The Prairie Dog Central Railway is a real gem, a great asset for the city of Winnipeg and surrounding areas. They entertain thousands of people every year on their trips between Inkster Junction and Grosse Isle, and occasionally they wander further (on GWWD tracks to Hadashville, for instance). In early June 2021, they roamed off their own rails and onto those of three of Winnipeg’s other railways.
The CBC is producing a TV special, The Porter, inspired by Cecil Foster’s book They Call Me George, about Black railway porters. I wrote a lot about this book on Canada Day 2020. The eight-part series has a Black-Canadian creative team and you can read a lot more about it here.
Back to the Prairie Dog. Since The Porter will be about Black porters on trains, they needed to film some scenes on a train! The PDC was contracted to bring their train to Union Station in downtown Winnipeg for filming. The production crew and the PDC volunteers did a lot of preparation to get the train ready for the shoot, and the time came on June 2 to move the train downtown.
The route they had to take was a bit convoluted. They had to run south to Woodman Junction where they got onto the CP main line, head east into the CP yard, then south on the CP Lariviere subdivision to BNSF Manitoba, switch onto the CN main line, then head past the CN Fort Rouge yard to downtown. Believe it or not, this is the best route.
Here’s a map to help you envision the route – their route is highlighted in light green. If you’re colour blind, I apologize – it might not make much sense.
The train was headed by one of the PDC’s sturdy diesel locomotives, PDC 4138, followed by the famous #3 steam engine and a collection of passenger cars and freight cars.
I had some advance notice that the train was departing, so I headed out late in the morning of June 2 to record their passage. I wasn’t sure exactly where to start, so I decided to head to the BNSF yard and then head north.
Just before I reached the CP yard, I spotted them heading south on the CP Lariviere subdivision. I quickly set up near Notre Dame Avenue to capture this rare move.
I exchanged waves with a few of the crew who recognized me, then packed up for my next photo spot. I didn’t think I could catch them passing Polo Park but I thought I had a chance of getting them on the bridge over the Assiniboine River.
This bridge is shared by CP and BNSF Manitoba, and the bridge is shared between the single track and a walking path. I had never been on this bridge before, so it was a good opportunity for me to check it out. I quickly parked and sprinted over to the bridge, hoping I hadn’t missed them. I probably didn’t need to run but I didn’t have a lot of time before they showed up.
That steam engine was spotless, as usual.
The steam locomotive and the passenger cars were repainted for the “Cross Continental Railway” for the TV series. In the photo above you can see the Prairie Dog Central Railway lettering under the black paint.
Once the train passed, I jogged back to my car to get to the next spot. I was able to get to Lindsay Avenue just before the train did and get a few shots of the entire train… difficult to do in the city.
Note that the steam engine had been fired up at the Prairie Dog’s yard and was kept under steam for the whole time it was downtown. I imagine it would have been logistically impossible to coal the locomotive while it was at Union Station.
They had to wait at the BNSF yard at Lindsay Avenue for a while before they could get onto the CN main line, so I had plenty of time to get into position. I set up on Taylor Avenue and sweated a bit in the hot sun before they got on their way.
Once they got onto the CN main line, I followed east along Taylor Avenue. I tried a shot from Taylor but I don’t think it worked out really well… too much background clutter and the light wasn’t great.
I knew there were no real photo angles from there to downtown, so I skipped any attempt to get them around Fort Rouge and went down to the Forks to park. I was just able to get up to trackside to record them passing the west end of the train station.
The two tracks in the foreground are part of the first mile of the CN Rivers subdivision, and the tracks in the background go to the VIA train station (and the Winnipeg Railway Museum).
The building under construction in the background with the crane is 300 Main Street, now the tallest building in Winnipeg.
Even though the train had arrived downtown, it still had to get into the train station.
I’ll continue the story in part 2 with the rest of the downtown shots, plus the return back to the Prairie Dog Central 10 days later.
In the meantime, you can watch this video showing the train “coming and going”.