The Kamloops Heritage Railway Park opens for the season this weekend and will remain open through the end of October.
Committed to preserving the history of the rail industry in B.C., the public is invited to an open house on Saturday, May 6, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 40 Mount Paul Way, located under the Red Bridge in Pioneer Park.
Admission is by donation.
“We’re very excited with the open house,” Kamloops Heritage Railway Society general manager Ken Milloy said, noting the Kamloops chapter of the Vintage Car Club of Canada will have more than a dozen cars and trucks on site.
There will also be plenty of volunteers dressed in period costumes to help show the public many of the recent changes to the Heritage Railway Park.
The past few years have seen a transformation at the site. Due to the lack of track accessibility because of an increase in coal train traffic through Kamloops, the venerable 2141 Spirit of Kamloops steam train is no longer running, which has seen the society pivot to a new operations model.
“If they haven’t been here since COVID-19, holy cow, everything has changed,” Milloy said. “When COVID came, we had to close down and, at the same time, CN Rail negotiated a new coal contract for shipping coal from the Rockies overseas.”
That led to an increase of train traffic on the main line, to 10 runs per day from four runs a day, making it extremely difficult for the Kamloops Heritage Railway Society to access tracks.
Milloy said the 2141 Spirit of Kamloops is being kept in good operating order.
“But generally it just sits there waiting for us to decide what to do,” he said.
While the steam train is not chugging down the tracks as it did in years past, people can now enter the engine’s cab, something that was not permitted when the train was in motion.
“They get to blow the horn, absolutely,” Milloy said.
In the Kamloops Heritage Railway Park, visitors can step back in time to explore life on the rails as either a passenger or rail employee. The three cars on the north side, closest to the river, include a restored cattle car, the Pioneer Park car (a 1954 streamlined heavy-duty passenger car) and a fully restored wooden caboose (one of two the railway society owns).
The snow plow is a favourite among kids, Milloy said.
“They absolutely love it, apart from the locomotive,” he said.
The yard also houses another set of rail cars that depict passenger rail travel from the 1900s through to 1960.
“That was the golden era of travel by rail,” Milloy said. “It was the main way of moving. In the ‘60s, it started to transfer over to personal automobile and, most importantly, the aircraft.”
Inside, the workshop has been transformed into a gallery. Tools and work areas have been hidden behind newly constructed walls, making it safe and enticing to explore the new space and take in the myriad displays.
Milloy said the coming year will see many changes.
“We really want to become an important part of the community,” he said.
Adding a couple of students from Thompson Rivers University has allowed the society to develop new educational programming and increase its social media presence. The society also recently added a programming coordinator to its team to develop programs tied to elementary school curriculum and is working with teachers.
“We’re starting to see the benefits of that,” Milloy said, noting plans are in the works to create summer programs for kids, including day and week-long camps in which children and youth can learn about engines and do some experimenting.
“People should look at a membership, especially a family membership,” Milloy said. “It’s very affordable.”
About the 2141 Spirit of Kamloops
The 2141 has a 62-year history in Kamloops. Originally made in Kingston, Ont., it hauled freight in the Prairies until 1948. It was also used on Vancouver Island until it was decommissioned and sat in a yard in Victoria before then-Kamloops mayor Jack Fitzwater convinced the city to buy it in 1961.
It then sat idle in Riverside Park — the heart of a rail town — for decades.
In 1990, a group from Alberta approached the city and asked to purchase the locomotive before a group in Kamloops intervened and restored it locally instead.
Between 1992 and 2002, between 80,000 and 100,000 hours were spent by machinists, welders and other volunteers refurbishing the locomotive to get it running again.
The 2141 ran tours from the old CN station in downtown Kamloops between 2002 and 2019. The seasonal theatrical and historical rides along the rails drew families and tourists as the sound of the steam whistle instantly transported one back in time.
The 2141 last hit the tracks in the Christmas season of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and hasn’t run since.
The society did submit a request to CN in 2021 for track time for 2021, but it was rejected as the railway could not guarantee the society track time needed to schedule tours due to the volume of coal trains coming through the city, each of which takes two hours each to clear through Kamloops.