Misnamed for 50 years, colonist rail car that carried settlers west is like new again

For 50 years, the folks at Heritage Park thought it was CPR colonist rail car 2658 because the numbers weren’t clear.

“It was collected in 1964 from the Ogden Shops in Calgary. It was in the scrap heap,” Heritage Park curator Sylvia Harnden told CBC News on Thursday.

“We were promised a car called CPR 2658, that would have been a 1912 car. When the car was actually brought to Heritage Park, the numbers had been obliterated or taken off. We all thought it was 2658. It comes to Heritage Park. We called it that for 50 years. Our people were peeling and revealing and discovered it was really CPR 1202 built in 1905, which made it one of the first cars to come out of the Angus Shops in Montreal.”

CPR 1202 was originally thought to be CPR 2658 because the numbers weren’t clear. For 50 years, the historic rail car at Heritage Park was mislabelled. (David Bell/CBC)

Those peeling and revealing were part of a restoration project that has finally come to fruition.

Harnden says the role of CPR 1202 and its sister cars in populating Western Canada cannot be overstated.

“This is how we populated the country. Hundreds and thousands of people came on these railway cars,” she said.

“If I recall correctly, the three western provinces, their population increased three of four fold during 1905 to 1916. It was a gigantic increase in population.”

Heritage Park curator Sylvia Harnden says many Prairie families have some connection to colonist rail cars.

In addition to immigration, the cars served many other roles. Shipping cattle east, acting as mobile hospitals and troop carriers during the First and Second World Wars are just a few.

Restoring CPR 1202 had been talked about for years, but last year the funding sources came together with BMO Financial Group, the province, the city and private donations.

People and technology also came together, Harnden said.

CPR 1202 was one of the first rail cars made at the Angus Shops in Montreal. (David Bell/CBC)

“We were able to find a wonderful crew of people. We had the shop space we could make available and we had modern technology, so we could do computer-assisted pattern making. We could make things that didn’t exist anymore, make things from photographs using new technology,” she explained.

“If you were to have seen this car three years [ago], it was dreadful. It was all dried out and warped. It was awful. Anybody in their right mind would run the other way, but our people were brave and took the big job, broke it down into components. We had some good archival information and a contract with a railway historian. He was able to help us understand the car and its history and importance.”

Rail cars like the CPR 1202 helped contribute to a massive population growth in the Prairie provinces between 1905 and 1916, a Heritage Park curator says. (Glenbow Archives)

But the project really comes down to sharing and preserving of stories.

“Many people can trace their family’s or part of their family’s story to the colonist car and to those early immigrants. My own grandparents came out in 1923 from the London area,” Harnden said.

“The story of immigration is still unfolding and we relate to these people and relate to stories. That is why it is so important to have this car restored.”

Heritage Park staff though they had CPR 2658 on their hands, but it was actually CPR 1202. Staff learned the true identity after peeling and revealing in advance of a restoration project. (David Bell/CBC)

The car opens to the public on Saturday as part of Heritage Park’s Railway Days.

“It is nice to be able to tell young people of today, so they can understand what it was like back then,” Harnden said.

“I think we are inspired by the hardships people have overcome. We all learn and benefit from that. Don’t give up, just keep on.”

A curator at Heritage Park says the newly restored CPR 1202 colonist car and its sister cars were critical in the settlement of Western Canada. (David Bell/CBC)

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