But the Southern Prairie Railway provides the opportunity to get a sense of what it was like “back then” before cars and highways and semi trucks. The train was not a peaceful, scenic journey then, though it could be. It was a vital part of prairie life. It was what created the towns, and it dictated the rhythms of people’s lives. No wonder it seems romantic now.
*Builders of a Great Land: History of The Gap No. 39 Ceylon and Hardy. 1980. History Committee of R.M. of the Gap No. 39, 3.
**Radville-Laurier: The Yesteryears. Radville, SK: Radville Laurier Historical Society. 1983