Steam train ride through the heart of Alberta

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History comes alive on the rails from Stettler

Join ZenSeekers as we go on expedition across the #BoomTownTrail. Learn more on what several communities across this region have in store. You’ll find inspiration and education to explore Alberta via our #BoomTownTrail expedition hub.

Jeremy Derksen

STETTLER, AB – We are about to be robbed. Gunsmoke and pistol reports fill the prairie sky, as horses and riders bear down on us. Watching from the train car, my two sons and I are spellbound.

Wild west lore has been part of the popular imagination for so long now, we all have those dreams of living a day in the life of a settler on the prairies. Alberta Prairie Steam Excursions lets you do just that, without having to generate 1.21 gigawatts to fuel your Back-to-the-Future DeLorean or get your designer jeans too dirty.

Enjoy the #BoomTownTrail this summer. Plan your trip to Stettler...

Your ride through the boomtown past of central Alberta circa late 1800s departs from the town of Stettler, just an hour east of Red Deer. Among the towns ranging along Highway 21 and 56, Stettler is where local farm folk go when they’re “going into town.”

Along main street, you’ll find coffee shops, local retailers and smiles wherever you go. Bite into a fresh cream ‘John’ from Bloke’s Bakery, overloaded with airy sweet whipped cream and nestled in rich pastry, and you’ll swear you’re biting right into prairie hospitality.

Photographer: Travel Alberta

The train boards at 11 o’clock sharp. From there, forget about wifi, video games or tap-to-pay. Put some cash in your pocket — it will come in handy.

Each car on the vintage steam train is furnished differently, harking back to the early era of rail travel. Conductors in black caps and burgundy vests come by to punch tickets as the engine chugs into motion. With a candy store, bar car and live entertainment, our journey to Big Valley passes quickly — but not uneventfully.

In the middle of the open prairie, the bandits strike and an epic gunfight ensues between train marshal and outlaws. The marshal later remarks to an adoring crowd of kids, “I musta shot at least 20, 30 of ’em.”

Photographer: Jeremy Derksen

We disembark in a town of about 300 that looks much like it did in prairie boom times. One- and two-storey buildings from the late Victorian and early prairie eras mingle on Big Valley’s main street.

Up on the hillside, the baby blue siding and stainless steel spire of St. Edmund’s Anglican Church draw eyes heavenward. At the Big Valley Community Hall, roast beef dinner – with carrots, peas, mash potatoes, salad, buns, gravy and all the fixings – is served community style.

Big Valley

Once your belly is well and full, you can stroll lazily back through town or take a guided ride through more local history. You have time to shop for unique finds before boarding the train back to the present.

Photographer: Jeremy Derksen

A day later and 100 years ahead, the timeless beach of Rochon Sands provides space to reflect on the excitement of the day before. In modern civilization, the pace of change is fast but here, rooted in the past, transformation through natural processes can slow to years and decades. Time nearly stops. Take a breath, feel the sun on your skin and the water lapping your feet.

Finding these pockets of history is a good way to remind ourselves how we arrived in the present. We are not just passengers on this train but also engineers and conductors. History is alive in Alberta, and we are living it.  

If You Go

Bring some cash for the train - it will come in handy bribing (i.e. tipping) bandits, buying food and drink on the train or shopping in Big Valley.

Take some time to explore the Tool Museum in Big Valley. It reflects a time before replaceable consumer culture, when people built and fixed things.

Car lovers will want to make a stop at McAlister Motors Garage in Big Valley, which displays Rod Miller’s impressive collection.

Bone up on your history at the Stettler Town and Country Museum, where displays are staged like movie sets.

Experience the #BoomTownTrail - learn more about Stettler start planning here.

#ExploreAlberta with Travel Alberta who has an entire section of their website dedicated to travelling the #BoomTownTrail.

Make it a road trip - discover seven destinations brimming with unique experiences - start here by visiting ZenSeekers’ #BoomTownTrail expedition page.

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