Scaling Down

The Cranbrook History Centre, home of the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel / Trains Deluxe, recently announced that they are releasing nine cars from their collection of passenger rail cars.

It might be a bit shocking but these things happen. Organizations have limits on funds and volunteer time… especially time. Restoring and preserving century-old railway cars takes a lot of time and effort, and museums are stretched pretty thin. 2020 isn’t helping with COVID-19 keeping people away.

Part of the Cranbrook collection
Part of the Cranbrook collection

The nine cars are listed in their announcement, and include the 4 car Chinook set (featured on the right of the header photo of this post), a baggage car, two sleepers, a diner and a steam engine tender. I think the baggage car is in the photo above this paragraph.

The newest car was built in 1940 and the oldest was built in 1921. Their condition ranges from “fair” to “poor” so a lot of work would be required. I can’t imagine any of them would be able to move on their own wheels without a lot of work.

Hopefully another Canadian museum is interested in a few of these. I’d rather they stayed in Canada, but I’d rather they be purchased by an American organization than be scrapped. Preservation, like life in general, is often about compromise and choosing the least bad option.

My Hillsborough Experience

Many years ago, I volunteered at the New Brunswick Railway Museum. I think it was from 2000 to 2007 or so. During the latter part of that time period, I was the treasurer and therefore sat on the museum’s board.

By this time, we weren’t running trains any more – the last was in 2004 – and the right-of-way (ROW) was getting overgrown. Most of the ROW was owned by the province and leased to the railway. The province was getting pressure from the ATV association to use the idle land as a path for their machines.

The board met to discuss what to do. There were two significant bridges on the line – the Weldon Creek steel bridge and the Hiram Creek curved wooden trestle – and both needed a lot of work before trains could run over them again.

The Hiram Creek trestle, June 2002
The Hiram Creek trestle, June 2002

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any scenario in which trains would ever run again. The cost to fix the line was certainly in the high six figures and probably well over a million dollars, with no real revenue and very few volunteers remaining. We decided not to renew the lease.

The Hiram Creek trestle was dismantled in 2012. David Othen produced a great video remembering the bridge. The rails from Weldon Creek and beyond were removed by a salvage company and sold, with the profits going to the museum.

I still think that was the right decision.

Limited Resources

Many museums in Canada are struggling to survive with limited funds, limited volunteer time, and too much to do.

Couple that with aging volunteers and you can see that some museums are heading toward a point where they may not be able to stay open.

What You Can Do

What can you do to help?

Well, you can volunteer. Or you can donate money. Or you can at least become a member.

I have a page of Canadian railway museums and tourist railways that you can browse to find a museum or railway near you to support.

Here are a few that I support with my time and/or money:

8 thoughts on “Scaling Down”

  1. The cars being downsized I’m sure trend toward the ‘poor’ end of the condition scale. This means Cranbrook couldn’t save them and now nobody else likely can. Never mind armchair restorationists suggesting CN or CP schlep them across the country to some museum that can save them. Maybe on a flat car sans trucks, but it will not come cheap.

    COVID has also shown us that museums, like restaurants, need to up their game to include other more reasonable preservation options. Like virtual exhibits. It’s all about the collections policy.

    Thanks for sharing this news, Steve.

    • I agree, other preservation options need to be explored. Virtual exhibits, scanning, extensive photography… not every rail car is worth preserving and there aren’t funds or time to preserve half of what is in rail museums now.

      The collections policy is critical. I think Cranbrook has done a good job on limiting the scope of their collection. They have too much for the resources they have, and so they are trying to do the responsible thing and scale down and see if there is any interest in the surplus items.

  2. Well Steve, your post caused at least one person to become a monthly donor to one of the museums you listed. See? Your blog “done did good”!

  3. Hi Steve.

    I volunteer/sit on the Board of an local railway museum that you visited a few years back when you were in Lethbridge.

    2020 has been interesting for many small museums/historical groups, due to reduced fundraising and also the implications of COVID and the ability to social distance, etc. Our own museum decided to stay closed this year due to that, and also not having the $$ flow in either, which also hampered maintenance projects at our Railway Park.

    Our own group (as do many) suffer with aging volunteers and limited funding opportunities. But we at least have an modest collection which helps – some places have way to much stuff and it shows when no one can fix them up and they sit there deteriorating, such as some of the items the Cranbrook museum is getting rid of. As Eric mentions, what is the final cost and is it worth investing into? I have asked them if the items are even rail-movesble or do they have to be craned & truck – an considerable expense straight out of the gate, before any “preservation” can be done. I have my doubts that serious buyers can be found.

    Some groups have NO plan on their items – they collect them and then they sit there holding onto them, but no plan to fundraise or preserve them. On the recent article I did to Branchlines about the CLC items stored at the closed gas plant by Calgary, the owner said he won’t be investing money into the items, and was looking at outside sources to provide the cash. Who would provide cash to preservation projects if there is no plan? He has no plan for the items, so they sit there rusting away…

    At the end of the day, if the museum/group has to sell items to help pay the bills then that is a better plan than hanging onto items that will drag the group into a worse state. Work with other like-minded rail groups and be creative with fundraising! If not there will be other museums closing up shop and more items going to the scrap heap.

    • I agree completely, Jason. The Galt Historic Railway Park ( is a great site and a lot of the reason for that is that it is focused and relevant to the area.

      As you said, some groups have no plan and just collect things. I was involved in one of those years ago and they had the mentality to just acquire, acquire, acquire with no thought of how to maintain the collection.

      I’m shaking my head about the CLC items. There is no magic money fairy dispensing funds to railway museums, at least none that I’ve heard about!

      I do think there is room for museums to be more creative about fundraising. Gift shops should be ruthlessly used to generate income, groups can write books and sell them, engage the community more for free labour, etc.

      • Hi Steve,

        We are looking at some of our archives/collectables for possible revenue generation. Over the years we had lots of donations of lamps, insulators, timetables, and other “small” railway items. One or two copies is great for a museum collection, but does a museum need 6 lamps of the same model? No! So if the item hasn’t been accessioned into our collection it will be sold to a private collector – a way to generate money and to also give our archive room a bit more room!

        But I agree, museums/historical groups need to be more creative on fundraising.

        • Hi Jason, they can be a good way to generate some revenue… as long as the donor is aware that not everything they donate to the museum will be kept. Ideally a museum has a collection policy that is shared with potential donors so they know that some of their donation may never be displayed and may instead be transferred to other museums or sold. It can be upsetting to find out that Grandpa’s old conductor’s hat was sold.

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