OGEMA, Sask. — A century or so ago, pioneers, train robbers, horse thieves and rum runners were as thick as flies in the noon-day sun in the villages and hamlets surrounding Saskatchewan’s Big Muddy Valley.
Today, with the help of community members and a local heritage group based at Ogema, Sask., characters from Saskatchewan’s past are making a comeback.
“Our heritage is something we really need to hold onto because we’re never going to understand where we need to go if we don’t know where we’ve been,” said Cheryl Generous, chief executive officer of Southern Prairie Railway, a non-profit heritage railway company that preserves the region’s history and promotes tourism.
“I’m a real believer in keeping our heritage alive. And train rides appeal to everybody.”
Southern Prairie Railway (SPR) is the operating division of the Ogema Heritage Railway Association.
It offers 14 different railway tours in southern Saskatchewan, all using a restored 1945 General Electric locomotive and a refurbished 1922 Pullman Coach purchased in Gettysburgh, Pennsylvania.
About 5,000 hours of volunteer labour went into restoring the train.
SPR tours, which run from May to October, depart from Ogema’s train station, which was relocated in Simpson, Sask., and restored to its original condition.
The tours run on a short-line network owned by Red Coat Road and Rail (RCRR), a locally owned company that was established in the late 1990s to buy 115 kilometres of Canadian Pacific Railway track that was slated for abandonment.
SPR has an agreement that allows it to use Red Coat’s tracks.
Train schedules are co-ordinated between SPR and Great Western Railway, the company that is contracted by RCRR to move commercial freight and perform track maintenance.
On the Red Coat line between Pangman and Assiniboia, Sask., it’s not uncommon for SPR riders to see a band of dusty desperadoes storm into the coach, flash their pistols and make off with a satchel full of loot.
Money raised during the staged robberies is donated to charity.
Visitors can also ride the rails with gangsters and rum runners, similar to those who did business in southern Saskatchewan during Prohibition.
Some lucky riders might even have a close encounter with Bonnie and Clyde, the criminal couple who gained notoriety and ill-gotten wealth during the Roaring Twenties.
Tourists who appreciate the more conservative, blue-collar lifestyle of southern Saskatchewan’s early settlers might prefer to hitch a ride on SPR’s weekly Heritage Train.
The Heritage Train is a two-and-a-half hour excursion that runs from Ogema, Sask., and nearby Horizon, Sask., a once-bustling prairie town that now consists of a carefully preserved heritage elevator and community church, both reminders of prairie life from a bygone era.
Since SPR offered its first railway tour in 2012, thousands of visitors have visited Ogema.
“It’s been phenomenal,” said Generous.
“We’ve had passengers from every province and territory ride the train in the three years that we’ve been going. We’ve also had riders from England, Ireland, Scotland, India, Australia … and even South Korea.”
The responses from appreciative visitors ranges from hugs to teary-eyed riders who can’t hide their emotions, said Generous.
“Some people are overwhelmed.…. You can see there’s a lot of emotion happening for them.”
When asked about SPR’s contribution to the local economy, Generous cited the number of local jobs created, new businesses opened and new money for the Ogema community.
Later this year, the company will transport its 10,000th rider.
“As far as the economic impact is concerned, I can tell you it’s been fantastic,” Generous said.
The local museum now employs full-time workers, existing businesses have increased staff to deal with the influx of tourists and the SPR itself has created nine new positions, all filled by local residents.
“It’s a really big deal when you’re getting those kinds of numbers in a small rural community,” Generous said.
“Those are big numbers for a community like Ogema.”