Paying off a boiler with bears, railway ties

Nathan Liewicki
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WDM keeping steam engine history alive

Dressed with an engineer’s bib, overalls and hat, miniature engineer bears wait to be purchased.

An engineer bear sits at the front of a locomotive inside the Western Developmennt Museum (WDM) Sunday. In addition to the bears, railway ties are being sold to help pay off a new boiler that was installed in the WDM's Short Line Railway a few years ago.

No more than eight inches tall, engineer bears have become quite popular over the last five years at the Western Development Museum (WDM).

Their arrival, however, was unexpected.

“A few years ago we had to face the fact that the boiler on our train had to be replaced,” said WDM Manager Kathy Fitton. “We looked at different ways to raise funds for that because it's a huge undertaking financially.

“We have done a couple of things and one of them is the engineer bear.”

The cost to replace the boiler was pegged at about $150,000. It has since been replaced, but the WDM continues to pay the money back.

Combined with charitable donations, selling engineer bears and railway ties have netted the museum just over $73,000. 

The bears cost $10 each and the ties $100 each.

“We put little plaques on the ties of the track and each tie is numbered,” Fitton told the Times-Herald. “You'll get a certificate of authenticity with the tie number on it. Plus, if you actually want to go out and walk the line you could find your tie.”

Although the train was in operation each of the last three springs and summers, Fitton noted it was out of commission for two years before that.

In total, the train has been running for 25 years. According to Fitton, it’s something the general public enjoys.

“I get a lot of comments from people saying, 'Oh, I heard the train whistle today. That's how I know summer has arrived.' So it's something that people listen for and they recognize it,” she said.

“It was missed those two years we didn't have it running.”

In addition to funds needed to maintain the upkeep of the train, it requires a contingent of volunteers to do so.

In order to operate the train, volunteers need to have a special license – a limited power engineering ticket.

The WDM offers steam engine training courses, but in order to gain the necessary ticket to operate steam engines, a provincial exam must be passed. And the WDM is always looking for more volunteers.

“There are just a handful of guys right now and they would really love to have more people be interested in becoming involved,” Fitton said.

Without enough volunteers to keep the locomotive, the coaches and the track in peak condition, the museum would lose a valued piece of history.

After all, Fitton said the WDM’s job is to collect and preserve the history of Saskatchewan. Steam transportation was an important part of the province’s history.

“You can come into the museum, go into the galleries, get into a full-sized steam locomotive and you can see it and try to imagine what it was like.

“We have a really unique opportunity here because while the train is a small locomotive, you get a true feeling for the smell, the sounds and the feel of it,” said Fitton. “You're getting an authentic experience and ultimately if we can provide our visitors with that, that's perfect.”

Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks

Organizations: Western Development Museum, Times-Herald

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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