Calgary

'Once in a lifetime opportunity': Colonist rail car that drove western migration gets Heritage Park makeover

It's one of two remaining colonial rail cars in Canada of the thousands that used to ship immigrants across the west more than a century ago — and soon you will be able to see a restored version at Calgary's Heritage Park.

Colonist Car 1202 was built in Montreal’s CPR Angus Shops in 1905

112-year-old rail car brought migrants west 0:49

It's one of two remaining colonial rail cars in Canada of the thousands that used to ship immigrants across the west more than a century ago — and soon you will be able to see a restored version at Calgary's Heritage Park.

A carpenter at the park who is working on the project says it is unique in many ways.

"It is an amazing experience to be able to work on something like this and see the scribe marks and the measuring marks from the people that worked on it before," Michael Willie told CBC News.

"To have your hands on something that is as old as this is and is still intact is really quite a treat. To be adding to it and bringing it back to what it was is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Michael Willie, a carpenter at Heritage Park, says he is working on the project of a lifetime. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Colonist Car 1202 was built in Montreal's CPR Angus Shops in 1905.

"It was used to bring European settlers west from Montreal to the Prairies to their land grants during land giveaways. It later saw service bringing troops transports and the harvest trains west for the harvest of the grain and the crops each year," Willie explained.

"It was then put into service with Canadian Pacific as part of their service fleet where it spent its time until it came to us in 1965."

Thousands of immigrants took the trip west to the Prairies, 72 at a time, from port cities like Halifax, Montreal and Toronto, "to the shoulders of the Rocky Mountains," he said.

An illustration of a colonist car from 1888, left, and a restoration project of a similar train at Heritage Park underway right now. (Glenbow Museum Archives/CBC)

There used to be thousands of cars in use but today only two remain: one in Calgary and another in Squamish, B.C.

It's an immigration history lesson, Willie says, but also a story about quality.

"A lot of it, I think, comes down to the quality of the original workmanship," he said.

"The craftsman who built the car did an absolutely fantastic job. The level of precision and quality in both the workmanship and design is just fantastic to see."

Once the restoration is complete, Colonist Car 1202 will find its permanent home in the park's railway car shop. It will be used in educational programs.

The car used to carry 72 immigrants at a time. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

With files from CBC's Justin Pennell